Photo: On the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek.

The first thing to bear in mind when planning a trip to Burma (Myanmar) is that it's a large country. We're not talking India or China large, but with a surface area of some 680,000 square kilometres, it's the largest of the mainland Southeast Asian countries. As well, Burma is one of those long, thin countries that the region specialises in (hello to Thailand and Vietnam, for instance) and more than 2,000 kilometres separates its most northern and southerly points (Thailand and Vietnam both weigh in at around 1,650 kilometres). West to east is 955 kilometres -- and there are also 2,000 kilometres of coastline as well.

Secondly the road infrastructure is, to put it mildly, not great -- certainly not Malaysia or Thailand great, nor even Vietnam great, and frequently worse than Laos or Cambodia. The train system might look okay on paper and it is fun for an hour or two, but the novelty of the narrow gauge tracks and decrepit rolling stock wears off quickly so... overland travel in Burma can be slow and arduous.

One section of the nearly 2,000 kms of coastline at Ngwe Saung
One section of the nearly 2,000-kilometre of coastline (at Ngwe Saung).

The idiosyncrasies of Burmese air travel can also make domestic flights time consuming and even on a good day it's obviously relatively costly -- that's on top of accommodation prices, which are also considerably above what you may be used to elsewhere in Southeast Asia. When mulling over an itinerary: do not be too ambitious.

Great for short trips but the novelty wears off fast
Great for short trips, but the novelty can wear off fast.

The country's "must sees" are scattered around a bit too, meaning if you'd like to take them all in on a single trip, some kind of travel will be required. Here's a brief rundown on suggested time frames for the major destinations to help you with your itinerary planning. Note many Burmese destinations, both famous and rarely visited, can be great places to linger in -- here we'll just stick to the time required to see the actual sights.

Yangon (Rangoon): Yangon is a big city with a lot to see, including pagodas, markets and museums. Merely to cover the main sites requires a minimum of two days. What is also wonderful about Yangon, however, is its vibrant street life and the stunning Victorian architectural heritage -- the most impressive in Southeast Asia -- so just wandering around is rewarding. Checking out the spectacular buildings along Strand Road or exploring Chinatown can keep a visitor busy and happy for quite a while. More so than any of the upcountry destinations, the question of how long to devote to Yangon is sort of like asking, how long is a piece of string?

The old Secretariat Building with Rangoon River behind
The old Secretariat Building with Rangoon River behind.

Mandalay: Burma's second city is far smaller than Yangon and lacks the stunning colonial-period buildings and, many feel, much of the charm of the latter. A full day should cover most of Mandalay's famous sites: U Bein Bridge, Mahamuni Pagoda and Inva ancient city. A second day would allow a half-day trip to say Mingun or Sagain, and perhaps Mandalay Hill, plus some breathing space in-between.

Mandalay Hill with the Shan Plateau in the background
Mandalay Hill with the Shan Plateau in the background.

Bagan: The boat journey down the Irrawaddy between Mandalay and Bagan is certainly a pleasant way to travel but if time's not on your side then note it will take the best part of a day, as well as costing about the same as a flight. More than 2,000 ruined and restored pagodas and chedis are scattered across the dusty plain but taking in just the 10 or so most spectacular is going to have most people "templed out". Indeed, a lot of the fun at Bagan can be discovering the small out-of-the-way ones or just wandering the lanes and traditional villages on foot or by bicycle. Some visitors dash around in a day but we'd say two days is minimal to appreciate this wonderful destination at a reasonably relaxed pace.

Inle Lake/Nyaung Shwe: Again we're plumping for a two-day minimum visit, though there are visitors who dash around in a single day. A two-day stay would allow you to take in the various sites on and around the lake itself, including In Dein, without rushing although a third day would allow some chilling out time in the fun little town of Nyaung Shwe itself and a chance to check out some of the destinations in and around town: the market, old wooden Shan pagoda, lively waterfront or even the nearby Red Mountain Winery.

A day or two on the Lake?
A day or two on the lake?

So, to recap, that allows for two or three days in Yangon, two in Mandalay, two in Bagan and two or three in Inle, plus your travel/organising time in-between. This means you'll need the best part of two weeks just for the main sights if you stick to a pretty rigid schedule.

We'd consider these minimal times and it wouldn't leave any time for side trips to so-called secondary destinations such as a day trip to Mount Popa from Bagan, a Nyaung Shwe day tour to Pindaya, Kalaw or local Shan Plateau markets, a day out from Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin or Bago, Pyay or Pathein from Yangon, and... we haven't even mentioned the beach!

Mount Popa - a day trip from Bagan?
Mount Popa - a day trip from Bagan?

Don't be too ambitious so you don't have to rush it. Burma offers a lot to see but you don't need to see it all in one go. It'll still be there next year!


More itineraries

Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!


Burma

Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.


Cambodia

Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.


Indonesia

How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.


Laos

North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.


Malaysia

The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.


Thailand

So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.


Vietnam

Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.


The region

This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.



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