If you've some budget and don't mind taking some domestic flights, it's possible to take in Burma's top-shelf destinations – Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake – in as little as seven days, but we'd say you're much better advised to double that and take in the highlights across two weeks.
While people will skip through Burma in just a week, with two weeks you'll have time to savour that mohingya, enjoy more than one dawn and sunset at Bagan and perhaps stretch the legs with a bit of walking through the woods. Here's a Burma itinerary that shows you how.
While a few overland crossings are now available between Thailand and Burma (and one between India and Burma), for the time constrained, a fly-in, fly-out approach makes more sense as the flights from Bangkok (or Kuala Lumpur) are quite affordable and obviously far more efficient than an overland routing. With the following circular routing you can kick off either in Yangon or Mandalay depending on where you fly into – personally we'd recommend Yangon.
All the long distance legs in this itinerary (Yangon - Bagan, Bagan - Mandalay, Mandalay - Kalaw, Inle - Yangon) make use of night buses. If you're not into night buses, find sleeping in buses difficult, or have the budget to fly, fly some legs. Domestic flying in Burma, while double priced, remains very affordable and will save you considerable amounts of time, meaning you'll be better rested and most likely have a less exhausting trip. Booking domestic flight tickets can be a challenge from outside Burma, so book them as soon as you arrive if need be. Train is another option, but the trains in Burma are very narrow gauge and so very bouncy - we doubt you'd get much sleep.
In high season, reservations in Nyaung Shwe for Inle Lake remain a good idea. The need to book ahead to avoid being gouged on hotels in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan are less of an issue than it used to be. Do be warned through that accommodation prices in general remain higher than elsewhere in Southeast Asia for a similar standard.
Day 1-2: Yangon
With a morning arrival at Burma's commercial capital of Yangon, ditch your bags at your accommodation (backpacker: Chan Myaye Guesthouse flashpacker: Hninn Si Budget Inn midrange: BikeWorld lux: The Strand), get them to organise a ticket on a night bus the following night for Bagan, and head straight out to explore the city.
Our favourite area for wandering is Chinatown, where the city's grid-like layout makes for easy walking and the dilapidated buildings easy photography. With a bit of wandering, it is easy to start at Sule Pagoda and finish later in the day around Bogyoke Market. In the late afternoon, make a beeline for Shwedagon Pagoda, which does get busy for sunset – but it's busy for a reason. If you'd prefer another time, sans crowds, dawn is a good option (it opens at 04:00).
On day two, kick off doing the Circle Train which takes around three hours to completely encircle the city, dropping you back at Yangon's central train station. It's an especially interesting and photogenic trip. The train starts running at 06:10 with the last departure at 22:00, but the full-circle line stops with the 17:10 departure. By far the best time to ride is as early as you can muster, as Yangon life is most active just after dawn, before the day’s heat has intensified.
For the afternoon, give Golden Harp a call and take a personalised tour led by former political prisoners, or, if you're looking for something less political and more sedate, an afternoon spent at Kandawgyi Lake is a comfortable way to laze out your second day in Yangon. Once suitably chilled, head back to grab your bags and head to the bus station for your night bus to Bagan.
Day 3-4: Bagan
Your night bus will deposit you very early in Bagan, meaning if you have booked your accommodation (backpacker: Shwe Na Di flashpacker: Kumudara midrange: Oasis lux: The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate) in advance you're able to head straight out for your first morning exploring the temples. However, if you scored less sleep than expected on the night bus (a distinct possibility), we'd suggest hitting the sack for some sleep-eye as you will get a dawn the second day.
While Bagan has a tonne of temples to choose from, they're largely broken into four broad areas (Nyuang U, Old Bagan, New Bagan and the Central Plains). We'd suggest ordering these however you please over the next two days – one the afternoon of arrival and the other three with a full day of sightseeing on day two. Bagan is a destination where more time is handy, so if you have an extra day up your sleeve, this is the place to cash it in. Mount Popa is a very popular day trip.
With arriving early on the first day, you theoretically get two dawns, two sunsets, two mornings and two afternoons before you'll need to grab that late night bus to Mandalay. Plan sensibly. If you're there in season, consider a dawn balloon ride if you have the dosh – enjoy sunrise from a pagoda if you don't. Avoid the middle of the day and try to keep yourself in one area – travelling from one end of Bagan to the other (and back again) in the blazing heat is neither comfortable nor sensible, but with two full days you should be able to take in all the highlights of Bagan.
Day 6-7: Mandalay As with Bagan, a night bus arrival to Mandalay will see you hitting town very early, but in this case there are fewer pressing reasons to head straight out again. Head to your hotel (backpacker: AD1 flashpacker: Silver Swan midrange: Smart Hotel lux: Mandalay Hill Resort) and rest for the morning, or, if you slept well, try some artisan villages. In the afternoon, explore the palace and round out the day with U Bein bridge. On day two, start with a visit to one of Mandalay's bustling city markets and then head to one of the old capitals such as Sagaing or Amarapura. You should be well tuckered out by nightfall, which is good as that means you might sleep well on your night bus to Kalaw.
Day 8: Kalaw
The bus trip from Mandalay to Kalaw can be a spectacular one if done is daylight, but you'll miss that unfortunately and instead be deposited in town in early morning. Drop your bags (backpacker: Eastern Paradise flashpacker: Honey Pine midrange: Dream Villa) and grab some kip as your day is a bit lazier today – the fun starts tomorrow. Kalaw is a decent destination in its own right, but for most it marks the starting point for the three-day, two-night Kalaw to Inle Lake trek.
If you have the time, this is a trip we highly recommend you doing. There are many operators in town and it is worth your while to spend your time talking to the different operators deciding which is the best fit for you. Cost will be one deciding factor (there is some variation in cost) but it is also very worthwhile to talk to the operators themselves.
Day 9-11: Trek
Whoever you decide upon, you'll have a mid-morning (08:00) start on the walk and groups walk out of Kalaw town – there is no busing to a trailhead or anything like that. You'll walk around 60 kilometres in total over the three days, so some degree of fitness is required, but the walking is not overly demanding. Walking in wet season is generally not such a good idea. The trek will deposit you at the southern end of Inle Lake from where a boat will transfer you up to the main town, on the north coast of Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe.
Day 12-14: Inle Lake
Inle Lake is the last of the “classic Burma” destinations on this loop. The lake is indeed beautiful, but the thriving tourist town of Nyaung Shwe considerably less so. Booking in advance is still a good idea here and once the boat deposits you in Nyaung Shwe you'll need to get to your hotel to pick up your bags (they'll have been transferred by car from Kalaw) and then find your hotel (backpacker: Nan Da Wunn flashpacker: Golden Empress midrange: La Maison Birmane Inn Lux: Viewpoint Lodge).
The main attraction of Inle is the lake, and as you'll have already done a boat trip across the lake just to get here, you're ahead of the pack. Given all the walking you've done, we'd suggest staying off your feet and perhaps getting a bicycle to do some exploring. A winery visit is a popular excursion, but the general hinterland makes for some scenic exploring.
On your second (and final) day, we'd revisit the lake but be sure to leave very early to dodge the worst of the crowds – in high season there can be hundreds of boats on the lake. A full day tour can take in the lake, a lakeside market (the location shifts by the day) and In Dein towards the south, depositing you back at Nyaung Shwe at a reasonable hour to clean up, have one last meal and then prepare for your night bus back to Yangon, and the completion of Burma's top shelf items.
If you're not interested in trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake, then consider going from Mandalay to Hsipaw or Kyaukme. Both offer shorter trekking options and some splendid scenery can be enjoyed from the train, if you decide to take that route.
If you have a little longer we'd suggest adding extra days to Yangon, Bagan, Inle and Mandalay – in that order. If you need to shave off days, drop the Kalaw to Inle trek. If you only have time for three destinations, drop Mandalay first.
The above itinerary also doesn't cover beaches like Ngapali and the immediate southern stretch around Hpa-an and Mawlamyine – you'd struggle to fit these in with two weeks, and would suggest at least another five days to fit either area in comfortably.
Lastly, the above Burma itinerary is certainly doable, but remember that travel in the country is slow, bumpy and somewhat uncomfortable. If you have more time and can slow down, do so – your backside will thank you at the end of your trip.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.