Transportation in Myanmar

Yangon Central Railway Station. Myanmar
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For many years, transportation in Myanmar stagnated due to a lack of upkeep. Few flights and even fewer airports kept domestic airfares expensive, and buses and trains were slow and uncomfortable, with few stops between vast stretches of countryside.

The situation has improved vastly from just a decade ago, with more travel options between Myanmar's top destinations bringing prices down and cushiness levels up.

When planning your Myanmar itinerary, you can choose from one of the following transportation options that can take you from destination to destination within the country. Pick the one that meets both your timetable and your budget—you'll have plenty of options to choose from!

Traveling in Myanmar by Plane

Most tourists in Myanmar arrive by one of the nation's three international airports: Naypyidaw Airport in the new capital, Yangon International Airport in the old one, and Mandalay International Airport (Myanmar's biggest) in the former royal capital.

Booking a Ticket

Myanmar's major domestic carriers allow online bookings on their sites. You can choose from Golden Myanmar Airlines, Mann Yadanarmpon Airlines, Myanmar Airways, Myanmar National Airways, and Yangon Airways.

Prices

Flying is the fastest and most comfortable way to get around Myanmar—it's also one of the priciest. Consider the major transport route between Yangon and Mandalay: high-season one-way flights might cost up to $110 and take 1 1/2 hours to complete, compared to the train between the two cities that take up to 16 hours to complete, but cost upward of $50 for an upper-class sleeper, or $15 for the lowest class available.

Key Airports in Myanmar

The following airports travel directly to (or close to) Myanmar's primary travel destinations.

  • Yangon International Airport (RGN): A major international and domestic flight hub, for access to Yangon, city sights like Shwedagon Pagoda, and southern Myanmar.
  • Mandalay International Airport (MDL): Myanmar's second established international gateway and domestic flight hub for the country's center.
  • Bagan-Nyaung-U Airport (NYU): Fly here for access to Old Bagan and its temples.
  • Heho Airport (HEH): Main air gateway for travelers to Shan State—including the hiking town of Kalaw, the rustic town of Pindaya, and the massive Inle Lake.
  • Thandwe Airport (SNW): Closest airport to Ngapali Beach—tourists to this top Myanmar beach regularly travel from Yangon during the high season.

Significant routes, like Yangon-Mandalay and Bagan-Yangon, fly all year round. The same can't be said of flights to or between smaller airports, which may be canceled in the lean season.

Traveling in Myanmar by Train

With some 6,200 miles of rail laid out from north to south, Myanmar's train network reaches major destinations through some of the most scenic landscapes in the country—though the travel experience may be slower and bumpier than other alternatives.

Travel Classes

Depending on your budget, desired comfort level, and availability on the rail line, train passengers can choose from one of the travel classes listed here, sorted from the cheapest to the most expensive.

  • Ordinary class: the least expensive class crowds you together with locals and their baggage on bare wooden benches
  • First-class: only one step up from ordinary class, offering cushioned wooden benches
  • Upper-class: provides larger cushioned seats
  • Standard sleeper: private compartments with two- and four-berth arrangements in separate sleeper carriages; only available on Yangon-Mandalay and Mandalay-Myitkyina routes
  • Special sleeper: private compartments with own separate entrance, toilet, sitting and sleeping areas; only available on Yangon-Mandalay and Yangon-Bagan routes

Buying Tickets

The Myanmar train system has no native online booking service—third-party sellers like 12Go have stepped in to fill the breach—so buying passage at the departure station remains the surest way to get a ticket. You will need to show your passport to purchase a ticket.

Ordinary and first-class tickets may be purchased one day in advance, upper-class tickets three days in advance, and sleepers a week in advance. Book these as early as you can, doubly so if your trip coincides with major Myanmar holidays.

Tickets may cost anywhere from 1,000 kyats (around 75 cents) to 12,750 kyats (around $9), depending on the travel class and route. Prices will be charged in Myanmar kyat, with foreigners enjoying the same rate as locals. You'll be assigned a seat number, whatever class you buy, so you're guaranteed a reserved seat.

Popular Train Routes

These slow but scenic train rides take you to some of Myanmar's top sights (if you have time to spare).

  • Yangon-Mandalay: the most popular route on the network connects Myanmar's two biggest cities. Cars are clean and air-conditioned (unlike the rest of the system). Expect a 15-hour trip; an upgrade will shorten the journey to by six-plus hours by 2023.
  • Thazi-Kalaw-Inle Lake: Disembark at the Thazi station of the Yangon-Mandalay line, then board another train that heads to Taunggyi in 11 hours, passing by Kalaw and Shwe Nyaung (gateway to Inle Lake)
  • Mandalay-Pyin Oo Lwin-Hsipaw: The most gorgeous landscapes in Myanmar unfold on this route, passing Shan State's hills and some terrifying hairpin bends before running over the soaring Gokteik Viaduct. The trip takes 10-15 hours from end to end.

If riding on any of these routes, prepare for the long haul: pack a blanket, pillow, and a cache of food and water for your trip. Train compartments can be dirty and smelly; the bathrooms can be an ordeal.

Traveling in Myanmar by Bus

The VIP bus experience in Myanmar manages a nice balance between air travel's high cost and train travel's lack of creature comforts. For fares about a tenth of a plane ticket covering the same distance, travelers can sleep in relative comfort on an air-conditioned overnight bus.

Keep in mind that the experience is all relative: the air conditioning can be near-Arctic, and the Burmese music videos blaring on the bus TV may be lacking all volume control. But the bus may offer your only affordable travel option for specific destinations: it's on you to grin and bear it.

Types of Buses

There's more to Myanmar buses than just the "VIP" variant—two other, cheaper alternatives exist.

  • VIP bus: These buses offer three reclining seats per row. They're air-conditioned but have no bathrooms (that's what the rest stops are for).
  • Ordinary bus: Ths is the usual option for Myanmar citizens and more adventurous tourists. These buses are often very crowded.
  • Minibus: These seat between eight to 20 passengers and cover short inter-city distances, sometimes picking up passengers from their hostels or hotels.

Buying Tickets

Individual bus lines like Shwe Mandalar and JJ Express offer online booking, but third-party sites like MyanmarBusTicket and Klook provide a smoother user experience. You can also ask your Myanmar hotel to book the trip for you.

Depending on the class and length of your trip, tickets will cost 6,000 kyats ($4.30) to 30,000 kyats ($22).

Tips for Bus Travel

Before booking a bus-based Myanmar itinerary, keep these tips in mind:

  • Get to the bus station early. Most bus stations are located a fair distance from their respective city centers. This writer spent two hours in Yangon traffic getting to the Aung Mingalar Bus Station for his trip to Bagan.
  • Put together a comfort kit for long-haul sleeper routes. Eyeshades, thick socks, earplugs, a blanket, and snacks are all must-haves.
  • Don't ask, "are we there yet?" Superstitious Burmese think it's bad luck to ask about arrival times, so keep your questions to yourself.

Traveling in Myanmar by River Boat

The Irrawaddy River flows by some of Myanmar's most historic cities. This mighty waterway has influenced Burmese history for millennia, facilitating trade, transportation, and warfare for successive empires.

Types of Boats

Local travelers often book a trip on the slow ferries with their low costs and corresponding low comfort levels. (This is how locals mostly travel on the Irrawaddy.) Fast boats with onboard meals and drinks cater to tourists; unlike slow boats, fast boats work only in the daylight hours. Inland Water Transit is a government body that offers the highest number of routes, on fast and slow boats alike.

Private operators focus on shorter routes, with their fleets of fast boats: Malikha River Cruises travels between Bagan and Mandalay, along with MGRG Express, which also offers a Mandalay-Bhamo fast boat experience.

Luxury boat cruises offer a bespoke travel experience on five-star river cruisers (and five-star prices). Cruise providers of this class include the Strand Cruise, Belmond Road to Mandalay, Sanctuary Ananda, and Heritage Line Anawrahta.

River Itineraries

The longest Irrawaddy River expedition commutes between Yangon and Mandalay, with a changeover at Pyay. The trip covers an eye-watering 262 miles and five days; unless you're riding on a luxury cruise boat, this is not the trip for you if you're in a hurry!

Shorter trips, like the 11-hour Mandalay-Bagan fast boat and one-hour Nyaung-U to Pakkoku, avoid eating into your stay too much, while giving you a fair boating experience to remember.  

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