I spent three nights in Brunei as I travelled across the north of Borneo island from one part of Malaysia to the other. This article can be used as an itinerary for what to do in Brunei as well as giving you information on the best place to stay and why. Personally I recommend that you stay on the edge of the capital city which is called Bandar Seri Begawan unless you are heading for one of Brunei’s beaches. Three nights will give you enough time not to rush around but the main sites of interest can be seen in one day if you are very quick.
The article will also help answer the following:
- Is Brunei expensive?
- Is it true that you collect up to 10 passport stamps as you enter and exit the country overland?
- People say that Brunei is boring. Is this true?
- Do they have Sharia law in Brunei and are women forced to cover their hair?
- Is Brunei worth a visit?
Brunei certainly won’t suit everybody but in my opinion Brunei IS worth a visit, especially if you are travelling around other S E Asian countries; if only so that you can experience a different culture and way of life.
Where is Brunei?
Brunei is on the north coast of the island of Borneo. It is sandwiched between and divided by the huge Malaysian state of Sarawak, with a second Malaysian state, Sabah to taking up the north east corner.
The larger part of the island is taken up by some Indonesian states – see map below.
Map showing the position of Brunei in Borneo
This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links
Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com
I liked Brunei although I only had time to explore the capital city which is called Bandar Seri Begawan and with a population of just 150,000 people it is very laid back – more so even than Vientiane in Laos – and that place was extremely laid back.
The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque
The wealth of Brunei has come relatively recently in history from gas and oil reserves. The ruling Sultans have placed ever more emphasis on religion and they align themselves more with the Arab oil rich countries than the surrounding Asian countries but whilst the ‘new money’ has meant a spending spree on public buildings and infrastructure, Brunei somehow lacks the glitz of say Dubai or Bahrain.
It’s a little bit shabby and tired around the edges despite the huge cars on the roads and the mosques which creak under their heavy gold domes, but the people on the streets are friendly, the food is great and I think it’s definitely worth at least a couple of days of your time here.
The prosperity of the country has meant that many Bruneians don’t have to worry too much about hard work – although that’s not to say that there are no entrepreneurs, creative people and business men and women here. Far from it for whilst foreigners from the Indian sub continent and other Asian countries supply much of the manual labour there are lots of new businesses springing up. I was told many times by many people that the Bruneians major pastime is eating and this certainly seems true judging by the number of places to eat – although Brunei still has a long way to go in this regard if it is to beat Malaysia.
Tamu Klanggeh Market
Is Brunei expensive?
Yes….and no. It depends!
The entrance to virtually all attractions is free and buses and water taxis are cheap. Conventional taxis are expensive and they are actually quite difficult to find on the streets but the city is compact enough to walk around if you can stand the heat and the humidity.
I was waiting on the local bus stop outside my hostel waiting to go to the main bus station when a man stopped and offered me a lift (I accepted) and on other occasions when I was walking around, people often stopped to ask if they could drop me anywhere. If you are going to accept lifts from total strangers or hitch-hike please smarten up your instincts beforehand and don’t take any risks but I think that on balance Brunei is one of the safer places to be.
The water taxis
There are seemingly hundreds of water taxis buzzing around the river-front. They criss-cross the river to take locals and tourists across to Kampung Ayer where 30,000 people live in the largest stilt village in the world. These boats will also take you upriver to the small piers and the outlying suburbs or you can negotiate with the cheerful guys for a private trip into the jungle where you have a good chance of spotting proboscis monkeys or crocodiles; but bargain hard.
one of the best things to do in Brunei – wandering around Kampung Ayer
Food prices vary from cheap and cheerful in the markets and in the small cafes to expensive meals in the high-end restaurants; especially those aimed at tourists and ex-pats, and hotels and accommodation are higher priced than many other S E Asian countries (they are on a par with Singapore) but there is a new, very affordable kid on the block if you are open-minded about staying in a hostel.
The Lonely Planet Guide book for Brunei also covers Malaysia and Singapore – order your copy here
Where to stay in Brunei
I cannot recommend the AE Backpackers Hostel highly enough on many levels.
This is a new hostel just a 30 minute walk from the main city attractions. The beds are in dormitories but no expense has been spared. The staff are keen to welcome you and make you feel at home and will give you loads of information about the area, plus the place is kept spotlessly clean. When I was there, Andy the owner actually gave me a lift into town on two occasions as he was driving that way and one evening he treated myself and some other guests to a satay meal.
You can find out more and book your stay at the AE Backpackers Hostel via this link.
Where to stay in Brunei? Why the AE Backpackers Hostel of course
A bonus is that the area around the AE Backpackers Hostel is full of places to eat and drink during the evening; unlike the city centre which closes down. The hostel is also just a short walk from one of the water taxi piers and the bus stop is just outside.
If a hostel is not your thing (but why not give it a go, you might be a convert), you can get the latest up to date prices and accommodation in Brunei via this link to Agoda
I have heard Brunei is boring. Is that true?
It depends what you are looking for. It actually seemed quite lonely to me because there are not that many people on the streets and at night the city centre is dead. People tend to drive everywhere (partly to avoid the searing heat but also because fuel costs are so low) and they tend to eat out at the clusters of food outlets in the suburbs. It all feels very tranquil and calm, even on a Sunday morning when all the food stalls and the market open up alongside the Independence Field and the families come out for picnics and to let the children play and ride their bicycles.
There are several things to do in the immediate city centre – all walkable – and if you have a car you can wander further afield and really delve into Brunei culture.
In one day I walked between and visited:
The Royal Regalia Museum – this museum is actually very interesting. It contains information and artefacts depicting life as a Royal as well as a large collection of the sort of gifts that one Head of State or a Government will give to another. You do have to wonder about some of these – imagine trying to buy a gift for an aunt or a brother who has everything, and then add political messages into the mix. You almost feel sorry for the recipient – maybe they should agree to stop swapping gifts and suggest visiting dignitaries sponsor a clouded leopard or donate to a hospice instead!
Inside the Royal Regalia Museum in Brunei
The Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque – This is the enormous mosque in the city centre and despite its large golden domes I reckon it is beaten in the beauty stakes by the older mosque the ……which is just a 15 minute walk from the AE Backpackers Hostel. But it’s still worth a visit and the grounds on the river bank are pretty (if bland). Just avoid prayer time and dress respectfully – although you will be given a robe to wear when you enter.
The Old Custom House (now the Tourist Office) – This squat building is a reminder of colonial times and might, or might not, contain an art exhibition while you’re in town.
The riverfront promenade – There is a long walkway around much of the riverside which is good to stroll along and people watch. You can hail a water taxi from here and the guys will certainly do their best to attract your attention. I saw an annual boat race when I was in Brunei. The long racing rowing boats blasted through the choppy waters and the water taxis dodged around them. There were rumours that the Sultan might attend the race but if he were there I didn’t see him.
Boat race on the river with Kampung Ayer in the background
Tamu Klanggeh Market – This traditional fruit and vegetable market operates next to a little spur on the river. Fresh produce is piled high on the stone tables and there is the usual bevy of cheap and cheerful food stalls at this bustling hive of activity.
The Chinese Temple – this large temple is the oldest in the city with its red pillars adding a splash of colour to the mostly bland beige and white of the rest of the city. In fact, the colourless-ness of the city (I’m not sure if that is a real word but you understand what i mean) is possibly why Brunei might have a reputation if being boring. Everything attempts to be clean and white and sparkly – but instead it mostly manages to look tired and bland.
The Chinese Temple in Brunei
Kampung Ayer – On my second day in town I took a water taxi over to Kampung Ayer and spend a nice couple of hours wandering around the largest stilt village in the world. Now this is worth a visit. You could wander along the wooden board-walks for ages, getting lost down dead ends and snooping into homes, mosques, schools and fire stations. Just beware underfoot – of piles of cat poo on the boards and also rotten or even missing boards outside some of the less well-maintained homes.
I had to slow right down and tread very gingerly in some places; not sure if I would plummet into the murky river water below, but when you get tired of wandering around, simply find a jetty or an open space and a water taxi man will be sure to find you.
Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque – This mosque just 15 minutes walk from AE Backpackers was my favourite. There are fountains and flowering shrubs and trees in the gardens and the tiles on the minarets are also pretty. As usual, you will be asked to wear a robe if you are a non-Muslim but somebody will probably also show you around and answer any questions that you might have. There is even an escalator up into the mosque – so the Sultan doesn’t have to walk up the stairs like the commoners!
the impressive entrance at the Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque
Do they have Sharia law in Brunei and are women forced to cover their hair?
Yes, there is Sharia law but as you are not going to break any rules this will not affect you! Also there is no requirement for non-Muslims women to cover their hair. Alcohol is not on sale although you can import a small amount of alcohol for personal consumption – but as there is no shortage of different teas, coffees, juices or soft drinks available why bother?
Dress conservatively (cover your shoulders and knees and you will have no problems) and you will find that people are quick to smile and to ask where you are from. There is no rule that says that you can’t wear shorts or a strappy top but as this would be offensive to the majority of the people who live here why would you?
Is it true that you collect up to 10 passport stamps as you enter and exit Brunei overland?
Brunei has a very interesting geographical outline on the map. The country is split in two by the Sarawak state of Malaysia. If you want to travel overland between the two Malaysian states on Borneo (Sarawak and Sabah) you will collect 10 passport stamps. (I could have downloaded a professional looking map off the internet but this is more the reality of my travel life)
the bus went from the teaspoon to the orange peg to the pink peg to the memory stick to the lighter
I travelled from west to east.
- I crossed Borneo from the town of Mira in the state of Sarawak heading onwards to Kota Kinabalu in the state of Sabah. I exited Sarawak and I entered Brunei – stamp #1 & #2.
At this point I stayed for 2 nights in Brunei – pick up my bus route on the map at the teaspoon.
- I exited by bus from Brunei and back into the bit of Sarawak that divides the country – stamps #3 & #4 (orange peg)
- I exited Sarawak and crossed back into the eastern side of Brunei – stamps #5 & #6 (yellow peg)
- I exited Brunei for the final time and crossed into the thin sliver of Sarawak that runs along the eastern border – stamps #7 & #8 (the black memory stick points here)
- Despite both states being Malaysian there is a degree of autonomy in Borneo and to cross between Sarawak and Sabah gets you another 2 stamps #9 & #10 (and finally the lighter marks the exit)
You can fly in and out and you can cut out some of the borders by taking a ferry around the sea route but I love bus travel and it was fun to be popping off and on the bus with the local people at every immigration check. We were all quite friendly after the 7 hour trip. Look out for the local guy Danny at the bus station in Brunei who will help you with tickets and travel information about the border crossings.
colourful Danny will help you with the bus details
To sum up: What to do in Brunei? Is it worth a visit?
Yes, I think so if you are exploring Borneo although I’m not sure it justifies a flight in and out just for itself. There are other things to do outside the city centre, apparently the Brunei beaches are a great place to go and see the sunset, an (allegedly) tired theme park and access to the pristine rainforest but little else and it’s difficult to get around unless you have a car.
another view of the Jame Asr Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Mosque
On a plus point, the wealth provided by the oil money so far has ensured that the loggers have not ravaged the rain forest to plant the palm oil cash crop as they have in neighbouring Malaysia. The rainforest is largely untouched apart from where the highway was blasted through it and is apparently some of the best in the world but the Bruneians don’t seem to have much of an interested in promoting it to tourists either.
Get your Lonely Planet guide to Brunei, Malaysia (and Singapore) here and drop on by. I adored both of the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah and would one hundred percent recommend either or both of those for an extended stay.
Read my other S E Asia guides, such as the perfect itinerary of Myanmar or the best things to see and do in Melaka and drop me an email or reply in the comments below if you have any questions on Brunei or anywhere else that I have travelled.
If you would like me to accompany you and tour Borneo and/or mainland Malaysia let me know. I know that I will return and I can take some of the hassle out of your journey and show you some of its gems.
Pin the following image:
Pinterest image for What to do in Brunei
Here is your ultimate Myanmar travel guide with some of the best places to visit in Myanmar – and with a route that you can follow in just sixteen days – or you can take your time and do it over twenty-six days as I did.
Myanmar, or Burma as it is also known, has been high up there on my list of countries to visit ever since I was a child and since I learnt that my grandfather was fighting in the jungle during the war. I’m very pleased to say that Burma lived up to all of my expectations and I’m already making plans to return.
I like to travel quite slowly, absorbing the atmosphere of a place and connecting with local people so I didn’t cover quite as much ground as I had originally hoped to do so on this trip to Burma, but that’s not a problem because it gives me the perfect excuse to return and to explore the less touristic south of the country.
(This post contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links. Scarlet Jones Travels is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com)
Before I bring you what could possibly be the most perfect Myanmar travel guide ever, and especially one for backpackers or travellers on a budget, let’s get a few facts straight.
Burma or Myanmar?
Everybody from Myanmar that I spoke to in the country told me that it didn’t really matter whether I called it Burma or Myanmar ……but they all preferred to refer to their own country as Myanmar.
And one reason for this is because the name of Myanmar reflects the diversity of the ethnic groups. Burma is made up of far more than just the Burmese. There are 136 different ethnic groups and while there are different reasons why many countries around the world do not recognise the renaming, for me, if every person that I spoke to preferred Myanmar who am I to question them?
The political situation.
Myanmar is emerging from years of military rule and is transitioning to a democracy but this process is being hindered by violence. Some of these conflicts date back many years and sadly for the people it seems to be difficult for them to break out of this cycle.
There is no doubt that there is a major crisis, some say genocide, which is ongoing in the western state of Rohingya and there are other areas that are totally out of bounds to foreigners or which are tightly controlled (I will cover the background to the different conflicts and history in another post), but there can be no doubt about the absolute delight from the Myanmar people themselves that foreigners are finally allowed to visit their country and I lost count of the number of selfies that I featured in and just about everybody is curious about visitors.
Another selfie request
Is it safe?
Hell yes! Of course I might be proved wrong at any time in the future, but when I was in Burma I never felt unsafe or unsupported. The population of Myanmar are genuinely curious, friendly and honest and they have a refreshing naivety about them.
Many of the people speak English and I am pretty sure that if I were to leave my wallet on a table or my phone in the back of a taxi, that the majority of people would do their best to return it to me.
Your perfect Myanmar travel guide.
I took twenty six days to travel the route that I describe below but it’s perfectly possible to cover it in sixteen days, and if you have the time do take advantage of the twenty eight day visa which will leave you time to head on down to the south. After I have explored the south myself I’ll add a link to this article so that all of the hard work is done for you and you can continue in my footsteps; or you can click here and find out how you can join me and we can travel together if you don’t want to travel solo. – Click here for more information
Begin your trip in Yangon.
I recommend a minimum of 2 nights in Yangon.
I started my trip by flying into Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon but if flight times and prices are better and/or cheaper you can start this tour in Mandalay. If you do begin in Mandalay, pick up my route and head north west to Hsipaw and then after taking the train to Pwin Oo Lwin complete the remainder of the route in reverse (Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon).
Yangon can’t fail to stimulate every one of your senses and it’s a great introduction to the variety and diversity of Myanmar. This is probably the most chaotic place that you’ll encounter within Myanmar so if you can cope with Yangon you can cope with anything!
Yangon reminded me in parts of India and also of many cities in South America. In places it was down at heel with street markets, rubbish on the streets and filthy water running in the open drains, but it also has a vibrant energy with new businesses springing up and entrepreneurs driving the way forward.
Depending on your arrival time from the airport I would suggest that you begin by exploring the local area on foot; maybe try some of the street food and do check out the decaying colonial buildings.
Yangon street scene
Yangon is also your opportunity to pick up anything that you may have forgotten to bring with you with its state of the art shopping malls as well as traditional night markets.
Whatever you do, do not pass on the opportunity to explore the Shwedagon Pagoda, and for a bonus, time your visit to end at sunset when its golden domes dazzles in the lights.
If you have extra days in the city I would suggest that you take the circle line train which takes three hours to complete its slow circuit of Yangon and will cost you less than a dollar. From the train you will get a glimpse into the backyards of the local people and you will see the vendors selling noodles and snacks on board whilst having to shuffle up on the seats as the passengers stream on at the various stops.
Another great way to spend half a day in Yangon is to take a walk around the large Kan Daw Gyi Lake with its replica palace that houses a restaurant. If you travel as slowly as me you could also take a walking tour of the city and see some more of its hidden gems or you may prefer to relax with a Burmese foot massage which will set you up for the rest of your Myanmar trip.
I really enjoyed the tasty Myanmar cuisine, especially the tea leaf salad and I was very happy to dine at a not-for-profit restaurant that helps disadvantaged people get a leg up into the hospitality trade in Yangon – the LinkAge Training Restaurant.
When it’s time for you to move on you can catch the night bus to Inle Lake.
Where to stay in Yangon
I stayed at The Little Monkey Hostel which is in the busy China Town area. This new hostel is kept spotlessly clean and the staff can also arrange day trips out of the city for you (for example to Bago). You can also sample traditional Myanmar food each day at breakfast – the cost of which is included in your stay. For the latest prices and to book your stay, click this link.
Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake
Hopefully you will have got some sleep on the night bus to Inle Lake. The roads can be extremely bouncy and the going mostly slow, however all of the night buses that I took were driven competently and were quite comfortable with reclining seats, water, toilet stops and a blanket to counteract the fierce air con.
You can take the time to rest if you need to do so today after your night bus ride or, if you are feeling bright and breezy you can ride a bicycle around the small town of Nyaungshwe. My recommended hostel (see below) lends out free bicycles so you can explore to your heart’s content.
Cycle out to the teak pagoda with its little alcoves that contain hundreds of small dolls or you can cycle or take a tuk tuk to the Red Mountain Estate Winery up on the nearby hill for a wine tasting session. Cycle a bit further and you can walk out along the teak bridge and hire a local canoe to paddle you around one of the floating villages.
It sounds a bit cheesy but this was actually one of the highlights of Inle Lake. Unlike the orchestrated fishermen on the lake at dawn, here we floated silently past real families getting on with their lives. Washing clothes, bodies, hair and dishes in the lake and tending their vegetables on their man-made floating veggie patches, it was fascinating to see this community go about its work.
Inside an unusual teak monastery at Inle Lake
You should certainly do your best to catch the traditional puppet show one evening which is performed by a true enthusiast. Mr Aung makes all of his own puppets and actually dances behind the screen whilst he manipulates the puppets. This traditional craft was outlawed for many years under the military regime and it is a testament to Mr Aung that he has managed to continue.
Set your alarm for an early start and rise before dawn to take a boat ride out onto Inle Lake. Breakfast will usually be organised for you either in a restaurant or onboard, although you can go out later in the day if you are not bothered about catching the sunrise over the lake. You’ll see the iconic fishermen who paddle using one leg and you will no doubt have the opportunity to visit a lotus weaving centre, a silversmith, wood carvers and a local market as well as many other small tourist hubs. There may even be some Padaung women who wear metal coils around their necks weaving. When your time here in Inle Lake is done I suggest that you get another night bus – this time to Bagan.
Where to stay at Inle Lake
I stayed at the Song of Travel hostel where all the staff were very friendly and helpful, and like The Little Monkey Hostel in Yangon, beds are comfortable self-contained pods – Click here for up to date prices and to book your stay at the Song of Travel.
Stay at the Song of Travel in Inle Lake
Arriving in Bagan at dawn you could negotiate with your taxi driver to take you straight to a pagoda to see the sunrise or you might prefer to go to straight to your accommodation in the town and dump your bags or rest. Hire e-bikes and get out and explore the historical area, losing yourself down the little sandy paths among the 2000 plus structures. For a good explanation of the history behind the pagodas and the culture I recommend that you take a tour (contact me for the name of an excellent guide) and then end the day with a sunset boat trip on the river or you can watch the sun go down from the roof of a pagoda. (Rumours are that it will soon be forbidden to climb on the pagodas)
An early start to see the dawn is a must while you are in Bagan: set out in the dark to find a good spot to watch the sun rise and the hot air balloons float over the plain; or you can take your own hot air balloon flight for a bird’s eye view.
Sunrise over Bagan
If you want to get out of Bagan take a trip to Mount Popa. Here is a pagoda built high up on a plug of rock with spectacular views out across the plains. There are some interesting statues and tableaus to see as you climb the several hundred steps – the downside is that you have to run the gauntlet of some not so friendly monkeys. Myself and my friends were almost in tears when we descended at sunset, especially because there are men strategically placed with slingshots to chase the monkeys away if they get too close or too aggressive – which in my book tells me that they are not nice monkeys, although the trip was worth the small price that I paid.
Where to stay in Bagan.
I enjoyed the atmosphere in Bagan so much that I stayed for six nights. Whilst not the cheapest hostel I stayed at the Ostello Bello. Like all of the other hostels in Myanmar a great breakfast was included as well as tea, coffee and water throughout the day. – Click here for up to date information on accommodation in Bagan
And please don’t ever think that you should travel anywhere without taking out travel insurance, especially in a country like Myanmar. I was so glad that I had a policy in place when I was bitten by a street dog on the way to Bagan. I use Alpha Travel Insurance – you can get a quote and purchase a policy very easily via this link – Alpha Travel Insurance
When it’s time for you to move on from Bagan take a day bus so that you’ll get the chance to see some of the surrounding countryside on your journey north to Mandalay.
You can condense everything worth seeing in Mandalay into a couple of long days if you are pushed for time. If the weather is good on the afternoon that you arrive, take a taxi up to Mandalay Hill or to the U Bein teak bridge. From the hill you will get a good view of the city and hopefully a decent sunset and if the weather is on your side, some iconic photos of the bridge.
If you have the stamina and you want to hit the best of Mandalay in one day start off by exploring the Palace. Although not the original complex, the palace has been rebuilt and as most of the buildings are empty it has an eerie atmosphere; and also because of the long walk up the driveway through the military enclave. To avoid trouble keep your camera firmly in your pocket until you get inside the palace and don’t forget to take along some identification or you will be refused entry.
The palace at Mandalay
Before leaving the palace, climb the tower for views across the grounds and then visit the Shwe Nan Daw Monastery and the Kuthodaw Pagoda which contains the world’s biggest book; both are near the palace. Get off the main road and walk to both of these and you will see normal Mandalay life continuing in the leafy streets – with noodles drying in the sun and street sellers cooking up lunch in their woks.
After lunch take another taxi and head off to the jade market. There is a small entrance fee here for foreigners but you might be able to avoid that if you’re lucky and dodge the collectors on the gate. The jade market feels like stepping back in time with traders buying and selling gems and haggling over coffee whilst craftsmen cut and polish using ancient tools. Follow the jade centre up with a visit to the gold leaf making centre where you can learn how this ancient craft continues and see how the gold leaf is beaten out by hand. The craftsmen here earn less than £5 a day for some very physical work which really puts things into perspective.
If you want some context behind the history of the palace and how the Royal Family were forced into exile, read The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh Click on this link to order your copy of the book.
There are many things to see and do around Mandalay if you have more time. You will be able to find a day tour of some of the historic sites and the old cities which surround Mandalay such as Sagain and Inwa through your hostel: or you could negotiate with a taxi driver and do it yourself. If you haven’t already visited the U Bein teak bridge this is well worth a visit – although as soon as I arrived the heavens opened!
Where to stay in Mandalay
I opted to stay with the Ostello Bello chain again when I was in Mandalay. Run along similar lines to its sister hotel in Bagan this large hostel meant that I could get to know other travellers and I could go along on some of their organised and value for money trips. When you are visiting Myanmar you are not permitted to stay just anywhere so using one of the booking sites shows you the available options to you – Click here for accommodation options in Mandalay.
Take a shared car for the quickest and most interesting route up to Hsipaw and also for the opportunity to experience Myanmar travel . The car will whisk you up the mountains and over to the charming mountain town of Hsipaw along a jaw-dropping road far quicker than the bus because it will overtake and undertake EVERYTHING wherever possible! Do this journey in the day time for the views and be amazed by the queues of lorries struggling around the hair-pin bends. There are numerous lay-bys where lorries and buses pull in and hose their brakes down with water and everywhere the air is thick with the smell of burning brakes and clutches as the hill takes its toll on these immense beasts.
As you drive you will also get a glimpse of the impossibly delicate looking Goteik viaduct which spans the gorge at over one hundred feet in the air. Our driver over to Hsipaw fancied himself as a rally driver but apart from the fact that he was driving a right hand drive car on the right hand side of the road and every time he nudged out to overtake I would gasp, he was actually a truly competent driver and I thoroughly enjoyed the four hour adrenaline rush.
In 1970 Burma switched from driving on the left to the right hand side of the road but many of the cars (and the road signs) have yet to catch up. Often, right hand drive cars are cheaper in Burma so there are still plenty of them about – the downside is that drivers have gigantic blind spots which makes the whole thing a bit of a guessing game.
Up in Hsipaw the weather is normally a little cooler and more comfortable than anything that you will have come across so far and this small town is fast becoming a firm favourite as a trekking hub. There are many buildings which do more than ust nod at the colonial past – in some parts of town you could be in leafy Surry in England.
Provided you arrive in time I suggest that you head straight out and visit the Shan Palace where you will get the chance to meet and chat to a real life Shan Princess and learn a little about the history of Myanmar from her.
You will learn how the occupants of this grand home were kept under house arrest for many years and you will learn some of the facts surrounding the mystery of the Shan prince and his Austrian bride. If you want to read the background to this story you can order the book at this link: click here to order ‘Twilight over Burma: my life as a Shan Princess’.
If you want to take a trek you must hike with a guide as it is currently not permitted to go too far into the surrounding countryside. You can walk for one or two days, staying overnight in a home-stay in a rural village in the mountains. Meals will all be traditionally made – in my case over an open fire in the middle of the room – and you will get the chance to interact with local people. My trek ended with visit to the non-touristy hot springs where I bathed with the inquisitive locals who delighted in splashing me with the hot water, but many treks end with a swim to a waterfall. If hiking is not your thing you can arrange a motorbike tour instead – contact me for the name of a brilliant guide in Hsipaw.
If you do the trek you will encounter checkpoints outside the villages but these are there more for the villagers’ safety as to keep you out. I will bring you more facts and information about the political background and the situation in a future article
It is permitted to take a bicycle and ride around the town and the immediate countryside of Hsipaw where you can visit waterfalls or you can explore Little Bagan and poke around inside the dusty old teak pagoda.
preparing dinner at our homestay in Hsipaw
Where to stay in Hsipaw
Most backpackers stay at Mr Charles Guest House which is a hotel and a hostel next door to each other. You can arrange your trekking from here (contact me for the name of a fantastic guide) and breakfast is included. Rooms are simple and the place is very busy with trekkers arriving and departing but the hostel is in a great central location – Click here to book your accommodation in Hsipaw
This travel day is worthy of its own entry. Take the iconic railway ride from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin and cross the jaw-dropping Goteik Viaduct. Take a picnic to eat on the train or even better, buy noodles from the ladies who jump onboard with their baskets on their heads at one of the stations that you pass. It is of course possible to go all the way to Mandalay on the train but better to break your journey in Pyin Oo Lwin and stay a night or two or even jump in a shared car for the dash back down the mountain.
The spectacular scenery around Hsipaw
Your train will crawl across the viaduct which creaks alarmingly but the views are well worth a bit of stomach churning and if possible, do buy a tourist ticket so that you can ride on the soft seats. If you do the ride the opposite way up from Mandalay you will have a very early start so far better to do the trip in my direction i.e. from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin.
Pyin Oo Lwin
I stayed at a lovely old hotel at Pyin Oo Lwin which felt like stepping back in history. We expected a taxi from the train station to our hotel so imagine our surprise when the driver that we had negotiated our taxi ride outside the railway station led us over to a century old horse and carriage. (the carriage was over a hundred years old, not the horse).
After settling in to your hotel/hostel, borrow bicycles (If you stay at the Orchid Nan Myaning bikes are included) and head off to the traditional food night market where you can buy dinner on the go. Just wander around the stalls and graze on anything that takes your fancy. Hover and watch what the locals pay – but to be honest, very rarely did I come across any price-hiking for foreigners in Myanmar which is also a refreshing change.
Depending on how much time you have left on your trip to Burma you can cycle (or take a cab) to the huge Botanical Gardens and/or you may prefer to take a motor taxi to one of the two waterfalls that are in this area. One waterfall is a hike away from where the bus or the taxi will drop you off, the other is easier to get to and has a market next to it where local strawberry jam, damson wine and hand knitted clothes are sold.
The Botanical Gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin
Where to stay in Pyin Oo Lwin
I stayed at the shabby chic Orchid Nan Myaning hotel on the outskirts of Pyin Oo Lwin. With ultra-friendly staff and amazing grounds this hotel/hostel is the perfect way to wind down after your Myanmar trip, or it’s a great place to catch your breath before heading south. Click here for details and to book your stay in Pyin Oo Lwin
Wrapping up your trip to Myanmar
To end your trip, its a long night bus back to Yangon or take a shared car (or continue on the train) to Mandalay.
night market in Pyin Oo Lwin
Note that the above route around Burma may be subject to change depending on the weather, the political situation or other elements outside of your control.
When I travel I like to eat local food and I use local tour guides where possible. I prefer to stay in hostels so that I can meet people and while I was in Myanmar there wasn’t one day when I was lonely or alone. I am going to revisit Burma in the first half of 2018 so if you would like to come along with me, drop me a message. We will travel together staying mainly in hostels – the aim of the trip is to introduce you to Myanmar and also to the concept of backpacking and travelling on a budget. Following many requests and emails I occasionally offer my readers the opportunity to travel with me depending on where I am in the world and my clients that I mentor in my life-coaching business sometimes join me too.
(If you would like to increase your self confidence or if you have issues with anxiety then travelling with me will also give you an insight into how I changed my mindset and how I learnt how to believe in myself again – Read more here – The Smash the Pumpkin Project).
And finally, if you have enjoyed reading this guide, or you have friends who are planning a trip to Myanmar, please share this article with them and/or pin this image
Peeping through the temple window
For your Myanmar travel guide book, click here: