Back in 2011, only 22,000 Americans visited Burma (also known as Myanmar), and much of the country was still off-limits. Now this is changing fast. Areas formerly closed by the military regime are now open to foreigners with permits. I was surprised how easy it was to travel independently for the month I was there even in February of 2012. Burma does have a backpacker circuit similar to what you see in the rest of Southeast Asia. For anything beyond that, though, planning is key. This means allowing sufficient time for your guide (required for permit areas) to secure permits before you reach Yangon. Flexibility also is essential, as I learned when two tribal areas I expected to visit suddenly were closed by a nervous government. Below are three itinerary options. They increase in difficulty in terms of planning required and uncertainty involved—and inversely in terms of how many foreign faces you'll see.
Money: Burma's is a cash-based economy, which means no ATMs. Outside a few posh Yangon hotels, no stores, lodgings, or restaurants accept credit cards. Note: Costs as I found them are given in US dollars below.
Visas: At present, Burma issues single-entry tourist visas valid for 90 days, allowing a maximum stay of 28 days. You'll need to secure one before arrival. Expect several weeks for issuance and be prepared to provide a flight itinerary along with the requisite form and photos.
Domestic transport: There are six domestic airlines that fly the Bagan-Inle-Mandalay-Ngapali circuit on similar schedules. The five I flew were excellent. Roads, on the other hand, are poor (e.g. A 100-mile stretch can take 12 hours). Think broken pavement, deep sand, washed-out bridges. Public transport includes small buses, the occasional decrepit shared taxi, trains between a few cities, and some private cars of the 30-year-old Toyota with dead suspension sort. There are no rental car agencies. If going overland, allow plenty of time and patience. Boats are the best way to reach villages in western Burma and the regions north of Mandalay and Myitkyina.
Permits: The government shuts access to regions at its discretion, and some permits take weeks to issue. Ask your guide or travel agency for the latest information as you start to formulate plans.
Guides: Adventure travel is so new in Burma that it can be difficult to find a guide who's both willing and capable of organizing a custom trip.
Communication: You can buy local SIM cards in $20 increments—for use in-country—but cell coverage is rare outside of cities. Email works best for reaching anyone in Burma if you're outside the country, though it's not 100% reliable. Adventure guides like Saw are frequently in places with no internet connection. Start planning a couple months ahead, don't hesitate to resend emails after 48 hours of silence, and be patient.
The backpacker circuit
Yangon to Mandalay to Inle Lake to Bagan to Ngapali Beach back to Yangon:
Mandalay: A busy, smoggy city of 1 million +, with the palace of Burma's last king, monasteries on shady backstreets, and the country's largest daily jade market, packed with Burmese sellers and Chinese buyer.
Inle Lake: Inle's vast blue waters support Intha tribe stilt villages, teak monasteries with gold buddhas, floating gardens, and side channels where water buffalo join motorcycles for a wash.
Tip: Book your private longboat for 7 am to be just ahead of the crowds.
Bagan: Bagan is Burma's best-known and most-visited attraction for good reason. Its thousands of temples—some jumbles of brick, others glittering gold in the nonstop sun—cover 40 sq miles of Burma's hot, dry central plain.
Ngapali Beach: In Ngapali there's beginner's body surfing, forgettable snorkeling, and wonderful seafood along the curving white-sand beach. Several working fishing villages separate a long string of resort-style hotels fronting the warm Andaman Sea.
Tip: Eat your meals at the shacks on the beach, where the fish is fresh and cheap.
Timing: After leaving Yangon, I spent one week on this circuit and could have skipped Mandalay. Others spend two weeks and wish they had longer.
Transportation: Ground transport options are plentiful, but I suggest flying. Flights take 25-60 minutes. If time permits, do Bagan to Mandalay by boat; they run up the Ayeyarwady daily during the main November-March tourist season (once a week after that).
Lodging: Hotels at the choicest spots—Inle's shore, beachfront Ngapali, along the Ayeyarwady in Old Bagan—fill up quickly. But there frequently are last-minute cancellations, so check again the night before arrival. Plenty of budget-priced guesthouses exist in the villages slightly back from the water's edge.
Costs: Hotels are $70-$300/night. Flights run $90-$120. Inle Lake motorized longboats: $20-$35/day, depending on itinerary. Bagan bikes: $5/day. Bagan horse carts: $20/day. Bagan to Mandalay by boat: $35.
Permits required: None