Myanmar overland travel guide

Stupa in Kawthoung, Myanmar

Until I manage to access my broken hard drive, this is the only photo I have from our brief visit to Kawthoung

Myanmar was until very recently quite a tricky country to visit, but certainly not impossible – yet it has long been a roadblock to overland routes between India and SE Asia. It is now opening up and has become a straightforward inclusion on an overland SE Asian route (i.e. Thailand – Myanmar overland) – but unfortunately, after a few years of allowing India – Thailand overland transit, that has now been blocked again (see below). Hopefully this will change again before long.

Where I’ve been in Myanmar

I went to Kawthoung, at the southern of Myanmar, in 2004 on a one-day visa run from Ranong, Thailand; we’d been hanging around the Thai islands for almost a month, scuba diving and partying, and our entry stamps were running out of time. The visa run to Kawthoung has been available for just this situation for many years; stamp out of Thailand, take a longtail boat across the river mouth, check out Kawthoung, and then re-enter Thailand with a fresh stamp to travel further with.

Upon arrival we were greeted and latched onto by a gang of teenage lads waiting around by the pier looking for an opportunity to make a little money. Presumably they did the same thing everyday, and they had their banter finely tuned. They spoke good English and were a lot of fun to chat to as they tried to do a little black market trade, and we were offered bootleg alcohol, various pills, DVDs, and so on. We weren’t interested in any of that, but we took them to a restaurant and then engaged them as guides for the day. They showed us around their town, took us up the hill to the temple, taught us some choice insults (not even sure what language it was!) while pretending to teach us greetings and then giggled as we offended various passersby, and were great value for whatever amount of dollars it was we paid them; it wasn’t much as we’d taken very little with us.

It really was a very tantalising glimpse into a paranoid, largely closed state, and I’d love to go back and see it properly – especially now that it’s opening up.

How to travel to and from Myanmar overland

Until just a few years ago travel to Myanmar was very restricted; you could cross over visa free from Thailand to Kawthoung at the far southern end of their shared border or to Tachileik at the far northern end of their shared border, but you could only stay for a day or two and then go back; with an advance visa you could visit the main draws like Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan, but you had to arrive by international flight (or a domestic flight from Tachileik or Kawthoung after crossing in by land). In other words, until a few years ago overland routes through Myanmar didn’t exist.

That’s all changing now though, and there are four full international border crossings between Thailand and Myanmar; as long as you have a Myanmar visa, you can travel there overland from Thailand. The situation isn’t so simple with Myanmar’s other borders though:

Bangladesh / Myanmar border

Completely closed; it’s a live conflict zone and you can’t go anywhere near it.

India / Myanmar overland

There’s only one crossing point with India, at the town of Moreh (near Imphal). Myanmar used to be the missing link in the overland route from India to SE Asia, so it was great news when this border was opened up to overland travellers; for the last few years it has been possible to cross in both directions with a permit from MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tourism), allowing overlanders to travel between India and Thailand through Myanmar. The MTT permits are arranged by Mandalay and Yangon-based travel agencies either by email from India or in person within Myanmar; certainly a fair bit of hassle and expense involved, but it was working.

Unfortunately in mid-2016 the Burmese government abruptly closed this border again, before re-opening it with a new restriction – the MTT permit still applies, but it can only be issued to those entering and leaving via Moreh. If you enter Myanmar from Thailand, they will not issue you an MTT for the Moreh border; if you enter from India, you have to backtrack and leave that way (you can’t even fly out). This is obviously a massive spanner in the works for us overlanders; I almost did this route in 2015, and I wish I had!

The rules for this border are clearly subject to change at very short notice though, so hopefully it will become possible again in the near future to cross it one-way. I will endeavour to update this page if and when things do change, and check out this epic Lonely Planet thread regarding this border; there are several years worth of posts there and if you’re hoping to go this way that thread is probably the best source of information. For now it doesn’t look good though, and you’ll have to think about alternative plans.

Update: as of early 2017, Thailand to India via Myanmar is definitely not possible. However, many travellers are reporting that the reverse direction has worked for them; officially, India to Thailand via Myanmar is not possible as the MTT permit stipulates you must also exit to India, but in practice it seems that this is not being enforced at the Thai border and travellers who entered from India are being allowed exit to Thailand despite the MTT rule. Obviously there is no guarantee of success if you attempt this and you should be prepared (and have the backup budget) for the possibility that you could be sent all the way back to Moreh; either way, please leave a comment below to help keep everyone up to date on the latest situation!

China / Myanmar overland

There’s only one crossing point, between Muse in China‘s Yunnan province and Lashio, north-east of Mandalay on the old Burma Road. It’s been possible to cross this border for some time, but only with both a visa and an MTT permit. Last time I was in Kunming (November 2015) I was thinking about going for this border and was in contact with a couple of travel agencies who could arrange it – although it would have been possible, it was expensive and they needed a few weeks to do the paperwork and I didn’t have that long left on my Chinese visa. In other words, it needs to be arranged well in advance and is not cheap.

However, the new MTT rule for the India border (see above) also applies to the China border i.e. if you enter Myanmar overland from Yunnan, you must leave the exact same way. If you enter Myanmar from Thailand, they will not grant you an MTT permit to cross the Yunnan border. This basically means that Myanmar from China, for the time being, will only really work for those actually living in China – or, perhaps, as a side trip from China if you have a double-entry Chinese visa, allow plenty of time to arrange it, don’t mind some serious backtracking, and don’t mind paying a lot to do it.

Laos / Myanmar overland

Myanmar shares a fairly short river border with Laos, the two facing each other across the Mekong. No (official) crossing point exists yet, but work on the Myanmar-Laos friendship bridge was completed in 2015; it was scheduled to open in 2016, but delayed due to disputes over border demarcation and management. As of late 2016 it still hasn’t opened, so for now you can’t travel between them, and even when it does finally open it isn’t clear if this bridge will be open to non-locals. Should it become available to overlanders, the route it opens up is from Tachileik to Laos’ lovely Luang Nam Tha province. From Tachileik it is still only possible to travel elsewhere in Myanmar by air (see below); however it’s easy to go from Tachileik to Mae Sai in northern Thailand, so it would become an interesting little route between Thailand and Laos via Myanmar i.e. Chang Rai – Mae Sai – Tachileik – Luang Nam Tha. I’ll endeavour to keep this updated as and when the situation becomes clear!

Thailand / Myanmar overland

This is by far the easiest option. The main crossings from Thailand are at Mae Sot and Mae Hong Son; Kawthoung remains a crossing point, but now without the old restrictions on onwards overland travel, and Tachileik also remains a crossing point but with the onwards travel restriction still in place i.e. you can only fly from Tachileik to the rest of the country. It isn’t necessary to leave at the same border you arrived through and no MTT permits are necessary.

Myanmar overland route summary

Basically, as things stand, unfortunately it isn’t possible to travel overland across Myanmar between Thailand / China / India; whichever country you arrive from, you have to exit to. It’s hard to imagine that many travellers at all will cross the India border under these circumstances; the Yunnan border may be of use to those in China to live, or on extended trips with healthy budgets and lots of patience; but for now, if you want to travel overland to Myanmar it will work best as a side-trip from Thailand.

Myanmar Highlights

The only place I can talk about from personal experience is Kawthoung – and, as interesting as it was to go there, I don’t think it’s a place that would make it onto the Myanmar highlights reel! So here’s a list of the places I really want to go in Myanmar:

Yangon, the country’s largest city.

Bagan, the greatest concentration of Buddhist pagodas in the world.

Mandalay, the former royal capital.

Inle Lake, Myanmar’s best-known natural wonder.

The old Burma Road, en route either to or from China. The scenery looks great, and the road is of historical significance as an important Allied supply route to the Chinese government in Chongqing during WWII – this was a major strategic target for Japan’s invasion of Burma.

Resources and Useful Links for Visiting Myanmar

The Lonely Planet Thorntree thread on crossing the India / Myanmar border.

World Nomads offer flexible travel insurance that you can buy even if you’re already overseas (this is a key point, as I once learned the hard way when I got pickpocketed in Bangkok).

Lonely Planet Myanmar

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