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, certainly not impossible yet it has long been a roadblock to overland routes between India and SE Asia. It is now opening up though, and has become a straightforward inclusion on an overland SE Asian route (i.e. Thailand – Myanmar overland). The border with India’s also been open on & off for the last few years; when open, it allows for overland travel between India and SE Asia. As of August 2018, a new border agreement was finally signed and the India-Myanmar border is presently open with no special permits required (just the usual tourist visas).

Where I’ve been in Myanmar

I went to Kawthoung, at the southern tip 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 & 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 with 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 cheerfully 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 – though maybe not while the military still has campaigns of ongoing violence in some corners of the country.

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 India border also fully reopened in August 2018, allowing for overland travellers to traverse Myanmar once again. The other three borders are still closed:

Bangladesh / Myanmar border

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

India / Myanmar overland

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 recently; for a few years it was then possible to cross in both directions with a special permit from MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tourism), allowing overlanders to travel between India and Thailand through Myanmar.

Unfortunately in mid-2016 the Burmese government abruptly closed this border again, before re-opening it with a new restriction – the MTT permit still applied but was only being issued to those entering and leaving via Moreh, effectively blocking the overland route again.

The rules then changed several more times, at one point requiring travellers to book expensive fully escorted vehicle convoy trips to get the permit – the rules for this border are clearly subject to change at very short notice, don’t suggest reading it all but check out this epic Lonely Planet thread of backpackers trying to work out the puzzle; there are several years worth of posts there! That’s out of date now though – this thread is now the most up-to-date source of information for this route. There’s also a good discussion of this border on Trip Advisor here.

Update (August 2018): great news for overlanders! Myanmar and India have apparently just signed a new border agreement, and the border’s now open in both directions with no special restrictions and no additional paperwork required beyond the usual tourist visas. India to SE Asia overland is officially back on! (note: if you’re on your own wheels you still need a special permit for the vehicle)

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, this border requires a special MTT permit which stipulates that if you enter Myanmar overland from Yunnan, you must leave the exact same way, and you can only leave there if you entered there i.e. if you enter Myanmar from Thailand or India, they will not grant you an MTT permit to cross the Yunnan border.

Update (May 2018): due to a resurfacing of violence in the area, including battles on the road to Lashio and in the border town Muse, forget about crossing this border until further notice.

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 2017 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! (2018: still no progress)

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

As things stand it’s once again possible to travel overland across Myanmar between Thailand and India, the missing link opening up some interesting overland possibilities; meanwhile the Bangladesh and China borders are completely closed due to conflicts in those areas, and despite being physically complete the bridge over the Mekong to Laos isn’t yet an option.

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’s 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 latest Lonely Planet Thorntree thread on crossing the India / Myanmar border.

Search Agoda for hotel deals in Myanmar

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

For more detailed destination info, check out the Myanmar section on the excellent Travelfish.

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