Safe Transport in Myanmar: How to Get Around Safely

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Don’t get caught off guard by rough roads and challenges navigating your way around Myanmar. Plan ahead to make getting from A to B easy with these tips.


Monks and young men travel by holding on to the outside back of the local bus in Mandalay Photo © iStock/BethWolff43

The (Rough) Road to Mandalay

The roads in Myanmar, by all accounts, are in rough shape. Only about half of the 15,000 miles (24,140 km) of roadway is paved. This can make long trips challenging.

In addition to the generally poor conditions of the roads, during the months of May–October, Myanmar's rainy season, passages can become nearly impossible to travel over.

Planes, Trains, Automobiles in Myanmar

Road safety is all but unheard of in Myanmar. This is true for both drivers and pedestrians – so no matter what capacity you are in on the road, you’ll need to be extremely vigilant.

It’s worth noting that the level of respect locals’ display when you interact with them is applied when they drive, too. They don´t drive fast, and on my travels through Myanmar, I didn’t see any crazy manoeuvres.

Though drivers in Myanmar stick to the right-hand side of the road, many vehicles are right-hand drive as well – making for challenging and potentially dangerous situations.

Train Travel

Train travel can be interesting, with a lot of the railways running along very narrow tracks – and sometimes, in suspicious maintenance conditions. The ride can be rough in some areas due to the rugged terrain.

One of the most interesting train routes for tourists is from Hsipaw to Pwin Oo Lwin, with the train passing by the Goteik Viaduct – an impressive viaduct 250 meters high, built more than 100 years ago, and considered an architectonic masterpiece for its time.

The main advantage of traveling by train is without a doubt the cost, making it one of the cheapest ways to travel in Myanmar.

The quality is generally poor, and even upper classes aren´t extremely comfortable. For more in-demand routes, like YangonNaypyidaw or Yangon–Mandalay, the quality of the trains and railways get better.

Travel by Plane

There are ten airlines operating in Myanmar nowadays: Myanmar Airways, Air Bagan, Air KBZ, Air Mandalay, Apex Airlines, FMI Air, Golden Myanmar airlines, Mann Yadanarpon Airlines, Myanmar National Airlines and Yangon Airways.

Myanmar Airways is run by the government, and known for having a very poor safety rating. Even the locals avoid using this airline whenever possible. In 2009, several people were injured when a Myanmar Airways aircraft skidded off a runway.

Air Bagan suffered a few problems too. In recent years there have been reports of engine trouble and aircrafts missing the runway. One such instance resulted in the death of 16 passengers. There have also been two crashes in recent years, one of which took the lives of 10 people.

Other airlines are of much better quality, and provide generally safe, efficient means of getting around.

Of course, it could be said that any air travel comes with a certain degree of risk. As such, it's still a very popular means of transportation in Myanmar.

Bus Travel in Myanmar

Although buses are slow (no more than trains in most cases), you can reach almost any destination – while you might have problems by plane or train.

For example, if you want to travel by road from Kawthaung to Myeik, you’ll have to trust this means of transport, since there is no train. Same if you want to reach Mrauk U or Ngapali.

Buses are generally okay, and for popular routes you have the chance to purchase upper-class bus tickets. This will be more expensive than the train journey.

Cyclone Season in Myanmar

Natural disasters can also cause travel disruption, and safety concerns. During the months of April–October, it’s cyclone season. These treacherous storms can wreak havoc, resulting in floods and dangerous landslides.

Cyclone Nargis, which hit Myanmar in 2008, took the lives of close to 140,000 people. Its affects are still felt to this day, particularly in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Off Limits Regions for Foreigners

Another challenge tourists face, is that many areas of the country are considered by the government to be "off limits" to foreigners.

Some can be accessed with proper permission and the payment of government fees, but others remain totally restricted. The rules are strictly enforced, so if you don't have the appropriate permit to enter a restricted area, don't expect to be welcomed.

There are plenty of other transportation options in Myanmar, from boats to bikes to horse-drawn carts, all of which have their own pros and cons.

Regardless of how you choose to get around, knowing which methods are safer and which should be avoided will help you to plan your trip accordingly, and get you where you need to go without any issues.

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  • Olli said

    So the article boils down to this "Travelling may be unsafe due to the poor condition of infrastructure. There are also areas off limits. Stay off them." True, but not very informative since this is the case in most of developing countries.. well nice read anyway, I guess.

  • Al said

    I was just there a couple of weeks ago and I would not agree with some of what you said. Yes almost all the roads in Myanmar are rough. That means slow travel most of the time. But that leads to the next observation I disagree with, safety on the road. Because most travel speeds are low, the roads are pretty safe. Considering the number of scooters all over the place I never saw an accident. Most drivers are courteous, more so than in the USA. The taxis I rode in in Yangon were a bit old, but they all worked well. They braked and turned properly and made no untoward noises. They even had seatbelts for the passengers.

    Air travel is interesting too. I flew from Rangon to Mandalay. It was on a old prop commuter plane, ATR72. It's a bit cramped, but otherwise seemed ok. I did notice when boarding that one of the tires was due for replacement. But we flew twice with no issues.

  • Tom Bentley said

    I was there for 10 days last fall, and had a remarkable time. I flew on Air Bagon and Air Mandalay within the country, without trouble. I did ride in a couple of taxis in Bagon, and the traffic was madness, but people were polite–much more so than Los Angeles drivers—so what looked like utter chaos worked out. I did get some gastrointestinal trouble from the water, but antibiotics worked that out.

    However, I was on a guided trip, so perhaps many of the inconveniences or troubles were sidestepped by the tour's structure, though we did go to a some areas off the conventional track.

  • Philip said

    I spent 28 days in Myanmar three years ago with no set itinerary and it is the safest country in SE Asia (yes, I have spent considerable time in almost all of them and now call the region home). Bring crisp new U.S. 100 bills with no tears in them, that's the most important thing. If they have nicks or are old, they will not be generally accepted. I never felt afraid walking around with a stash of them on my person. I trekked in Shan state and other areas. I was invited into homes with no electricity or running water for tea, a meal, or to spend the night. The people are amazing and generous of spirit to a fault. Study a littler history first and don't ask folks embarrassing questions. You'll be fine.

  • Robyn said

    It's a shame that this article neglects to mention the Myanmar-specific issue of government corruption. I was very disappointed to see the three "private" airlines being recommended. These are all owned by government cronies, and are part of a horribly corrupt system. It's very simple but important: if you take any internal flight in Myanmar then you are directly contributing to the regime. This needs to be more widely publicised, since I imagine many people would avoid travelling by air if they knew that their actions were providing funds to the Burmese government.

    The other general information (poor infrastructure, potential natural disasters) is relevant to most less-economically-developed countries and certainly not limited to Myanmar alone.

    I also would question how much travelling the author has actually done in Myanmar since this advice seems to be limited to the main part of the country rather than the southern "tail". Heading south of Mawlamyine is (as of very recently) not off-limits, and I HIGHLY recommend it, but it's still in its infancy. Trains down that way are painfully slow, albeit wonderfully atmospheric (both inside and out) and a great way to travel ... but only if you're not short on time! Children trotting alongside the tracks could easily keep up. Otherwise, contrary to this article's advice, the only way to get from Ye to Dawei - about as far south as foreigners are currently allowed - is by road, which is in far better condition than the railway line. And even in the rest of the country, we only experienced a couple of trains which tallied with the "comfortable and efficient express trains" mentioned here. All trains are dirt cheap in Myanmar so we would have taken fancier ones if given the option but in most cases, these superior alternatives simply didn't exist!

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