- EAT! – Burmese Tea Leaf Salad: In Burma, beloved tea is eaten as well as drunk. Try this national delicacy made from fermented or pickled tea leaves, flavored with lime, fresh tomatoes, peanuts, garlic, chilli and dressed with fish sauce!
- DRINK! – Burmese Tea of course! Dark and rich black tea sweetened with as much condensed milk as you can handle – tea drinking is a social institution in Burma… supped daily in tiny cups one after another as you while away a pleasant day chatting with friends.
- WEAR! – The Longyi: Worn by both men and women, the longyi is a traditional piece of cloth wrapped around the waist reaching ankle length. The cloth comes in many different patterns and is a key item for keeping cool in Burma’s sweltering heat.
- BEWARE! – Your decision to go to Burma: Always a tricky one – due to the complicated and longstanding political situation. In visiting the country, some of the money that you spend here could end up in the pockets of the corrupt military regime currently ruling. Because of this, some people decide to boycott the country entirely. However, by staying in local guesthouses and eating with local families – your tourist dollar may help a people that desperately want contact from the outside world. We recommend that you do your research and the decision is a personal one.
Did you know? It is now possible for travelers (not just business travelers) to get a visa online. This is perfect for travelers who are not passing through Bangkok and very easy to do! Check out the official Myanmar eVisa website here.
Do you want to travel Myanmar on an 8-Day Guided Adventure?
Check out this off the beaten track 8-day adventure in Myanmar – BRAND NEW – on Backpacker Bookings! From the border town of Mae Sot, you’ll head inland towards the authentic land of Hpa An, passed rice fields and laughing children on their way to school. Here you’ll embark upon an otherworldly kayaking adventure in the rice fields and into caves hidden within immense limestone cliffs. You’ll then head downriver on the mighty Thanlwin River to Mawlamyine to visit the incredible, gravity-defying ‘Golden Rock’. You’ll end your 8-day adventure in Burma’s unofficial capital, Yangon where you’ll wander interesting backstreets, barter at markets, sample amazing food, visit ancient temples and chat with friendly locals. This ‘Back Door Burma Explorer’ trip is one for the adventurer! Read the full itinerary here…
Introduction to Unique Myanmar (Burma):
‘This is Burma‘, coined Kipling. ‘It is quite unlike any place you know about’,
Burma is the one of the least visited countries in South East Asia largely due to the controversial military dictatorship which controlled the country in recent years. Many people are scared of visiting the country as they fear it may be dangerous and volatile. However, the truth is that for foreign travellers who stick to the designated tourist areas, the country is very safe.
- Yangon (former capital)
- Mandalay (fascinating city of myth and legend)
- Bagan (land of a thousand temples)
- Inle Lake (Beautiful lake & trekking)
- Hsipaw (trekking amongst remote villages)
Since 1996, Aung San Suu Kyi and her National Democratic Party asked foreign tourists to boycott the country until human rights issues were improved and political prisoners released. However, in the last six months, the country seems to be opening up to reform and now tourists are being encouraged to visit and see firsthand what is happening. Since the visit from Hilary Clinton in December 2011, Burma has been in the press more and more for potential reform and this has in turn encouraged an spike in foreign tourists. Burma certainly seems to be the hot destination amongst backpackers right now!
In short, if you are interested in Burma and its controversial history then the time to go is now! Many people who travel to the country say that it is unlike any other country in South East Asia. It is like stepping back in time into a world that has been cut off from the rest of modern society. Rickshaws, crumbling colonial remains, people wearing the traditional ‘longyi’ with thanaka bark smeared on their faces, old Volswagen buses and Beetles from the 60’s and skinny cows roam the dusty streets in towns where electricity is only available some parts of the day.
Incredible vast temple complexes, a rich and varied cuisine, a fascinating culture, warm, welcoming people and wild landscapes… add up to a place that oozes exoticism, making you understand why Kipling was so mesmerized with Burma. Visit Inle Lake and the witness the incredible leg-rowing Inca people, watch the sun set in the land of a thousand temples, Bagan or wander crumbled colonial buildings and temples in the atmospheric and bustling capital, Yangon. A trip to Burma is at once unforgettable.
The famous and unique leg rowers at Inle Lake Myanmar
8 Random Facts about Burma:
- On the hillside of Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, the Shwedagon Pagoda is said to hold eight hairs of Siddartha Guatama. (the Buddha) The actual structure is a solid gold bell shaped structure encrusted with 4000 diamonds and a 76 carat diamond perched on the top.
- Burmese Days is a novel written by George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984. Set in 1920’s Imperial Burma, it is a story about the waning days of British rule after World War One.
- Mandalay was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his 1892 poem ‘Mandalay’ and later in the 1935 song ‘On the road to Mandalay.’ Kipling’s captivation with the country and a beautiful Burmese woman in particular is the central theme of the poem.
- The great Irrawaddy River dissects Myanmar from North to South before opening up into the Andaman Sea. Due to monsoonal rains, the water level varies greatly throughout the year. With a drainage area of over 400,000 kilometres, the river is an important life source for the people of Myanmar.
- Myanmar boasts an amazing 1,903 kilometres of coast line, home to many untouched, underdeveloped beaches.
- Myanmar Thaing is a unique and traditional form of martial arts, similar to kick-boxing, which originated more than two thousand years ago during the reign of King Okkalapa. It was a compulsory specialisation of royal princes in ancient times.
- Bagan, in North Central Myanmar is home to over 4,400 ancient temples scattered across the valley, dating back over 800 years. At sunrise and sunset, the view is a substantial rival to Cambodia’s Angkor for South East Asia’s most unforgettable panorama.
- In Myanmar, you will notice that the local women wear a pale yellow paste on their cheeks and foreheads. The paste is made from the ground bark of the ‘Thanaka tree’ and is used for sun protection and as a moisturiser.
- Currency: Kyat (US Dollars accepted)
- Capital city: Became Naypidaw in 2005
- Main religion: Buddhism
- Main Language: Burmese
- Telephone code: +95
- Time: GMT + 6.5 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance (192) Police (199) Fire (191)
Burmese Language Essentials
- Hello: Min gala ba
- Thank-you: Che zu beh
- How are you? Nei kaun, ye la
- Excuse me: Thi: khan ba
- Good Luck: Kan kaun ba zei
- How much? Be lau’le
Practical Info for Travellers Before Heading to Myanmar:
(By Eugene Lee)
1. Book a flight
- Gasp! A plane ticket. But in order to travel within the country officially, you will need a plane ticket into Yangon. The entry into Myanmar from Thailand by land will not permit you to travel within it as your passport will be held at the border office on the Myanmar side and you cannot go any further (borders are only good for visa runs).
- You can fly direct from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, although some airlines have “what were they thinking” routes such as Korean Air keeping a fun stop in Seoul for the Bangkok-Yangon route, so best check your map and prices. Air Asia is known to be the cheapest with a 2 week-advance ticket, so buy ahead of time.
2. Apply for a visa
- The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok (a short walk from Surasak BTS station) can process your application in 3 business days for 810 Baht. Do not dare to apply as a photographer, journalist, writer, NGO worker, or anything of those sorts because there is a screening interview as you submit your application. The interview is fairly easy unless if you had already flagged yourself in the application. You don’t need a proof of a plane ticket to get your visa.
- It is now possible for travelers (not just business travelers) to get a visa online. This is perfect for travelers who are not passing through Bangkok and very easy to do! Check out the official Myanmar eVisa website here.
3. Bring crispy, new US Dollar bills
- The USD is a currency of choice in Myanmar. You will mainly need 1, 5, and 10 bills for dollar use, other than the big bills for your initial exchange for Kyat (pronounced- “Chet”, like “Checkers”). The reason for this is that all guest houses, sightseeing points, and trekking tours require you to pay in USD (tourist-related business must pay their taxes in USD). Remember to bring bills in mint-condition as creased, old, torn, or wet bills are never accepted.
4. There are few ATMs within the country
- Nowadays, in Yangon it is possible to find ATMs and some hotels have credit card cash advance – (for a 20% service charge however!) The best thing to do it to make sure you prepare with your budget beforehand as you don’t want to be in the middle of nowhere without any cash.
Where can you go?
- Myanmar is divided into 7 divisions and 7 states. States contain more ethnic groups while Divisions are more of Burmese occupancy. Think of the country as if it is a whole fried egg: the yellow yolk in the centre can be traveled by foreigners, but the egg whites would be restricted. Theoretically, you can travel to see all the states/divisions, though some permits take around 2 weeks to approve with a deep hole burning in your back pocket. By land, you can travel south as far as Maylamine without an additional permit.
- The beaches facing the Bay of Bengal, such as Ngapali Beach, are a bit more difficult to access by land but worth the commitment. The price range there is much higher than the rest of Myanmar, so make sure to arrange for that. Many travellers tend to stick to the big four. (See above – Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan)
- To your relief, the foreigner pricing in Myanmar is minimal, and aside from bus ticketing (+40%) it is hardly noticeable. The $USD can be substituted for any purchases, though you will get a less favorable rate of 1000K to $1 USD. Exchanging money is not hard, though competitive rates are in Yangon and Mandalay.
- If you really want to piss your money away, exchange at the banks or the exchange kiosk in the airport, for a killer rate of 7 Kyat to 1 USD. Otherwise, take it to the “black market”. It is not hard to find as plenty of street people will ask you to come to their “shop”, where you can exchange anywhere from 1000 to 1300 Kyat per 1 USD, depending on the amount you are trading. Take your time counting and checking when exchanging money, because torn bills cannot be used in Myanmar.
- Beer, a popular price index, costs about 1,500K for a bottle of Myanmar or Mandalay bran, with beer stations serving draught for about 700K. You will rarely pay more than 4,000K for a meal at a normal restaurant, and having a cup of tea/coffee and samosa each day is a must!
- Before you start, Plan a general route. By law, foreigners are not allowed to rent motorcycles. Instead, you can hire a driver and hold onto his waist from the back seat for about $10/day. Trains are government-operated and expensive, but also slow and prone to low-speed derailing if you are traveling outside the established routes. There is a good boat service between Mandalay and Bagan to spice up your mixture of transportation methods.
- Like many other SE Asia countries, Myanmar buses will seat aisles and about 50 more people than what-you-thought-was-already-full. The “VIP” (air-con) buses are generally much roomier, and price difference is trivial. If you don’t plan on karaoke-ing through the night with the locals, bring some ear plugs. If you want some unforgettably Spartan bus experience, try the Bagan-Inle Lake or the Yangon-Ngapali Beach route.
- Vehicles, including motorcycles, are priced about 8 times higher than the neighboring countries, likely as a part of the military government’s effort to isolate each regions from communicating/mobilizing. It is rare to see a post-1980’s vehicle. If you are planning a rough road route, hiring a solid car will likely require dipping past your scheduled budget.
- Harsh as it may sound, you can’t afford a mobile phone here. It costs over $2000 to arrange a SIM card, with a similar reason to cars being so expensive (but it explains for the plethora of horsecarts around).
- Internet is readily available, even in smaller cities. Available, but not to be confused with fast. If you are a Hotmail/Yahoo!/GMX user, welcome to the Gmail bandwagon. The latter is (supposedly) not monitored by the government and thus will deliver your Myanmar letters all 100% of the time without any delay. Even the Myanmar government workers use Gmail! Youtube, Blogspot, and other opinion-announcing websites are blocked. Ironically, you can still poke your friend on Facebook.
- October marks the beginning of wet season and April is the peak of the dry heat. There won’t be any transportation obstacles arising from season changes, but it can get much colder, especially in Shan State and Sagain Division (You’ll need a permit along with a real good reason to get into Kachin State). Most of Myanmar is more north than any other SE Asian countries!
- Breakfast is always included with your guest house stay! Singles and triples are on the rare side, and dorms are almost non-existent (we only found 1 dorm during the whole trip). Don’t worry about booking ahead of time (even during the high season).
- To sum up in one word? Unbelievable. Myanmar is a photographer’s playground. Bring some extra memory cards or film as it can be hard to fuel up on quality supplies once you are out of Yangon. Some of the best spotted sunset/sunrises—Shwe Dagon (Yangon), Teakwood Bridge (Mandalay), Nam Ban Market (Inle Lake), Temples of Bagan. For you serious goers, try the Balloons over Bagan ($250/hr) or the Northern Scenery Tour (2 weeks by train, 1200 Euros).
- It may not be as dangerous as you think, but don’t go venturing off into restricted Division/States, even if you’ve obtained a ride to there. It can get serious if you are caught in the rot. You’ll need permits to reach some places, and even then, land route is not an option for you. Also, foreigners are not allowed to be on school properties. It is your responsibility to know the restrictions. To ease your mind a bit, unless you were trying to rub friction with the law, it is highly unlikely that anyone of authority would harass you, not even for that crinkled, washed-out dollar bill in your back pocket.
We urge those who are thinking about visiting Myanmar to fully inform themselves in advance. Those who make the decision to visit must be aware that best intentions aside, some money will inevitably filter down to the regime. That said, independent tourism expenditure is one of the few avenues of income for many local people.