Myanmar in a Nutshell:
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. Or, if you’re wanting something a bit stronger, Myanmar Beer is by far the most popular brand and can be found everywhere from roadside beer stations to bars and restaurants. It’s a decent beer for refreshing after a hot day exploring.
- 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! – The political situation:
Until recently, foreign visitors had a difficult decision to make when deciding whether or not to travel to Burma. It wasn’t so much that they would be in danger during their visit, but rather was their visit damaging the country? In 1989 whilst under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi asked tourists not to visit Burma saying that their money would be go to line the pockets of the corrupt generals. Fortunately, things have come a long way since then for Myanmar!
A general election passed in November 2015 that brought democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League to Democracy to power. The country still has a long way to go on the road to proper democracy and development (and the former military rulers have by no means fully relinquished power), but foreign visitors are now welcomed by all and the old tourism boycott is a thing of the past.
Introduction to Myanmar:
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 were scared of visiting the country as they fear it may be dangerous and volatile. However, the truth is that for foreign travellers the country is probably the safest in the region; crime rates are extremely low and the remote areas that still suffer from conflict cannot be accessed by foreigners. More and more parts of Myanmar are becoming accessible with every passing year, but here are some of the country highlights:
- 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)
Many people who travel to the country say that it is unlike any other country in South East Asia. Because Burma was isolated for so long, a visit can be 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, and skinny cows roam the dusty streets in towns where electricity is sometimes only available 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 writers of the past have been 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 around 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. Set in the nominally fictional town of Kyautada, it was in fact closely based on Orwell’s experiences as a policeman in the remote northern town of Katha, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
- 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. Ngapali, Ngwe Saung and Maungmagan are some of the highlights, but much of most of the coast is made up of totally untouched untouched, underdeveloped white sand, palm-fringed beaches.
- Lethwei (pronounced la-way) 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.
The Myanmar Basics:
- Currency: Kyat
- 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 Heading to Myanmar:
Go-Myanmar.com is a great website for up-to-date information on destinations around Myanmar and how to get around, and also offers online bookings.
1. Book a flight
You can fly direct to Yangon from major hubs such as Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong and Doha – but by far the most popular route, with the most flights, is Bangkok (both Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang). Yangon also has direct flights to Chiang Mai in Thailand. Check out airlines, Air Asia and Nok Air and Bangkok Airways.
Mandalay is the only other significant international airport in Myanmar, with direct flights to Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand, as well as Singapore and Kunming (China).
2. Apply for a visa
The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok (a short walk from Surasak BTS station) can process your application in three business days. Did you know? It is now possible for travellers (not just business travellers) to get a visa online. Check out the official Myanmar eVisa website here. Just bear in mind that e-visa is only valid for arrival at Myanmar’s international airports at Yangon and Mandalay; it is not yet valid for overland travel to Myanmar, which needs a paper visa from an embassy.
3. Money business
Things have changed a lot in Myanmar over the last few years! There are now ATMs that accept Visa, Mastercard, China’s Union Pay and Japan’s JCB at all major cities and tourist destinations around the country, and even some of the smaller ones.
You will typically be charged 5,000 kyat for an ATM withdrawal, plus whatever your own bank charges you back home.
The local currency is kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) and comes in 10,000, 5,000, 1,000, 500, 200 and 100 bills. You will use it to pay for almost everything – it is no longer the case that US dollars are used, in fact it is now technically illegal for domestic companies to charge in US dollars.
You will pay for almost everything in cash – there are some point of sale card machines at stores and larger hotels, but not many.
If you do bring US dollar bills to change, then they must be in mint condition, with absolutely no blemishes or folds. Higher denomination notes will also get a better exchange rates (i.e. $100 is much better than $5).
For those on a budget, the best way to get around is by bus. Some buses to more remote areas can be a bit rough, but all major destinations are served by ‘VIP’ or ‘Express’ buses, which usually have big, comfy, reclining seats in a 2+1 layout. They are inexpensive and often run through the night, allowing you to save time and accommodation money on your trip.
You can get flights to most destinations around the country, and of course this is the quickest way to get around – in fact for some places such as Mrauk U or Ngapali beach in the west, or parts of the farther-flung north and south, flying is by far the best option as the buses are uncomfortable and can take several days to get to your destination. Air tickets usually range between US$70 and $150.
Taking the train can be great fun, but it is incredibly slow and bouncy! Classic routes include the train to Kalaw in the Shan hills and the trip across the gigantic Gokteik Viaduct between Mandalay and Hsipaw.
The Irrawadddy River carries passenger boats – there are many options, particularly in the north, but the most popular is between Mandalay and the tourist hot spot of Bagan.
You can hire motorbikes in many places around Myanmar, but they are illegal to ride in Yangon and Bagan (Mandalay is a great spot to start exploring from by motorbike, and you are free to go on big multi-day trips).
Another area of big change: you can now get SIM cards for K1,500 (around US$1) and they are freely available around the country, including at international airports. Data packages are also available, but don’t expect network coverage to be good outside the big cities and tourist spots. The three networks are MPT, Ooredoo and Telenor.
Internet is readily available around the country, and many restaurants and hotels have wifi. No websites are blocked, but speeds can still be very slow.
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!
Most cheap accommodation in Myanmar comes in the form of guest houses, where you will typically pay US$10-$20 per night and breakfast will be included.
There are now hostels with dorms in Yangon and Bagan, but don’t expect to get as good deals as you would in Thailand!
You can find hotels throughout the budget range around Myanmar, including right up to the last word in luxury (in the top spots). Prices are generally higher than they would be in neighbouring countries, but things are improving as more hotels are being built and competition increases.
To sum up in one word? Unbelievable. Myanmar is a photographer’s dream, from the smiling people to the stunning landscapes. 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—Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon), U Bein Bridge (Mandalay), Nam Ban Market (Inle Lake), and the temples of Bagan.
9. Where can you go?
Another area in which Myanmar is changing fast is the access that foreign visitors have – in the past things were restricted to the central regions, but now you can travel to many of the fascinating, often mountainous border regions and deep down into the south to tropical Tanintharyi, with its stunning beaches and also the vast Myeik Archipelago.
Some parts are still not possible to access because of ongoing conflict (although there is no danger of accidently ending up in these places, you would be turned back long before you get there) and you still need a permit to access some parts, such as eastern Shan State.
Overland border travel from Thailand is now free, but you need a permit to cross from India or China, which should be applied for at least a month in advance.
About the writer: Marcus Allender is the founder of Go-Myanmar.com – the comprehensive and continually updated travel and bookings website. You can find out more about Marcus and the Go-Myanmar.com team here.