1. TIME: Maximize your time! Everyone’s schedule is different, but if you can, try to spend all 28 days of your allocated visa allowance in Myanmar. If you must cut your trip short, a minimum of two weeks is recommended. Travelling in Myanmar is always an adventure, and your trip there is often more about the journey than the destination. Buses can range from 7 hours to 15 hours on average.
2. MONEY: Bring in enough cash for the time that you’re there as there are no ATM’s in the country and the vast majority of places do not accept credit card. While the government recently pegged the unofficial exchange rate to the dollar, you will still most likely be trading dollars for Kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) on the street. Exchange rate should range from 800-827 in Yangon, 750-800 in other cities outside of Yangon. There are no coins in the Myanmar currency. Bring as many small US bills as well, as most tips, temple fees, taxis, etc. will need $1, $5 and $10 bills. Also, guesthouses usually ask for payment in US dollars only, not Kyat. Please note that the bills must be crisp and clean (without creases, dirty markings or tears) or they will not be accepted and we’re not exaggerating here – this rule is strict! (Speaking from someone who got turned away from the Shwedagon Pagoda twice because of dirty bills!)
3. TWO PRICE LEVELS: Accept that there will be foreign prices and then local prices. Bargaining usually doesn’t work, because there is a set foreigner price and a set local price, particularly for temples and government-run sites.
4. GUIDE BOOKS: Leave your Lonely Planet at your hotel for at least a day… try to go without it for a week! Often travelers clutch on to the Lonely Planet like it’s the Holy Grail, (we’ve been guilty of this too!) but the less you depend on it, the more you will ask local folks how to get around, what you should see, what you should eat, etc. Many folks speak very good English and love talking to tourists. The motto in Myanmar, and you’ll see it on signs everywhere, is “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourists.” Many Burmese take this to heart and you’ll feel that people want to make sure you’re okay wherever you go.
5. INTERNET: WIFI is available at some guesthouses and cafes, but in general the internet is painfully slow, particularly anywhere outside of Yangon. Remember dial-up in the 1990s? Yeah, it’s worse than that. Try some of the more expensive hotels, such as ‘The Strand’ in Yangon for the fastest WIFI in Myanmar!
6. DONATIONS: When visiting poorer areas, small gifts are always appreciated, especially for schools. Notebooks and pens are small and light gifts to bring.
7. SUNRISES: Learn to enjoy the sunrise. Travelling by bus around the country, you will see more sunrises in Myanmar to last an entire lifetime. Most of the overnight buses will arrive between 4-5 a.m. depositing you at the bus station. No need to be fearful, it’s always safe, and guesthouse owners will usually open for you at all hours (though it’s nice if you can call ahead).
Sunset at Bagan, Myanmar
8. SEASONS: Depending on the season, bring appropriate clothing and always be prepared! Roughly speaking, May to October is rainy season with heavy rains in the afternoon and evenings – take a poncho! February to April is the hottest time where temperatures can get stifling in the cities. November to February is the cold, dry season (and arguably the best time to visit) although temperatures can drop as low as freezing during these months in the highland areas. For example, in the Shan and Kachin States, it gets brutally cold at night. Do not expect heat in guesthouses, so make sure you bring enough warm clothes and socks!
9. CLOTHING: Wear your longyi! There are few places left on earth where many still wear traditional dress. There’s a reason: longyis are multi-purpose and awesome. Guys, it’s not a skirt. Get over it. Ladies, wear thanaka if you can too! Great and cheap version of sunscreen.
10. COUCHSURFING: Couchsurfing is available with some foreigners, and is mostly active in Yangon. However, always remember that staying as a guest with local families is illegal – (a law which dates back to British colonial times).
11: CHEAP FLIGHTS: Your best bet for cheap flights to Myanmar is with Air Asia direct from Bangkok, taking just one hour and a quarter to Yangon. You can also fly Air Bagan from Chiang Mai, which is a little pricier. If you prefer to fly around the country, rather than taking the long bus journeys, the local airlines are Bagan Air, Air Mandalay, Yangon Airways and Asian Wings Airways.
12: VISAS: Although there are rumors that Myanmar will soon be offering Visa on arrival, (available at the moment for business visas only) at the moment, as a tourist, you still have to apply for your visa at a Myanmar Embassy before you travel. Express visas can be arranged in less than a day from Bangkok Myanmar Embassy and cost 1,250 baht. You will need two passport photos to apply. Once in Myanmar, tourist visas cannot be extended. If you overstay your visa, the penalty is $3 USD per day plus a $3 USD processing fee when you leave the country. Try not to overstay your visa at all, as this can sometimes cause a problem at places where you need to show your visa – e.g. hotels / trains. Stick to the rules!
UPDATE 2014! 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.
13: EMBRACE THANAKA BARK: Straight from the Thanaka tree, you will see many of the women (and some of the men) wearing the decorative yellow paste on their cheeks in different patterns. Although mainly used as a cosmetic, the bark is believed to protect against the sun and help to smooth the skin. It is also anti-fungal. Buy a pot from the local market (Bogyoke Market in Yangon) and smear the bark all over your face at night time – it’s a miracle worker with spots and acne!
14. FOOD: Experiment with the wide variety of local food! Myanmar’s unofficial national dish is Mohinga, a rice vermicelli fish broth (warning: very fishy!) with onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and sliced tender core banana stem. Served with boiled eggs and fried snacks (akyaw). Other favorites are ‘Ohn No Khawkswe’ and (curried chicken with rice noodles and an indian masala flavor) ‘Nangyi think’ (rice noodle salad). For delicious street snacks, (with Indian influence) a must try are samosas, chapatis and Thali (indian-style curry soup). Each area of Myanmar has its own distinct style of cooking and local specialities; don’t miss the Shan rice and Burmese tea leaf salad!
Delicious Hot Samosas in Yangon
15. TEA, TEA AND MORE TEA: Delicious creamy chai, best eaten sat at a plastic chair in a dark, bustling alleyway with the locals (trust us!) is one cultural experience in Myanmar that you can’t miss.
16. TRAVEL BUDDYS: Although Myanmar is opening up to tourists and has seen a huge increase in backpackers and travelers over the past six months (the New Your Times rated Myanmar the number top three place to visit in the world in 2012) tourists are still few and far between, particularly away from the major tourist destinations; Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. Although the country is totally safe for solo travelers, and locals extremely friendly, you may want to team up with a travel buddy before you go… plus with accommodation far from the cheap side, this will also help by splitting the room bill!
17. BE A RESPONSIBLE TOURIST: Before visiting the country, all backpackers must be aware of the recent changes in the political situation in Myanmar and be sensitive to the fact that the country is now beginning to open up to foreigners. Some say that tourism will increase three times as much by 2015 which is a hell of a lot for the country to deal with in a short space of time! Like in all places you travel, be sensitive to local culture and customs, take your litter with you in countryside areas and tread lightly, as the saying goes, leave nothing but footprints. Like Thailand, Myanmar is a Buddhist country, so make sure you remove footwear at temples, cover shoulders, dress modestly and show respect to Monks and Nuns. Also, day to day, avoid touching an adult on the head, don’t make public displays of affection and accept or give things with both hands or your right hand – not just the left. We don’t need to tell you that drugs are illegal and punishable by the death penalty!
18. ACCOMMODATION: Although it’s nowhere near up to the standard of Thailand, you will find that accommodation is much more expensive in Myanmar than you may have expected. There are no backpacker dorms (yet), and particularly in Yangon, you are left with archaic Chinese style characterless hotels. For a flash flashpacker boutique guest house, you are looking at around $60 USD. In Bagan, guesthouses are a lot cheaper and more catered to backpackers.
19. WHERE TO VISIT? Most travelers stick to the Big Four, (Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan) as many areas have (until recent times) been out of bounds to tourists. There is also the beach resort of Ngapali, and the area of the Golden Rock which is becoming popular. See our guide to Yangon here. More to come on our Myanmar Guide soon!
20. MOBILE PHONES / SIM CARDS: Tourists can purchase SIM Cards at shopping centers for 50,000 Kyat (approx. $65 USD). These SIM Cards have a one month validity and the cost for calling is usually 300 Kyat / minute for outgoing calls and 50 Kyat / minute for incoming calls. As there are only a few places which sell the SIM cards, check with your hotel or guesthouse who will be able to help you.
Further Reading about Myanmar
- Mizzima News
- Irawaddy News
- Radio Free Asia
- Democratic Voice of Burma)
- Book – Freedom from Fear (Daw Su),
- Book – Land of Green Ghosts
- Book – History of Burma (River of Lost Footsteps).