A Guide to Travelling in Myanmar

Although tourists have been permitted into Myanmar – previously Burma – for a while now things are changing on an almost daily basis on this front. Once a mighty empire long since fallen as well as being a part of the British Empire in days gone by, Myanmar is best known in more recent history as a country with some appalling human rights records, freedom issues and draconian rulers. However, 2015 saw the voting in of a democratically elected government – something unknown for many decades.

This has launched a new and hopeful era for Myanmar and its long-suffering people and also for the tourist and traveller because now even more of this incredible country – once strictly off-limits – has become accessible. Many changes and improvements are afoot to carry Myanmar into the 21st century and steadily away from an infrastructure and way of life little changed in places from how it was in the early 1900s. But social and economic change take time and it is still happening at a slow enough pace to allow the traveller to this ancient land a glimpse into a world at once both awe-inspiring and dazzling as well as being present to witness history in the making. Tourist traffic is increasing steadily but is still low enough to keep the crowds at bay (for now) and to enable the adventurous individuals who stray here the chance to enjoy the best this country has to offer without jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow travellers.

Bagan

Most of what there is to do here is centred around ancient structures, temples and vast evocative archaeological sites built and grown by civilisations of the past. Prepare to be dazzled by gold-gilded temples winking in the sun, gape in wonder at such oddities as the teetering Golden Rock at Mt Kyaiktiyo or explore caves crammed with thousands of glinting Buddha images.

If you are in search of some scenery of the lovely and tranquil kind you can opt for a slow drift down the Irrawaddy River, laze away some hours or days at a paradisiacal beach or set out on a cross-country through-forest trek to visit remote ethnic villages. Myanmar has sights which will inject a sense of wow and wonder into even those travellers who have-been-there-and-done-that on a grand scale but you might want to get in quick. As we have already mentioned many changes are afoot so, if you want the best of ancient and modern, the time is now for adventuring into the Burma that was and the Myanmar of now.

Visa Matters

You cannot enter Myanmar without a visa and although a limited visa on arrival scheme exists it is not suitable for tourists.

If you come from Australia, Canada, an EU country, the UK or the USA, as well as several more eligible countries, you can apply online for an eVisa which will allow you a stay of 28 days in the country. However, if you choose to go down this route you MUST enter the country at certain points. These are the airports of Yangon International, Nay Pyi Taw International and Mandalay International or at the cross-border overland access points of Tachileik, Myawaddy or Kawthaung. Check out all the information at the official government site – http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/ which is also where you can apply for your eVisa.

If you come from any other country or intend to enter the country through a different access route check the visa requirements relevant to you through your own government sites and embassies.

Weather Matters in Myanmar

Myanmar’s weather patterns are typically divided into three separate seasons.

October to February – the peak or cool season – this is the season of highest tourist traffic because the weather is at its most favourable. Temperatures hover around the 32°C mark with night time temperatures dropping to a lovely 19°C which makes sleep easier. In the Mandalay region these night time lows can become a downright chilly 13°C. Rains are minimal to zero.

March to April – the hot season – expect to swelter with temperatures regularly soaring up to the mid to high 30s with occasional spills into the 40°C + region. Yangon is generally a little cooler than Mandalay but here ‘cooler’ can still mean 36°C +.

May to September/October – the low or rainy season – the area between Mandalay and Pyay gets lower rainfall on average than the Yangon area. Roads can become impassable around periods of the heaviest rains which are usually July to September

There are regional variations to the trending patterns listed above, most notably in the higher areas such as those around Lake Inle and Pyin U Lwin. In the winter months temperatures here can dip below 10°C at night and there are mountains in the north which never lose their snow caps on the highest peaks.

How Safe is Myanmar?

Your chances of falling victim to crime in Myanmar are about as low as you will find anywhere in a developing country, anywhere on the planet. We could say this is because the people are especially honest and honourable – which of course may well be true of many people – but we all know the baddies, generally speaking, are everywhere. So, why such low crime figures? Simple – the Myanmar authorities are desperate to bring in the foreigners with their big bucks to spend and want to display the country in its best light. Any misdemeanour directed at a visitor attracts punishments far outweighing the crime; a consequence which of course deters the baddies from pick-pocketing, theft or robbery. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all though so you still need to be on your guard around your personal possessions as you would anywhere, including at home.

What you will encounter are plenty of scams – that bane of Asian travel which has you reluctantly marvelling at the ingenuity and elaborate nature of some of the most successful. In Myanmar the scams even seem to suggest official involvement such as the one where an official finds your entry stamp missing or incorrect on checking your passport somewhere after you have entered the country and requires hush money to ignore it. Do some homework and ask fellow travellers about the scams doing the rounds.

Due to ongoing civil unrest or insurgence, there are pockets of the country which are considered unsafe areas, especially around the borders. These are typically restricted areas though so you are unlikely to stumble into them by accident.

Accommodation Choices in Myanmar

The infrastructure offering tourists and travellers places to lay their heads at night is growing all the time in Myanmar. Hostels – the budget traveller’s staple and typically cheapest accommodation choice – are found in all the main tourist hubs of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake but rarely found elsewhere at the moment. Other budget choices include low-end hotels (which might be a bit grotty and have cupboard-sized rooms) as well as guest-houses, bed and breakfasts and home-stays. Although many of these latter choices offer private rooms, many will also offer a dorm option too which makes them in many ways more hostel-like anyway.

Typically speaking you get less bang for your buck in Myanmar on the accommodation front than you will elsewhere in South East Asia and prices start somewhat higher. It is still possible though to find a bed for 7USD while the majority of the lower-end choices start from about 10USD; prices often include breakfast. When considering whether or not to go with paying the extra for air-con the following might help you save some money – power outages are very common and you will often find yourself without fan (which is normally included) or air-con, even if you have paid for it.

Etiquette

As a predominantly Buddhist nation, matters with regard to etiquette and respect are much along the same lines as you would find in other South East Asian destinations. However, the Burmese are not as inured to the whims and ways of tourists as its neighbour Thailand is, for example. This latter has been witnessing (and hardening itself) to the bad behaviour (both intentional and inadvertent) of foreigners for years now.

Myanmar is still incredibly conservative and if you want to be a respectful traveller you really need to do a little homework before entering the country. The Burmese are a warm and welcoming folk and are going to make allowances for small transgressions made by foreigners who are not familiar with their culture so you are unlikely to find yourself really in trouble on this front. However, that doesn’t absolve you of all responsibility  – you can’t simply use the ‘I didn’t know’ excuse. You might not get yourself in too much hot water but you will offend your hosts.

Bagan - photographer at sunset

The etiquette of the Myanmar culture is complex and extensive but here are a few of the more common things you might want to be aware of;

  • Dress – in the larger towns and cities Burmese folk are more open to Western ways and you might see shorter skirts and shorts. However, away from these hubs you might want to re-think your wardrobe a little. Additionally, if you want to enter religious places – temples, shrines etc – you will need to cover your shoulders and knees. It is also considered offensive to have images of the Buddha on your clothing.
  • Buddhist monks – feel free to donate something to the bowls of monks you will seeing seeking alms in the morning but be careful not to touch the monk and definitely don’t touch his robes.
  • Public affection – even if you have someone in tow you struggle to keep your hands off you really need to restrain yourself in Myanmar. Public displays of affection are not just odd to the Burmese but actually offensive.
  • The feet – there are all kinds of taboos and rules surrounding what you can and can’t do with your feet. In Buddhist culture the head is considered the most sacred and highest to god while the feet are the lowest. Never use your feet to point, don’t step over people sitting or lying on the ground, don’t rest your feet on things, don’t nudge some-one with your foot, never direct the soles of your feet at people or images of Buddha, remove your footwear before entering certain places and the list goes on.

Money

If you are arriving from one of the other SE Asian countries such as Thailand or Laos you are going to find your day-to-day costs jumping up a little in Myanmar. Having said this, the discrepancy between Myanmar and its neighbours in this regard is improving constantly as more tourists enter the country and competition for their custom becomes fiercer.

The currency of Myanmar is the ‘Kyat’. Kyat can’t be exchanged outside of the country so you will need to get your cash on arrival and make sure you get rid of anything you don’t want before you leave the country.

Although you will often see prices written in US dollars that doesn’t mean you can necessarily pay in dollars. Technically it is illegal for traders and individuals to accept dollars without a special license and although many will ignore this ruling don’t expect it everywhere and always have local currency to pay with. If you do have dollars make sure they are pristine or you might find no-one will accept them.

Cash is still the way to go, certainly outside of the largest cities, but plastic – in the form of debit and credit cards – acceptance is growing all the time and if you use the bigger hotels or restaurants you should have no problem paying this way. Finding an ATM is really not hard at all – they are everywhere – but finding one which is stocked with cash or not out of order might prove trickier while frequent electricity blackouts – sometimes for extended periods – mean ATMs can’t function. It is a good rule of thumb to top up on cash before your last supply runs out completely to allow for such scenarios as described here.

If you want to exchange foreign currency, money changers are not hard to find in the bigger cities and towns. If you’ve got US Dollars you will be the most welcomed but you can also exchange Euros, Chinese Yuan, Thai Baht and Singapore Dollars. Typically speaking you won’t be able to exchange pounds Sterling although you might find a handful of exceptions if you don’t mind a poor exchange rate.

Internet

Not so long ago you could put your smartphone away once you entered Myanmar because phone and internet coverage were almost non-existent. However, things have developed rapidly in this area and now you really aren’t likely to encounter a problem, certainly not in the towns and cities. Wifi in hostels and guesthouses (and free for guests’ use) is fairly standard too these days. Another thing which has changed has been the blocking of accessing certain sites. Once very common, this is now no longer the case and the entire internet should be accessible to you if you have wifi.

Food

Food in Myanmar is a wonderful meld of cultures with influences of the cuisine from various other nations thrown in – most notably Chinese and Indian. The best thing of all is it is mega-cheap – at street stalls and in many restaurants – and one of the few aspects of the country which bring it in line with other SE Asian destinations. As is true of almost all of the South East Asian destinations, food choices and types vary considerably from region to region within the country and at times it can seem like every little town has its very own speciality. Flavour-wise expect strong and pungent in many cases and curries can be very spicy (you have been warned).

A table with assorted food at a restaurant in Myanmar.

Health

The risk of Malaria is present throughout the country, except for the cities of Mandalay and Yangon. Whether or not you will require Malaria tablets will depend on where in the country you plan on visiting – always consult your GP to be sure.

Dengue Fever is also present in Myanmar, but there is currently no vaccine, so prevention relies on avoidance of mosquito bites. Make sure you use a deet repellent with a strength of at least 50% and apply this to exposed areas of skin and cover up with long trousers and long sleeved clothing where possible. The mosquito that carries Dengue Fever bites during the day and is more common in urban areas.

Speaking of vaccines, the following vaccines/boosters are recommended for travel to Myanmar; Hepatitis A, Diptheria, Poliomyelitis, Tetanus and Typhoid. You may also consider the following; Rabies, Hepatitis B, Cholera and Japanese Encephalitis, but these are not essential. It’s also worth noting that if you are arriving from a country with a risk of Yellow Fever you must have a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when you arrive in Myanmar. You will also need this if you have transited for 12 hours or more through the airport of a country with a Yellow Fever risk.

As with many SE Asian destinations, we would not recommend drinking the water due to the risk of contamination. Only drink bottled water and avoid ice in your drinks, unless you can be sure of its source. A more economical option is to use a water purification method, such as a filter, tablets or drops.

Language

The official language of Myanmar is Burmese but there are actually a whole range of ethnic languages spoken as native tongues while Mandarin speakers are also far from rare. English is the country’s second language in many parts but don’t expect this to mean it is widely spoken or to an accomplished standard though. Those working within the tourist industry will typically be able to get through the basics of communication with you but otherwise you are going to need to improve your miming skills and carry a phrasebook.

Getting Around the Country

In the country’ drive to become modernised following the nation’s new era of democracy, the transport infrastructure is undergoing many changes, most notably in the improvement of the roads which were previously shocking to say the least. This is making more destinations possible and at a faster speed than previously but progress takes time. Typically speaking, the going is slow in getting from A to B in Myanmar and will probably be this way until more of the transport infrastructures become more modernised and all the roads improved. So, patience is required.

Until very recently, large swathes of Myanmar territory were completely out of bounds for tourists. No-go areas don’t exist anymore but there are still many places which are restricted and these are in a constant state of flux. Different rules apply for different restricted areas but in general what this means for the tourist is that you can only travel to these places as part of a tour or with a guide who has the required permits.

Getting around the country typically requires a little more planning and thinking through than it would in other SE Asian destinations but that isn’t to say it is hard. In some cases access for certain destinations is only possible by boat or plane.

By plane – Low prices make this a feasible option for backpackers and the one which is always the most comfortable and quickest. Generally speaking there is plenty of choice for domestic airlines which run reasonably efficient services.

By bus – Mega cheap and able to get you almost everywhere with regard to the main tourist hubs, buses are also frequent with overnight options to keep the accommodation costs down.

By train – With a network and rail travel conditions little changed since the British were here, train travel in Myanmar is excruciatingly slow going (averaging 25 kph for longer journeys), far from comfortable and not exactly reliable. However, it is a great way to see the countryside, immerse yourself in the colours, sounds and sights of the culture and to get interacting with locals. The twisty-turny trans-mountain rail journey which passes through Pyin U Lwin from Mandalay is considered to be one of the planet’s absolute must-do train trips.

By boat – Boat and ferry options are plentiful for both short hops and multi-day journeys such as the Yangon to Bagan route. Trips tend to be scenic if slow. At certain times of the year – namely the dry season – the ferry services are temporarily halted as river water levels drop too low for larger craft to move freely along the waterways.

Pick-up trucks – Often the local transport option of choice, pick-ups with benches in the back for passengers are a common sight in Myanmar. Routes tend to be those of the shorter variety but there are some exceptions. This mode of transport is cheap but can be very slow as trucks stop every few yards to pick up passengers and highly uncomfortable (even rammed the driver will consider more passengers can be squeezed in).

Local transport options – You will always have bus options in the larger towns and cities and taxis are also ubiquitous in the urban areas. However, after that, quite what you might find varies considerably. Each of the following are the more common forms of local transport you’ll come across – bicycle rickshaws or trishaws with sidecar, horse and ox carts and tuk-tuk type 3-wheelers.

Country Highlights – Things to See and Do

Inle Lake

You could spend many many 28 day chunks – the period your visitor’s visa allows in Myanmar – and not scratch the surface of this country crammed with marvels. Besides, as getting around takes time you are going to have to be highly selective about what to see and do. The following is just the tiniest sample of what awaits you…

Temples, Pagodas & Ancient Sites – These number beyond count. Some notables which are not listed separately below include the Golden Palace Monastery and Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay and the little visited Kakku Pagodas which is a veritable forest of 16th century stupas. For a giant Buddha check out Chaukhtatgyi Paya with its 65 metre long, gem and diamond encrusted reclining Buddha.

Bagan – Far and away the country’s number 1 must-see sight, this vast archaeological zone was once the capital of a former empire.

The Shwedagon Pagoda – 95 metres high and dazzling in the extreme, this gilded structure is also encrusted with diamonds and lays claim to the nation’s most important Buddhist shrine.

Beaches – If you need your soft white sand, turquoise water and nodding coconut palm fix the best place to head is Ngapali Beach. Other options include Kawthaung, and the remote Ngwesaung Beach.

Inle Lake – Great hiking, boat trips aplenty, floating villages, gardens and markets and the chance to get a true privileged window onto the often extra-ordinary world and lives of the ethnic groups which live here.

Saddan Cave – Vast and stunning, the entrance to this cave is full of Buddha statues while the cathedral-like interior is adorned with stalactites and walls of crystal. On emerging at the other side you arrive at a hidden lake and there is even another yet beyond this which few get to see. Another cave which regularly features on the must-do tourist list is the Pindaya Caves which are filled to bursting with golden Buddhas.

Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) – One of those wonders a little difficult to describe, Kyaiktiyo is essentially a pagoda but it is the way this literally gold-gilded rock hangs precariously, as if about to topple over the 1100 metre cliff, which makes its visitors stop and gape.

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