Years ago, people would have hardly ever considered Myanmar when listing off dream destinations, but since the country has opened itself up to the world, it has become more and more popular as a tourist destination. We really didn’t know what to expect when we went there, so I decided to share what I’ve learned to help other people prepare for their trip.
Overall, Myanmar is a really great country. It’s not as developed as the Western world, but it’s still such a fantastic place to visit. As long as you’re prepared for some of the nuances of a less-developed country with a vastly different culture, you will have a wonderful time there.
BEFORE YOU GO
VISA – You will need a visa to get into Myanmar. A standard single-entry tourist visa costs USD $50, is valid for 90 days and allows a trip length of 28 days. Business visas cost USD $70, are valid for 90 days and allow a trip length of 70 days. Recently Myanmar began accepting online applications for evisas. The evisa application and list of countries who are allowed to apply online can be found here.
BRING EXTRA OF ANY NECESSITIES – whether it be something you NEED or something you just prefer, bring extra because finding medical items or comfort/convenience items is not always easy and will sometimes be impossible. If there is an item you MUST have or something you just won’t be happy without, bring a spare just in case.
CURRENCY – The local currency is called kyat (pronounced similar to ‘chat’) and since 2012, the government is pushing for that to be used more than USD. Even so, you will still find places that will accept USD.
ATMS & CREDIT CARDS – Myanmar is slowly starting to accept credit cards, but it is not widespread. ATMs are plentiful and some larger business are starting to take credit cards, but still be prepared to pay cash since most smaller shops and street vendors won’t take credit cards.
MAKE SURE USD IS PRISTINE – The government won’t allow shopkeepers to trade bills with tears, smudges, creases or any type of imperfection, so the vendors will, in turn, not accept anything except a bill in perfect condition. I took all of our USD and ironed them before going on the trip and that took care of the creases and folds. Also, make sure none of your bills are older than 2006.
BRING HARD CASE FOR MONEY – In order to keep your bills in mint condition, be sure to bring a flat wallet or hard case to keep the bills flat and unbent.
BILL DENOMINATIONS – For exchanging at local exchange shops, you’ll want larger bills. Those get the best exchange rates. Still bring smaller bills, though, to use for tips and purchases at small shops or eateries.
WHILE YOU ARE THERE
DON’T DRINK THE WATER! – The water in Myanmar is not suitable for drinking. Water bottles are roughly USD .20, so it’s not too bad to have to buy water. Plus, the three hotels we stayed in were really good about giving us extra water when we left for the day, so be sure to ask your hotel for a bottle or two before heading out.
LIMITED INTERNET AND CELL SERVICE – There is no public wifi in Myanmar, so if you need cell or internet service, pick up a SIM card. SIM cards are available at the airport and train stations. If you go to Bagan, you won’t have service even if you buy a local SIM card. The infrastructure of the country is still developing, so only the major cities have semi-reliable cell service. We survived 5 days only having insanely slow wifi in hotel lobbies and not having cell service at all when we were in Bagan, so it’s not hard to get by without it.
REMOVE SHOES (AND SOMETIMES SOCKS) AT RELIGIOUS SITES – This is just how it is, no way around it. If you try to wear your shoes, you will be asked to either leave or go back and take your shoes off. This is a pretty big one and some people will get quite offended if you don’t respect their culture and remove your shoes before entering temples and shrines.
HAGGLING IS EXPECTED – Unless you are in an actual store with posted prices, the vendors will negotiate with you. Some will drop the price quite a bit and others will only drop it a little. The higher a quantity you buy, the bigger the discount will be. Also, the more friendly and companionable you are, the more willing most of the vendors will be to lower the price. If you’re at a tourist spot and the vendor won’t negotiate, there’s most likely another vendor with similar items nearby.
POWER GOES OUT PERIODICALLY – This happened to us every day we were there. Sometimes it was in the afternoon and sometimes in the evening. It was a little disconcerting to have the power go off while I was taking a shower. You may want to bring a flashlight. Sometimes the power only went off for less than a minute and sometimes it was close to 10 minutes.
INSIST ON RECEIVING CHANGE IN THE SAME CURRENCY YOU PAID WITH – Since the government is pushing for the exclusive use of kyat, this may not be an issue for much longer, but it still is at the moment. If you pay in USD, make sure you are given USD in change. If they give you kyat instead of USD, you will end up being shorted.
US POWER PLUGS – Every hotel we stayed at in Myanmar had US power outlets, so if you are from the US, you don’t need an adapter. If you are not from the US, bring a US-type power adapter.
RELIGIOUS SITE DRESS CODE – when you visit any of the temples or religious sites, you will need to wear a shirt with sleeves (cap sleeves are fine) and longer shorts. It is offensive for you to go to their religious sites or enter their temples wearing anything that shows your shoulders or knees (men and women). Some places have cover-ups that you can purchase that are lightweight and have very pretty designs or you could bring something lightweight to throw on before going inside.
SUPER DUSTY AND SMOKY – No matter where we went, it was either dusty or smoky. Or both. The locals burn weeds and other things, so you’ll smell a lot of smoke along with all the dust from it being so dry there. The rural areas are the worse, though you’ll still find the smoke and dust in the cities sometimes. If you have asthma or a breathing condition, bring an extra inhaler and/or whatever else you need to manage your condition. Face masks are a good idea, too. We wore ours several times when the dust got really bad.
WEATHER – Myanmar has three seasons: hot, not too hot and hot & rainy. The best times to visit are between November and February. Those are the coolest months. We were there at the end of January and it was hot, but not too bad. Rainy season goes from May to October and the super hot time of year is March through May.
FOOD – Food is so cheap there. Tourist hotspots will cost you a several dollars for a meal, but if you go to the smaller restaurants or street vendors, you can get a meal for $1-2. Bottled water is about .20 per bottle.
HOTELS – Hotels vary. We got a cheap hotel in Yangon for $25 and it was okay, but the entire place reeked of cigarette smoke. We looked around town and found a place for $40 a night that was really nice and didn’t smell bad at all. In Bagan, we paid $25 a night and were happy with our hotel. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it was comfortable and the staff was really nice.
TAXIS – Taxis are pretty cheap. Some use meters and some don’t, but it shouldn’t cost more than $3 to cross the entire town. If the taxi doesn’t want to use a meter, don’t agree to pay more than $3 or 3700 kyat.
SOUVENIRS – It depends on the site and the vendor. Some will charge less than $1 for some items while another vendor will charge $1-2 for the same item. Sand paintings are really cool (factory-made) and cost anywhere from $8-16, though if you buy several they’ll give you a discount.
BUSES – You can ask your hotel to book a bus for you and arrange for you to be picked up from the hotel or somewhere nearby. Buses that the locals ride are adequate for short distances, but for the longer-distance trips, you’ll want to splurge for the ‘VIP’ bus. That can vary from $15-20 for a 12-hour trip, but it’s worth it. The ‘VIP’ bus comes with reclining seats, televisions, blankets, AC and complimentary meals.
MOST SOUVENIR PAINTINGS ARE FACTORY-MADE, NOT HANDMADE – Vendors like to tell people all the paintings are hand-made, but you will find the same ones at every temple. The ones that really are hand-made will be the ones that are unique and the ones where you can see the artists painting them.
PAY FOR PICTURES – One of the things we found in Myanmar was that many people who you photograph will ask for money afterwards, even if you ask for permission before. We didn’t understand this at first and a lady yelled at us when we started walking away. Once we figured out what she was upset about, we gave her some money and she was happy. Not everyone will ask for money after you take a photo, but it does happen, especially in more touristy areas.
SOMEONE WATCHES YOUR SHOES, THEY EXPECT YOU TO BUY SOMETHING – When visiting temples, it is required for you to take your shoes off. Sometimes vendors will offer to watch your shoes and when you come back, they’ll insist you purchase something since they watched your shoes and kept them safe.
SOMEONE GUIDES YOU SOMEWHERE, THEY WILL EXPECT YOU TO BUY/PAY/DONATE – Periodically, someone will offer to show you something ‘really cool’ at whatever tourist place you are currently at and then take you to see it. Vendors want you to purchase something from them. Kids or teens will then try to get you to donate for their schooling or some ‘official’ charity thing that they have a form for. Random adults just want you to pay them for their service. If you have money to spare, go for it. If you are on a tighter budget, it’s best to just decline their offer and say you want to look around on your own.
NO NON-SMOKING ROOMS IN THE CHEAP HOTELS – Myanmar doesn’t quite have the same bad view of smoking as the US does. Even though we reserved a non-smoking room in Yangon, we ended up with a heavily smoked in room and the front desk said all their rooms smelled like that when we went to inquire about changing rooms. We found the same response at all the cheaper hotels we contacted. It wasn’t until we contacted some of the mid-range hotels that we were able to find a true non-smoking room. If you absolutely require a non-smoking room, be sure to verify with the hotel that they do indeed have non-smoking rooms.
BRING WET WIPES – the floors in public buildings can be quite dirty, so if you’re in a place where you have to also take your socks off, you will probably want to wipe your feet off before putting your socks and shoes back on. Plus, it’s really hot and dusty there and the wet wipes can be a periodic refresher during the day.
WEAR EASILY REMOVED SHOES OR STURDY SANDALS – Pretty much every temple you go to will require you to remove your shoes before entering, so if you plan on going to several in one day, you will probably want to wear tennis shoes that slide on and off easily or teva-styled sandals.
WEAR LIGHT CLOTHING – This is another heat precaution. You’ll stay cooler if you wear lighter clothing, both color and fabric.
FOOD ALLERGIES – If you have a food allergy, make sure you have several slips of paper with a statement expressing your food allergy in several different languages. Still, though, you need to be cautious. They understand some allergies, but not all. Troy is allergic to wheat and nobody there seemed to understand that, so we had some struggles with that. If your allergy requires medication, be sure to bring extra in case you have more than one instance of being given that food on accident.
BRING SUN PROTECTION – Myanmar is very bright and very warm, so you will want to bring a hat and wear sunscreen. I only wore a bandana the first day and had some trouble with the sun. The second day I wore a hat and wasn’t affected as much.
BRING BUG SPRAY – There are bugs everywhere and we haven’t been able to find DEET bug spray anywhere in any country we’ve gone to in Asia, so you’ll want to bring your own. Some of the local bug sprays work, but some don’t.
BRING TOILET PAPER – Many bathrooms outside your hotel do not have toilet paper, so definitely carry some around with you. Especially if you’re going to be in a rural area.
BRING HAND SANITIZER OR WET WIPES – It is very rare to find a bathroom outside a hotel or nice restaurant with hand soap, so bring something to clean your hands after using the restroom and before eating. Some rural restaurants will have basins for you to wash your hands in at the restaurant, but not all do.
BRING A JACKET – With all this talk of how hot Myanmar is, you wouldn’t think you’d need a jacket, but you do. Once the sun goes down, it gets chilly fast. Mornings are VERY cold until about 10-11. After that, it heats up pretty quick.
THINGS TO DO
CIRCLE TRAIN IN YANGON – If you’ve got 3-4 hours to spare and/or want to do something cheap, I totally recommend the circle train. It is just $1 to ride the train. This train is the one the locals use to travel between Yangon and the outlying villages, so you’ll get a true glimpse into what life is like for Myanmar citizen. Just go to the main train station and ask for the circle train.
GET A MASSAGE – Massages are pretty cheap, starting out around $3.50 for an hour. Prices will vary a bit by location, but seriously, $3.50 for a massage? They’re pretty good, too.
VISIT SHWEDAGON PAGODA IN YANGON – This place is AMAZING. It’s a massive temple complex that has been around for over 2,600 years. It is the shrine for several Buddhist relics and has been the site of several political protests. It is the most famous pagoda in the world.
VISIT SULE PAGODA IN YANGON – Along with Shwedagon Pagoda, Sule Pagoda is the other must-see site in Yangon. This pagoda is the oldest in the world, said to have been built during the time of the original Buddha. It was the site of two uprisings against the government and continues to be an important religious center. When we were there, there were women ‘selling’ birds for people to release as a symbol of Myanmar’s freedom from military rule.
WATCH A SUNSET FROM A TEMPLE IN BAGAN – If you go to Bagan, you will definitely want to catch a sunset from atop of temple. It’s pretty fantastic watching the sky change colors over a sea of ancient temples. There’s nothing like it. We did it twice. Here are my photos from the first night and the second night.
RIDE A BIKE OR CART IN BAGAN – Seriously, it is so much fun to tour Bagan on a horsecart. Or, if horses aren’t your thing, you can have a cart pulled by an ox. Or you can bike around the ruins. We did the horsecart and the bikes. The bikes are great for seeing the temples close to the main road, but you’ll want the cart for seeing the temples further away. Prices will vary by hotel for bike rentals and by cart owner for cart tours.
CLIMB MT POPA – Mt. Popa is about an hour away from Bagan. It is an extinct volcano with a temple on top and several religious shrines dotting the sides. We hired our cart driver to take us up there and made a day trip out of it.
HOT AIR BALLOON OVER BAGAN – This one is a little iffy. We didn’t do it, but we have friends who did. The balloons only operate during certain times of the year and don’t operate when it’s raining. But when they do, you can ride a hot air balloon over the temples of Bagan to watch the sunrise over the landscape. Sounds pretty fantastic, right? Too bad prices start around $380 per person.
BOAT TOUR AROUND INLE LAKE – It costs $2 USD for 6 people to take a half-day boat tour around the lake to see a neat floating market, various Buddhist temples, dragon ladies, floating villages and other neat sites.
BIKE AROUND INLE LAKE – For $1 USD a day, you can rent a bike and take one of several self-guided tour around the lake. The longest takes about 3-4 hours to do the circuit without stopping (depending on how fast you peddle), but you’ll definitely want to stop a few times. On your tour you’ll come across hot springs, a winery, several monasteries, a few pagodas, an old fort, an orphanage and several eateries.
TOUR A VILLAGE – It’s really neat to get away from the city and see what life is like in the more rural areas. People are more than happy to give you a tour of their villages (for a fee, of course) and some will even sell you handmade blankets, scarves, shirts, candies, drinks, etc. It fun watching how they do things and learning more about their way of life.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT MYANMAR
– Currency: Myanmar Kyat ($1USD ≈ 1,000 kyats)
– Language: Burmese (though many people speak passable English)
– Population: 51.5 million (in 2014)
– Capital City: Naypyidaw (it was Yangon before 2006)
– Area: 676,578 sq km (slightly smaller than Texas)
– In 1989 the country’s name changed from Burma to Myanmar
– 68% of the population are ethnic Burmese
– Myanmar is known as “The Golden Land,” due to all the golden pagodas everywhere
– Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948 and became an independent republic until 1962 when it went under military rule. In 2011 the country adopted a unitary parliamentary republic government.
– 90% of local people are Buddhist
– Myanmar is one of 3 countries who don’t use the metric system (along with U.S.A and Liberia)
– Myanmar has over 135 ethnic tribes, each speaking their own unique dialect
Overall, Myanmar is a pretty fantastic place. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite countries. The culture is so unique and authentic and the people are so sincere. Seriously, we had so much fun talking with people and getting to know more about the country. Even when we were haggling with vendors, it was fun. This country is truly a window into history and such a unique way of living. You won’t regret a trip there.