Useful Information about Myanmar
Myanmar is emerging from decades of isolation and as such, it feels more conservative than nearby countries. It is by far my favourite South East Asian country and now is a good moment to visit before all the changes going on take place. Let me tell you about it from my personal experience.
Myanmar is between two of the world’s great civilizations, China and India, and for this reason its culture is a mixture of both, combined with the native Myanmar native identity and characteristics.
Myanmar is traditional and unique. One fascinating thing is that, in many aspects, it has changed little since British colonial times.
Information can be difficult to access once inside the country, as the internet connection is not good and there are not many tourist information centres yet, so it is a good idea to research the country before your trip.
The first time you arrive in Myanmar you will be impressed by some daily life aspects, such as women wearing long traditional skirts and thanaka make-up, men wearing longyi (skirt), pavements covered in red spit from betel-chewing, friends playing football with bamboo takraw ball, colourful and varied street stalls, tea houses, buses and taxis driving like crazy, peaceful pagodas, beautiful countryside…
The local people of Myanmar are really something special. Over 135 ethnic groups, each with a heritage of its own; they are always happy, friendly, enchanting, smiley, ready to help, very enthusiastic, and proud of you visiting their country and curious to know about you.
There are many pagodas with Buddhas, which contrast beautifully with the Hindu shrines, Jewish mosques, Muslim synagogue and Christian churches from the colonial era.
In Myanmar you can find everything, from big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, to tranquil beach destinations like Ngapali, Chaung Tha & Ngwe Saung, stunning lakes like Inle Lake, and beautiful mountains like outside Kalaw.
If you like shopping there are very good quality handicrafts, art and antique shops, jade and gems markets, and open-air markets like Bogyoke in Yangon.
Food markets and restaurants offer really tasty and varied cuisines. Chinese, Indian and Burmese are the most popular, but as the country opens up you can find more and more international cuisine. They all have a place in Myanmar streets and you will find stalls and restaurants serving Chinese or Indian food, tea houses for Burmese food, Thai restaurant, all in the same street.
Cars are ancient and designed for the left-hand side of the road, although they are now driven on the right. Motorbikes are popular but in Yangon they are forbidden. Trickshaws are the alternative and very often used for short distance.
If you need to make phone calls, you can do it from your hotel lobby or from the street, where you can find tables with phones to use for about 100 kyats per minute. You can also buy prepaid SIM cards to use whilst you are in the country. They are very cheap (1,500 kyats) and you can easily top up to use internet data, which works quiet well.
Power outrages occur everywhere. Some hotels and shops have generators 24 hours and in some smaller villages they have short scheduled periods for electricity from 6 pm to midnight. It’s a good idea to pack a torch.
The pace in Myanmar is different. People are usually in much less of a hurry and you will have to be patient in local restaurants and tea houses to be served.
– Dos and Don’ts:
- Remove shoes and dress respectfully (no shorts, short skirts or exposed shoulders) on entering a Buddhist site.
- Monks and nuns that you will see in the streets should not be touched.
- Don’t touch somebody on the head (including a child)
- Couples should avoid public displays of affection.
- Before coming inside a house take off your shoes.
- Don’t point your feet at anyone or anything and apologise if you brush someone with your foot.
- Ask before photographing anyone. Check responsible photography tips.
- Shake hands or pass money with your right hand, with left hand holding up your right arm.
- Eat from the spoon and hold a fork in the left hand to push food onto the spoon.
- Talk to locals and be nice to them. They want to know and are curious about life outside Myanmar.
- Don’t speak politics with locals unless they start the subject first.
Check out my full article with my comments about Dos and Don’ts for tourists with funny cartoons from different local cartoonists to show tourists about Myanmar culture and customs.
– Must see:
Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda and Shwemokhtaw Paya (Pathein)
South-east: Temples around Mawlamyine, caves with Buddhist art almost untouched and the Golden Rock at Mt Kyaiktiyo.
Bagan and Central: The temples of Bagan, the Nat shrine at Mt Popa, Shwesandaw Pagoda (Taungoo and Pyay) and Shwemyetman Pagoda (Shwedaung).
Mandalay and Around: The Royal Palace in Mandalay and the many craft and antique shops. It’s particularly interesting to see the gold pounder workshops. Don’t miss U Bein teak bridge in Amarapura and teak monastery in Inwa.
North: Trekking to tribal villages in the hills. There are almost no foreigners here. Also try traveling the local way in a public boat down the Ayeyarwady River.
– Money and Cost:
Myanmar is a very affordable country to visit. Food, drink and travelling are inexpensive but hotels, because of the tourism boom, are getting expensive if we compare it to neighbouring countries. If you haven’t booked your hotel yet, I have put together a list of my favorite hotels which you will find very useful.
A simple meal in a local restaurant or teahouse will cost between $1 and $3, and if you go to a restaurant to eat international food, meals will cost between $4 and $8. A bottle of water is about 20 cents and a bottle of soda is around 60 cents.
A double room costs $15-30 in a budget guesthouse, $30-70 in a mid-range hotel and $70-400 in top-end hotels.
Taxis for going somewhere inside the city should be more or less $2, about $4 if you are going outside the city and $6 if you are going for example from Yangon city centre to the airport.
It is true that you must bring perfect US dollars, with no folds or marks. It is funny because the kyats they give you in exchange for your pristine dollars are usually falling apart, but they are ok to use. The exchange rate is approximately 1350 kyats for $1. You can check the actual rate in www.xe.com
I recommend you change money in banks or currency exchange shops. On the black market you will get a better exchange rate but you risk to be cheated. In some guesthouses and hotels you can also change money but their rate will not be the best.
You can also bring euros and other currencies but they are not as easy as US dollar to exchange and are not accepted as payment in many places.
The maximum amount you are allowed to bring in to Myanmar without declaring it to customs is $10,000.
ATMs were introduced in to Myanmar in January 2013 and accept both Visa and MasterCard, but there are just a few of them and they are only in the main cities like Yangon and Mandalay. However, you should not rely on them and I recommend you to bring some US dollars in cash to at least cover a couple of days of expenses. ATMs charge a 5,000 kyats transaction fee.
Please note that credit cards are still not accepted for payment in some hotels, shops and restaurants.
Tipping is not common practice in Myanmar but if you feel like giving a little extra or a little present in exchange of a service it will be welcome.
Money is handed over and received with the right hand, while the left hand loosely supports the right arm.
Try to spend your money in different places, not all in the same city and shop, this way you collaborate to spread wealth and improve living conditions.
– Travelling to and around Myanmar:
Once you have decided to visit Myanmar, you should book your international flight one or two months in advanced.
For domestic flights, it’s best to book tickets once you are in Myanmar.
It is a good idea to buy bus tickets a day or two in advanced because they usually get full. Independent travel agencies and guesthouses can help you. Journeys usually take longer than you’d think because the bad quality of the roads.
The best time to visit Myanmar is between October and April. In May-June is when the rainy season starts and lasts until September. If you plan to travel during rainy season and your dates are not flexible, don’t worry, you’ll love it anyways.
If you need some tips and recommendations to plan your trip, please send me a message. I’m happy to help.
– Where to stay in Myanmar:
Accommodation prices are rising in Myanmar and rooms are more expensive than in any other South East Asia neighbour countries. The shortage of hotels and guesthouses and the increasing number of tourists are the reason. Also, the Myanmar government is focusing on luxury tourism and all new hotels are going to be five star.
It is not unusual to see tourists in the streets looking for a room and finding everything fully booked. If you don’t book in advance you may end up stressed and paying quite a bit more than you want.
I recommend you book in advance by calling straight to the hotel (which can be a bit of a language challenge) or reserving a room on the internet through agoda, they have over 1,000 hotels in Myanmar which can be booked online. I recommend you to download a pdf where I have put together my favourite hotels for the most popular cities: Hotels I Recommend in Myanmar.
This is especially important if you are travelling on a budget and if the guesthouse or hotel you have chosen is listed in a guidebook. The most popular guidebook for Myanmar is Lonely Planet. You can check it out and buy it at a good price in our online bookshop online powered by amazon.
As previously mentioned, a double room costs $15-30 in a budget guesthouse, $30-70 in a mid-range hotel and $70-400 in top-end hotels.
– Myanmar Visa
All foreign nationals need a visa to enter Myanmar. A tourist visa allows you to stay a maximum of 28 days; starting the day you enter the country, within three months from the date of issue. Overstaying your visa is possible a maximum of 14 days for a charge of $3 per day, plus a $3 registration fee. However, it is not recommended and it can cause you difficulties with airport immigration.
You must have a passport that is valid for at least six months from your date of entry into Myanmar and you will usually need two passport photos and a photocopy of your passport when applying for a visa.
A Business Visa allows a stay of 70 days, extendible up to 12 months on a case-by-case basis.
From September 1st 2014 you can apply online for your eVisa at the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration and Population.
Myanmar’s embassies and consulates abroad may do background checks on people applying for tourist visas. It’s probably not a good idea to list your occupation as any of the following: journalist, photographer, editor, publisher, motion-picture director or producer, camera person, videographer or writer.
Burmese is the official language although there are over 100 dialects.
It’s a tonal language with 33 consonants combined with 12 vowels.
It’s always good idea to learn a few words before travelling to Myanmar. Your experience and interaction with locals will be better. They love to see you try to say something in Burmese and they will laugh and teach you.
Some useful phrases:
- Hello > mingala ba
- How are you? > nei kaun: ye. la:
- Very well. Thank you. > nei kaun: ba de
- Nice to meet you > twei. ya. da wan: tha ba de
- Thank you > kyei: zu: tin ba de
- You are welcome > la ba, la ba
- Delicious! > kaun: lai’ ta
- How much does it cost > ba lau’ kya. tha le:
- Where is the… > htain: than youn:…
- Can you do you me a favour? > ta khu. lau’ lou’ pei: nain ma la:
- May I take your picture? > da’ poun yai’ pa ya. zei
- It’s ok; It’s alright > ya. ba de
- Yes > hou’ ke
- No > ma hou’ hpu
- Can you teach me to speak Myanmar? > myanma lo pyaw: da’ aun thin pei: nain mala: