Over the last 4 years, the changes I have witnessed in Myanmar have occurred at a phenomenal pace, and it shows few signs of abating. Transformation is not just a buzz word, thus, it can be a challenge to obtain current information. I am part of a few Myanmar travel groups on Facebook, and I see that many questions come up again and again so I will try and cover these here, but, often things change on a day to day basis.
Much of the following is relevant especially to Yangon as this is where most people start their trip., and here is a little about what to expect from Yangon. Also, these are all my opinions based on my personal experiences, and many people do have different takes.
Information can also be confusing, Like just recently, when the Myanmar Embassy in Vienna released documentation saying that there are 6 new countries now eligible for Visa on Arrival, including Australia. I am still not sure who is confused here. It surely can’t be me, as being half-Austrian half-Australian I am familiar with the differences.
Best time to travel
Myanmar has 2 seasons, Monsoon and dry. Between the months of July and September, the rains are in full force. Not to say that it is not good to travel, but you are really rolling the dice with the weather, especially in the south of Myanmar. The further north that you go, the drier it is likely to be. Saying that, there are some very beautiful sunsets to be had!
Many say that the best months to travel are between November and March when it is neither scorching nor raining. April and May are incredibly hot.
I have not been here during the northern Winter which is also the peak tourist season, but personally October and November are my favourite months to travel as everything is lusciously green, and there are not many tourists yet, so there is much more room for spontaneity. The Taunggyi Balloon Festival is also on in November, which is a sensational experience.
A really bad time to travel is during Thingyan (which is the Burmese New Year Festival) as there is nothing open and transport is a nightmare. Thingyan occurs for 4-5 days during April, but it affects travel for about a week. There is still transport, but it gets booked out very very quickly, which allows little or no room for spontaneity.
Myanmar is incredibly safe. I have travelled much of the land solo (including Kachin State) and have never run into trouble. The people are kind, generous, helpful and curious. Even though there are many conflict zones, tourists are not allowed anywhere near them. For restricted areas, please see here.
There is very little crime involving tourists, but like any other country always remain alert. If you do have a problem, there are tourist police available.
There are two visa options (or three) for entering Myanmar unless you have a waiver. The first is going to an embassy, which can be useful for certain border crossings such as Htee Kee (which I found out the hard way), or you can get an tourist e-visa which has a duration of 28 days. E-visas do not take long and are relatively painless, the official e-visa website is here (you are required to travel within three months of the visa being approved.) They are also pretty strict that you arrive at "the port of entry” stated on your visa.
Visa on arrival is going to be available for certain countries from October 1st, 2019, but it still costs $50 USD.
In regards to requiring a ticket out of Myanmar, I have never been checked, but that may be case dependant. It is easy enough to buy a cheap bus ticket if need be.
It is likely that you will have your visa checked at the airport where you depart for Myanmar. I have been checked frequently in Europe. Make sure that you have a printed copy, as they stamp that too.
If you overstay your visa, there is a charge of $3 USD per day (after 90 days it becomes $5 a day), and they are pretty relaxed about it compared to neighbouring countries (in the 4 years with multiple overstays I have not had a problem). The overstay office at Yangon Airport is easy to find, and they also allow it at land crossings. It is best not to push it though: although I am not sure at which stage they get suspicious, i wouldn’t stay over a month too long.
Saying that though, your passports and stamps will constantly get checked by both guesthouses and the military whilst you are travelling. In areas where tourists are not such common place, they tend to be more vigilant. I have encountered checks by the military in both Kachin State and on an overnight bus from Yangon to Dawei. If you do find yourself overstaying, I would stay on the well trodden paths.
The Burmese currency is the “kyat - MMK” (pronounced “Jet” with a silent t). The situation with accessing money has vastly improved after the last few years, but it is still not perfect. As of today, $1 USD will buy you approx. 1500 kyat. Kyat comes in denominations of 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 (being the largest). They do not use coins.
ATM’s charge 6500 kyat for a withdrawal, but ensure that the ATM has the corresponding sign (such as Maestro). Normally the maximum withdrawal is 300,000 Kyat, but there are a few ATM’s which dispense up to 600,000 kyat. For people coming from Europe, I have found N26 to be the perfect travelling account, but have had problems with my Transferwise card.
Changing money at the airport is fine as the exchange rate is great (unlike at most other airports in the world), and there are also many exchange places in town which give the going rate with no commission. It used to be the case in Myanmar that you need to bring only fresh, crisp, undamaged $100 USD bills, and to an extent it is still true. Now however the USD is still used, but you will find yourself using Kyat the majority of the time (and in more remote places such as Chin State, there are no ATM’s nor do they accept USD). You will need USD mostly for guest houses, but even then, they will simply do a currency conversion if you only have Kyat. The money changers also change other currencies. The larger the notes, the better the rate.
It is also now very easy to exchange Euros (same deal with crisp, larger denomination notes). This is easier for those travelling from Europe. In fact, you can get by with no USD at all.
Credit cards are now more widely accepted.
The first taxi you will need is from the airport to your accommodation (in Yangon there is also a bus available which takes you downtown, or your hostel or hotel may pick you up). Depending on the time of the day, you should be able to get a taxi for 8000 Kyat, but at peak times you may need to go up to 10,000. In Yangon there are taxis everywhere, and they base their fares on the time your ride will take, but always negotiate. You should not pay more than 3000 Kyat within the city, and between 1000 - 2000 for a short ride. Grab is also readily available, there is no UBER.
For the adventurous, there is a bus network, and also in downtown Yangon sidecars can be convenient as they are not required to adhere to the one way rules. Plus, it’s fun.
For Grab in Mandalay you can also book a tuk-tuk.
I would suggest getting a sim, which is incredibly easy. This is another aspect of Myanmar that has changed a lot in the last 5 years as competition has only recently been permitted. I am not sure on the machinations as to which are the best, but I use Telenor, and I have the app to purchase data pacs. Telenor’s main competitors are Ooredoo and MPT. Apparently Ooredoo is better in remote areas, but I have never had major problems. Burmese use a lot of Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber.
It is worth getting a sim, as the WiFI can still be sketchy, especially when you are out of the major cities.
This is inherently a contentious issue. The traditional dress in Myanmar is a “Longyi” which may very loosely be likened to a sarong. The name for men’s is a “paso” and for the women a “htamein”. I am a huge supporter of the traditional dress: for the men it is comfortable and for the women it is delicate and feminine. They come at varying costs, and can be tailored or purchased off the rack (for the less, ahem, buxom women). Longyi shopping can be fun, and even if you choose not to don the local clothing it is worth buying some fabric on your travels as a souvenir Here is an article outlining the female attire. If you do choose to wear it, you are in for a wonderful surprise. They do not see it as cultural appropriation at all, in fact they see it as a sign of respect.
On the other end of the spectrum, many believe that you should be able to wear whatever you want, and please, go ahead. Short shorts, spaghetti straps, braless….. BUT I can assure you that locals are much more receptive and friendly when you are dressed accordingly, especially in rural areas. An exception to this of course is when you are at western bars or hotels, in which case for women I suggest a wrap for your shoulders when going arriving or departing the premises.
I am hoping that it is a given that being dressing appropriately in religious sites is a given….
Aside from being polite at all times, when you give or receive anything, especially money, place your left hand on your right arm as below the elbow as you do. Also, if you see locals staring at you, it is most probably out of curiosity, so a smile never goes astray. I find this much easier when I am not wearing sunglasses.
There is also many benefits in learning a few words, such as:
Hello “Min-ga-la.ba” However, there are many ways to say hello. and when the Burmese are speaking to each other, they will asked closed ended questions as a greeting, such as, “Are you good?” and “Are you comfortable?”.
Thank you “Jei—zu-tin-ba-day”(formal, saying, “Thank you very much.”) and Jei-zu-bey (“thanks”.)
That’s OK, no problem, I’m good: “Ya-bah-deh”. This is particularly useful for taxi drivers and merchants.
CONVERSATIONS WITH BURMESE
Again the locals are incredibly curious, and tend to take have a unique approach. Rather than be asked normal (to us) questions such as your name, be expected to be asked where your husband is (or wife), how old you are, why you are not married and your occupation. Then they might get to your name. Expect them to be both concerned and fascinated if you are a female travelling alone.
Never ever bring up religion or politics, and if the one you are conversing with does, safest bet is to tread very lightly.
Always exercise absolute decorum in this area as many people do not like their photographs being taken, especially the beautiful women with the tattooed faces in Chin State. Always always ask. The way to say this in Burmese is, “Da-pon yai-ma-la”, but symboling what you intend to do will always suffice. I often show my subjects (especially the kids) the photo I have taken.
I am still on a mission to get a polaroid camera so I can give them a copy as a keepsake.
Myanmar food is diverse and delicious if you know where to look. A common complaint is that it is too oily, but in this case it is due to refrigeration issues and food preservation. I have only had food poisoning in Myanmar one time, and that was from food at a Western restaurant.
Myanmar food is a huge part of the culture, and if you cannot summon your inner adventurer you are missing out. Noodles, salads, spices, exotic fruits and vegetables… It is an economically viable smorgasbord.
As most people arrive into Yangon, I would highly recommend a street food tour by Anglo-Burmese Marc Shortt of Sa Ba Street Food Tours offers a variety of different tours, all of which give you an in-depth introduction to the culinary delights of this wonderful land which will equip you perfectly for your time in Myanmar.
Aside from Sa Ba Street food mentioned above, there are a few tours in Yangon. Uncharted Horizons is another good one: they take you on half or full day bike trips, and you get to see another side of Yangon.
Adding to this there is also a heritage tour (which I am yet to go on but I intend to). The colonial buildings in Downtown Yangon are one of the things which make this city very special.
COST OF BEER AND CIGARETTES
Heads up, if you are not going to Western bars all the time it is super cheap to get drunk. Whisky and beer are unbelievably cheap, (a long neck of beer is about $1.50, and a glass about .60c. Beer stations are good fun, and the beer is the same price as in a shop.
A packet of cigarettes is in the vicinity of 1000 kyats, so about .70c. You can also smoke pretty much anywhere: it is a degenerate’s dream.
TIPPING/ DONATING/ GIVING MONEY TO BEGGARS
This is a contentious issue. As a general rule, tipping is not expected, with the exception of guides. If you tip at a beer station then they will most likely run after you trying to give it back. However, if you are a regular somewhere, or have had a personalised and wonderful stay somewhere, then tipping is appreciated.
Don’t give money to beggars. Full stop. Beggars target both locals and Westerners, and are mainly to be found in tourist areas. It is generally not a culture.
Getting around Myanmar
Whilst there are flights available, the overnight bus system is sensational. You basically feel like you are in business class on an aeroplane. Between the tourist “hot-spots” I would recommend JJ Express as you cannot go wrong.
Most busses in Yangon leave from the Aung Mingalar Bus Station which is out near the airport. At peak traffic times you will need to allow two hours to get there, and I strongly recommend taking a taxi as they will get you to the correct bus: the station is like a mini city, and very hard to navigate alone.
Busses and planes are a rudimentary way to travel, and if you have limited time, then the best option. BUT I would highly recommend incorporating train and boat travel into your itinerary if you can. Both are unique experiences which allow you to see the landscape and mingle with locals. Overnight trains are not great though, as they are bumpy as hell and bugs are attracted to the light. For detailed train travel, one cannot go past the “Man In Seat 61”.
Aside from Yangon, where they are not permitted, motorbikes are the most prevalent mode of transport in the country. In most destinations you can hire them for a day, and you can also get moto-taxis in many areas. Not expensive at all.
For something a bit more special, try Myanmar Motorbikes.
Bagan is a rare case though where they rent out electric bicycles to see the temples rather than motorbikes.
Homestays are as a general rule not permitted in Myanmar, and the people hosting you will get into trouble. Technically foreigners are required to stay in registered guest houses, and the lenience varies from area to area. On the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, you will most likely stay in Homestays through your guide, but he or she will also be there.
Again, it is only a general rule, and there are circumstances where there are exceptions.
The most popular trek in Myanmar is from Kalaw to Inle Lake, and for good reason. It is incredibly touristy for good reason. the scenery is spectacular, and even though you know that there are a multitude of other groups out there, you don’t really see them.
There are an abundance of trekking companies in Kalaw, and the best is to talk to various companies and see which one suits your needs. You will also see many other people walking around doing the same, so you might find a group to go with before you book.
Keep in mind that you need to book your hotel at the other end before you start trekking, as your main backpack will be transferred and waiting for you at the hotel when you arrive.
This is not the only trekking in Myanmar. Chin state and Hsipaw (to start with) also boast fabulous trekking.