Myanmar, or Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar lies on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east.
Like most of Southeast Asia’s countries, Myanmar’s people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. During the Second World War, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia. The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called “Death Railway”) from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labour — Allied prisoners-of-war, indentured Thai labourers, and Burmese people. They had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died (estimated at 80,000) during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.
While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were empty. The Japanese occupation was more brutal than the British colonisation, and many Burmese were killed, such as in the Kalagong massacre. Aung San subsequently switched alliegance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.
The new union brought together various states defined by ethnic identity, many of whom had centuries-long histories of autonomy from and struggles against each other. In the interest of securing their collective independence from Britain, the tribes reached an agreement to submit to collective governance, with power sharing among the ethnicities and states, for ten years, after which each tribe would be afforded the right to secede from the union. The terms of this “Panglong Agreement” were enshrined in the 1947/1948 constitution of the new Union of Burma. The new central government of the nation quickly worked to consolidate its power, marginalizing and angering tribal leaders and setting off more than a decade of armed conflict. In 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from the Shan people, Kachin people, Red Karen, Karen people, Chin peoples, Mon people and Rakhine people met with ethnic Bamar (Burmese) central government authorities to draft a new form of government which would ensure the tribes both autonomy and self-determination within a federal system.
The new government was never formed. Military leader General Ne Win led a coup d’etat which ousted the democratically elected government in 1962, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she has endured for 15 of the last 20 years.
Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to widespread corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.
In response to the government’s attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with begging bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the centre of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders. Dialogue between the UN and the military government has stalled.
Despite international condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after being charged of breaching the conditions of her house arrest. She was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010. As of November 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi is participating in politics and the prospects for democracy look better than ever.
In 2013, 31,565 acres of poppy plants were destroyed. Myanmar is the world’s second largest producer of opium in the world after Afghanistan.
Myanmar’s culture is largely a result of heavy Indian influences intertwined with local traditions and some Chinese influences. This can be seen in the various stupas and temples throughout the country, which bear a distinct resemblance to those in northern India. Like neighbouring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is the single largest religion, and even some of the most remote villages will have a village temple for people to pray at. Other religions which exist in smaller numbers include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
The dominant ethnic group in Myanmar is known as the Bamar, from which the original English name of the country, Burma, was derived. Besides the Bamar, Myanmar is also home to many minority ethnic groups and nationalities which have their own distinct cultures and languages. In addition to the native ethnic minorities, Myanmar is also home to ethnic Chinese and Indians whose ancestors migrated to Myanmar during the colonial period, most visible in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Generally speaking, the divisions in Myanmar are Bamar-dominated, while the states are dominated by the respective ethnic minorities.
Generally speaking, most Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite, and will do their best to make you feel welcome in their country.
Myanmar is considered to have 3 seasons. The hot season is usually from March-April, and temperatures then cool off during the rainy season from May-October. The peak tourism season is the cool season from November-February. Temperatures can climb as high as 36°C in Yangon in the hot season while in the cool season, noontime temperatures are usually a more bearable 32°C, with night temperatures falling to around 19°C. Mandalay is slightly cooler in the cool season. Generally, Lower Myanmar, the area around Yangon, receives more rainfall than the drier Upper Myanmar (around Mandalay).
In the highlands such as Inle Lake and Pyin U Lwin, winter temperatures can fall below 10°C at night, while daytime temperatures tend to be very pleasant. Even in the summer, temperatures rarely climb above 32°C. Near the Indian border in Kachin State, there are mountains which are permanently snow capped throughout the year.
The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. Easily the most accessible history of Myanmar available. Read it before you go and you will marvel at how the once great and rich cities (like Martaban, Syriam, and Mrauk-U) have been transformed into the dingy and smokey villages of today.
From the Land of the Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. A Cambridge-educated writer who gives a very touching account of his growing up as a Paduang-Hilltribe-Guyand in the difficult political environment before turning into a rebel himself.
The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. A novel that spans a century, from British conquest to the modern day. A compelling account of how a family adapted to the changing times; provides much insight into Burmese culture.
Burmese Days by George Orwell. An absolute must read, classic novel about Burma.
Irrawaddy – the lowlands of the Irrawaddy Delta with the largest city and former capital
Central Myanmar – Mandalay, historical and archaeological sites and cool hill towns
Western Myanmar – remote mountainous regions and some lovely beaches on the Bay of Bengal
Northern Myanmar – a huge, fractious region including the southern reaches of the Himalayas and many ethnic tribes
Eastern Myanmar – the infamous Golden Triangle and a bewildering number of ethnic groups
Southeastern Myanmar – the southern coastal stretch bordering Thailand with a vast number of offshore islands
Naypyidaw (formerly Pyinmana) — newly designated capital of the country
Bago (formerly Pegu) — historic city near Yangon full of wonderful Buddhist sights
Hpa-An — the capital of Kayin (Karen) State, with a lively market and nearby caves and mountains
Kawthaung — beach town in the far south which is as much like Thailand as Myanmar gets
Mandalay — former capital of the Konbaung Dynasty built around the Mandalay Royal Palace and main commercial centre of Upper Myanmar
Mawlamyine (Moulmein) — capital of Mon State and the third largest city
Taungoo — in coffee country, near Pyay
Pyin U Lwin (Maymyo) — cool town which is a wonderful former British colonial hill station
Taunggyi — capital of Shan State in the heart of the Golden Triangle
Twante — a delta town that is famous for pottery
Yangon (formerly Rangoon) — the economic centre, known for its pagodas and colonial architecture
Bagan — an archaeological zone with thousands of pagodas near the banks of the Ayeyarwady River
Inle Lake — a large shallow lake good for beautiful boat trips, visiting floating villages inhabited by the Intha people, hiking, and also a source of excellent silk
Kengtung — between Mong La (on the border with China) and Tachileik (on the border with Thailand) in the Golden Triangle, known for the Ann (black teeth people) and Akha tribes and trekking
Kyaiktiyo — a gold-gilded rock sitting atop a cliff and a major pilgrimage site
Mount Popa — an extinct volcano regarded as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, a green oasis high above the hot plains and an easy day trip from Bagan
Mrauk U — former capital of the Rakhine Kingdom
Ngapali — beach resort in western Rakhine State, spilling into the Bay of Bengal
Ngwe Saung — longest stretch of beach in Ayeyarwaddy Division, white sandy beach and crystal clear water are the features of Ngwe Saung Beach
Pyay — a town on the Ayeyarwady River midway between Yangon and Bagan, known for its archaeological site Sri Kittara, the ancient Pyu capital from 2 to 9 AD
Since February 2011 a same-day visa can be issued at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok. To get the visa the same day you must tell the visa window that you are leaving tomorrow and bring a photocopy of your airline ticket or emailed itinerary. They will issue your visa later that same day by 3:30PM and it is valid starting the day it was issued.
Next-day & 2 day Visas are issued without proof of travel plans. The relative costs are: 1260THB for same-day; 1035THB for next day; 860THB for 2 day (as of 1 April 2013). Note that the Myanmar embassy is closed for all Thai and Myanmar official holidays.
The Myanmar embassy in Bangkok is open 09:00-12:00 and 15:30-16:30. Go early as at 09:00 expect to see 60-80 people in line outside the embassy. 60 metres further is a small copy service (well marked, you can’t miss it), where you can buy the visa application form for just 5THB (April 2013) or/and make a copy of your passport, which is required. Fill in the form before entering the embassy to speed things up. Paste one photo and attach one extra photo and copy of photo page from your passport. Submit completed application at counter 4 and take a token. Wait until they call you and pay. Official will tell you which day you can collect your passport.
Collecting your passport looks almost the same and the same queue forms.
The Myanmar embassy in Kuala Lumpur issues 28-day tourist visas. The Myanmar embassy in Hanoi issues visas to tourists with a processing time of 4 business days and a $20 USD fee (as of September 2013).
Myanmar has announced the resumption of Visa On Arrival (VOA) starting in June 2012 for several countries including all ASEAN member states, the EU and the USA.
Of course, one can also get a visa in your home country.
Due to economic sanctions from most western countries, international flights into Myanmar are limited. The usual way to get into Myanmar would be to fly into Yangon from either Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Air Asia has very cheap flights and book as early as possible.
NOTE: As of June 2013, the exit fee doesn’t exist anymore, at least at Yangon airport for international flights. There is a US$10 exit fee, to be paid before you check in for your flight out of Myanmar. The fee is paid at a dedicated counter inside the Yangon International airport. Do not forget to ask for the receipt of your payment (blue paper): without this receipt, you cannot check in for your flight. If you’re flying with AirAsia, the US$10 exit fee is already included in the flight ticket.
Situation has changed since the 28th of August 2013, it is now possible to enter Myanmar freely by land from at least 3 Thai/Myanmar border crossings, Mai Sai, Mai Sot and Ranong,and travel into the country.
Hopping across the Thai border into Myanmar’s border towns is easy, but crossing into or out of Myanmar proper by land is becoming much easier and will get more streamlined the more often it is done. Visa-free entry is possible at some border crossings, but you must then exit Myanmar via the same border crossing, usually (but not always) on the same day that you enter, and fees apply (normally US$10).
China – foreigners can enter Myanmar at Lashio via Ruili (in Yunnan), although a permit (as well as a visa). You will most likely need to join an organized tour, costing 1450 RMB as of January 2009. As of April 2009, it is impossible for foriegners to cross over from Ruili, even for the day, without first getting a visa in Kunming, ie a tour group. Crossing in the opposite direction is more difficult to arrange and details are uncertain; however, it’s possible to fly from Mandalay to Kunming, and there’s even a Chinese consulate that issues visas in Mandalay.
India – a land border crossing exists between India and Myanmar at Moreh/Tamu. While there have been confirmed reports of some travellers crossing into Myanmar from India, with their own transport as well as with permits arranged in advance, the general consensus is that obtaining all the necessary permits is very hard. At the least, a foreign (a person who is neither a citizen of India nor a citizen of Myanmar) will need to get an Indian permit to visit the state of Manipur, and an MTT permit to enter or leave Myanmar at Tamu. Travellers may also need a permit to travel from Tamu to Kalewa, although there are unconfirmed reports that this is no longer required.
Bangladesh / Laos – it is not currently feasible to independently cross the borders between Myanmar and Bangladesh or Laos.
Myanmar’s infrastructure is in poor shape. As a result of the political situation, Myanmar is subject to trade sanctions from much of the western world, and this can cause problems for unwary travellers. Travel to certain regions is prohibited; for others, special permits must be obtained, and a guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory – although whether these “guides” accompany you to look after you, or to keep you from going to places the government doesn’t want you to see, is moot.
Much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travellers, and many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed (for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung). Thus, while travellers can travel freely in the Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be restricted or circumscribed in other places. In theory, any tourist can apply for a permit to visit any restricted area or to travel on any restricted land route. In practice, it is unlikely that any such permit will be issued in a reasonable amount of time, or at all. Permit requests can be made locally in some cases (for example, requests for the land route to Kalewa can be made in Shwebo) but, in most cases, the request has to be made in Yangon. Requests to visit restricted areas must be made at the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours) office in Yangon (Number 77-91, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon). Applications for local permits can often be made at a local MTT offices or at a police station. As of writing this, local permits are available only for the following places & routes:
Shwebo – Kalewa. A permit is necessary if going by road. It is uncertain whether one is required if going by boat.
Kengtung – Tachilek. This used to be straightforward but the availability is now uncertain.
Myitkyina – Indawgyi Lake. Easily available in Myitkyina but must travel with a guide. As of November, 2013, one cannot travel outside of the town or take a boat down the Ayerwaddi to Bhamo.
Mrauk U Chin/Zomi village tours. Easily available in Mrauk U but must visit with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.
All other permits must be obtained in Yangon.
Myanmar is not North Korea, and you are free to walk around, go to shops and interact with the locals. That being said with many of the more far flung places, and places restricted to foreigners it is better to arrange your internal visa in advance.
Myanmar’s roads are generally good but the railways are in atrocious shape. Flying is by far the least uncomfortable option if travelling long distances but much more expensive.
State owned and appallingly run Myanma Airways (UB) – not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International (8M) “MAI” – is known for its poor safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it whenever possible.
There are also four privately owned airlines serving the main domestic routes in Myanmar. They are Air Bagan (W9), Asian Wings, Air Mandalay (6T) and Yangon Airways (YH). While more expensive, they are a safer option and would get you to all the main tourist destinations from Yangon or Mandalay. If you want to plan domestic travel ahead, you can buy airline tickets online on VisitMM. Booking domestic air travel requires patience as most of these companies are relying on a simple Excel spreadsheet to track passenger reservations, so there is a moderate chance that you’ll have a booking error, hence the need to pick up your tickets in person from the airline office at least a day in advance after you arrive to Yangon (as of Feb2013, cash was the only acceptable method of payment). Also be sure to confirm your flights at least 24hrs in advance.
Myanmar has an extensive but ancient rail network. Trains are slow, noisy, often delayed, have frequent electrical blackouts, and toilets are in abysmal sanitary condition. Never assume that air-conditioners, fans, or the electrical supply itself will be operational, even if the train authorities promise so. Train stations also charge exorbitant prices from foreign travellers making buses a cheaper and faster alternative. Still, a journey on a train is a great way to see the country and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower Mandalay (Yangon – Pathein and Yangon – Mawlymaing) are little communities of their own with hawkers selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are available on many overnight express trains, although, in the high season, you may want to reserve a few days in advance (the Yangon-Mandalay trains now run in the daytime only, apparently because the government does not want trains passing Naypyidaw at night).
Except for the new bridge and rail line that connects Mawlymaing to points on the western side of the Salween River, the rail network is exactly the way it was in British times. The most used line is the 325km line from Yangon to Mandalay with several trains a day (this is also the only double line in Myanmar), and the only one that is competitive in time with buses (note that the fastest trains take 15 hours for the 385km run, an effective rate of 25km/hour!). A second line connects Yangon with Pyay (9 hours for the 175km journey!) with a branch heading off into the delta region town of Pathein. These tracks, the earliest constructed are in poor shape. With the construction of the bridge across the Salween, it is now possible to go by train from Yangon to Mawlymaing (8 hours for the 200km journey) and on to Ye (Ye is closed to foreign travellers). From Mandalay, trains continue on to Myitkyina in Kachin State (350km in 24hours) and to Lashio. There are also rail connections between Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Bagan, but bus or ferry are better alternatives (The 175km from Mandalay to Bagan takes 10hrs).
There is a new (as from March 2010) railway service between Yangon-Bagan (16 hours).
There is also a large river ferry network. Both are to a large extent run by the government, although there are now some private ferry services. The trip from Mandalay to Bagan takes the better part of a day, from Bagan to Yangon is several days.
Buses of all types ply the roads of Myanmar. Luxury (relatively speaking) buses do the Mandalay-Yangon run while lesser vehicles can get travellers to other places. Fares are reasonable and in Kyat and, for the budget traveller, there is no other option because of the high price of train tickets for foreign nationals. Many long distance buses assign seats so it is best to book seats at least a day in advance. Because the roads are bad, avoid the rear of the bus and try to sit as far up front as you can get. Long distance buses also have an extra jump seat that blocks the aisle and, because it is not well secured to the chassis, can be uncomfortable (which also means that there is no such thing as a side seat where taller travellers can thrust their legs). A window near the front of the bus is always the best option.
Old Toyota pickup trucks run everywhere in Myanmar, inexpensively ferrying men, women, children, and monks from one place to another. The rear of the truck is converted into a canvas covered sitting area with three benches, one on each side and one running along the centre of the truck (some smaller trucks have only two rows), and the running board is lowered and fixed into place providing room for six or more people to stand on (holding on to the truck frame). Pickups are ubiquitous in Myanmar and every town has a central point somewhere from where they depart to places both near and far. Tourists who go off the beaten track will find them indispensable because often the only alternative is an expensive taxi or private car.
The basics of pickups are fairly straightforward, wait till it is reasonably full before heading out. The window side seat next to the driver is very comfortable and well worth the little extra that you have to pay, so it is best to go early and reserve that seat. On larger pickups, the seats directly behind the cab are hotter, as heat rises from the muffler.
You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable rates to tour independently. The licenced guides at Schwedagon Paya in Yangon can arrange to have a driver with a car meet you at your hotel. Another way is to arrange for a car through a travel agency, though it can be quite expensive. You can “test” the driver and the car by driving around the city for 10 or 15 minutes. If you are satisfied, a departure date and time and per diem rates (inclusive of petrol) can be negotiated. Some guides are willing to travel with you to serve as interpreters.
Road travel to tourist destinations is generally safe, although some roads may be rough. Highways are often 2-lane, and cars often pass one another recklessly. That being said, driving habits are not quite as aggressive as say, Vietnam.
Accidents and fatalities are common. Night-time road travel is not recommended, and medical facilities are extraordinarily limited in rural areas. At government hospitals, bribes may be required for expedient services. Make sure needles are new or carry your own. HIV is a major problem in Myanmar.
All taxis (and by extension all vehicles for transport of people and goods) have red/white licence plates, while private vehicles have a black/white one. Tourist agency owned cars have a blue/white licence plate.
In Yangon, riding motorcycles and bicycles is illegal. Mandalay’s streets, on the other hand, are filled with both. Bicycles are the best and cheapest way to tour Bagan.
Cars and pedestrians may not follow the established rules, and crossing the road can be difficult. Drivers will almost never yield to pedestrians, even on striped pedestrian crossings.
The official language of Myanmar is Burmese (known by the government as Myanmar). A few percent of Burmese pronunciation is derived from the ancient language of Pali (at the time of the Buddha), however the language is a Sino-Tibetan language related to Chinese and hence tonal (word pitch matters) and analytic (most words are one syllable long). It is written using the Burmese script, based on the ancient Pali script. Bilingual signs (English and Burmese) are available in most tourist spots. Numbers often are also written in Burmese script.
There are also many other ethnic groups in Myanmar such as the Mon, Shan, Pa-O and many others who continue to speak their own languages. There is also a sizeable ethnic Chinese community mostly of Yunnan descent, most visible in the city of Mandalay, and many of whom speak Mandarin. However, with the exception of the elderly, it is rare to find any locals who do not speak Burmese.
Myanmar is a former British colony, but even though English is still compulsory in kindergartens and primary schools few speak conversational English outside of the tourism industry. Most well-educated upper class Burmese are fluent in English, while in the main cities like Yangon and Mandalay, many locals will know enough English for basic communication. Hotel and airline staff, as well as people working in the tourism industry generally speak an acceptable level of English. You may find more English spoken in Myanmar than in Thailand.
Myanmar’s attractions lie largely in the area of the spiritual. Temples, pagodas and historical sites abound with some areas such as Bagan boasting so many attractions that it would be impossible to take them in during a single visit. With landscapes, a tropical climate, beaches, cheap transportation and truly awesome sights, Myanmar is a fascinating and bewitching destination.
The main tourist destination in Myanmar is Bagan, capital of the first Myanmar Empire; one of the richest archaeological sites in South-east Asia. Situated on the eastern bank of the Ayeyawaddy River. The Magic of Bagan has inspired visitors to Myanmar for nearly 1000 years.
Inle is a vast lake located in the heart of Shan State which shares borders with Thai & Laos. And it climbs up to over 900 metres above sea level and outrageously beautiful. Inle Lake is located in the mountains so it is cooler than other areas. More than 30 hill tribes are living in the mountains. One of the best trips in the country is the 2-3 day hike from Kalaw to Inle.
Ngapali Beach – The beach stretches nearly 3 km with soft white sand fringed by coconut palms.
Mrauk U – Largely unknown to the Western world for much of its turbulent history, Rakhine played a pivotal role in the exchange of cultures and religions between India and Southeast Asia.
Ngwe Saung Beach Resort, opened in the year 2000, is one of the loveliest and most pleasant beach resorts in Myanmar. Located in the Ayeyarwady Division, some 48 kilometres from the town of Pathein, Ngwe Saung, with a beach frontage on the Bay of Bengal with its clear blue waters, its white crested waves, sandy beaches and unspoiled and pollution-free natural surroundings, is indeed one of the best places to select for a holiday interlude of rest and relaxation.
Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock) – This mystical pagoda built in the enshrinement of Buddha relic stands on a gold gilded boulder, precariously perched on the edge of the hill over 1100 m above sea-level.
In Myanmar most travel agencies don’t have a website, the ability to purchase online affordable tours to Myanmar destinations remains a challenge faced by most tourists. Due to a sharp increase in the number of visitors, there is a current shortage of hotel rooms making tour packages expensive compared to neighbouring Thailand.
Burma is still predominantly a cash economy, largely due to the lack of ATMs. Myanmar’s currency is the kyat (abbreviated K), pronounced “chut/chat”. Foreigners are required to pay in US dollars for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are required to pay in kyat for most other transactions (trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.). According to the law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen to accept (or hold) dollars without a licence but this law is mostly ignored and dollars are generally accepted. Clean but folded bills of all denominations are accepted.
As January 2013, Visa and Mastercard are now accepted at ATMs throughout the country, especially in all the major tourist areas. As a result, you may now need only bring sufficient USD to pay for major expenses that the government may have a hand in (hotels, planes, tourist tickets, boats, etc).
The currency of choice in Myanmar is the US$ nationwide, though you can readily also exchange euros in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle lake. Other options are the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and Thai baht (THB). The rates in the large cities and the airport are nearly identical, though smaller denominations may get a worse rate.
Be sure to bring a mix of US$ denominations when visiting Myanmar because money changers will not give change and 20/10/5/1-dollar notes are useful for some entry fees and transportation.
Official and black market rates
Currency controls have been relaxed in recent times, and banks no longer exchange foreign currencies at the ridiculous rate they used to. These days, exchange rates at the banks do not differ from the black market rates by much. Most banks accept US dollars, Euros and Chinese yuan. Singapore dollars can also be changed at some of the larger banks.
Ensure that your dollars are the following: No marks, stamps, anti-counterfeit pen, ink or any other mark on them at all. Pencil can be removed with a good eraser, but any permanent marks will greatly decrease a bill’s value and ability to be exchanged. Fresh, crisp and as close to brand new as possible. For $100 bills, have no serial numbers starting “CB”. This is because they are associated with a counterfeit “superbill” which was in circulation some time ago. As of Feb 2013, moneychangers are much more lax than in the past. With the opening of Myanmar’s economy and easing of sanctions, bills in non-perfect condition are acceptable as long as in reasonably good shape (e.g. folds ok, tears not). US$100 bills give you the best exchange rate. Changing US$50 or US$20 bills gives you a slightly lower rate (10-20 kyat/dollar less). Warning: Do not trust citizens on the street who ask to change money with you. Scams are frequent.
Kyat banknotes. Most kyat notes nowadays are in good condition. When accepting dollar notes, check that the banknotes you receive are in a good condition.
Exchanging money. There are a number of tricks and scams running around Myanmar trapping tourists who are carrying US Dollars. Sometimes, guesthouses or traders will try and pass you damaged or nonexchangeable bills in change.
Some moneychangers will also attempt sleight of hand tricks to either swap your good banknotes for damaged, or lower denomination notes. Other reports suggest that the kyats may be counted and then somehow, some disappear from the table during the transaction. For example, after going through an elaborate counting process for piles of ten 1000 kyat notes, some money changers will pull some notes out as they count the piles of ten.
When changing money, be sure that, after any money is counted, it is not touched by anyone until the deal is sealed. Also do not allow your dollars to be removed from your sight until all is agreed; in fact, it is not even necessary to pull out your US dollars until your are paying for the kyats you received.
Is it safe? So, you’re travelling around carrying hundreds, if not thousands, of US dollars stuffed into your pockets in a country where most people subsist on a few dollars a day. Everyone around you knows that if they could get their hands on the money in your pockets, they will be rich for life. What, you may ask, are the odds that someone will try to relieve you of your money? The answer: almost nil. There have been very few instances of a tourist being mugged and only the rare pilferage. Myanmar is an extremely safe country for travellers. Some say it is because of the nature of the people. Others say it is because the punishment for robbing from a foreigner is draconian. It is more, however, because of their Buddhism, which bans people from taking what is not given.
Outside of Myanmar, your kyat is almost worthless but do make nice souvenirs. Make sure to exchange your kyat back to U.S. Dollars before you leave the country. Rates at the airport are surprisingly good for switching Kyat back to USD, SGD, or EUR.
Credit cards and ATMs
After EU and US sanctions were lifted, some hotels and restaurants started accepting credit cards since February 2013. Visa card is more common to use than Mastercard. As of May 2013 in Yangon are more than 50 ATMs, even in Nyaung U (Bagan) is one, with another two large bank buildings being built. However, many are out of order, so it can take you a while until you find a working one. There is usually an ATM fee of 5000 kyat ($5) associated with the transaction with maximum withdrawal amount being 300,000 kyat.
Travellers cheques are not accepted in Myanmar. The only exception might be some especially shady money changer, but be prepared to pay an astronomical commission (30% is not uncommon).
What to buy
Lacquerware A popular purchase in Myanmar is lacquerware, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. The traditional centre of Lacquerware production though is Bagan in central Myanmar. Beware of fraudulent lacquerware, though, which is poorly made, but looks authentic. (As a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality and the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality.)
Precious stones Myanmar is a significant miner of jade, rubies and sapphires (the granting of a licence to the French over the ruby mines in Mogok was one of the causes leading to the Third Burmese War) and these can be obtained at a fraction of what it would cost in the West. Be warned, however, that there are a lot of fakes for sale amongst the genuine stuff and, unless you know your gems, buy from an official government store or risk being cheated. Bogoyoke Aung San Market in Yangon has many licenced shops and is generally a safe place for the purchase of these stones.
Tapestries, known as kalaga, or shwe chi doe. There is a long tradition of weaving tapestries in Burma. These are decorated with gold and silver thread and sequins and usually depict tales from the Buddhist scriptures (the jatakas) or other non-secular objects from Burmese Buddhism (mythical animals, the hintha and the kalong are also popular subjects). The tapestry tradition is dying out but many are made for tourists and are available in Mandalay and Yangon. Burmese tapestries don’t last long, so be warned if someone tries to sell you an antique shwe chi doe!
Antiques Myanmar is probably the last unspoiled market for antiques and, with a good eye, it is easy to pick up bargains there. Old Raj coins are the most popular (and have little value except as souvenirs) but everything ranging from Ming porcelain to Portuguese furniture (in Moulmein) can be found. Unfortunately, the Burmese antique sellers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and the bargains were probably made the day before in the shop-owners backyard. It is against the law to export religious antiques (manuscripts, Buddhas, etc.).
Textiles Textiles in Myanmar are stunning. Each region and each ethnic group has its own style. Chin fabrics are particularly stunning. They are handwoven in intricate geometric patterns, often in deep reds and mossy greens and white. They can be quite pricy, perhaps US$20 for the cloth to make a longyi (sarong).
There is also a wide variety of beautiful silverware and jewellery as well as textiles, including gorgeous silks and handcrafts such as wooden carvings, silk paintings and stonework.
Some items may require customs permits.
Burmese food is a blend of Chinese, Indian and Mon influences. Rice is at the core of most Burmese food, and good vegetarian food is widely available. Burmese food is often extremely pungent and disappointing. Food is inexpensive at most restaurants (costing from 500 to 3000 per item at most local restaurants, but can go as high as 8000 at posh restaurants), but there are upscale restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay for upmarket food.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of low-to-middle class restaurants use a cheap oil as cooking oil. This oil may be unhealthy, and common roadside restaurants should be avoided if you are at the slightest risk for hypertension, heart disease, or other fat- or cholesterol-related conditions. Higher class restaurants may use better oil instead.
Because the Burmese cuisine is a medley of many regional influences, it has many characteristics. Seafood is more common along the coastline, while preserved meats are more common in inland areas.
Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink, likewise ice may be contaminated. Bottled water is readily available at many tourist sites. As of May 2013, the standard going rate is 300ks for a 1L bottle of mineral water.
Similar to ChineseTea Yenwejan is usually provided free at restaurant tables. While not flavourful, it is boiled water, and so safe to drink. However, an overwhelming number of restaurants have extremely poor sanitation and do not necessarily wash the cups properly.
Alcohol is frowned upon by conservative Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, but consumed widely, mostly among men. Myanmar Beer is most popular in the country. Toddy juice (ta-YEI) is popular in central Myanmar, and is made from fermented palm sugar. Beware of alcoholic drinks served in the far northern states. The locals refer to it as alcohol which does not burn when lit, and it is widely suspected to be an opiate concoction rather than a fermented beverage.
Myanmar is more expensive than neighbouring Thailand. The country offers mediocre hotel accommodation at prices above its neighbouring countries at the same quality, and prices have increased dramatically in the past 12 months (compare prices listed in the latest Lonely Planet to those charged now, for example). Rooms with attached bath may be available for under US$20 everywhere except in Yangon and with shared bath for anywhere from US$10 to US$15 in most places. Running hot water is often not available in budget hotels. Hotels, with a few exceptions, are usually clean. Except at the top-end, some type of breakfast is always included in the price of the room.
Myanmar has a problem providing enough electricity to its people and power supply is severely restricted everywhere. Most hotels have generators and electricity interruption was uncommon in November, 2013.
At the top-end, Myanmar has some excellent hotels including one or two great ones (The Strand in Yangon and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon). The Myanmar government runs many hotels, including some beautiful colonial era ones. A percentage of all accommodation payments goes to the government, no matter where you choose to stay, and it is not possible to run a successful business in Myanmar without some relationship or payment arrangement with the military.
Work in Myanmar for foreigners is hard to come by. NGOs and other aid groups operate in the capital and remote rural areas but may require specific skill sets to hire you. Another option is European and Asian companies, mostly operating on a small scale. Teaching English is feasible in private schools but many foreigners have reported unreasonable contracts, such as withholding pay and refusing to pay those who resign early. Skip entirely the education ministry, which only hires citizens with teaching certification. If you would like to work and assist Burmese refugees certain NGOs work in neighbouring Thailand.
The government punishes crime, particularly against tourists, severely; it has a hard enough time convincing tourists to go there due to its international reputation. In addition, many locals, being devout Buddhists, are wary of retribution in their next life should they commit any crimes against others. As a result, as far as crime and personal safety go, Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists, and it is generally safe to walk on the streets alone at night. In fact, you are less likely to be a victim of crime in Myanmar than in Thailand or Malaysia. Begging
Despite traditional taboos against it, begging has become a major problem in the main tourist areas such as Bago and Bagan. Children and “mothers” carrying babies are often the ones who beg as they are more effective at soliciting pity. Note that most beggars are part of larger begging syndicates or just after easy money, as tourists are usually seen to be rich.
Myanmar is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Officials and other civil servants may discreetly ask you for a bribe, or invent issues (missing forms, closed offices, etc) in order to get you to suggest one. Pretending not to understand or asking to speak to a superior may work. However, visitors of Caucasian descent are rarely targeted, while those of Asian descent (including South Asians and East Asians) may be forced to give bribes, but the brunt of the problem hits normal Burmese.
The poor road infrastructure, and a mixture of extremely ancient vehicles on the country’s roads are all what best describe the road conditions. However, driving habits are not very aggressive compared to say, Vietnam, which does make the safety of the roads comfortable for almost everyone. Bus drivers are among the worst dangers, although this is somewhat less of an issue since 2010 due to new, very harsh penalties imposed on bus drivers involved in accidents.
Surprisingly, Burma has a mixture of both right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles, with the majority being right-hand drive but driving is generally done on the right side of the roads.
Unless you have experience driving in countries with poorly disciplined drivers and very shabby vehicles, avoid driving in Burma.
Various insurgent groups continue to operate in the Shan, Mon, Chin (Zomi), and Karen States of Myanmar, along the Thai and Chinese borders. Travel to these regions generally requires a government permit. The government also restricts travel to Kayah State, Rakhine State and Kachin state due to insurgent activity. However travel is entirely unrestricted to the districts of Yangon, Bago, Ayeyarwady, Sagaing, Taninthayi, Mandalay and Magwe.
Myanmar has been under strong military rule for the past 40 years, with a reputation for repressing dissent, as in the case of the frequent house arrests of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, and currently has more than 1,500 political prisoners (sentences of 65 years and hard labor in remote camps were given to leaders of the Saffron Revolution). When in Myanmar, abstain from political activities and don’t insult the government.
Discuss politics, if you must, with people who have had time to get a feel for you. The danger, however, is primarily posed to those you speak with, and thus you should take care with their safety. Let them lead the conversation. Also, realize that many phone lines are tapped. And if you absolutely must wave a democracy banner in front of a police station, you’ll simply find yourself on the next outbound flight.
However, in recent months, liberty in general has increased by a small but perceptible amount under the new government. A few politically critical articles have been published in government newspapers and a satirical film deriding the government’s film censorship policy has been released, neither of which would have been possible in 2010. Returning visitors to Myanmar may find that locals have become ever so slightly more open to discussions regarding politics.
However, under any circumstances avoid doing things that might make the military or police feel uncomfortable, such as taking pictures of police and police buildings or vehicles. As of Feb2013, the state of the country has changed dramatically with the opening of the country. You’ll find locals all around open to discussing politics (does not mean that you should join them in discussion openly) and plenty of shops proudly showing a picture of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and their support of the NLD. The turnaround from a repressive police state in only a few years has been truly remarkable.
Hygiene in Myanmar may seem terrible to the average Western traveller but it is possible to stay healthy with some basic precautions. Never drink tap water. Restaurants are legally required to use ice made and sold by bottled water companies, so ordering ice is usually safe in major places. Diseases such as dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and malaria are endemic. Drug-resistant strains of malaria and tuberculosis are common in many areas. Hepatitis vaccinations are highly recommended and cholera oral vaccine is worthwhile. At the dinner table, Burmese use a spoon and fork, or their fingers when this is more convenient. You might feel better rinsing all of them before meals. As in any other developing country: “if you can’t fry, roast, peel or boil it – then forget it”.
Myanmar’s healthcare system is poorly funded. If you should fall sick in Myanmar, you can visit the doctor in major cities for minor ailments such as coughs and colds. However, for more serious medical care, hospital conditions tend to be unsanitary and there is often a shortage of medical supplies due to economic sanctions. The only hospital that comes close to modern developed standards is Pun Hlaing Hospital, a privately owned hospital which is in a remote township of Yangon called Hlaing Thar Yar, and one should expect very high expenses there. Most of the hospitals are government owned, which means poorly funded. Most of the government officials and rich locals head to Thailand or Singapore for more serious medical treatment and hospitalisation and you will be better off doing so too. Just ensure your insurance is in order as arranging to be airlifted in an emergency can be rather costly.
Modest clothing is highly appreciated everywhere except nightclubs, and practically required in religious places such as pagodas, temples and monasteries (of which there are thousands). Miniskirts, shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed in consecrated areas, where you also have to remove your footwear, so prefer loafers and flip-flops that can slip on & off at the entrance–Myanmar has some of the most stunning temples in Asia and you will be tempted to visit more than you think.
Both men and women wear a longyi, a sort of sarong sold everywhere, and it is not unusual to see Caucasian foreigners walking around in them. They are wrapped in different ways for men and women, so find out how to tie yours. If you turn up at a temple in inappropriate dress, you can always rent a longyi for a pittance.
Give generously at temples and monasteries but women are not allowed into some sacred areas–actually the restriction should cover only women in menstruation, but since it would be rude to ask and unthinkable to verify, they keep all ladies out. You will often see monks begging for alms in the streets in the morning (they are not allowed to eat after noon). Note that monks are not allowed to come into physical contact with the opposite sex, so be careful not to touch hands if offering a donation. In addition, you should only donate food to the monks, as they are not allowed to accept money under any circumstances and giving money to a monk is considered a sign of disrespect – those that accept money are almost always fakes.
You can also purchase little squares of gold leaf to apply to consecrated statues.
When praying or paying respects, it is important to ensure that the *soles* of your feet do not point towards the Buddha or anyone else. However, statues are arranged so that won’t happen unless you get acrobatic about it. Tuck your feet underneath you when kneeling at shrines and temples.
Tourists of Caucasian descent are commonly referred to as bo, which translates “leader”, as a sign of respect. Address elders with U (pronounced “oo”, as in soon) or “Uncle” for men, and Daw or “Auntie” for women.
Generally speaking, despite the common negative perception of the government, most ordinary Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite as long as you repect their local customs. Customer service is in general very good (some say better than in Thailand) but customer service staff are invariably poorly paid, so you might wish to tip service staff generously to ensure your money goes into the right hands.
International phone calls can be arranged at the Central Telephone & Telegraph Office at the corner of Ponsodan and Mahabandoola Streets in Yangon. International Direct Dial calls are also available at most hotels and at many public call offices (often a phone in a shop), but they are expensive, e.g. a call to the US costs US$6-7 per min. As of 2010, the only mobile telephone network is the MPTGSM network provided by the Myanmar Government’s Post and Telecommunication agency. This works on the GSM900 band, so is visible to multi-band GSM phones. However, MPT has no international roaming arrangements, so manual attempts to connect to the network are refused. If your own mobile telephone can detect the MPTGSM network, then you may be able to buy a US$20 SIM card which will work for 28 days.
International mail out of Myanmar is reportedly quite efficient. As elsewhere, there is always a risk if you send valuables as ordinary parcels.
Internet is now widely and cheaply available in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, but more limited elsewhere. However access is very slow and many sites are inaccessible. Most hotels allow free access to the internet.
A list of proxys to circumvent blocks can be found at proxy.org.