Myanmar (formerly/internationally known as Burma) is advertised as a great place for those who want to see a country newly reintroduced to the world stage. At this point, what you are getting is a country that behaves like a spoiled rich child. Whereas many countries have earned their tourists and travelers from years of hardwork and solid policymaking, Myanmar has gotten its exponentially-growing stream due mostly to the novelty of re-opening.
Every place you read, and most people you talk to, will undoubtedly tell you that you have to get there “now, now, now…before it changes”. But should you really rush to a middling place where foreigners are treated like wandering money bags ripe for the picking just because it will change? If anything, change might be a good thing because at current, you have very little to protect yourself from being manipulated. Overpriced rooms, mediocre food (and believe me I tried), foreigner fees (including visas and “tourist passes”) and increased pricing on nearly all things, dirty power along with frequent outages and poor internet (and cellular) coverage are certainly things that you will find if you rush to Myanmar now. So if you want those things, you better go now.
But you want to beat all the tourists right? You are already too late. Sure, there will be more tourists in the coming years, and the way of life there will change to some extent but this isn’t the “walk down to the river and find a villager to take you for a boat ride” Myanmar anymore. This is the “here is my business card, a brochure and the same speech that the other touts are going to give you” Myanmar.
If you are wondering, these conclusions—which might very well seem heavy-handed—are influenced by the knowledge of Southeast Asia and what denotes value (i.e. you aren’t getting great relative value in Myanmar). It is also more raw than usual to appropriately counterbalance the plethora of hype-mongering hooligans running around yelling about the “new ultra-cool” place to go. Myanmar has great photographic subjects. It has great light. But hold your expectations in check. No one visiting for the first time now is an early explorer of virgin territory (unless you stay away from the hot-spots like Inle Lake, Bagan, etc).
To me, the known hubs of Myanmar have very little to offer that one can’t get better somewhere else. And yes, little kids saying hello to you is warming and the non-commercial interactions are certainly nice. And yes, there are great places and moments to be had, but by and large, you’ve missed the boat at a very special experience. If you want to get the special virgin experience and you need to do Myanmar, you might be best served by obtaining a Lonely Planet book and crossing off anything that is written about extensively.
Do you want to go to Inle Lake? Just for showing up, you pay a foreigners tax of $15 (as of early-2015), which just increased 50% from last year. You want to see Bagan? Just for showing up, you are taxed $20, which also was increased a good bit recently. Just stopping in town for 10 minutes? They don’t care.
You want an avocado? It might cost you .70USD (close to what it costs in the US) whereas a local is paying .20USD. Mohinga? You are paying double because you are a foreigner. Sordid hotel rooms that were $7/night several years ago are now fetching $40/night and the mobs keep coming. What do you think will happen to the overpriced price?
When asking a random local how much this watermelon—that you just bought— is, he responds $.50USD. But when you try to buy it, no matter the seller, it is $2.00, $3.00 or $5.00USD. That is a markup of 4-10x just for being a foreigner. There is a much more lengthy philosophical and logical debate about this kind of thinking, but behind all the smiles and waves, you are getting middling Southeastern Asian quality for higher-end Southeastern Asian pricing.
One friendly gentleman who wanted to practice his English explained that “you are American so we know you are very rich and can pay high price”. Does this tickle your heart? What if New York City put a 200% tax on clothing purchased by Europeans because “we know that is what you pay back home”? How would that fly?
In Vietnam, foreigners are paying more for things like bowls of pho, but the quality is well in excess of the sticker price. In Myanmar, foreigners are paying more for nearly everything and the value is quite poor in comparison to its Southeastern brethren.
And so, yes, Myanmar will change dramatically over the coming year and if you want to see it now, then now is the time, but you may want to question why you really want to see it now. If your reason is to see a country before tourism, you need another reason or a different place.
Myanmar has a long coastline, with chilled-out beaches (which are generally via air or long buses on narrow winding roads). The interior is popularly known for its scenery including wide swaths of ancient temples and natural scenery such as Inle Lake and the hill country.
If you are planning on visiting Myanmar (Burma), this is a random assortment of places, not necessarily including the obvious tourist draws, that might be of interest:
- Yangon (Rangoon): Former capital city of the country (until 2006). Most highly populated city. A lot of colonial architecture. Bogyoke Aung San Market (large market). The marketplaces can be interesting and the crumbling buildings and decay is fascinating if you are into ruin. Otherwise, a middling city.
- Mandalay: Located in central Myanmar, north of Yangon, Mandalay was the capital of Myanmar before the British took over. High concentration of Chinese now live in the city (30-40%?) and have been responsible for much of the revitalization. Mandalay Hill gives an overlook of the surrounding area. U Bein Bridge to the south scenic bridge. Check out Royal Palace and temples if interested
- Bagan: An area (southwest of Mandalay) filled with thousands of Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas, some dating back 800 years. Nearby is Nyaung Oo Market. You are taxed $20 just for showing up and it is already touristy. Yes, you can wander in solace for the most part but any town that has a multitude of restaurants offering spaghetti dinners and pizza in Asia is touristy in my opinion. Hotel rooms give poor value for Southeast Asia. WiFi is very prolific in Bagan but it might not work. Also, mobile coverage is very weak. If reliant on the internet, make your subsequent plans ahead of arriving.
- Inle Lake: One of Myanmar’s largest lakes. Encircled by mountains. Home to fisherman, stiled houses and floating gardens. There has been talk concerning destruction of the lake as a result from excessive logging, use of pesticides and drought. In any case, one of the top draws in Myanmar due to the scenery, culture, etc. Visit village of Inn Dein (can be part of boat tour) for more old temples, pagodas, handicrafts, etc. Visit Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery (wooden monastery) just north of Nyaung Shwe (hub for Inle Lake). The main street is touristy and there are plenty of options for boat drivers to give tours but prices are on lock-down. Foreigners pay a $15 entry tax to arrive (unless you go around the checkpoint).
- Ngwe Saung Beach: Located about a five to six-hour drive from Yangon, a beautifully quiet, white-sand beach. Secluded at one end, and higher-end resorts on the other. North of Ngwe Saung is Chaung Tha beach. Chaung Tha beach has a solid, local town feel to it. Chaung Tha beaches are wetter and water sandier/murkier but less tourists. The drive between the two involves 3 river crossing and has increased by double over the past couple months to a current 18,000MMK rate (Jan 2015). Both beaches are acccessed by a 6-hour or so bus trip out of Yangon or a couple hours from Pathein, Myanmar. The last section before you get to the beach is on narrow, winding single-track hill-laden roads (much of the reason the Pathein-to-beach route takes as long as it does).
- Ngapali Beach: Considered by some as the most beautiful Burmese beach (alongside Ngwe Saung). Fishing & snorkeling options in addition to typical beach activities. white sand and palm trees. Generally you are flying in to this one.
- Pyin Oo Lwin: cool-weather hill town (several hours from Mandalay) that produces flowers, strawberries and coffee. High Indian concentration and rising Chinese population.
- Mergui Archipelago: probably the only thing I’d want to see and the only reason I’d go back to Myanmar. The best diving would be January through mid-April, but anytime between November and mid-April is a good time to visit.
Where is Myanmar located?
Myanmar is located in southeast Asia, with India and Bangladesh on its western border, Thailand, Laos and China along its eastern border and the Bay of Bengal on its coastline. Figure on a 20 hour flight with connection from NYC to Myanmar, 20 hours out of Los Angeles with a connection, 13 hours with one stop from Frankfurt, 12 hours from Sydney with one-stop and a touch over an hour from Bangkok. Myanmar is serviced by many of the Chinese and middle-eastern airlines.
Best Time to Visit Myanmar
November to April. October and May good shoulder season months, with May being quite hot and October coming out of the monsoons. The main problem with December and January are tourist numbers are quite high. However, if you stay off the popular trail, you will find most areas mostly tourist-free.
Is Myanmar Expensive?
Slightly more than the typical Southeast Asian country, it certainly is not a good value at the moment. Food is not spectacular and will run in the $2-$5 range. Lodging is typically a very poor value with a couple exceptions (like in Inle Lake). Expect dirty rooms for much more than you’d pay in a place like Vietnam. Buses, trains and planes are relatively reasonable although on some of these you have to pay foreigner rates which are apt to increase at any time.
Tipping in Myanmar
Not customary to tip. However, outside influence has trained porters to expect a tip. Service charge may appear on restaurant bills but if you want to tip, round the bill up. With taxi, no tip or round the bill up.
Do I need a Visa before visiting Myanmar?
Generally, yes. Myanmar has instituted an electronic visa for certain nationalities (e.g. visa on arrival) arriving to the major airports. The approval letter is good for 90 days after being issued. Once inside the country, you have 28 days until your visa expires. It is for one-entry only. For listing of nationalities that do not need a visa (mostly southeast Asian), and a listing of countries eligible for the eVisa, see the official site for eVisa, Tourists section. As of this writing, the visa fee was $50. Check here for most current fees.
Do I need vaccines to visit Myanmar? Medical concerns?
You need a yellow fever vaccination if coming from a country with yellow fever. Otherwise, no special vaccinations are required. Hepatitis A & Typhoid vaccinations recommended by some outfits but I’d surmise most people do not get any special vaccinations and are fine.
Is the water safe to drink?
Generally it is strongly advised not to drink the water. Based on research, it seems the water quality is relatively better than most believe, but as for drinking, it really depends on the source. Deep wells and other sources have been found to have high arsenic levels, as well as high levels of micro-organisms. Piped-in water seems to be much better. Interestingly (and this is the type of information you won’t see at the big travel sites or the lazy bloggers), in one study (published in the The Scientific World Journal), three bottled water manufacturers were sampled alongside the tap water and found that one of those bottled waters had the same level of micro-organisms as water coming from the tap. So as much as you see scare sites telling you to only drink bottled water, do you know what is in that bottled water?
Long story short, it is popularly advised not to drink the tap water in Myanmar. Most hotels provide you with free bottled water, one of the few perks.
Transportation into and around Myanmar
Flying into Myanmar
Low cost carriers providing service into Myanmar include AirAsia, Tiger Air and Jetstar.
Transportation from Airport to Yangon (RGN to City)
You want cheap or “luxurious”?
One cheaper, less efficient, more lively option is a 25-minute walk (or taxi) to Pa Ywet Seik Kone station. Then jump on the Yangon Circle Train to Yangon Central station. Should cost 300MMK (.30USD) or thereabouts dependent on price increases. The photo above is from that train. If you get lucky/unlucky (depending on perspective), you may get a much more modern train from Japan which has AC and doors.
The “luxurious” option is to take a fixed-price taxi (although negotiation is certainly possible) for around 7,000MMK (<$7USD) to downtown Yangon. You do not need to take the head taxi in the taxi line. Walk through the taxis and compare them against each other if you wish.
Getting Around Myanmar
Trains run from Yangon up to Bagan, Mandalay and points further north. Not expansive east to west but very worthwhile north and south. As typical, the super useful Seat61 has a great amount of information traveling by train in Myanmar.
In addition to train, much travel is performed by bus of varying quality. And there is a quite usable boat/ferry network that will get you between places like Mandalay and Bagan and Yangon.
The government-owned Myanma Air has had safety issues with its Chinese aircraft. Yangon Airways is blacklisted by the US Treasury Department for its ties to certain military factions. Air Mandalay, KBZ and Asian Wings are free of crashes. Golden Myanmar Airlines was quite a good value getting around and the planes were quite new. KBZ was also fine.
A new airport with four-times the capacity is being built and scheduled for completion around 2018.
Other Countries to Visit from Myanmar via Land
Right now, visiting other countries over land is quite difficult as various border posts are closed or restricted. It is typically possible to get into Thailand though air is the preferable method for most.
What to Buy & Try in Myanmar
Foods to Try when visiting Myanmar
For dishes to try while visiting Myanmar:
- Mohinga: fish and noodle soup. Typically eaten for breakfast but can be found all day. Better near the coasts (surprise surprise) but can be found nationwide. Different regions have different takes on it.
- Picked tea leaves (lahpet) which are eaten in a couple various salads, such as lahpet thohk.
- Highly recommended to eat avocados, especially around Inle Lake and points north. First off, your diet will thank you and secondly, they have some great variants in Myanmar. Lastly, try avocado smoothies if able. If you get a good one, it will blow your mind.
- Due to time contraints, check out this blog post listing Burmese foods with a good depth of photos.
As a helpful assistance, let’s dissect some Burmese food words. In reality the pronounciation can be quite difficult so by default you might backpedal into English and find it the best choice in the more heavily touristed areas. Further, since the native alphabet lacks roman letters, I found knowing the Myanmar language (outside of hello “ming-gla-bah”) beyond my scope during my visit. Good luck.
- uh chaw sa (fried)
- hatmin (rice)
- hatmin chaw (fried rice)
- Fruit (a thee)
- Vegetable (a yweh)
- Beef (ameh tha)
- Chicken (chet tha)
- Goat (seit tha)
- Lamb (tho tha)
- Fish (nga)
- Fish paste sauce (nga pi)
- Sugar cane juice (chang yeh)
- Beans and Naan (beq nanbya)
Products to Buy in Myanmar
Note, that officially “Gem stones (set or unset), jewellery, silverware or handicraft purchased in Myanmar will only be allowed upon production of a special cash memo or receipt issued by authorized dealers.” Not sure if this is enforced but make sure you get a receipt just in case it is.
- Lotus-fiber cloth made around Inle Lake. The lotus “silk” is made from the lotus stems. Quite unique to the area.
- Gemstones and jewelry
- Handicrafts in general, such as laquerware
- Black tea
- Thanaka is derived from a tree in Myanmar and is sold in powder-form as well as in other derivatives. A couple of drops of water added to the powder make a solution which can be rubbed on your skin/face/etc (noticeable once applied). It is said to be very beneficial for your skin and can also act as a sunscreen. Cheap and plentiful in Myanmar. Seems to work well on certain skin rashes.
Simple Words and Phrases in Burmese/Myanmar
If you want to brush up on some lingo before visiting Myanmar, WikiTravel, as usual, has a nice Phrase Book although Burmese is no pushover. Also note that Myanmar uses Brahmic scripts which means a scarcity of latin letters to make things a little more interesting.
Quick Travel Facts About Myanmar
What Power Plugs are Used in Myanmar:
The American Plug (Type A) and the European Plug (Type C) are both utilized (the Euro plug is far more prolific. The American plug typically only shows up in outlets that combine Euro & American together. There are also a smattering of Indian (compatible with Euro plug) and Chinese plugs in certain regions.
Frequency is 50Hz and Voltage varies as seen in this chart. Be careful using things like US hairdryers without a converter when connecting to non-US plugs (assuming that “US plugs” and “European plugs” are being fed the right voltage. Most electronics (battery chargers, mobile phones, etc.) only need an adapter plug but you should check first by calling the manufacturer, reading the literature or checking the item for markings before assuming like a dope.
In addition, the power supplied in Myanmar can be quite dirty and it is often you will see devices to regulate the variances. Further, in some regions the power will cut out for scheduled parts of the day. Before this occurs and afterwards you can get strange power variability that might not be very good for your electronics.
What currency is used in Myanmar?
Myanmar Kyat (MMK). See conversion.
To do a quick & dirty conversion on the fly between MMK and USD (given the rates as of this writing of 1300MMK = $1USD) – just move the decimal over 3 places. So 7,000MMK is $7, and 200MMK is .20USD, et. al. To convert the other direction, just add three zeroes to the right. So $10USD is 10,000MMK. If you want something more accurate and are a little more adept at math, then you want to move the decimal over 4 places and multiply times 8. Thus 7000MMK is $5.60. In reality, the exchange rate is $5.38 (if 1300MMK is $1USD)
Other tips about Myanmar
Don’t put your feet up, kid and prepare to be treated like walking money