Visiting Myanmar: 16 tips for planning independent Myanmar travel!
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Having spent an incredible two weeks travelling independently around Myanmar at the end of 2015 we wanted to share our travel tips with those of you who have Myanmar on your 2016 bucket list. Tourism in Myanmar has exploded in recent years and the tourist scene has changed dramatically since the early days when the country first opened up to visitors. Here’s our latest guide with our practical tips and everything you need to know for planning a Myanmar visit!
1 | Myanmar Visa
Gone are the days of having to travel to a Myanmar embassy to obtain a visa to enter the country. Passport holders from 100 countries are now entitled to apply for an e-visa meaning you can secure a visa in advance of your travels. For us, it took only a few days from applying to receiving our visa. It is valid for a stay of up to 28 days and costs US $50.
The link to apply for the eVisa, as at time of writing, is here.
2 | Flying in
Yangon airport is the main point of entry for Myanmar trips. International flights arriving into Yangon include Chang Mai, Hong Kong, Seoul, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo and Singapore as well as flights from 3 Chinese airports: Kunming, Guangzhou and Beijing. Bangkok is the only international flight in and out of Mandalay airport.
- We flew through Bangkok. We arrived into Myanmar via Yangon with Thai Airways and left via Mandalay on an Air Asia flight. Both cost less than US $100 per person.
Money and Costs
3 | Hotels
The hotels we stayed in during our time in Myanmar were amazing. However despite it’s location in South East Asia Myanmar is not a cheap place to visit. Unlike it’s neighbours like Laos and Thailand, hotels in Myanmar are relatively expensive, partly due to lack of supply. Here are the hotels we chose in each city:
- Yangon: Chatrium Royal Lake Hotel
- Inle Lake: Inle Princess Hotel: Check prices now
- Bagan: Zfreeti Hotel Check prices now
- Mandalay: Smart Hotel
4 | Currency
The local currency in Myanmar is Kyat but US dollars are also widely accepted and, at times, required. We used a mix of US dollars, Euro and our credit card to fund our travels. The money customs are complex so its important to have a mix of USD, local currency and a debit and credit card as back up options.
- Bring a major currency to change into Kyat. When exchanging currency the notes must be in pristine condition and not creased. Each individual note is checked thoroughly for flaws, discolouration and creases at the currency exchange kiosks. We had some notes, which looked perfectly fine to us, rejected for being ‘dirty and used’ when we tried to change our money to Kyat.
- One or two vendors insisted on payment in US dollar so bring some US dollars to spend. We did notice that the same stringent checks were not applied to the notes when we paid for a good or service directly, for example, when paying for hotels or drivers.
- Cash machines are widely available but we did notice some some were out of service.
- Some hotels do not have credit card machines and require cash payment. We prebooked most of our hotels through Agoda and the payment was taken in advance. This saved us taking additional cash for accommodation. When we tried to pay at one hotel they had difficulty connecting to the credit card terminal so be prepared for this in remote areas!
- If you’re carrying USD and Kyat it’s worth checking the price in both currencies to get the best value for your money.
5 | Price
Myanmar was a lot more expensive than we anticipated so be sure to budget appropriately. Accommodation and travel in Myanmar is considerably more expensive that other South East Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam.
- Our luxury hotels were priced at over USD 200 a night (the Inle Princess Resort being a good example where luxury comes at a price of $250 per night, check out our review here) with other very good options coming in at $100 to $150 (the Zfreeti hotel was an excellent Bagan option and cost around $120 a night). Our cheapest hotel was USD 80 a night (the Smart Hotel in Mandalay).
- Local food and Myanmar beer are well priced and a decent local lunch or dinner with a few beers was available for around USD $10.
- The tourist dollar is king. Expect to pay for the privilege of being a foreigner and using squat toilets, entering pagodas, storing shoes and taking pictures. ‘Foreigner payments’ are popular in the more touristy areas.
- It’s possible to negotiate on prices of items like souvenirs but if you bargain too hard the locals lose interest and walk away.
6 | Taxis and Private Cars
- We found 1,000 Kyat per kilometre a good approximate amount for taxi fares.
- Private drivers are a great option. We paid 5 USD to 7 USD per hour for a private air conditioned car with a driver. Distance is a much bigger factor than time in dictating the cost of hiring a driver: a 12 hour trip around Yangon cost USD 70 while travelling further afield to Golden Rock, a 2.5 hour drive each way, was quoted at USD 200. Gas is expensive in Myanmar and is a huge contributing factor to the cost.
- Everyone wants to take you to a craft shop, a silk factory or a nut producer during your sightseeing trips. Don’t be afraid to say no when you’re paying for your own private transport. After all, that’s the reason you are paying a premium. On the flip side, some of the side trips can be interesting and our drivers took us to some cool places that weren’t on our itinerary and we were happy we went with their recommendations!
7 | Budget lots of travel time
While Myanmar’s tourism has exploded the infrastructure hasn’t developed quite so quickly and getting around takes much longer than you would expect. It is possible to fly between destinations however overland suited our travel needs better and was amazing for our budget. The roads are bumpy and slow and the traffic can be crazy in the major towns/cities.
- Don’t rely on the times listed on timetables especially if you are booking a flight or another non refundable option subsequent to travel.
What to Wear
8 | Dress Conservatively
Most of the locals dress conservatively and cover their shoulders and legs despite the high temperatures. Check out our packing guide here!
- Knee length shorts, long skirts, elephant pants and t-shirts were our attire of choice. These are strongly encouraged and often enforced for entering the temples and pagodas. We did see short shorts and vests tops but we felt more comfortable keeping in line with the locals.
- Local men wear a Longyi which is a smart sarong style skirt that wraps around their waist. Apparently it’s good for air circulation! They are convenient for sightseeing so pick up a cheap one a the market if you have the chance.
- Flip flops are essential! Entering Pagoda’s means going barefoot and flip flops are the best footwear choice. Struggling with laces in the blistering heat is an unwelcome distraction. Bring some cleansing wipes for your feet after visiting a pagoda.
9 | Book accommodation and transport in advance during peak season
The tourist industry in Myanmar seems to have experienced a boom which the infrastructure has failed to keep pace with and we struggled to secure some of our hotels of choice 2 months out from our trip. Most hotels are small and boutique like so if there’s somewhere specific you want to stay it’s essential to book in advance.
The amazing Inle Princess Resort:
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10 | Don’t rely on Wi-Fi
Myanmar internet is a mix of slow and unavailable. Do your research in advance or pack a guide book and don’t expect to Skype home very often, it’s barely possible to get a messenger service to work at times!
11 | The early bird catches the worm
We were up and out most days for sunrise and fast asleep by 10pm! The heat is often unbearable during the peak sunshine hours and the arrival of the tourist buses make it more difficult to get amazing pictures and move around freely.
12 | Mind the strays
Stray dogs are a Myanmar epidemic. While most are baked out with the heat there are a few who are insistent on following people around. Stamp your feet, wave a tripod or make a stone throwing motion if the dogs get uncomfortably close and avoid dark alleys at night.
13 | The people are lovely
Generally the people are lovely and are happy to appear in photographs and try and converse through limited common words or sign language. Any conversation that starts with ‘where are you from?’ typically led to a sales pitch in our experience but a firm no served us well.
14 | English is quite widely spoken
We were able to communicate well with the hotel staff and others involved in the tourist industry such as taxi drivers and tour guides. When all else failed pointing at maps, hand signals and single words did the trick!
You’ll hear lots of ‘Mingalaba!‘ greetings when you meet anyone in Myanmar. Say it back!
15 | Local traditions
Two local traditions were predominant throughout our Myanmar travels: Thanaka painted on girls faces and men chewing betel nuts.
- It’s common to see yellow circles pasted on the faces of the Burmese ladies. This is Thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from ground bark, which is a beauty product in Myanmar and also serves as a sunscreen.
- The red stained pavements are a consequence of spitting red coloured saliva after chewing betel quids, small parcels that contain tobacco, spices and areca nuts wrapped in a betel leaf. We met lots of locals with the tell tale red stained teeth and our taxi drivers often rolled down the window in slow moving traffic to spit after chewing on the betel quids.
Food and Drinks
16 | The food is awesome
I’m a super fussy eater and I ate incredibly well in Myanmar. The salads and noodle dishes are immense, standard hotels offer delicious food and the restaurants are generally very good.
Some tips for eating in Myanmar:
- Order local dishes: it was always the best choice. We tried noodles at night bus stops, fermented tea leaf salads in local restaurants and an amazing array of curries and salads. Even better, we lived to tell the tale!
- Use chopsticks: we saw many pieces of cutlery being wiped with a not so great looking water supply and dishcloth. Prepackaged chopsticks are an ideal option.
- Tell the staff if you don’t eat something. I hate nuts and they understood not to sprinkle the obligatory peanuts on my dish. If you like a little spice in your dishes state how much spice you like as the chefs ted to go easy on tourists!
- The fish is delicious and a great, fresh option in most restaurants.
17 | Kiss kiss!
It’s common to hear a kissing noise in the cafes and restaurants as locals use the kissing noise as a call for service. Apparently it’s easier for staff to identify the location of the kissing sound so don’t be alarmed!
Remember, Myanmar is still relatively new to tourists.
Myanmar is a wonderful travel destination but it’s still relatively new to mass tourism so don’t expect a seamless travel experience. Getting between places can be slow, the roads are bumpy and yes is the default answer to everything. As with any travels it can be frustrating at times but it’s best to just go with the flow and take things as they come! Myanmar is an amazing travel experience and we loved every second. Expect to be smitten from the moment you set foot in the country!