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19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar

Things to know before you go to myanmar

Things to Know Before you Go to Myanmar

 

Myanmar can be a hit or miss in meeting expectations. The fact it’s finally opened it’s doors to tourism is hype that has every backpacker running  to it, without really knowing why. Untouched is the magnetic word. But the country is very touched, quickly showing the change that come with a free world and capitalism.  It’s possible it’s growing up to quickly.

But there’s many things about Myanmar that may surprise you. A country of over 100 ethnic tribes and a culture of quiet, Thanaka and longi-wearing people, the Burmese go through their hard-working lives rather simply. Before you go, here’s some things you might find interesting about Myanmar.

 

 19 Things to Know Before you Go to Myanmar

 

Cultural Tips for Myanmar

 1.  Remove your footwear when entering pagodas and religious places

You’ll need to take off your shoes when entering religious places, so pack your flip-flops for those days you want to visit temples and pagodas.  Take a plastic bag with you or buy one from the many sellers outside the pagoda. Some pagodas may have storage for your footwear.

2.  Never point with your feet or aim them at a Buddha

It’s considered bad form.

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar: Beware of where your feet point

3.  Don’t eat or pass things with your left hand

Using your left hand to offer things to people is considered rude as it’s known as the hand that assists in toilet behavior.

4.  Those red-stains on the ground and on Burmese teeth is called betel nut.

Betel nut is a chewing tobacco that is highly addictive aphrodisiac and can produce a buzz. The bitterness of the flavor makes the mouth salivate and thus, you’ll find many red stains on the street. It stains the teeth red also. Betel nut vendors are often found on the sidewalk, wrapping them up to sell to passing customers. 

betel nut sellers in southeast asia, betel nut sellers in myanmar

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar: What makes that red stain?

5.  The written and spoken language is Burmese (that means numbers also)

Some Burmese can speak English. But the thing to note is that numbers in Myanmar are not Roman numerical, but Burmese. If you’re planning to use local bus (video & tips here) or long-distance overnight buses (my video tips here) to get around, this will affect you, when you look for your bus.

Always carry a hotel business card with you to show to your taxi driver. If you get anything which requires addresses or directions, have a local person write it for you in Burmese to show if you get lost.

myanmar bus station, yangon bus station

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar: How to catch the local bus in a foreign country

6.  The two most important Burmese words you’ll want to know

Hello: မဂႆလာပၝ (min ga la ba)

Thank you: ေက်းဇူးတန္ပါတယ္။ (cè-zù tin-ba-deh)

For obvious reasons ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank You’ are  good expressions to know as a bare minimum, anywhere you travel. If you’d like to learn five more simple phrases to connect with Burmese locals better, you might want to watch this YouTube video by mydaydreamVids or check out this Burmese phrase list by Omniglot

 

7. The dried yellowish cosmetics Burmese wear is called Thanaka

Thanaka cream is used by Burmese women for over 2,000 years. While the Burmese wear it like cosmetics, in round circles on their cheeks, in thatched pattern or even covering their body; it also has other uses, such as cooling on a sunburn and an anti-inflammatory for acne. The cream comes from a tree bark (photo below) that is ground and mixed with water.

thanaka paste myanmar, thanaka cream in burmese women

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar: Thanaka

8. Caged birds sellers aren’t running a pet store

When you see a caged bird seller near a temple, this doesn’t mean the seller has a pet shop.  In Buddhist tradition, birds are often bought by worshippers and then set free. The ritual is said to earn good merit or good karma.

caged birds set free myanmar, buddhist practice set free birds, bird sellers in southeast asia

19 Things to Know before you go to Myanmar: Releasing birds earn good karma

Planning your Trip to Myanmar

9.  What’s the best time to travel?

As per the best time to travel to Myanmar, I’d say consider the best and avoid the worst. Many will tell you the ideal time to go is November to February, when the weather is cool.  But the hotel prices are at peak, attractions are crowded with tourists,  hotels get booked up quickly and thus, reservations need to be booked well in advance.

May-June is probably a less attractive season to visit Myanmar, because it’s generally the hottest time of the year. I went in June and this is nearing monsoon season, which lasts to November.  But if you can stand a little heat (similar to Thailand in the summer) then you’ll avoid crowds, you can book  hotels the night before (or walk-in) and hotel costs are lower.

10.  The rising cost of hotels and booking your stay

Guesthouse prices are shooting up  annually. Blogs posted one or two years ago, recommend $12/night guesthouses in Yangon. Now the average begins at around $25/night.   Meanwhile, neighboring Southeast Asian guesthouse prices can range from Laos ($5-20/day), Vietnam ($12-30/day), Thailand $18-25/day. It hardly seems fair. That’s Myanmar.

What you’ll generally get: a spacious but basic double bedroom (find another traveler to share the room and you’ll cut your cost in half), a  towel and a free breakfast. Some rooms have a bathroom en suite; some, not. Hotels and guesthouses can be old, so keep in mind furniture and decor will probably not be fresh and modern.

Off-season, I could book the day before or day of. Off-season, guesthouses take walk-ins. During peak tourist season, it’s recommended to book in advance, especially for popular destinations.  For ease and comfort, when I was in Myanmar, the one site that was easiest for me to book a hotel through was Agoda.com.

11.  WiFi  and cellphones exists, but the internet is still painfully slow.

Myanmar isn’t exactly in the stone age. They’ve got technology, but it might still be lagging or be available to those who can afford it.

Yes, internet is slow. Depending on your guesthouse connection, it could take up to a minute  to load a single page. A drawback to booking reservations online  or researching things to do, is that it will feel painful. You won’t want to spend too much time on the internet. Cellphones also exist, but the vast majority of Burmese prefer public phones on street tables over the high cost of owning and maintaining one.

An inexpensive SIM is said to be available for foreigners (but not locals).

mobile phones in Myanmar, cellphones in Myanmar

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar:  Cellphones and WIFI exist in Myanmar

12.  You can get a same-day Myanmar Visa in Bangkok.

Getting a Myanmar visa in Bangkok isn’t difficult, but you can not get one upon arrival (Note: I’ve just been informed you  can now get a visa on arrival. However, if you’d like to get them beforehand…)  I got a same-day visa in Bangkok. Otherwise, the standard wait is two days. You can also get it from your own country.

getting your myanmar visa in bangkok, getting your burmese visa in thailand

Planning your Trip to Myanmar:  How to Get a Myanmar visa in Bangkok

13.  Cash only.

All transactions are in cash.

Tip: Use your dollars for large purchases like the long distance bus and your hotel bill. Use the kyat for smaller local transactions like admission fees, shopping, food, etc…

14.  Get crisp and clean U.S. dollar bills.

Gone are the days of the changing your currency at the black market, but the Burmese are extremely particular about the quality of your U.S. dollars .  While you can change your money there, why would you want to , when you can exchange it at more reputable places like the airport, hotels and guesthouses.

Read Dealing with Currency in Myanmar | Burma (VIDEO)

dealing with currency in myanmar, dealing with money in myanmar, burmese money kyat

Planning your Trip to Myanmar: Dealing with Currency

15.  Myanmar has ATMS

Although they’re not widespread and I wouldn’t rely on them as my primary way of exchange, within a year or two, I expect them to be more common.

atms in myanmar

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar: There are ATMs

 16.  How long should you stay?

I went for a little over a week. Some backpackers might say this is too short, while others might disagree (Read Curiosity Travels‘ underwhelmed experience. Although I enjoyed my time in Myanmar, I slightly agree).  The country runs slow even if you’re running fast and you won’t find many tourist attractions hitting you over the head.  The country is quiet, people are mostly, withdrawn.

If you’re the type who needs to see a lot of attractions or have a lot to do, you might want to book for a shorter stay. If you’re interested in taking time to observe the culture, then a longer stay could be worth your while.

17.   Ways to Get Around in Myanmar

Getting around in Myanmar is easier than it appears.

City transportation operates via  taxi/car, bus and on foot. In specific cities, there are other nuances. For instance, in Bagan, one form of taxi is horse-drawn carriage. At Nyaung Shwe (the city launching ground for Inle Lake), there is a guesthouse tour taxi (cost $1 USD, photo below) , which takes travelers around the neighborhood so they can find a guesthouse to stay at.

Read: How to catch the local bus -without knowing the language 

 

Nyaung Shwe city taxi, getting around in Nyaung Shwe

Long-distance travel options are: air, rail or long-distance day bus, overnight sleeper buses and luxury VIP buses.

A moderate overnight  bus with air-condition, individual headsets and blaring overhead video karaoke is common.

Read    16 Tips for Traveling Alone by Night Bus

Meanwhile, the VIP buses in Myanmar can surpass buses in all of Southeast Asia, with luxuries, such as recliner chairs, blankets, food service, plug outlets and an individual monitor with touch screens.


Don’t see this fun video? Go here: Transportation Guide:  Transportation in Myanmar

 

 

Safety for Female Solo Travelers

18. Women should feel safe but dress conservative

As a woman, I felt like it was relatively safe to travel alone, even at night. Crime is at a low in Myanmar. Of course, it’s always still best to utilize caution.

Dress code is conservative, so it’s smart to wear sleeved shirts and nothing inappropriate or revealing. Take a clue by looking at the way Burmese women dress and you should know what you can and can’t get away with .

yangon city in myanmar

19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar

19. Photography: Be careful where you raise your camera

We all like to take photo memories, but there’s some portraits you may  want to refrain from. Some ethnic minority groups don’t appreciate being photographed and even if there’s no sign to deter you, you might still want to double-think that snap.  On a tour of Inlay Lake, I was taken to a fabric shop, where Karen Longneck Women weavers were stationed for tourists to take photos of. Photos were encouraged but sadly, it felt like a cross between a human petting zoo and a sweat shop. I chose not to photograph them.

Also, some photographs encourage begging. Taking photos of young boy monks on pagodas, are tempting for any hobby photographer. We’ve all seen various photos of young Burmese monks in very picturesque environments. But on some occasions,  I was encouraged to take photos of monks and it just didn’t feel right.  Had I lifted my camera, I knew I would’ve been asked for a money and monks are not allowed to handle money.

BONUS:

11 Best things to Do in Yangon

 

Have I missed anything? What are some things you think travelers should know before going to Myanmar?

41 Comments

  1. Meryl Varty says:

    #8 about caged birds should also mention that these birds are wild-caught threatened and endangered species, not captive-bred birds. They live a life of misery, disease and torture often being bunged in cramped cages with countless others only to be set ‘free’. The lucky ones die and the unlucky are often caught again. This ‘tradition’ is causing the vast declines in numerous bird species leaving some close to extinction and challenging conservation efforts in Asia. Please remember this before you buy into this trade.

    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/buddhist-ceremonial-release-captive-birds-may-harm-wildlife/

  2. Janny says:

    Hey, I’m black can I visit Burma?

    I’ve been to Lukla in Nepal trekking Himalayas and the stares I got made me feel uncomfortable, but overall nice people.

    Due to ethnic conflicts is it okay for me? I’d like to visit Nyipyidaw commerce markets & visit the beach.

    ThankYou in advance

  3. ,M k tiwari says:

    I will come to Myanmar

  4. Snow McKing says:

    Hey..I want to know all tourists who want to come to Myanmar..That is the Internet Connection is being good because of foreign mobile operator and I love it too..cause I live in Taunggyi,Myanmar..Near Inle Lake..And we all welcome..and This is also a safe country.. Thanks..

  5. Definitely one day i will visit Myanmar. The country has lots of thing to see and to do i got so many things while reading on this article. Thank You!

  6. Stephanie says:

    Ok so I’ll bookmark this one too! Really good stuff. Myanmar is at the top of my travel list.

  7. Dylan says:

    Was in Myanmar most of January 2014 and LOVED it! The people are friendly and nice and there is so much to see, especially if get out of the cities. I wasn’t able to go to the more remote areas as I didn’t plan far enough in advance for that but I’ll probably come again. It is also true that compared to Thailand, it feels a little quiet/laid back – I wasn’t hit over the head with all the marvelous places to see.
    One thing that you might want to update is that cell phones are now very common except in the most rural tribal areas. They were everywhere. Internet is about as you described. You also nail it that the country is moving VERY fast into the 21st Century although happily not yet abandoning the longyi.
    I echo and emphasize that currency must be essentially brand new bills. The slightest tear or crease or wear will cause it to be denied. Of course, the kyat you get in exchange could be threadbare but that’s different! Note also that there are no coins in the Myanmar money system, yet occasionally the food bill or something was not to a whole kyat and they gave me a few candies as change.
    A couple things I noticed – cops wearing thongs not boots, people very eager for me to photograph their children, a feeling of safety walking around, Buddha fatigue after spending time in so many temples!!
    Biking is great way to get around in many areas, especially Bagan and Inle Lake.
    A Swiss friend told me to “go now” back in 2003 and I can only imagine what it would have been like then.

  8. Laura says:

    It’s such a shame you didn’t have a good time in Myanmar. We were there for 2 months and contrary to feeling bored, we were rushed off our feet trying to see everything.

    In our 6 weeks in Mon & Karen state we saw just a handful of other tourists and visited so many unique sites, including trekking through the jungle to see newly discovered ancient rock carvings and being led through an underground cave system by a monk.

    There’s a real element of ‘Myanmar is what you make of it’. If you’d consider giving Myanmar another go there are tonnes of off the beaten track site guides listed on our blog.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Hi @Laura! I think it’s awesome you had a great time and experienced a lot. I’m not sure where you got the conclusion you came to, based on this post. I liked the country (I’m pretty sure that must come across in my travel videos too: http://youtu.be/67TYZQpsTf4) but yes, despite that, I do think it’s overhyped and overpriced. As a solo traveler, I make every effort from dawn to nearly midnight, to discover as much as I can about every place I visit. Every country is ‘what you make of it’.

  9. Hajj packages says:

    Appriciated, you have mentioned all the details which are very useful to start the journey for Myanmar.. Thank you for sharing the great stuff

  10. cvail says:

    Christine, These are all great tips! I love the part about the make up!

  11. Amy says:

    Great post and very handy as I am traveling to Myanmar next week for a 3 week stay. I plan to just book accommodations along the way since it won’t be as crazy busy. I’m curious to see how things have changed even over the last few months. Looking forward to exploring!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Amy: Enjoy the exploring! 3 weeks sounds like it’ll allow you to really get into the heart of the adventure.

  12. bekyc says:

    That’s too bad, I’m planning on going there but I might make it a shorter trip. Tourism definitely does warp a place.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Bekyc: It can.. but then again, there aren’t any main cities in Asia/Southeast Asia which don’t have throngs of tourists. You owe it to yourself travel there and form your own opinion. I just recommend avoiding peak season 😉

  13. rwoan says:

    I hate it when people just leave out the fact that you are restricted to the tourist triangle and there is a lot of bad stuff going on which you will never see as a tourist. You can search CNN for reasonable coverage. Having left Myanmar a week ago and had a great time as a tourist at this time of economic transition I can’t help feeling a pawn of a military propaganda machine that may be just providing enough freedom and progress to lengthen their stay in power.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Maybe @Rwoan. I’m not familiar with the deeper side of Burmese politics to comprehend fully what you’re talking about. I’m sure the gov squeezes the people and this will trickle down to tourism. The history of Burmese currency is kinda telling of what the Burmese need to work to overcome in their government. Don’t feel too bad- we’re all pawns of a government system of fat cats sitting on top, who will abuse the system and oppress the unfortunate. Your tourist dollars will at least help keep people gainfully employed.

  14. Shane says:

    I would also add Don’t go near your PayPal account. We did and ended up violating US sanctions. While I did secretly enjoy feeling like a gun runner it was a bit of a pain to get our account active again.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Shane: That’s good advice. Dunno how you worked out the patience to get through that, with the internet speed being the way it was. Must’ve been a nightmare.

  15. Julie K. says:

    I remember reading Burmese Days by George Orwell few years back..it was great, but somewhat sad.. Other than that my knowledge of Myanmar is more than limited. Nonetheless, I think it´s one of the most interesting and unique places in Southeast Asia! I feel like it can give you a glimpse of what it was like to experience Asia fifty sixty years ago..including the rich history and stunning views, of course.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Julie: Haven’t read Burmese Days, but now I feel like I’m missing out! Myanmar/Burma is definitely unique in it’s own right, but I’m not sure it gives you anymore of a glimpse into traditional SEAsian history than its neighbors, which all seem to preserve a large sense of their historical appeal. I’m sure many would be surprised when I say, landscape/stunning or To Do-wise, Myanmar actually wouldn’t rank high on my Southeast Asia list. It’s a pretty simple country and sadly, not as virginal as hype these days lends to it, but it’s definitely worthwhile to see it as it would be to see every country in Southeast Asia for their unique appeal.=)

  16. Kay says:

    Thanks so much for the tips – Myanmar is a country I definitely want to visit someday. I guess I’m in love with the beautiful, regal architecture I’ve seen in photos and the oriental influence. It looks amazing! Booking my ticket now… *o*

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      Enjoy @Kay! The architecture is regal, but in a beautifully dilapidated sort of way. I prefer that to a restored look though=)

  17. Great tip overall.
    Myanmar is one of countries that I am planning to travel this summer. I am thinking it will be more a like Nepal or India or somewhere in between. Since I love Buddhist shrines, I am making small list to visit such places. How about food? Are they similar to Indian dishes?

    Thank you again

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Trekking in Nepal: You’re right. Myanmar has some strong Indian influences and there’s Indian food and restaurants woven in their culture too. I didn’t initially think about Nepal but yes, it resembles both of them.

      The more veggie Burmese dishes I’ve tried are actually like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere… a vegetable leaf salad or pe byeok (seasoned, salty beans with nan bread). Mohinka.. like a rice noodle soup, kinda Southeast Asian/Tibetan? lol. I think you may feel comfortable there and the prices of street food is low too.

  18. I’m going in May next year. Hope it’s not too hot yet. I’m mostly worried about the internet connection. My trip’s for a week and I don’t know if I can be off work for that long! Re Karen Longneck when I saw pictures of them online and read about them, I also had the same thought: human zoo. So sad.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Aleah: May the internet connection will improve a little more. Myanmar is changing fast as foreign businesses are jumping in. Foreigners can get SIM cards, over the process of a few months, it went from no visa on arrival to visa on arrival… I’d keep your internet needs pretty simple if you can though. I posted very little during my time there.

  19. agnesstramp says:

    Some of these awesome tips can be applied in most of Asian countries such as Cambodia or Thailand. It’s so crucial in China to remove your footwear when entering pagodas and religious places. Showing your respect to local religion is so important and much appreciated.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Agness: Agreed! And the no eating/passing food w/ the left hand is very much like Indian culture, which they have affiliation with. Same same but different? 😉

  20. Lily La says:

    I’m off to to Myanmar in 2 weeks.. after reading this I’m totally off to learn numbers in Burmese!

  21. Great read. I was there this May when it was HELL-ish hot. Like 40 degrees and my brain was melting. The upside, almost no tourists at all!

    I’ll be going again during Christmas time and had to book all my hotels in August. Even THEN we were put on a waiting list.

    Quick tip for those still looking, go on Agoda.com to book a room. Sometimes they still hold on to inventory.

    This time around I’m prepared for the onslaught of tourists, but on the flipside, I get weather cool enough that I can take a hot air balloon ride over Bagan!

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Glamorous Traveller: You had to book 4 months in advance and you were still on a waiting list?! omg. Give me the heat. ha ha It’s nothing compared to New York or Korea during the summer. Enjoy the hot air balloon! Sounds like a lot of fun.

  22. Greg Goodman says:

    Great article! I just spent 2 weeks in Myanmar and it was both not long enough and the perfect amount of time.

    FYI, you can now get visa on arrival in Yangok Airport.

    Also, late-October is a great time to visit, as the rainy season is pretty much done but the tourists haven’t arrived in drones yet.

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Greg: Great way to put it…

      “not long enough and the perfect amount of time.”

      Good to know that you can get a visa on arrival. Man, Myanmar is really trying to change fast, because this past June, you still couldn’t get one on arrival! Or maybe they learned something from Laos & Cambodia and how the Thai try to sell Laos visas just before people arrive at the border. 😉

  23. Jessica Wray says:

    Thanks for the link Christine! And yes, I agree completely with the length of time. If you are someone who wants to be busy doing and seeing things most days…shorten your time. ¨Withdrawn¨ is a good word in my opinion too.

    Thanks for putting together an up to date post on what it is like to visit. It is frustrating to see so many people posting online about how there are no ATMs and internet still and how things will be so different there. Times have changed and these modern conveniences do exist (you know, to an extent).

    I´m curious, what did you think overall of your time??

    • Christine Kaaloa says:

      @Jessica: Ha.. I had to update the post to add in a sliver of my thoughts. It was going to be in another post. I agree with a lot of the sentiments of your post. There were parts I felt disappointed, especially when it felt too touristy or like the Burmese were already “over” tourism. I blew through Myanmar in light speed and there were times I felt I was falling short of an itinerary, so I’d focus a little more on getting lost and photography. Although I enjoyed Myanmar and would like to go back to see places that I didn’t get to, the hype around it builds it up too big. And the cost of accommodations are just too inflated for what it is.

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