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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
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.
11 Best things to Do in Yangon