Last Updated on September 13, 2019 by Christine Kaaloa
Traveling 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. Yangon alone is gaining popularity with foreign developers and rent is skyrocketing… is it possible Myanmar is 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 to know before traveling Myanmar.
21 Things to Know Before you Go to Myanmar
Cultural Etiquette 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.
Myanmar has many pagodas
In Thailand you’ll find a lot of Buddha statues an
3. Do not 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.
9. Beware of Fake Monks
Myanmar is the first country i have encountered fake monks. Most Southeast Asian Buddhist monks are from the Theravada sect. While you will see Theravada monks with begging bowls on the side of streets or going from home to home, they are requesting food. They never request money nor do they accost or ask you for it. If you really want to donate to help monks, you can offer food but make your monetary donations at the temple.
10. Dress conservative at pagodas and religious sites (Men, this means you too!)
Always dress conservatively at pagodas. Men, this means you too! Men are not allowed to enter pagodas with shorts. If you do, you will be asked to buy a longyi to wrap around your exposed legs. With women you want to wear either a long skirt or pants and a shirt which covers your shoulder. Or you can just buy a sari.
Planning a Trip to Myanmar
11. What’s the best time to travel Myanmar?
As per the best time to travel 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.
12. Rising hotel prices in Myanmar 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.
13. 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).
14. 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 Downtown Bangkok. Otherwise, the standard wait is two days. You can also get it from your own country.
15. Myanmar is a cash based country
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…
16. Get crisp and clean U.S. dollar bills.
Gone are the days of the changing your currency at the black market, but due to Myanmar’s correct dictatorship past, the Burmese are still distrustful of currency. Thus, the Burmese are extremely particular about the quality of U.S. dollars they’ll accept. It’s best to come with clean and crisp currency. You may find difficulty getting fresh bills at the airport or bank ATMs and even these facilities are seeking fresh and crisp currency as well and are less likely to offer them.
Read Dealing with Currency in Myanmar
17. Myanmar has ATM machines
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.
18. How long should you stay in Myanmar?
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.
19. How to Get Around in Myanmar
Getting around in Myanmar is easier than it appears. Check out my Myanmar transportation guide
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.
Book your Myanmar bus tickets in advance
If you can’t wait to get there and book your tickets in person, book your Myanmar trip tickets in advance. I used 12GoAsia to book transportation for my Thailand trip.
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.
Is Myanmar Safe for Female Solo Travelers?
20. 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 .
21. Photography in Myanmar: 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 Inle 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.
Best Insurance for Myanmar
American travelers often pay a premium on travel insurance. World Nomads offers economic solutions for travelers who seek security and peace of mind. It covers 150 countries.
11 Best things to Do in Yangon | Yangon Travel Guide
Betel nut is not ‘a chewing tobacco’ btw.
What would you call it?
You actually forced me to learn something today. It’s actually not even a nut; but rather a berry
whatever it is, it is an absolutely disgusting habit! the red spit everywhere. Handsome people who smile and reveal red stained teeth (if their teeth haven’t already fallen out because of chewing betel nut)
Pretty stony stuff.
Scott yeah they chew it in India, Taiwan and probably other countries. I tried it on a food tour. Chewing tobacco is similar– mouth cancer.
Scott you prob tried betel nut too?
I tried it in Myanmar. Knocked me on my butt. They wrap it in a leaf into some kind of package with some other stuff, lime, coconut and other mystery ingredients.
I never tried it. I stuck to
sampling the homemade rice wine on Inle. And 50
cent mojitos with fresh juice and mint at a small place I discovered in Old Bagan
I loved my time in Myanmar.
hopefully next fall for me:)
#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.
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
You are warmly welcomed. 🙂 Mingalar Bar
I will come to Myanmar
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..
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!
[…] Read: Things to Know Before you Go to Myanmar […]
Ok so I’ll bookmark this one too! Really good stuff. Myanmar is at the top of my travel list.
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.
[…] my recent travel to Myanmar, it occurred to me that language barriers could pose a serious problem in getting around. While […]
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.
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’.