21 Things to Know Before you Go to Myanmar

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Last Updated on September 13, 2019 by Christine Kaaloa

Things to know before you go to myanmar
Things to Know Before you Go to Myanmar

 

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.

 

Table of Contents: 21 Things to Know Before you Go to 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.

IMG 3465
19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar: Beware of where your feet point

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. 

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

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).

mobile phones in Myanmar, cellphones in Myanmar
19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar:  Cellphones and WIFI exist in Myanmar

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.

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

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 

dealing with currency in myanmar, dealing with money in myanmar, burmese money kyat
Planning your Trip to Myanmar: Dealing with Currency

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.

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

 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.

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.

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.

Powered by 12Go Asia system

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 .

yangon city in myanmar
19 Things to know before you go to Myanmar

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

 

Have I missed anything? What are some things to know before you go to Myanmar?

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53 Comments.

  • Hajj packages
    May 21, 2014 11:53 pm

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

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

  • 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
      April 30, 2014 2:15 am

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

  • 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
      April 12, 2014 8:47 pm

      @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 😉

  • 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
      February 25, 2014 5:19 pm

      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.

  • 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
      December 23, 2013 12:35 am

      @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.

  • 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
      December 23, 2013 1:03 am

      @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.=)

  • 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
      December 23, 2013 12:38 am

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

  • 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
      December 29, 2013 3:34 pm

      @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.

  • 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
      December 29, 2013 3:38 pm

      @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.

  • 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
      December 13, 2013 9:47 pm

      @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? 😉

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

  • 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
      December 13, 2013 9:44 pm

      @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.

  • 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
      December 13, 2013 9:33 pm

      @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. 😉

  • 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
      December 12, 2013 1:59 am

      @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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