Myanmar – a country that has for years been under the radar of an average tourist is rapidly becoming one of the hot destinations in the world. Before our trip to this wonderful country, I spent countless hours looking for information about the destinations, trying to understand what was ahead when we’d finally reach the country. I soon discovered that the internet is full of outdated information – the country and its tourism is evolving so rapidly that it is hard to follow. Based on our recent experiences, I wanted to do a quick recap of some of the general things I would’ve loved to know before our trip and of the things I think might be useful for anyone thinking of traveling to Myanmar (on a sidenote: everyone should – the country is just amazing!)
Increasing tourism is both a threat and an opportunity
I mentioned earlier that Myanmar has seen a rapid growth on annual number of visitors over the past few years. From half a million in 2012 to the expected 10million this year – a mere double from 2015 means that the increasing number of visitors will also have a tremendous impact on the country. Currently, you do not see fast food restaurants, nor international clothing stores on the streets, nor are many of those services available you are used to seeing back home. While this is likely to change in the near future along with the increased western influence and you might soon be able to grab that BigMac meal you suddenly start craving for after eating rice and curry for days and more upscale hotel chains find their way to the country, the increased tourism also means more tourists at the already horribly crowded attractions, and most likely, the locals soon understand the potential of a fat western wallet, thus ruining the friendly and helpful attitude of the burmese.
Myanmar is an easy destination
Although the services and amenities valued by the western tourists are still very limitedly available, Myanmar is a really easy travel destination. Being a former British colony, English is widely spoken in the country, although the local pronunciation sometimes makes it difficult to understand every word. In addition, for example menus are very many restaurants also available in English. Although the local writing is impossible to read and signs make no sense to foreigners, the people are extremely friendly and helpful and they’ll make sure to help you.
It is also really easy to move around the country. Public transport is widely available and there are regular bus connections between the most common tourist destinations. Most often these routes are also operated by VIP-luxury busses, making sure the journey is as comfortable as possible. Trains are also an option and the hotels can help you with the booking. When planning on the trip, bear in mind that the roads, and especially railway tracks are still in terrible condition and even a short trip will take hours.
Several national airlines also operate within the country and offer an easy and fast alternative for travels within the country. Although national Burmese airline does not necessarily sound like the most lucrative alternative, at least our experience on a domestic flight was just as good as with any european low-cost airline when we flew with Myanmar Golden air from Bagan to Yangon. We booked the tickets through our hotel reception only the night before our flight and the tickets were still reasonably priced with only 100usd each.
Myanmar is not packed with young, partying backpackers
I was surprised to find out that we ended up being the youngsters among other travellers. Most tourists we met were either Chinese families or gray-haired western european couples/groups close to their 50s or 60s.
Health and safety
Myanmar is an incredibly safe destination. Even when walking on the dark roads, it’s easy to feel safe as crime levels are very low – thanks to a strongly Buddhist nation. Of course, normal precautions are necessary – you do not want to leave your wallet unattained on a restaurant table or anything else incredibly stupid. Normal precautions with hygiene is advised just like anywhere else in Asia. In addition, bear in mind that the country’s health care services are very primitive. Dengue fever and malaria occurs widely, so you should protect yourself from mosquitos and take malaria pills if you travel outside Mandalay and Yangon.
The most false or updated information i found online before our trip was regarding the visas. Nearly every visitor to Myanmar needs a visa and most nationalities can get it online (or from an embassy). The e-visa application in the ministry website is a simple form you need to submit, make a payment of 50 USD and within a few days, you’ll receive your acceptance(or in rare cases rejection) document you need to print out and bring with you. The e-visa is valid for 28days and needs to be used within 90 days from issue.
Until last year, it was not possible to arrive in the country with a tourist visa through any other airport than Yangon, but currently e-visas are issued also for those arriving through Mandalay or Naypyidaw airports. Do not the that you cannot get the normal tourist visa at the airport, only business visas are in some cases available on arrival.
Another topic I found tremendous amounts of warnings was the money. You can not exchange the local money abroad and until only a year or two back, ATM’s were basically nonexistent in the country. Because of that, tourists were advised to bring crisp us dollars with them. Not necessary anymore – ATMs are available extensively and do accept foreign credit cards. Of course regular problems with the machines are expected, but we managed to get cash in every city we visited. Also, if you happen to bring US dollars with you – do not worry if they are slightly folded or dirty, as long as they are not torn you are fine with them.
The price level
Myanmar is an extremely poor country – meaning the prices are also low. Some services targeted for tourists, such as hotels, restaurants and taxis naturally charge much more than most of the locals could ever afford. While haggling in hotels and restaurants is not possible, be tough with the taxi drivers – if you do not manage to cut 30% off the price or more, you are paying too much. Also, at most of the attractions an entrance fee is charged from tourists and sometimes you are also required to pay an additional fee for the use of camera.
Here are some examples of the prices that we paid (1000kyat = 0.7€):
- Less than 10 km with Taxi = 3000-4000 kyat
- A day trip with a private taxi = 30 000- 40 000 kyat
- Main course at a restaurant = 2000-4000 kyat
- Beer (big bottle) 1200 kyat from supermarket, from a restaurant 2000-3000kyat
- Water (1l) 200 from supermarket, 300-400 from the street
Please respect the dress code!
The burmese people dress conservatively. Both women and men wear the traditional long sarongs wrapped around the hips and a shirt covering their shoulders. You do not see much of skin on the streets. Although tourists are not expected to dress like a local, it is considered respectful not to wear too revealing clothes. So it might be wise to leave those hot pants home. Instead, when visiting the temples, you are expected to cover up, meaning having your knees, shoulders and chest covered. Therefore it is advisable to bring a lightweight scarf with you so you can wrap it over your shoulders if you happen to be wearing a sleeveless to. Also note that footwear needs to be taken off when entering most of the attractions, so I’d advice you to think twice before putting on those fancy shoes that takes ages to put on and take off – flip-flops are your friends here!