Although the border only recently opened, the country has been hard at work to enable the best possible experience. Traveling in Myanmar is quite easy and the country offers an experience that can hardly be put into words.
Here is my breakdown of a few important things to know before traveling to Myanmar:
The people of Myanmar are very warm and open to tourists. Of course you should be respectful of them if you want to be treated with respect (like anywhere), but honestly they have one of the kindest demeanors I’ve encountered. The kids learn English in school and there are courses all around the major cities for technology, tourism, English, etc. The borders were only opened to outsiders in 2011 and they are working hard to get things ready for prime time tourism. Everywhere we’ve been (guest houses, pagodas, restaurants, trains, buses), doors were opened and an extra effort made to ensure we were happy and comfortable. There is an English speaking expert at nearly every place we’ve been, even taxi drivers will phone a friend just to be sure they are communicating to you properly.
You’ll have plenty of options within cities and between them to get from A to B, but I would recommend being slightly selective on your choices.
To get between the major cities, I would recommend train only as a last resort. The rail lines have not been updated in decades, the cars are quite dingy, the ride is so bumpy you’ll be 6 inches out of your seat every couple of minutes, there are roaches and Mosquitos both in the sleeper cars, no a/c and fan use only if you’re lucky.
So what should you do?
The bus is excellent! In fact I would recommend using bus all over the country if you don’t want to fly. There is one carrier JJ Express which is exceptionally comfortable, air conditioned, offers screens at every seat (if you’re into that) and is the most modern option around. You can book tickets when you arrive at the airport or at the bus station within the city. I would keep an eye around online too, who knows, they could have online booking available soon…
The food in Myanmar is kind of a melting pot. I would say it’s a mix of Thai and Indian for the most part with a fair amount of Japanese options (especially in Yangon). I recommend being overly cautious about meat consumption, and that of raw foods, ice, etc. there are tourist restaurants that will specify that everything is boiled, purified, etc. and in that case you’re probably fine.
The local currency is over inflated, so everything in Myanmar is far more expensive than it should be. You can dig for deals, but it’s hard to find anything less than $15-$20pp per night in ok accommodations – most hotels are insanely priced and certainly not worth the money. Food is still relatively cheap, looking at $2-$3 a plate in a decently priced place, but of course the more touristy places try and charge $6-$10. Again, not even close to worth it. After being in Thailand or any other country in south east Asia you will think it’s quite pricey. Hiring a motorbike for the day will run you $15-$20 or a taxi $30-$45 (depending on your negotiation skills on the street).
Also ATMs were only introduced in Myanmar over the past year, so the bank fees are quite high and many of them have very low limits on withdrawals. Some ATMs will only let you take out $50 and they charge a $5 bank fee to withdrawal money. KGB Bank lets you take out up to $500, so it’s a much better bet.
The country as a whole is somewhat conservative. The vast majority of the population is Buddhist, they pray often and wear very covering clothing, even in the hottest times of the year. As a tourist, I understand we are not necessarily used to wearing floor length skirts and shirts that cover our shoulders in extreme heat, but remember you are in their home. It is absolutely disrespectful to wear shorts and a tank top when visiting their holy sites (which most Pagodas and sights in Myanmar are). Some sights will provide you with a floor length skirt to put over your shorts, some may ask you to go home and others may just look the other way. In all three of those scenarios however, know that you will have offended some percentage of the local population and should make a serious effort not to do so when visiting. General rules are – no spaghetti straps (as they put it), no shorts, and no shoes/socks in any temple (this includes Pagodas). They have places to put your shoes when arriving at the temple, but it is definitely easier to be wearing sandals that just slide on and off when visiting many sites in a day. Just my two cents!
GETTING A VISA Outside of the US
It is possible to get the visa in Bangkok, Thailand (132, Sathorn Nua Road, BANGKOK 10500) and in Vientienne, Laos at this point. There were also tons of visa on arrival signs when we arrived and no one checked our visa leaving thailand, so it’s possible the rules are loosening once again?
Never the less, it is very easy to obtain a tourist visa to Myanmar. There is a one page form that can be found online here and is also given at no cost when you visit the embassy.
They ask you for a few basic things when getting it abroad:
1. 2 passport photos (which can be taken right around the corner in Bangkok)
2. A photocopy of your passport (copy can be made where you are staying or at the same shops that offer the passport pictures)
3. The one page form filled out completely
4. Your physical passport (they will keep it until you come back to get the visa)
We read online that you needed bookings, but we didn’t see anyone asking for that level of information at the actual embassy and did not show anything ourselves.. Not sure if that was just our luck, but there are also many shops in town that you can pay to get the visa for you and none of them ask for that level of detail either… Just the four things I mentioned above.
The most common thing is to get your visa next day – drop it off in the morning between 9am-12pm and pick it up in the afternoon between 4pm-6pm. There is lots of in-depth information about pricing, location and timing of things here.
BEST PLACES FOR TRAVEL
We’ll make a full donotmisslist for Myanmar, but if you’re short on time and really want to know what Myanmar is all about, just be sure you make it to Bagan.
We spent more than a week in Bagan just navigating the pagodas on ebikes, getting to know the local scene and experiencing life as those in the community live it.
We had traditional Myanmar meals, were offered beetlenut (the local form of chewing tobacco), feasted on tamarind flakes daily (a local candy made of fruit), made friends with the people over at Black Rose (a great, affordable little joint on the main road in new bagan) and finally found the fastest wifi in the country (Bagan Empress Hotel in New Bagan).
The only city I would really suggest to pass on is Yangon, it doesn’t have much to offer outside of Shwedagon Pagoda. I would book one day and then go elsewhere…
OVERALL FEELINGS AB MYANMAR
I was in love with the country as a whole. It is one of the most impressive/beautiful places I’ve been outside of remote areas in bali, less traveled Egyptian ruins, Macchu Picchu, and Sintra in Portugal.
Everywhere you look in both mandalay and bagan you find something amazing, ancient, magical. Bagan as a city just blew my mind. You can just get lost in the middle of 3,000 pagodas and pick one to explore. We went entire days without seeing another tourist and explored most of the ruins/pagodas alone or with random locals that stopped by to say hi. We were shown many “secret spots” and kept to things off the beaten path which really enhanced the experience for me 🙂
If you have a chance – make it to Myanmar, it really is a spectacular place everyone should see in their lifetime.