Myanmar has been visited by westerners since Marco Polo entered the ancient temple city of Bagan in the 13th century. Since then, the wonderful Burmese culture has received trickles of tourists here and there to see the famed city and other fabulous sites around the country wherever the government allowed. All that is about to change.
Burma has been dominated by a military junta for decades. Political suppression, however cautious, had been the norm until 2012 when, in a surprise move, the military started easing up their control and started allowing more liberties for locals and foreigners alike. Tourism was HIGHLY discouraged until then as it was considered irresponsible to go and feed the machine of that government.
Myanmar, interchangeably called ‘Burma,’ is a wonderful country, but due to its historically limited accessibility, getting reliable tips and information has been difficult. Publications like the Lonely Planet are just loaded with inaccuracies which shouldn’t be a surprise when you try to summarize a country that is changing so quickly in a yearly book. Here are some tips I wanted to pass on from my three weeks (Aug-Sept, 2014) in this wonderful country.
1) Money Money Money!
As I tried to write tips in general, I realized there were just too many about money. I will summarize them in this single entry.
a) Bring Brand-Spankin’ New US Dollars
If you are like me and like to have a good amount of cash before entering a foreign country, bring crispy new bills. You have never seen scrutiny of currency like this before. Every single note is carefully examined and bills that aren’t perfect or with older serial numbers are rejected. We spent way too much time in the airport as the money changer clerks looked like they were disarming a bomb with how delicately they handled our money.
b) Bring $100 USD Notes
This is true in most places in SE Asia, but $100 notes get a better exchange rate. The difference can be quite large in Thailand and Myanmar. $50 notes often get the same rate, but $100 is safer.
c) Singapore Dollars and Euros are Accepted Too
Europeans I met were often scared by the Lonely Planet and felt the need to change to USD before coming to Myanmar. While the dollar does get a better rate, Euros and Singapore dollars were also accepted at the airport and most banks. While not every money changer accepted non-USD, I would personally risk it if I were European given what a scam money changing is in some European countries. It that doesn’t work…
d) There are ATMs Everywhere
This sounds like a silly tip, but many people came into Myanmar thinking that if they didn’t bring cash, they would be totally screwed. Again this is ancient information as there are ATMs everywhere. Sid and I had no problem withdrawing money and neither did anyone else we talked to. Be advised that some ATMs do shut down at night (as they do in many Asian countries).
e) Feel free to reject any ripped Kyat
The local currency does not have coins in use. This causes the smaller notes to become very crumpled and sometimes ripped as they exchange hands often. Notes of 1000 kyat and above should have no rips at all. Examine every bill you get for change and feel free to reject any that is ripped. The locals know the routine and will gladly exchange them. I got a pretty beaten 1000 kyat note from the airport bank and couldn’t get rid of it until the last day despite trying at least 20 times. They were a lot more lenient for bills under 1000 kyat.
f) Pay with USD if You Can
Entrances to Bagan and Inle, as well as hotels allow you to pay with USD or Kyat (Euro accepted at entrances, but not sure about hotels). They take 1USD = 1 Euro = 1000 kyat. Since the Euro is worth the most and the dollar the least, you save a little money by paying in dollars (3%) instead of kyat. If you pay in Euro, you are wasting around 30%.
g) Exchanging at the Airport is Okay
In Mandalay and Yangon Airports (domestic terminal for Yangon), the exchange rate was 973/969 buy/sell of USD. This is not a large spread and is a profit margin of less than 1/4%. You will not find any better rate and since the money changers are not exactly everywhere, don’t waste your time. Just exchange at the airport.
Now that money is out of the way, here are some other tips!
2) GO NOW!
I mistakenly spent my first few days in Thailand near infamous Khao San Road (I feel shame saying that, but that is a whole other story). One good thing that did come from that was meeting Oong, the Burmese guy working in the hostel I stayed. He talked highly of his own country and convinced me that the time to go was NOW!
In 2012, tourism was still relatively new in Myanmar with very few people visiting and consequently, almost no budget accommodation. Now, the facilities are ample, but the amount of visitors haven’t exploded to the levels of Cambodia, Thailand, or any of its SE Asian neighbors, so it is not too crowded. The only tour busses we saw on the entire trip were in ancient Bagan and filled with delightful college students from neighboring cities who asked to take photos with us :).
3) Step out of the Beaten Path
I enjoy the highlights as much as everyone else and am not about to skip them just because they are “too touristy,” but also appreciate the benefits of getting off the beaten path. Almost every trip, I try to take at least one detour to a place very few outsiders visit including Khao Yai in Thailand and Prea Vehear / Koh Ker in Cambodia. In Myanmar, we went to Kayah State, the home of the Kayan people, also known as “long-neck women.”
This part of the country was slowly opened up to foreigners from April to July, 2014 and now, you can freely visit. The Kayan are an ethnic minority of Myanmar who are known world-wide for their use of brass rings to give the illusion of an elongated neck. While you can see a Kayan village on the Thai side in Mae Hong Son, I STRONGLY discourage that as they are virtually slaves. After an attempted rebellion, the Kayan are now at peace with the Burmese government and it is safe to enter Kayah State. However…
4) Don’t Expect Everyone to Know the Travel Laws
If you do decide to go off the beaten path to places like Kayah, Chin, and Myeik, don’t expect everyone, including travel agents to know the most updated law. While in Inle Lake, I asked several agents for a bus ticket to Loikaw, the Kayah capital and was refused. Some people told me I needed permission while others flat out said I wasn’t allowed to go there as a foreigner. They were wrong.
You used to need permission, but don’t anymore. However, since very few people attempt this, they rarely have to look up the latest news. In my experience, hotel owners have the most information so picking a good place to stay is a bit crucial. With that… the following two tips.
5) Put the Lonely Planet Down
Lonely Planet, for those who don’t know, is the world’s largest publication of guide books. They are garbage for many reasons, but more so in Myanmar. This country is changing way too fast for a yearly publication to catch up. We constantly met people who were frustrated with terrible and outdated advice which simply didn’t apply anymore (including many of the money tips that I listed above which LP had wrong).
Another huge reason to put it down, in my opinion, is to actually get the “not so visited” feel of the country. Everyone seems to be on the same path of Yangon->Inle->Bagan->Mandalay or the reverse without any deviation which is advised by the LP. While these were fantastic (except Inle, which was nice but not amazing), prepare to run into the same group of foreigners as few branch out of this planned route.
6) Expect To Book the Old Fashioned Way
Many travelers these days appreciate the freedom to change their schedule and make decisions on an almost day to day basis while on the road. In most of SE Asia, this is not a problem at all and showing up with no plans or booking the night before is fine.
The internet connection is a constant issue in all of Myanmar, but especially in Bagan. No place that claimed free Wi-fi had actual working internet, including ‘internet cafes.’ While other travelers who came different days were fine, people who were there during our same time period as us also could not get a signal anywhere that would load more than the HTML version of Gmail… at 4am (no joke). We ended up booking based on a recommendations of our previous guesthouse owners and it turned out wonderfully.
From Inle to Loikaw, wikitravel nor any booking site I knew had anything and we constantly heard that the Loikaw Hotel was the only one that allowed foreigners. As their rates start at $60 a night, we wanted more options. The owner of the Queen Inn in Inle (who was also the only one who seemed to know we could freely visit Kayah) had a list of 6 hotels where foreigners were allowed to stay in a pamphlet provided by the tourism department printed late 2013. We ended up keeping that list and asking a taxi driver in Loikaw to take us to all of them. While he charged us 7,000 kyat (which is quite outrageous, but normal in Kayah… supply and demand), there were indeed the 6 listed (as of Aug, 2014) and one more we didn’t check out. I’ll list all of my accommodations of this trip on a later post.
7) Give Them the Benefit of the Doubt
A stranger comes up to you and says they just want to practice their English. A savvy traveler who has spent some time in SE Asia might have alarms going off and red flags up as this is a common scam to ask for money later. However, giving Burmese people the benefit of the doubt can pay off big. Not once was I asked for money as the people are honestly just curious about you. Unfortunately, we saw some tourists brushing them off pretty rudely for fear of this scam and I can imagine how an honest person might feel that tourists are unfriendly.
On Mandalay Hill in particular, a group consisting of a monk and two other guys asked us to join their group as we mistakenly thought we were already at the top (as apparently, many people seem to think when they reach the big pointing Buddha). They told us how they take an English class as part of their university studies and invited us to join them the next day. We did and it turned out to be probably our most memorable evening in Myanmar (maybe I’ll give details later, sorry, there is just too much to talk about here).
As for the night…
8) This is NOT a ‘Nightlife’ Country and Thats Okay
This doesn’t bother me at all, but was surprised on how many foreigners complained about this (seriously you can forgo partying for a bit). When in Rome right? I am not sure about Yangon as it was the end of our trip, but there is practically no nightlife in Myanmar in terms of late night bars and dance pubs. While you will see some beer houses that play sports, and was told of some dance places in Mandalay, don’t expect this to be another Thailand.
While situated in SE Asia, Myanmar hasn’t grown accustomed of opening places that cater only to foreigners like you might see in other countries. Scandalous dancing and late nights aren’t particularly part of the culture and although tourism is picking up, pretty much everything you see and do will be made for locals. Speaking of locals…
9) That Dude is not being Creepy
If a random guy in a restaurant looks like he is being creepy because he keeps staring at you and offers you a drink, rest assured, this happened to me too (a man). While I am not saying creepy dudes don’t exist and you should exercise caution, most likely, they are just curious and want to get to know a foreigner. Remember, this is the country that introduced Coca-Cola 2nd to last in the world, in 2013!
10) Ooredoo only works in Mandalay and Yangon
Ooredoo is “one of the largest 3G networks in Myanmar.” Most of the time, if it is affordable, I like to have a local sim to keep in touch with people I meet as well as to have a link to the outside world.
The card itself is 1500 kyat and costs about 10k to top up with data and some minutes. However, don’t expect the Ooredoo network to work anywhere outside of Yangon or Mandalay (okay, it worked in Pyay too). While we did appreciate that hotspotting in these cities was far better than the hostel wifi (which was constantly down), it is really your call whether it is worth it or not. If I did it again, I would not.
11) Breakfast is Always included
Including breakfast as part of the accommodation is standard across the board in Myanmar (along with the best service you will ever get in a budget inn). Make sure to wake up early enough to take advantage of this.
a) Pay the toll / parking fees
Contrary to Thailand, when you negotiate a price for a taxi in Myanmar, it includes any tolls or parking fees. Do not be swindled into paying this.
b) Have no meters
All prices are negotiated before the ride. Almost always, they will quote about 20-30% above the fair rate (to locals and foreigners alike). Bargain to see the real rate. Airport to downtown in Yangon should be 5k-6k kyat, even in traffic. 4k when the roads are completely empty.
13) ‘Hot water’ Accommodations
We discovered that ‘hot’ is a Burmese synonym of ‘not freezing’ when it comes to the temperature of shower water. Many places claimed hot water, but only half delivered. This is the norm and something you might just have to live with.
14) Need a Waitress / Waiter : *Kiss Kiss*
The sound of calling over an infant, or a double kiss sound are the generally accepted ways to call over a waiter or waitress. We also noticed this so far once in Malaysia, so it might not be unique to Myanmar, but we still found it a bit odd. Nevertheless, in a crowded restaurant (especially during long distance bus stops) you might need to use it.
15) Buses Don’t Stop for Long
Buses which carried a lot of foreigners (along the Yangon->Inle->Bagan->Mandalay) stopped for about 30 minutes for food. On more local buses, 15 minutes is the norm. This does not leave a lot of time to eat and go to the bathroom, so order as soon as you get out and run to the toilet!
16) Manners Matter
a) Cross Your Arms When You Talk to Me!
As children, Americans are taught that crossing your arms as you speak to someone shows disinterest or a barrier between the two. Basically, it is kind of rude. In Myanmar, crossing your arms shows that you respect the other person. If you get in a long conversation with a Burmese person, you might impress them by crossing your arms. And…
b) Hold Your Elbow As You Pay With Your Right Hand
Another way to show respect is to always pay with a single hand (the right one), and hold your elbow, arm, or chest while doing it. This is very similar to the Korean way of paying for things and it goes a long way as many Burmese people will quickly point out your good manners.
c) Mingalaba and Jejutinbade
I know I butchered the second one, but those are the Burmese ways of saying “Hello” and “Thank You.” Use them on anyone and everyone to see some of the brightest faces in the world light up as they reply with the same.
d) Take off your Shoes in Temples
In Asia, most Buddhist temples require you to remove your shoes when entering the main shrines. In Myanmar, you have to take them off, and your socks, from outside the building. That means a lot of walking and avoiding bird poop, bat poop, and all other kinds of nasties. I suggest you have sandals the WHOLE time in Myanmar or this will get annoying real quick. Try to pull a fast one and someone will quickly call you out.
I hope you enjoy Myanmar as much as I did. It is one amazing country!