|Population||60,280,000 (2010 est.)|
|Electricity||220V/50Hz (American and/or Central European plug)|
Myanmar (မြန်မာပြည်), or Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (ပြည်ထောင်စု သမ္မတ မြန်မာနိုင်ငံတော်), is a country in Southeast Asia. It lies on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east.
The lowlands of the Irrawaddy Delta with the largest city and former capital Yangon.
Mandalay, historical and archaeological sites and cool hill towns.
Remote mountainous regions and some lovely beaches on the Bay of Bengal.
A huge, fractious region including the southern reaches of the Himalayas and many ethnic tribes.
The infamous Golden Triangle and a bewildering number of ethnic groups.
The southern coastal stretch bordering Thailand with a vast number of offshore islands.
- Naypyidaw (formerly Pyinmana) — newly designated capital of the country
- Bago (formerly Pegu) — historic city near Yangon full of wonderful Buddhist sights
- Kawthaung — beach town in the far south which is as much like Thailand as Myanmar gets
- Mandalay — former capital of the Konbaung Dynasty built around the Mandalay Royal Palace and main commercial centre of Upper Myanmar
- Mawlamyine (Moulmein) — capital of Mon State and the third largest city
- Pyin U Lwin (Maymyo) — cool town which is a wonderful former British colonial hill station
- Taunggyi — capital of Shan State in the heart of the Golden Triangle
- Twante — a delta town that is famous for pottery
- Yangon (formerly Rangoon) — the economic centre, known for its pagodas and colonial architecture
- Bagan — an archaeological zone with thousands of pagodas near the banks of the Irrawady River
- Inle Lake — a large shallow lake good for beautiful boat trips, visiting floating villages inhabited by the Intha people, hiking, and also a source of excellent silk
- Kengtung — between Mong La (on the border with China) and Tachileik (on the border with Thailand) in the Golden Triangle, known for the Ann (black teeth people) and Akha tribes and trekking
- Kyaiktiyo — a gold-gilded rock sitting atop a cliff and a major pilgrimage site
- Mount Popa — an extinct volcano regarded as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, a green oasis high above the hot plains and an easy day trip from Bagan
- Mrauk U — former capital of the Rakhine Kingdom
- Ngapali — beach resort in western Rakhine State, spilling into the Bay of Bengal
- Ngwe Saung — longest stretch of beach in Ayeyarwaddy Division, white sandy beach and crystal clear water are the features of Ngwe Saung Beach
- Pyay — a town on the Ayeyarwady River midway between Yangon and Bagan, known for its archaeological site Sri Kittara, the ancient Pyu capital from 2 to 9 CE
- Pathein — a river town in the Ayerwaddy delta, known for manufacture of umbrellas, gateway to Chuang Tha and Ngwe Saung Beaches
Like most of Southeast Asia's countries, Myanmar's people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1947 when it became a separate self-governing colony. During the Second World War, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia. The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called "Death Railway") from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labour — Allied prisoners-of-war, indentured Thai labourers, and Burmese people. They had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died (estimated at 80,000) during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.
While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were empty. The Japanese occupation was more brutal than the British colonisation, and many Burmese were killed, such as in the Kalagong massacre. Aung San subsequently switched allegiance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.
The new union brought together various states defined by ethnic identity, many of whom had centuries-long histories of autonomy from and struggles against each other. In the interest of securing their collective independence from Britain, the tribes reached an agreement to submit to collective governance—with power sharing among the ethnicities and states—for ten years, after which each tribe would be afforded the right to secede from the union. The terms of this "Panglong Agreement" were enshrined in the 1947/1948 constitution of the new Union of Burma. The new central government of the nation quickly worked to consolidate its power, marginalizing and angering tribal leaders and setting off more than a decade of armed conflict. In 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from the Shan people, Kachin people, Red Karen, Karen people, Chin peoples, Mon people and Rakhine people met with ethnic Bamar (Burmese) central government authorities to draft a new form of government which would ensure the tribes both autonomy and self-determination within a federal system.
The new government was never formed. Military leader General Ne Win led a coup d'état which ousted the democratically elected government in 1962, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of national hero Aung San) under house arrest, which she has endured for 14 of the last 20 years.
Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to widespread corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism," but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.
In response to the government's attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with begging bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the centre of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders.
Following elections in 2010, Burma began a process of liberalization that has led to a reduction or removal of sanctions by many nations including the United States. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the Burmese parliament and allowed to travel to Europe and North America. Censorship of foreign and local news has also been suspended.
Myanmar's culture is largely a result of some Indian influences intertwined with local traditions and some Chinese influences. This can be seen in the various stupas and temples throughout the country, which bear a distinct resemblance to those in northern India. As in neighbouring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is the single largest religion. 89% of the population follows these Buddhist practices, and even some of the most remote villages will have a temple for people to pray at. Other religions which exist in smaller numbers include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Animism and ancestor worship can also be found around the country, especially in the more distant, hill tribe regions.
The dominant ethnic group in Myanmar is known as the Bamar, from which the original English name of the country, Burma, was derived. Besides the Bamar, Myanmar is also home to many minority ethnic groups and nationalities which have their own distinct cultures and languages. In addition to the native ethnic minorities, Myanmar is also home to ethnic Chinese and Indians whose ancestors migrated to Myanmar during the colonial period, most visible in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Generally speaking, the regions in Myanmar are Bamar-dominated, while the states are dominated by the respective ethnic minorities.
Generally speaking, most Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite, and will do their best to make you feel welcome in their country.
Myanmar is a presidential republic, with the president, who is appointed by the legislature, serving as both head of state and head of government. He and his cabinet form the executive branch. The legislature is composed of the bicameral Assembly of the Union, consisting of an upper Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities), and a lower Pyithu Hluttaw (House of Representatives). While a majority of the members of the legislature are popularly elected by the people, a significant minority of the seats are reserved for appointees from the military.
Myanmar is considered to have 3 seasons. The hot season is usually from Mar–Apr. Temperatures then cool off during the rainy season from May–Oct. The peak tourism season is the cool season from Nov–Feb. Temperatures can climb as high as 36°C in Yangon in the hot season while in the cool season, noontime temperatures are usually a more bearable 32°C, with night temperatures falling to around 19°C. Mandalay is slightly cooler in the cool season, with temperatures falling as low as 13°C, while temperatures in the hot season can go as high as 37°C. Generally, Lower Myanmar, the area around Yangon, receives more rainfall than the drier Upper Myanmar (around Mandalay).
In the highlands such as Inle Lake and Pyin U Lwin, winter temperatures can fall below 10°C at night, while daytime temperatures tend to be very pleasant. Even in the summer, temperatures rarely climb above 32°C. Near the Indian border in Kachin State, there are permanently snow capped mountains.
- From the Land of the Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. A Cambridge-educated writer gives a touching account of his growing up as a Paduang-Hilltribe-Guyand in the difficult political environment before becoming a rebel himself. (ISBN 0 00 711682 9)
- The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. A novel that spans a century, from British conquest to the modern day. A compelling account of how a family adapted to the changing times; provides much insight into Burmese culture.
- The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U. Easily the most accessible history of Myanmar available. Read it before you go and you will marvel at how the once great and rich cities (like Martaban, Syriam, and Mrauk-U) have become the dingy and smoky villages of today. (ISBN 0374163421)
- The Trouser People by Andrew Marshall. The author follows in the footsteps of Victorian explorer, Sir George Scott. This book looks at lost British heritage as well as the Burmese tragedies occurring in the present. (ISBN 0 14 029445 7)
Delays if applying in the US
As of late 2012, the embassy in Washington D.C. was swamped with visa applications. Myanmar is now attracting more visitors. The embassy might not meet their 10 business day visa processing time goal. Travelers have reported that it has taken over 3 weeks to get their visa. Make sure you send your passport to the embassy at least 1 month before travel
Citizens of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Philippines may enter Myanmar without a visa for a stay of up to 14 days, provided they enter by air. This 14 day stay is strictly not extendable for any reason. All other nationalities are required to apply for a visa in advance. Some additional restrictions, requirements or conditions may be applied to applications. Reports have included a need for a detailed itinerary, a detailed job history, etc. Be prepared for some unusual questions (either on the forms, or from the consulate staff) when applying for your visa.
Myanmar's E-Visa Online is fully operational as of September 2014. To apply for a Visa you need a digital photo of you (check requirements), $50 and provide an address in Myanmar. It takes up to 3 workdays and then an "Entry Visa Approval Letter to Myanmar" is emailed to you.
Alternatively, there is another option to get your coveted Myanmar visa and that is to use the services of an organisation like Evisa Asia. This way, you won’t even need to visit a Myanmar embassy. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, issue the approval letter online. You must enter Myanmar through international airports and not through the border. Visa sticker will be stamped on your passport on arrival.
A same-day visa can be issued at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. To get the visa the same day, you must tell the visa clerk that you are leaving tomorrow. They will issue your visa later that same day by 15:30, valid starting the date of issue.
Myanmar has announced the resumption of Visa On Arrival (VOA) for business visas, starting in Jun 2012 for several countries including all ASEAN member states. Despite reports saying that the government has reintroduced VOA for tourists, as of Jun 2012, all tourists must apply via embassies.
The easiest way to get the visa is to apply through a travel agency in your home country. The form is simple and requires an ID photo or two. In Bangkok, it takes one or two business days. A standard application for a tourist visa requires: a completed visa form (available from the embassy), a completed arrival form (again, from the embassy), a photocopy of the photo page from your passport, two passport sized photos, the applicable fee (810 baht/USD24). In Hong Kong, you can get the visa by applying between 09:00-12:00, and picking it up after 15:00 on the following business day (your passport, 3 passport photos, business card / leave letter from your employer or student ID if you're a student, and application fee of HK$150/USD19).
Tourists visas are valid for 3 months. The visa is valid for a stay of up to four weeks (from date of entry), although you can overstay if you are willing to pay a USD3 a day fee when you leave. Employment is not allowed on a tourist visa, and working without proper authorisation runs you the risk of being arrested and deported. Successful applicants will also be issued an "Arrival Form", which will be stapled into your passport and must be presented on arrival in Myanmar, along with your passport containing the visa sticker.
Myanmar's main international airport is located at Yangon, the largest city and main economic centre. There are regular scheduled flights from Yangon to several major cities in China, India and Southeast Asia. For travellers from outside the region, the easiest way to get into Myanmar will be to catch a flight from either Singapore or Bangkok, both of which have good connections to cities around the world, and are served by several flights into Yangon daily due to their large overseas Burmese populations.
Myanmar also has a second international airport at Mandalay, which is served by several flights from China and Thailand.
For a current list of airlines and destinations, see Airport of Yangon
Myanmar has land borders with five different countries, namely China, India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos. As of 2013, restrictions on foreigners entering via the Thai border have been lifted, and foreigners are free to travel overland from Thailand into the Burmese heartland provided their Burmese visa is in order. Entering Myanmar from the other land border crossings, though, is a different story. At the very least, you will need to apply for special permits in advance, and you may need to join a guided tour in order for the permit to be granted.
- Thailand - Four border crossings exist between Myanmar and Thailand at Tachileik/Mae Sai, Myawaddy/Mae Sot, the Three Pagodas Pass (Payathonzu/Sangkhlaburi) and Kawthoung/Ranong. As of 2013, all four border crossings are open to foreigners, and there are no restrictions on foreigners travelling into the Burmese heartland from any of the four border crossings. No visa-on-arrival is available though, so ensure that your Thai (if required) and Burmese visas are in order before attempting this.
- China - Foreigners can enter Myanmar at Lashio via Ruili (in Yunnan), although a permit (as well as a visa) and a guide are needed. You will most likely need to join an organized tour, costing CNY1,450 as of Jan 2009. As of Apr 2009, it is impossible for foreigners to cross over from Ruili, even for the day, without first getting a visa in Kunming, e.g., for a tour group. Crossing in the opposite direction is more difficult to arrange and details are uncertain; however, it's possible to fly from Mandalay to Kunming, and there's even a Chinese consulate that issues visas in Mandalay.
- India - A land border crossing exists between India and Myanmar at Moreh/Tamu. While there have been confirmed reports of some travellers crossing into Myanmar from India, with their own transport as well as with permits arranged in advance, the general consensus is that obtaining all the necessary permits is very hard. At the least, a foreigner (a person who is neither a citizen of India nor a citizen of Myanmar) will need to get an Indian permit to visit the state of Manipur, and an MTT permit to enter or leave Myanmar at Tamu. Travellers may also need a permit to travel from Tamu to Kalewa, although there are unconfirmed reports that this is no longer required.
- Laos - Although it is currently not feasible to independently cross the border between Myanmar and Laos, the Laos-Myanmar Friendship Bridge across the Mekong river is currently under construction, so this crossing might be possible in the near future.
- Bangladesh - it is not currently feasible to independently cross the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh.
Myanmar's infrastructure is in poor shape. As a result of the political situation, Myanmar had until recently been subject to trade sanctions from much of the western world, and this can cause problems for unwary travellers. Travel to certain regions is prohibited; for others, special permits must be obtained, and a guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory - although whether these "guides" accompany you to look after you, or to keep you from going to places the government doesn't want you to see, is moot.
Much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travellers, and many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed (for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung). Thus, while travellers can travel freely in the Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be restricted or circumscribed in other places. In theory, any tourist can apply for a permit to visit any restricted area or to travel on any restricted land route. In practice, it is unlikely that any such permit will be issued in a reasonable amount of time, or at all. Permit requests can be made locally in some cases (for example, requests for the land route to Kalewa can be made in Shwebo) but, in most cases, the request has to be made in Yangon. Requests to visit restricted areas must be made at the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours) office in Yangon (Number 77-91, Sule Pagoda Rd, Yangon). Applications for local permits can often be made at a local MTT office or at a police station. As of writing this, local permits are available only for the following places & routes:
- Kengtung - Tachilek. This used to be straightforward but the availability is now uncertain.
- Mrauk U Chin/ Zomi village tours. Easily available in Mrauk U, but must visit with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.
- Myitkyina - Indawgyi Lake. Easily available in Myitkyina but must travel with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.
- Shwebo - Kalewa. A permit is necessary if going by road. It is uncertain whether one is required if going by boat.
All other permits must be obtained in Yangon.
Permits for places like Putao are obtainable but need to be applied for well in advance
Myanmar is not North Korea, and you are free to walk around, go to shops and interact with the locals. That being said with many of the more far flung places, and places restricted to foreigners it is better to arrange your internal visa in advance.
Companies that can help with internal visas:
- Asia Tours
- Burma Travel Packages
- Mr Myanmar Travel
- Real Burma Travel
- Remote Asia Travel
- Travel Myanmar
The poor state of Myanmar's roads and railways make flying by far the least uncomfortable option when travelling long distances.
State-run Myanma Airways (UB), not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International (8M) "MAI" - is known for its poor safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it whenever possible.
There are also three privately owned airlines serving the main domestic routes in Myanmar. They are Air Bagan (W9), Air Mandalay (6T) and Yangon Airways (YH). While more expensive, they are a safer option and would get you to all the main tourist destinations from Yangon or Mandalay.
The private airline companies are usually on time, and even depart early (10-20 min), so be on time and reconfirm your flight and flight time 1–2 days before departure. Sometimes the itinerary might be altered some days before departure (meaning that you will still fly to your final destination on the scheduled time, but with an added or removed in between stop, e.g., Yangon-Bagan becomes Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan). This usually only affects your arrival time. En route stops have only 10-20 min ground time, and if it is not your final destination, you can stay inside the plane during the stop.
Important for Yangon: Yangon International Airport serves all domestic flights from the old terminal building. This building is about 200 m further on the road than the main (new) Yangon International Airport building. When taking a taxi from downtown to the airport, mention to the driver that you are on a domestic flight so you'll not end up in the wrong terminal.
The table at right gives some sample rates for Air Bagan and Air Mandalay (Jan 2011) between most visitable places in Myanmar (note: these are high-season prices, and usually the fare in the opposite direction is the same price. Check for more up-to-date rates!)
|Mandalay||Pyin U Lwin||4 hr||USD2||USD4||None|
|Pyin U Lwin||Hsipaw||7 hr||USD2||USD6||None|
Myanmar has an extensive, but ancient rail network. Trains are slow, uncomfortable, noisy, often delayed, have frequent electrical blackouts and toilets are in abysmal sanitary condition. Never assume that air conditioners, fans or the electrical supply itself will be working, even if the train authorities promise so. Train stations also charge foreign travellers exorbitant prices, making buses a cheaper and faster alternative. Still, a journey on a train is a great way to see the country and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay, up hairpin bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower Mandalay, Yangon-Pathein and Yangon-Mawlymaing, are little communities of their own with hawkers selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are available on many overnight express trains, although in the high season you may want to reserve a few days in advance. The Yangon-Mandalay trains now operates in the daytime only, apparently because the government does not want trains passing Naypyidaw at night. Food service is available on the express in both directions between Yangon and Mandalay, as well as on the Yangon-Mawlymaing routes.
Except for the new bridge and rail line that connects Mawlymaing to points on the west side of the Salween River, the rail network is exactly the way it was in British times. The most used line is the 325 km line from Yangon to Mandalay with several trains a day. It is the only double line in Myanmar, and also the only one that is competitive in time with buses. Note, that the fastest trains take 15 hr for the 385 km run, an effective rate of 25 km/hour. A second line connects Yangon with Pyay, 9 hr for the 175 km journey, with a branch heading off into the delta region town of Pathein. These tracks, the earliest constructed, are in poor shape. With the construction of the bridge across the Salween, it is now possible to go by train from Yangon to Mawlymaing , 8 hr for the 200 km journey, and on to Ye although it is closed to foreigners. From Mandalay, trains continue on to Myitkyina in Kachin State, 350 km in 24 hr, and to Lashio. There are also rail connections between Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Bagan, but bus or ferry are better alternatives: the 175 km from Mandalay to Bagan takes 10 hr.
There is railway service between Yangon-Bagan.16 hr, first class USD30, upper class USD40, sleeper USD50.
The adjoining table summarizes travel time and prices between most popular places in Myanmar. Note: prices are approximate, check with more up-to-date sources.
There is also a large river ferry network. Both are to a large extent run by the government, although there are now some private ferry services. The trip from Mandalay to Bagan takes the better part of a day, from Bagan to Yangon is several days.
|Mandalay||Pyin U Lwin||2 hr||1,500|
Buses of all types ply the roads of Myanmar. Luxury (relatively speaking) buses do the Mandalay-Yangon run while lesser vehicles can get travellers to other places. Fares are reasonable and in kyat and, for the budget traveller, there is no other option because of the high price of train tickets for foreign nationals. Many long distance buses assign seats, so it is best to book seats at least a day in advance. Because the roads are bad, avoid the rear of the bus and try to sit as far up front as you can. Long distance buses also have an extra jump seat that blocks the aisle and, because it is not well secured to the chassis, can be uncomfortable (which also means that there is no such thing as a side seat where taller travellers can stretch their legs). A window near the front of the bus is always the best option.
A scam about bus tickets seems to be popular in Yangon currently. While many travellers make a stopover in Bago, they are told at their guesthouse or at the bus station it's not possible to buy tickets there in the direction to Mandalay. In a country where everything might be possible when it comes to transport, some people fall for this. Actually, this is not the case and tracking back to Yangon for a bus ticket up north is not necessary at all. Bago has a bus terminal with several bus offices. Buying your ticket at Bago might be slightly cheaper (depending upon your bargaining skills) and gives you more freedom for the rest of your journey.
The adjoining table summarises travel times and approximate fares between important tourist destinations in Myanmar (Note: most bus fares have gone up with the recent fuel price rises, the fares listed here are rough estimates).
Old pick-up trucks run everywhere in Myanmar, cheaply ferrying men, women, children, and monks from one place to another. The rear of the truck is converted into a canvas-covered sitting area with three benches, one on each side and one running along the centre of the truck (some smaller trucks have only two rows), and the running board is lowered and fixed into place providing room for six or more people to stand on (holding on to the truck frame). Pick-ups are ubiquitous in Myanmar and every town has a central point somewhere from where they depart to places both near and far. Tourists who go off the beaten track will find them indispensable because often the only alternative is an expensive taxi or private car.
The basics of pickups are fairly straightforward, wait till it is reasonably full before heading out. On well-travelled routes (Mandalay-Pyin U Lwin, for example), they fill up quickly and the journey is quick. On less well-travelled routes (Bhamo-Katha, for example), passengers arrive (early, usually around 06:00), mark their place, and then hang around drinking tea and chatting until the truck fills up. When the pick-up does get moving, it may linger or go out of its way in the hope of picking up more passengers. The inside of a pick-up can be hot and uncomfortable. Passengers, packed in like sardines, face away from the windows (which are tiny) and into the truck. Standing on the running board can be tiring and tough on the arms! On the other hand, the window side seat next to the driver is very comfortable and well-worth the little extra that you have to pay, so it is best to go early and reserve that seat.
You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable rates to tour independently. The licensed guides at Schwedagon Paya in Yangon can arrange to have a driver with a car meet you at your hotel. Another way is to arrange for a car through a travel agency, though it can be quite expensive. You can "test" the driver and the car by driving around the city for 10 or 15 minutes. If you are satisfied, a departure date and time and per diem rates (inclusive of petrol) can be negotiated. Some guides are willing to travel with you to serve as interpreters.
Road travel to tourist destinations is generally safe, although some roads may be rough. Highways are often 2-lane, and cars often pass one another recklessly. That being said, driving habits are not quite as aggressive as say, Vietnam. Allow two days to drive from Yangon to Bagan in fair weather. Pyay is a good stopover point. Allow a day to drive from Bagan to Inle Lake.
In cities, it is considered illegal to cross an amber light without stopping. Despite having crossed 3/4 of the way, you will be required to stop in the middle of the road and make your way back in reverse!
Accidents and fatalities are common. Night-time road travel is not recommended, and medical facilities are limited in rural areas. At government hospitals, bribes may be required for services. Make sure needles are new or carry your own. HIV is a major problem in Myanmar.
All taxis (and by extension all vehicles for transport of people and goods) have red/white licence plates, while private vehicles have a black/white. Tourist agency-owned cars have a blue/white licence plate.
In Yangon, riding motorcycles is illegal. Mandalay's streets, on the other hand, are filled with both.
Cars and pedestrians may not follow the established rules, and crossing the road can be difficult. Drivers will almost never yield to pedestrians, even on striped pedestrian crossings.
- See also: Burmese phrasebook
The official language of Myanmar is Burmese (known by the government as Myanmar). A majority of Burmese pronunciation is derived from the ancient language of Pali (at the time of the Buddha), but the language is a Sino-Tibetan language related to Chinese and hence tonal (word pitch matters) and analytic (most words are one syllable long). It is written using the Burmese script, based on the ancient Pali script. Bilingual signs (English and Burmese) are available in most tourist spots. Numbers often are also written in Burmese script.
There are also many other ethnic groups in Myanmar such as the Mon, Shan, Pa-O and many others who continue to speak their own languages. There is also a sizeable ethnic Chinese community mostly of Yunnan descent, most visible in the city of Mandalay, and many of whom speak Mandarin. Some areas are also home to various ethnic Indian communities who continue to speak various Indian languages. However, with the exception of the elderly, it is rare to find any locals who do not speak Burmese.
Myanmar is a former British colony, and as a result - and because English is still compulsory in kindergartens and primary schools - many Burmese understand at least some rudimentary English. Most well-educated upper class Burmese are fluent in English, while in the main cities like Yangon and Mandalay, many locals will know enough English for basic communication. Hotel and airline staff, as well as people working in the tourism industry generally speak an acceptable level of English. You may find more English spoken in Myanmar than in Thailand.
Myanmar has not been on the hit list of many travellers through Southeast Asia, and it's difficult to understand why. The country is a true, unspoiled treasure trove, and should capture the imagination of anyone interested in culture and history. Walking around Yangon brings you back to the time of 19th century British colonial rule. Sparkling-clean parks and temples stand side by side decayed colonial-style buildings and deep potholes. Its cultural and religious attractions, like the Shwedagon Pagoda, add to the city's feel of exoticism, as do the smiles of the locals. Every street corner brings something new—and a short ferry over the river even gives you a glimpse of rural life in the country. Cities of cultural and historical interest close to Yangon are Bago with its Buddhist sights, the delta town of Twante known for its pottery, and the pilgrimage site of Kyaiktiyo with its gold-gilded rock balancing precariously over a cliff.
It's definitely worth it to further explore the Bamar heartland—unfortunately the outer fringes of the country are off-limits to foreigners. The former city of Bagan is a true gem, and gives a glimpse of what life in the 11th and 12th centuries here must have been like. Marco Polo described it as the "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". It is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world. Mrauk U is another one of those mysterious places—a sleepy village today, its crumbling pagodas and temples remind of the early modern period, when it was the capital city of an empire involved in extensive maritime trade with Portuguese, Dutch, French and Arab traders. Within daytripping distance from Mandalay is Inwa, another former capital where ruins remain to remind visitors of its former glory. Also don't miss Pyin U Lwin, a former British hill station with somewhat cooler temperatures.
The country has its fair share of natural attractions. Inle Lake is where the backpacker community resides, and it is one of the few places that is starting to feel like a tourist trap. Still, a trip to Myanmar is not complete without a boat trip on the lake. It has a unique vibe with tribes living in stilt houses and paddling their traditional wooden boats with one leg. The country's long southwestern coastline also has a few beaches, such as Chaung Tha and Ngapali. If you visit outside of the traditional holiday season, you might just have a beautiful white sand beach for yourself.
Myanmar is an excellent country for trekking. Kalaw is a centre for trekking, and has miles and miles of trails through mountains and hill tribe villages. Kengtung is also known for its hiking paths to hill tribe villages, while Hsipaw has some great treks to waterfalls. Birdwatching can be done around Inle Lake.
Myanmar is still predominantly a cash economy, largely due to the lack of ATMs. In a misguided attempt to fight rampant black marketeering, the Myanmar government has an unfortunate habit of declaring notes to be worthless: this happened for the first time on 15 May 1964, when the 50 and 100 kyat notes were withdrawn. On 3 Nov 1985, the 20, 50, and 100 kyat notes were withdrawn again and replaced with new kyat notes in the unusual denominations of 25, 35, and 75, possibly chosen because of dictator Ne Win's predilection for numerology; the 75-kyat note was introduced on his 75th birthday.
Only two years later, on 5 Sep 1987, the government once again demonetized the 25, 35, and 75 kyat notes with no prior warning, rendering some 75% of the country's currency worthless. A new series of 15, 45, and 90-kyat notes was issued, incorporating Ne Win's favourite number 9. The resulting economic disturbances led to serious riots and eventually the 1989 coup by General Saw Maung, The post-coup notes come in more normal denominations from 1 to 1000 kyat, and this time the old ones remain legal tender, so far.
Myanmar's currency is the kyat, pronounced "chut/chat". Prices may be shown locally using the abbreviation of K (singular or plural) or Ks (plural) either before or after the amount and depending very much on who is doing the sign writing. The ISO abbreviation is MMK. Pya are coins, and are rarely seen since their value has become increasingly insignificant with even the largest 50 Pya coin worth less than six US or euro cents in Feb 2014. Foreigners are required to pay in US dollars for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are required to pay in kyat for most other transactions (trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.). According to law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen to accept (or hold) US dollars without a licence but this law is mostly ignored and US dollars are generally accepted. Never insist though because it may be dangerous for the receiver. FECs are still legal tender but are rarely seen and are worth very little.
Kyat officially cannot be exchanged abroad, though money changers in places with large overseas Burmese populations such as Singapore will often exchange anyway. Bring very clean, unfolded US dollars (or they will not be accepted by hotels, restaurants and money changers), and dispose of remaining kyat before leaving.
Due to the low dollar (Sep 2010), an increasing preference for paying in kyat is noticeable, especially when paying for food, private transport (car/taxi), and tours/activities.
In an effort to combat counterfeiting some places, especially currency exchange companies, will seemingly arbitrarily reject US dollar notes, usually big notes such as the USD100 and the USD50. This is usually due to them looking too new or having a certain serial number however not all places will do this.
Visitors do not need to bring a lot of cash when landing in Yangon, as there are now many ATMs accepting MasterCard and Visa cards at the airport [Mar 2014]. You still need to bring dollars though, to pay for hotels and other big expenses. If you are in a hurry at the airport, there are lots of ATMs in Yangon. Look near shopping malls, big hotels, and banks. There are about 10 ATMs at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
Smaller tourist destinations also have ATM's now (Bagu, Hpa-An, et al.), but not so many. Make sure to carry a buffer outside of Bagan, Yangon, Mandalay, and Inle Lake.
Also, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card through Singapore. People have reported that hotels charge a commission ranging from 7% up to 30% and may need to sight your passport to process the transaction. For US Citizens, it is also possible to receive funds from friends or relatives in an emergencies through the US Embassy.
Especially on holidays and Sundays, all your necessary money should be changed at the airport as banks in town are closed. Money changers offer a significantly lesser rate (5-10% lower) for changing dollars. The most hassle-free option is to change all your required money at the airport, as you can also change it back for a negligible fee. Look around different banks for the best exchange rate.
The foreign currency of choice in Myanmar is the US dollar, though you can readily also exchange euros and Singapore dollars in Yangon and Mandalay, but perhaps not beyond. Other options are the Chinese yuan and Thai baht. The best rates are in Yangon and Mandalay.
Be sure to bring a mix of USD denominations when visiting Myanmar because money changers will not give change and USD20, 10, 5 and one dollar notes are useful for some entry fees and transport.
Official and black market rates
Currency controls have been relaxed in recent times, and banks no longer exchange foreign currencies at the ridiculous rate they used to. These days, exchange rates at the banks are usually better than the black market rates. Most banks accept US dollars, euros and Chinese yuan. Singapore dollars and Thai baht can also be changed at some of the larger banks.
Ensure that your dollars are:
- Unmarked: no stamps, anti-counterfeit pen, ink or any other mark on them at all. Pencil can be removed with a good eraser, but any permanent marks will greatly decrease a note's value and ability to be exchanged.
- Fresh, crisp and as close to brand new as possible. Moneychangers have been known to reject notes just for being creased and/or lightly worn.
- Undamaged. No tears, missing bits, holes, repairs or anything of that sort.
- Preferably of the new design, with the larger portrait, and the multiple-colour prints. Although, old-style USD1 are still commonly traded.
- For USD100 bills, have no serial numbers starting "CB". This is because they are associated with a counterfeit "superbill" which was in circulation some time ago.
USD100 bills give the best exchange rate at banks. Changing USD50 or USD20 notes gives you a slightly worse rate of MYK10-20 fewer per dollar.
Kyat banknotes The notes of MYK50, MYK100, MYK200, and MYK500 are most of the time in a horrible condition, but are generally accepted when making small purchases. The MYK1,000 notes are slightly better, and when exchanging dollars into kyat, check that the banknotes you receive are in a generally good condition.
There are a number of tricks and scams running around Myanmar trapping tourists who are carrying US Dollars. Sometimes, guesthouses or traders will try and pass you damaged or nonexchangeable bills in change. Always inspect all notes when making a purchase and request that the vendor swap any notes you think you will have trouble using down the track (this is perfectly acceptable behaviour for both vendors and customers, so don't be shy).
Some moneychangers will also attempt sleight of hand tricks to either swap your good banknotes for damaged, or lower denomination notes. Other reports suggest that the kyats may be counted and then somehow, some disappear from the table during the transaction. For example, after going through an elaborate counting process for piles of ten 1000 kyat notes, some money changers will pull some notes out as they count the piles of ten.
When changing money, be sure that, after any money is counted, it is not touched by anyone until the deal is sealed. Also do not allow your dollars to be removed from your sight until all is agreed; in fact, it is not even necessary to pull out your US dollars until your are paying for the kyats you received. It sounds extreme, but ending up in a country where you cannot access whatever savings you have, and having a good portion of your budget rendered useless (until you get to more relaxed changers in Bangkok) can really put a dampener on your plans.
Is it safe?
So, you're travelling around carrying hundreds, if not thousands, of US dollars stuffed into your pockets in a country where most people subsist on a few dollars a day. Everyone around you knows that if they could get their hands on the money in your pockets, they will be rich for life. What, you may ask, are the odds that someone will try to relieve you of your money? The answer: almost nil. There have been very few instances of a tourist being mugged and only the rare cases of pilfering. Myanmar is an extremely safe country for travellers. Some say it is because of the nature of the people. Others say it is because the punishment for robbing from a foreigner is draconian, whilst others say it is because of Buddhism, which prohibits people from taking what is not given.
Outside of Myanmar, your kyat is almost worthless but do make nice souvenirs. Make sure to exchange your kyat back to US dollars before you leave the country
Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs)
Visitors to Myanmar were previously required to change USD200 into FECs upon arrival, but this was abolished in August 2003. FECs are still valid tender but should be avoided at all costs as they are no longer worth their face value (although a one FEC note has good souvenir potential).
Credit cards and ATMs
The CB Bank has around 30 ATMs accepting international Visa and MasterCard (Visa card cash withdrawal is new, so you may find signboards writing only MasterCard is accepted, which is wrong.) Due to former EU and US sanctions, credit cards are still rarely accepted in Myanmar. As of May 2013 more than 50 ATMs are available in Yangon, however not all are working. It may take a while until you find a working one. Usual withdrawal limit is MYK300,000 with a processing fee of MYK5,000. Beside the ATMs, there are places where cash can be obtained with a credit card, but the rates are extremely uncompetitive (with premiums certainly no lower than around 7%, and with quotes of 30% and more frequently reported). An exceptionally small minority of upmarket hotels accept credit card payments (and will surcharge accordingly). In case you run out of money, ask your taxi driver to drive you to the CB Bank ATM.
Travellers cheques are not accepted in Myanmar. The only exception might be some especially shady money changer, but be prepared to pay an astronomical commission (30% is not uncommon).
It's not possible to be comfortable on less than USD25/day (May 2013). Foreigners will likely be charged fees, including video camera, camera, entrance, parking and zone fees. Most managed tourist site charge for carrying cameras of any sort into the area. Double rooms with private bathroom are nearly always more than USD20, in Yangon a double room without bathroom costs USD20. While you cannot save on accommodation, you can save on food. Street food can get as low as USD0.30 for 2 small curries with 2 Indian breads, USD1 for a normal (vegetarian) dish. Even in touristy places like Bagan dishes cost under USD1 (vegetarian) and USD2 (meat). A draught Myanmar beer (5%) is around USD0.60 (600 kyat), a bottle of Myanmar beer (650 ml) is around USD1.65 (1,700 kyat), a bottle of Mandalay beer (6.5%, 650ml) around USD1.20 (1,200 kyat).
What to buy
- Antiques. Myanmar is probably the last unspoiled market for antiques and, with a good eye, it is easy to pick up bargains there. Old Raj coins are the most popular (and have little value except as souvenirs), but everything ranging from Ming porcelain to Portuguese furniture (in Moulmein) can be found. Unfortunately, Burmese antique sellers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and, increasingly, the bargains were probably made the day before in the shop-owners backyard. It is against the law to export religious antiques (manuscripts, Buddhas, etc.)
- Gemstones. Myanmar is a significant source of jade, rubies, and sapphire (the granting of a licence to the French over the ruby mines in Mogok was one of the causes leading to the Third Burmese War) and these can be obtained at a fraction of what it would cost in the West. Be warned, however, that there are a lot of fakes for sale amid the genuine stuff and, unless you know your gems, buy from an official government store or risk being cheated. Bogoyoke Aung San Market in Yangon has many licensed shops and is generally a safe place for the purchase of these stones.
- Lacquer ware. A popular purchase, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. The traditional centre of lacquer ware production is Bagan in central Myanmar. Beware of fraudulent lacquer ware, though, which is poorly made, but looks authentic. (As a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality; the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality.)
- Tapestries. Known as kalaga, or shwe chi doe. There is a long tradition of weaving tapestries in Burma. These are decorated with gold and silver thread and sequins and usually depict tales from the Buddhist scriptures (the jatakas) or other non-secular objects from Burmese Buddhism (mythical animals, the hintha, and the kalong are also popular subjects). The tapestry tradition is dying out but many are made for tourists and are available in Mandalay and Yangon. Burmese tapestries don't last long, so be warned if someone tries to sell you an antique shwe chi doe!
- Textiles. Textiles in Myanmar are stunning. Each region and each ethnic group has its own style. Chin fabrics are particularly stunning. They are handwoven in intricate geometric patterns, often in deep reds and mossy greens and white. They can be quite pricey, perhaps USD20 for the cloth to make a longyi (sarong).
Burmese food is influenced by that of India and China, yet has its own uniqueness. Apart from Burmese food, other ethnic traditional foods such as Shan food, Rakhine food, and Myeik food are also distinct. Rice is at the core of Burmese food, and good vegetarian food is widely available. Burmese food is often extremely pungent. Similar to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, fish sauce (ငံပြာရည် ngan bya yay) is a very popular condiment in Myanmar, and is widely used to flavour many dishes. Food is inexpensive at most restaurants (priced at MYK500-3,000 per item at most local restaurants, but can go as high as MYK8,000 at posh restaurants). There are many up-market restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay.
The majority of low-to-middle class restaurants use a cheap blend of palm oil for cooking. This oil may be unhealthy, and common roadside restaurants should be avoided if you are at the slightest risk for hypertension, heart disease, or other fat- or cholesterol-related conditions. Higher class restaurants may use peanut oil instead.
What to eat
- Curry: Burmese people have a very different definition of curry than other countries. It is very spicy compared to Indian and Thai options, and although you may find it served at room temperature in cheaper restaurants, in a typical Burmese home all curry dishes are served hot. Burmese curry does not contain coconut milk, unlike its SE Asian counterparts, and has a large quantity of onion or tomato depending on region and cook's preference. Myanmar is the highest per-capita consumer of onions in the world. Quite often Burmese curries are cooked with lots of oil, possibly due to a widely-regarded notion that being able to afford cooking oil (along with rice and salt) is considered a sign of wealth.
- Laphet thote (pronounced la-peh THOU): A salad of fermented tea leaves and a variety of nuts. It is commonly mixed with sliced lettuce, and is eaten with rice. The dish originally comes from Shan State.
- Mohinga (pronounced mo-HIN-ga): A dish of rice vermicelli with fish gravy (orange in colour), usually accompanied by coriander and chilli powder. Its taste can range from sweet to spicy, and is usually eaten at breakfast. It is considered by many to be the national dish, and is widely available throughout the country, albeit in different styles in different regions.
- Nan Gyi Thoke (pronounced nan gyi thou): A special dish of rice noodle salad with chicken sauce. It is mostly eaten in mid-Myanmar.
- Onnokauswe (pronounced oun-NO-kao-sui): A dish of thicker noodles in a thick soup of coconut milk with chicken. It is served with a variety of condiments accompanying it, ranging from fried fruit fritters to solidified duck blood. "Khao soi"("noodle" in Burmese), often found on the streets of Chiang Mai, is derived from this Burmese counterpart. It is also comparable to the more spicier Laksa often found in peninsular SE countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
- Shan food: The Shan are an ethnic group who inhabit Shan State around Inle lake, near the Thai border. Their food is marvellous. It can be found in Yangon easily.
Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink, likewise ice may be contaminated. Bottled water is readily available at many tourist sites.
Similar to Chinese Tea, Yenwejan is usually provided free at restaurant tables. While not flavourful, it is boiled water, and so safe to drink (do not drink plain water - even in restaurants - unless it is bottled water). Dried tea leaves similar to Laphet thote's tea leaves (except these are wet) are added to the boiled water to give Yenwejan Be sure to order it with Laphet thote (Customary/Good combination).
Alcohol is frowned upon by conservative Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, but consumed widely, mostly among men. Myanmar Beer is most popular in the country. Other variants, including Mandalay Beer exist. However, many of such companies are government-owned and/or have links to the drug trade. Toddy juice (ta-YEI) is popular in central Myanmar, and is made from fermented palm sugar. An alcoholic drink popular in the Shan State is Shwe le maw, and is reportedly very strong. It is also possible to buy full strength Beer Chang imported from Thailand; exports to most countries are not nearly as strong.
Beware of alcoholic drinks served in the far northern states. The locals refer to it as alcohol which does not burn when lit, and it is widely suspected to be an opiate concoction rather than a fermented beverage.
There are a lot of nightclubs, including those attached to the five star hotels (e.g. Grand Plaza), and also local entertainment centres (e.g. JJs, Asia plaza).
While not as inexpensive as neighbouring Thailand, Myanmar has surprisingly good hotel accommodation at reasonable prices. Rooms with attached bath are available for under USD10 everywhere except in Yangon and with shared bath for anywhere from USD3–6 in most places. Almost every hotel licensed for foreigners has running hot water (though, in remote areas, availability may be restricted to certain hours of the day). Hotels, with a few exceptions, are usually clean. At the budget end, sheets and blankets may be threadbare and the rooms may be poorly ventilated. A few low-end hotels, particularly in Yangon and other large cities, specialize in cubicle rooms, small single rooms with no windows which, while cheap and clean, are not for the claustrophobic. Rates are quoted as single/double, but the rooms are usually the same whether one person or two stay in the room, making good hotels a real bargain if travelling as a couple. Except at the top-end, breakfast is always included in the price of the room.
Unfortunately, the recent tourism boom in Myanmar has left its infrastructure struggling to cope with the increased numbers of visitors. Hotel rooms tend to sell out really fast, and those in popular tourist destinations often sell out months in advance. As a result of the lack of supply, prices have also increased substantially in recent times. Needless to say, you should make your hotel bookings way in advance of your planned trip to Myanmar in order not to be stranded when you arrive.
Myanmar has a problem providing enough electricity to its people and power supply is severely restricted everywhere. In many places, electricity may be available only for a few hours each evening or, in some cases, only every alternate evening. If you don't want to spend your nights without a fan or air conditioning, ask if the hotel has a generator (most mid-priced hotels do). On generator nights, the air conditioning in your room may not work (the price is usually lower as well). Even if a hotel has a generator, there is no guarantee that it will be used to provide you electricity at the times you require, so be ready for blackouts at any time of day or night. Major tourist hotels in Yangon and Mandalay have near-uninterrupted electricity supply, but can cost anywhere from USD80–300 per night.
At the top-end, Myanmar has some excellent hotels including one or two great ones (The Strand in Yangon and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon). The Myanmar government runs many hotels, including some beautiful colonial era ones (though not the two listed in the previous sentence). A percentage of all accommodation payments goes to the government, no matter where you choose to stay, and it is not possible to run a successful business in Myanmar without some relationship or payment arrangement with the military.
Work in Myanmar for foreigners is hard to come by. NGOs and other aid groups operate in the capital and remote rural areas but may require specific skill sets to hire you. Another option is European and Asian companies, mostly operating on a small scale. Teaching English is feasible in private schools but many foreigners have reported unreasonable contracts, such as withholding pay and refusing to pay those who resign early. Skip entirely the education ministry, which only hires citizens with teaching certification. If you would like to work and assist Burmese refugees certain NGOs work in neighbouring Thailand
The government punishes crime, particularly against tourists, severely; it has a hard enough time convincing tourists to go there due to its international reputation. In addition, many locals, being devout Buddhists, are wary of retribution in their next life should they commit any crimes against others. As a result, as far as crime and personal safety go, Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists, and it is generally safe to walk on the streets alone at night. In fact, you are less likely to be a victim of crime in Myanmar than in Thailand or Malaysia. However, as with anywhere else, little crime does not mean no crime and it is still no excuse to ditch your common sense. As a foreigner, the most common crime you should be worried about is petty theft, so keep your belongings secured. Physical and verbal harassment towards foreigners is uncommon, even on urban walks near bars.
Since 2005, Yangon and Mandalay have seen a barely perceptible rise in the very low level of street robberies. Several years ago, there were isolated bombings: 26 April 2005 in Mandalay; 7 May, 21 October and 5 December 2005 in Yangon; 2 January 2006 in Bago.
Despite traditional taboos against it, begging has become a major problem in the main tourist areas such as Bago and Bagan. Children and "mothers" carrying babies are often the ones who beg as they are more effective at soliciting pity. Note that most beggars are part of larger begging syndicates or just after easy money, as tourists are usually seen to be rich. In addition, the poor can always obtain food for free from the nearest monastery if they can't afford to pay for it, so begging is not necessary for their survival. If you really must give, note that most Burmese earn only USD40 a month doing manual labour; giving USD1 to a beggar is very generous.
Theravada Buddhism is the main religion in Myanmar, and it is customary for monks to go on alms rounds in the morning. Unfortunately, there are also many bogus monks who hang out around the main tourist attractions preying on unsuspecting visitors. Be aware that alms rounds are solely for the purpose of collecting food, and that genuine monks are forbidden from accepting, or even touching money. Those "monks" that hang out in tourist areas collecting money from tourists are fakes.
Myanmar is one of the world's most corrupt countries. Officials and other civil servants may discreetly ask you for a bribe, or invent issues (missing forms, closed offices, etc.) in order to get you to suggest one. Pretending not to understand or asking to speak to a superior may work. However, visitors of Caucasian descent are rarely targeted, while those of Asian descent (including South Asians and East Asians) may be forced to give bribes, but the brunt of the problem hits normal Burmese.
Again, Westerners are very rarely asked for bribes. Then too, most bribes are in the order of a US dollar or less and requested by people earning as little as USD30/month.
The poor road infrastructure, and a mixture of extremely ancient vehicles on the country's roads are all what best describe the road conditions. However, driving habits are not very aggressive compared to say, Vietnam, which does make the safety of the roads comfortable for almost everyone. Although rare, youths sometimes compete against each other on the roads, which has led to some casualties over the past few years. Bus drivers are among the worst dangers, although this is somewhat less of an issue since 2010 due to new, very harsh penalties imposed on bus drivers involved in accidents.
Surprisingly, Burma has a mixture of both right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles, with the majority being right-hand drive but driving is generally done on the right side of the roads.
Unless you have experience driving in countries with poorly disciplined drivers and very shabby vehicles, avoid driving in Burma.
Various insurgent groups continue to operate in the Mon, and Chin (Zomi), states of Myanmar, along the Thai and Chinese borders. Travel to these regions generally requires a government permit. The government also sometimes restricts travel to Kayah State, Rakhine State, and Kachin State due to insurgent activity. However travel is entirely unrestricted to the districts of Yangon, Bago, Ayeyarwady, Sagaing, Taninthayi, Mandalay, and Magwe. Some areas that have been reported as closed have become open without notice, and areas previously regarded as open can become closed with no warning. In addition, local immigration offices my have their own interpretations of regulations.
The price of computers and a home internet connection is prohibitive, so most people surf at Internet cafés. However, recent mobile operator licenses have allowed many people in cities to go online for the first time. Facebook and Viber are the most used apps and services in Myanmar. The government records screenshots every five minutes from PCs in Internet cafés to monitor Internet usage. If you don't want your privacy violated in this way, save your surfing for Thailand or wherever you head next. And the Internet speed is terribly slow, so forget about YouTube or any video streaming.
Myanmar has been under strong military rule for the past 40 years, with a reputation for repressing dissent, as in the case of the frequent house arrests of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, and currently has more than 1,500 political prisoners (sentences of 65 years and hard labor in remote camps were given to leaders of the Saffron Revolution). When in Myanmar, abstain from political activities and don't insult the government.
Discuss politics, if you must, with people who have had time to get a feel for you. The danger, however, is primarily posed to those you speak with, and thus you should take care with their safety. Let them lead the conversation. Also, realize that many phone lines are tapped. And if you absolutely must wave a democracy banner in front of a police station, you'll simply find yourself on the next outbound flight.
However, in recent months, liberty in general has increased by a small but perceptible amount under the new government. A few politically critical articles have been published in government newspapers and a satirical film deriding the government's film censorship policy has been released, neither of which would have been possible in 2010. Returning visitors to Myanmar may find that locals have become ever so slightly more open to discussions regarding politics.
However, under any circumstances avoid doing things that might make the military or police feel uncomfortable, such as taking pictures of police and police buildings or vehicles.
Hygiene in Myanmar may seem terrible to the average Western traveller but it is possible to stay healthy with some basic precautions such as prophylactic medication, care choosing food and water, and antibacterial ointment. Never drink tap water. Restaurants are legally required to use ice made and sold by bottled water companies, so ordering ice is usually safe in major places. Always drink bottled water and check that the cap is sealed on, not simply screwed on. Diseases such as dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and malaria are endemic. Drug-resistant strains of malaria and tuberculosis are common in many areas. Hepatitis vaccinations are highly recommended and cholera oral vaccine is worthwhile. At the dinner table, Burmese use a spoon and fork, or their fingers when this is more convenient. You might feel better rinsing all of them before meals. Antibacterial wipes or alcohol hand-rub is a good idea at regular intervals.
As in any other developing country: "if you can't fry, roast, peel or boil it - then forget it".
Myanmar's healthcare system is poorly funded. If you should fall sick in Myanmar, you can visit the doctor in major cities for minor ailments such as coughs and colds. However, for more serious medical care, hospital conditions tend to be unsanitary and there is often a shortage of medical supplies. The only hospital that comes close to modern developed standards is Pun Hlaing Hospital, a privately owned hospital which is in a remote township of Yangon called Hlaing Thar Yar, and one should expect very high expenses there. Most of the hospitals are government owned, which means poorly funded. Most of the government officials and rich locals head to Thailand or Singapore for more serious medical treatment and hospitalisation and you will be better off doing so too. Just ensure your insurance is in order as arranging to be airlifted in an emergency can be rather costly.
Unlike in many other cultures, there is generally no concept of a family name, patronymic or matronymic in Burmese culture, and most individuals only have a given name. For example, the current President, Thein Sein, only has a given name with no family name, patronymic or matronymic, and would be addressed as Mr Thein Sein by most English speakers. Often, a Burmese honorific, usually U (ဦး) for men or Daw (ဒေါ်) for women, may be added to the beginning of the name, so he may be addressed as U Thein Sein.
Modest clothing is highly appreciated everywhere except nightclubs, and practically required in religious places such as pagodas, temples and monasteries (of which there are thousands). Miniskirts, shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed in consecrated areas, where you also have to remove your footwear, so loafers and flip-flops that you can slip on and off at the entrance are preferable. Myanmar has some of the most stunning temples in Asia and you will be tempted to visit more than you think.
Burmese people generally do not engage in public display of affection, even among married couples, and it is generally considered distasteful and should be avoided.
Both men and women wear a longyi, a sort of sarong sold everywhere, and it is not unusual to see Caucasian foreigners walking around in them. They are wrapped in different ways for men and women, so find out how to tie yours. If you turn up at a temple in inappropriate dress, you can always rent a longyi for a pittance.
When receiving business cards, use your left hand to support your right elbow, and receive it with your right hand.
Tourists of Caucasian descent are commonly referred to as bo, which translates to "leader", as a sign of respect. Address elders with U (pronounced "oo", as in soon) or "Uncle" for men, and Daw or "Auntie" for women.
Generally speaking, despite the common negative perception of the government, most ordinary Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite as long as you respect their local customs. Customer service is in general very good (some say better than in Thailand) but customer service staff are invariably poorly paid, so you might wish to tip service staff generously to ensure your money goes into the right hands.
Similar to neighbouring Thailand, you will often see monks collecting alms in the streets in the morning (they are not allowed to eat after noon). Buddhism is taken very seriously in Myanmar, and it is customary for Burmese men to spend time living as a monk at least once in their childhood, and once more in adulthood. Their customs are similar to those of monks in Thailand. Most notably, they are not allowed to come into physical contact with the opposite sex, so women should be careful not to touch their hands if offering a donation. In addition, monks are also not allowed to touch money. Should you wish to donate to a monk, you should only offer food, as offering money to a monk is considered to be disrespectful in the local culture. Donations to monks have to be spontaneous, and monks are forbidden from approaching people to request alms, and neither do they hang out in tourist areas waiting for tourist donations. If you see a monk accepting monetary donations, or hanging out at popular tourist spots waiting for donations, he is bogus.
Avoid t-shirts with images of Buddhas or Buddhist imagery, which is considered highly disrespectful. Folks are forgiving about it, but one should not look like a bigger fool than is necessary.
Give generously at temples and monasteries but women are not allowed into some sacred areas—actually the restriction should cover only women in menstruation, but since it would be rude to ask and unthinkable to verify, they keep all ladies out. Remember that monks are not allowed to touch money, so all temple donations should be put into the designated temple donation boxes, and not offered directly to the monks.
You can also purchase little squares of gold leaf to apply to consecrated statues.
When praying or paying respects, it is important to ensure that the *soles* of your feet do not point towards the Buddha or anyone else. However, statues are arranged so that won't happen unless you get acrobatic about it. Tuck your feet underneath you when kneeling at shrines and temples.
Swastikas are commonly seen at Buddhist temples and are regarded as a religious symbol. They do not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism.
Country Code: +95 International Call Prefix: 00
Phone numbers in Myanmar have the format
+95 1 234-5678 where "95" is the country code for Myanmar, the next one, two, three or four digits are the area code and the remaining 6, 7 or 8 digits are the "local" part of the subscriber number.
International phone calls can be arranged at the Central Telephone & Telegraph Office at the corner of Ponsodan and Mahabandoola Streets in Yangon. International Direct Dial calls are also possible from most hotels and at many public call offices (often a phone in a shop), but they are expensive, e.g., a call to the US costs USD6–7 per min.
As of 2013, the only mobile telephone network is the MPTGSM network provided by the Myanmar Government's Post and Telecommunication agency. This works on the GSM900 band, so is visible to multi-band GSM phones. Roaming is available onto MPT's GSM 900 network, subject to agreements between operators; check with your operator before you leave to be sure. Unfortunately, MPT only has international roaming agreements with operators from a limited number countries and territories. Nevertheless, if your own mobile telephone can detect the MPT GSM network, then you may be able to buy a USD20 SIM card which will work for 28 days.
As of October 2014, Telenor and Ooredoo, two international companies, have entered the market. Sim cards are cheap and widely available (1500 kyats for a Telenor sim). Nevertheless, connectivity can still be limited to urban centres, Yangon and Mandalay in particular. Telenor seems to have a better connection and plans to improve nets massively in the next years. Although MPT has the widest coverage, it is also the most expensive.
International mail out of Myanmar is reportedly quite efficient, despite what some hotels might tell you. As elsewhere, there is always a risk if you send valuables as ordinary parcels.
Internet is now widely and cheaply available in Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan, but more limited elsewhere. However access is very slow and many sites are inaccessible. Rates are around 300 kyat/hour in Yangon and 1,000-3,000 kyat/hour elsewhere. Some hotels, although rare, allow free access to the internet.
Webmail: most free webmail providers are blocked, however many Internet cafés circumvent this. Jot down the workaround in case it's still unknown in the next café you visit. If one Internet café can't connect you, the next one probably will the next day. As of Jan 2010, Hotmail and Yahoo are blocked, while Gmail is available.
As of May 2006, the following workarounds worked:
- Yahoo - use wap.oa.yahoo.com - the WAP (mobile phone) gateway, which gets you the basic interface.
Myanmar has two ISPs, MPT and Bagan. Proxy sites are blocked by MPT, but may work with the Bagan ISP.
As of 2011, mobile data services are available. As of October 2014, even 3G works in many parts of Yangon and Mandalay.