Travel to Myanmar offers a journey into one of the least visited countries in Asia and will reveal a country still many years behind its wealthier neighbours, but one rich in history and culture.
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a country which has not been without its political problems, but this belies the fact that the country is home to an extremely welcoming and charming people.
Ironically, the nation’s lack of tourism over the decades has largely contributed to its current-day charm, as its isolation prevented the rampant development and commercialism that has affected many of its Southeast Asian counterparts.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is one of the Far East’s most remarkable sights, alongside the temples of Bagan, the beauty of Inle Lake, the cultural attractions of Mandalay and the majestic Irrawaddy River.
One of the best experiences in Myanmar is to discover the country via a river cruise on the Irrawaddy or Chindwin Rivers.
Banking and Currency
Kyat (MMK; symbol K) = 100 pyas. Notes are in denominations of K10,000, 5,000, K1,000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1. Notes below K50 are very uncommon.
The import and export of local currency is prohibited. However, amounts of foreign currency exceeding $10,000 or equivalent must be declared on arrival and must be converted within one month of arrival and the declaration certificate kept for departure.
The local currency is used by tourists to pay for everyday expenses such as restaurant meals, bus travel, taxis and shopping. Other expenses, such train tickets and museum entry fees, must be paid for in US dollars (although, in some cases, euro are also acceptable). In some situations prices are quoted in dollars although kyat are accepted at a poor exchange rate.
It is essential to ensure that any US dollars brought for use in the country – whether to be exchanged or spent – are recent issues (2006 or later) and absolutely pristine: any tears, folds or marks may lead to a note being rejected. High-value dollar notes usually receive the best exchange rate, but it’s also useful to have lower denominations to spend as hotels etc. may not have change. Euros are also exchanged at banks, and may be accepted at government-run museums, but are less useful when paying for hotel rooms or other expenses.
Banking hours: Mon-Fri 10h00-14h00, and sometimes Saturday mornings.
Credit cards can be used only in a handful of top-end hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, although this situation is changing quickly as sanctions are eased and international companies seek to do business in Myanmar.
There are around 90 ATMs throughout Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Taungoo and Pyinmana accepting Visa, MasterCard, Maestro and Cirrus cards. Two of these are situated in Yangon International airport. In rural areas it is unlikely that credit or debit cards will be accepted; it is best to check with your card company prior to travel.
It is generally unwise to rely entirely on ATMs as, if your card does not work, you may be unable to obtain money in any other way. It is also recommended to carry small change as large notes may be difficult to change. Euros are now also accepted in banks, but exchange can be time consuming.
Travellers cheques are not currently accepted, although this may change. Check with your tour agency prior to travel, and bring plenty of US dollars in cash.
Travel, Transport and Getting Around
Air travel is an efficient and relatively cheap way to get around Myanmar, and is particularly appealing given that bus and train journeys between major tourist sites tend to be long and often uncomfortable. The state-owned Myanma Airways (www.myanmaairways.aero) covers all major domestic routes including some out-of-the-way places. Private airlines include Air Mandalay (www.airmandalay.com), Yangon Airways(www.yangonair.com), Air KBZ (www.airkbz.com), Aisan Wings (www.asianwingsair.com), Golden Myanmar Airlines (www.gmairlines.com) and Air Bagan (www.airbagan.com). These cover all the main tourist destinations, including Heho (for Inle Lake) and Nyaung U (for Bagan).
With the trains being slow and unreliable, road travel is the best way to get around if you are on a budget. It is worth noting, however, that many routes are off-limits to foreigners – usually when they run through sensitive border areas or regions where the government is in conflict with ethnic minority militias. In addition, many roads are poorly maintained and can become impassable in the rainy season, from May to October.
The amount of bureaucracy involved means that foreigners very rarely hire self-drive cars: you’d need a special permit and to have a local with you in the car at all times. It’s easy enough, however, to hire a car and driver for a day or more.
Taxis are easily available in Yangon, Mandalay and a few other large cities and popular tourist destinations. In Yangon there are blue government taxis with set fares. Taxi drivers do not expect a tip and it is wise to pre-arrange fares. Elsewhere, motorbike taxis (where passengers ride pillion) are more common, alongside pick-ups (small pick-up trucks with seating in the back, running set routes) and cycle rickshaws (which have a sidecar).
It’s possible to hire bicycles in most towns visited by tourists, usually from accommodation or travel agents although in some places – Bagan and Nyaungshwe for example – there are several separate rental outlets. The bikes are usually quite basic and/or old, and are generally used for day trips and short rides around town rather than for multi-day rides.
Long-distance buses are usually cheaper and faster than trains running the same route. Most buses run overnight, typically arriving at an inconvenient pre-dawn hour.
There is no legal requirement to use seat belts, and they may not be provided. Motorcycles have been completely banned from the streets of central Yangon. There are also some places, such as Bagan, where foreigners are not allowed to hire motorbikes. Visitors must remember that, under Burmese law, the driver of a car involved in an accident with a pedestrian is always at fault.
Foreign licences are not accepted, but an International Driving Licence can be exchanged for a local driving licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Yangon.
Yangon has a circular rail service for commuters, which is a great way to see daily suburban life. There are also antiquated and overcrowded bus services in some cities; more common are pick-ups, small trucks with seating at the back which cover fixed routes. Unmetered taxis, usually cars or motorbikes, are available in cities, as are cycle rickshaws; it is wise to pre-arrange fares.
The state-run railway serves most of Myanmar, with the principal line being Yangon to Mandalay (journey time 16 hours). The two main classes are ordinary and upper (with reclining chairs), although some trains have first class (between the two) and oversubscribed sleeper carriages. Services are regularly afflicted with delays caused by climatic, technical and bureaucratic difficulties. In addition visitors should be aware that much railway equipment is decrepit and journeys are often uncomfortable. Note that US dollars must be used when purchasing tickets.
Myanmar has about 8,000km (5,000 miles) of navigable rivers, and one of the best ways to see the country is by boat. The most popular route is Mandalay-Bagan, as tourist boats run it regularly, but on other routes (such as Bhamo-Mandalay) visitors instead travel with locals. There are also a few very upmarket river cruise boats on the Irrawaddy River.In some areas, foreigners are allowed to travel by water but not by land. Taking a ferry therefore gives a chance to get off the beaten track.
Food, Drink and Cuisine Advice
All water should be regarded as being potentially contaminated. Water used for drinking, brushing teeth or making ice should be boiled or otherwise sterilised. Milk is unpasteurised and should be boiled. Powdered or tinned milk is available and is advised. Avoid dairy products which are likely to have been made from unboiled milk. Only eat well-cooked meat and fish. Vegetables should be cooked and fruit should be peeled. Some travellers avoid Burmese food for their evening meal, as the curries are cooked in the morning then left in pots throughout the day. Chinese dishes, on the other hand, are usually cooked to order.
The regional cuisine balances spicy, sour, bitter and salty flavours; it can be quite hot but rarely as much so as Thai food. Common local ingredients include fish, seafood, chicken and vegetables spiced with onions, ginger, garlic and chillies, served with rice or noodles. When going out to eat, most locals will pick Chinese restaurants since they make Burmese meals at home. Indian cuisine is also well represented, particularly in Yangon, while major tourist areas usually have a selection of places doing passable Western food.
Climate and Weather
Myanmar has a monsoon climate with three main seasons. The hottest period is between February and May, when there is little or no rain and temperatures can rise above 40°C (104°F). The rainy season is generally from May to October, giving way to dry, cooler weather from October to February. The coast and the mountains see significantly more rainfall than the arid central plains, which include Mandalay and Bagan, and roads can become impassable during the rainy season in those areas. Overall, the best months to visit are from November to February.
Clothing and Dress Recommendations
Lightweight cottons and linens are recommended throughout most of the year. A light raincoat or umbrella is needed during the rainy season. Warmer clothes are advised for cooler season and some evenings, particularly in hilly areas, on ferries or for trips on Inle Lake. It’s also a good idea to wrap up when travelling on buses, as the drivers tend to overuse the air-conditioning.
Electricity and Plug Standards
For the most part, electrical sockets (outlets) in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) are one of the two European standard electrical socket types: The "Type C" Europlug and the "Type E" and Type F" Schuko. Also reported to be in use is the "Type D" Indian socket. If your appliance's plug doesn't match the shape of these sockets, you will need a travel plug adapter in order to plug in. Travel plug adapters simply change the shape of your appliance's plug to match whatever type of socket you need to plug into. If it's crucial to be able to plug in no matter what, bring an adapter for all three types.
Electrical sockets (outlets) in Myanmar usually supply electricity at between 220 and 240 volts AC. If you're plugging in an appliance that was built for 220-240 volt electrical input, or an appliance that is compatible with multiple voltages, then an adapter is all you need.
But travel plug adapters do not change the voltage, so the electricity coming through the adapter will still be the same 220-240 volts the socket is supplying. If your appliance is not compatible with 220-240 volt electric output, a voltage converter will be necessary.