[Note: As of February 2021, the following remarks about the political situation in Myanmar are no longer valid.] Not long ago this intriguing Asian country was largely off-limits to the Western tourist. But after historic democratic elections in 2010 sparked reforms (and sanctions were lifted by the US in 2012), Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, has seen a substantial increase in tourism, with visitors drawn by the prospect of venturing off the typical tourist path to a country famed for its spirituality and history, blessed with a vast number of temples, pagodas, and other historical sites.
Given Myanmar is only in the early phase of catering to international tourism, a lack of infrastructure and information may be half the attraction for many adventurous travelers, but for others, it means pre-planning their vacation is high on the priority list. These Myanmar travel tips will help familiarize travelers with important destination information before they go, having been designed to forewarn visitors of any obstacles or unusual customs they may not otherwise have expected.
Given the relatively poor tourist infrastructure, upmarket hotels and accommodation can be thin on the ground (indeed you might wish to consider a more luxurious Irrawaddy river cruise) and tend to fill quickly months in advance, so it is best practice to book at least a few months ahead to be sure you can find availability, and at reasonable rates, especially if traveling with a large group.
November through March is considered the “cool season” – high season – for travel in Myanmar. During these months, it is necessary to book even further in advance to ensure you can secure accommodations.
Myanmar (Burma) requires that each visitor be in possession of a passport that is valid for the full duration of his or her visit to the country, and that the passport has at least one blank page. It is also recommended that each person be in possession of a passport that is valid for at least six (6) months after your return date to avoid any issues with immigration, customs, airports, etc.
Myanmar (Burma) visa regulations and procedures change frequently, sometimes without notice, and these changes are often poorly advertised. Those traveling to Myanmar should check the embassy website for your home country, or use an experienced local visa service to acquire the proper visas. Myanmar has also begun to offer “e-Visa” that can be applied for online on their visa webpage.
The official currency in Myanmar (Burma) is the Myanmar Kyat, but US dollars are also widely accepted, and are often used to pay for larger expenses such as transport and accommodation. The economy in Myanmar is heavily cash based, so don’t rely on your credit card while you are there. The best thing to do is to have a stash of cash on you at all times, preferably in smaller denominations. (although not so big that you become a target).
Credit cards are not widely accepted in Myanmar (Burma), outside a few of the larger, international hotels in Yangon and Mandalay. The processing is typically done through Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong, and is at the mercy of Internet connections, so it is recommended to not rely solely on credit cards for your trip to Myanmar.
It is not uncommon for businesses, including the major hotels, to scan both sides of a credit card, in addition to running it through the processor, and save it in their system. Hotels and other businesses that do accept credit cards are typically only able to process Visa and MasterCard. Please also note that hotels and other companies that can process credit cards will typically add a service fee of 4% to 6% per transaction.
Since early 2014 it has become easier to find an ATM in Yangon, and there now are a few ATMs in Mandalay and Bagan. Travelers should not expect to find ATMs outside of these areas. Myanmar does not accept a variety of foreign currencies, and it is recommended to bring only crisp, new (no older than 2013) US dollars, with no tears, creases, folds, or fading as they will be likely rejected by currency exchanges. Currency should have no markings, discoloration or writing or it will typically not be accepted.
It is also recommended to exchange money upon arrival at the airport at designated currency exchange booths. Most items, including meals, bus tickets, trishaws, taxis, and items from the markets are usually quoted and paid in kyat. When traveling to rural areas it is best to carry lower denomination currency as making change with larger bills can be challenging.
Many of the destinations in Myanmar (Burma) and along the Irrawaddy River are not handicapped accessible. Most Irrawaddy River cruises involve walking over uneven ground. Most sites do not have elevators, and are not handicapped or wheelchair accessible and many sites have numerous steps that may be steeper and narrower than is common in Western countries. Tour sites and facilities may also be impossible to navigate with wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, or any other mechanical mobility device.
Additionally, most sites like temples, pagodas, and stupas will require the removal of shoes before entering. For your safety and enjoyment, it is recommended that you be in good physical condition. Also, a travel insurance policy that covers medical expenses, emergency evacuation, etc. is highly recommended.
Most of Myanmar (Burma) has a tropical monsoon climate with three seasons: cool, hot, and rainy, so prepare for a variety of weather conditions depending on your travel season. Layering clothing items is always your best bet, as this allows each person to adjust to any temperature, including artificially maintained temperature, by removing or adding items throughout the day.
Most stores and market vendors will only accept cash payments in kyat, but some larger stores in Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay will accept Visa and MasterCard (where Internet service is available). It is a good idea to take some cash to use for on-the-spot gratuities, purchasing of souvenirs or sundries, and taxis.
Also, while Myanmar is a country rich in precious gemstones, jade, gold etc., it is recommended to only shop for these items with trusted and well established stores or jewelers to avoid fake or misrepresented items.
Many of the local customs in Myanmar differ greatly from Western culture. In virtually every temple complex, as well as monasteries, it is required that all visitors cover their knees and shoulders when entering the grounds. Shoes will need to be removed at the entrance to the temples. Traditionally, socks must also be removed for temple visits.
Many visitors to Myanmar (Burma) go to areas where locals are simply living their daily lives. Should you wish to take a photo of locals, please request their permission first (simply pointing to your camera and allowing them to nod is sufficient). Monks wearing red robes will be encountered virtually everywhere in Myanmar. Women are not allowed to touch monks, even by accident, so please allow plenty of room for them to pass. Most of the temples visited are active temples, and you will see locals worshipping. Temples are also the community centers of life in Myanmar, and many people gathered are not in the process of worship. Your guide will let you know when it is not acceptable to take photographs.
Entry documents will be required at all border crossings, so please carry proper identification with you all times, and never place it in checked luggage. While border crossings are typically not a problem, you must be prepared to open your luggage on request of immigration and customs officials.
When arriving by airplane, it is not unusual for a border guard to ask you questions such as “where are you from”, “where are you going”, “how long will you be there”, or “what is the purpose of your trip.” Always answer honestly and politely. If you are bringing laptops, cameras, or other electrical equipment with you on your trip, you may be required to register these items with the local customs authority to ensure you are not charged duty on these items when you return home.
Most items you purchase internationally can be brought back into the US or Canada. We do recommend, however, that you check with both your home country’s customs office for current restrictions, as well as with the embassies of the countries you are visiting for any restrictions on items that may be unlawful to take outside their borders.
When you return to your home country, you should be prepared to declare everything you purchased or acquired while traveling. Many countries will ask you to complete a customs form, which will require descriptions and values of the items. These forms are easier to complete if you keep your sales receipts easily accessible. Most countries have set customs duty exemptions for both quantity and value of certain items. We suggest that you familiarize yourself with these allowances and limits prior to your travel.
General Information: Before traveling to Myanmar or any destination, it is highly recommended that you look at your country’s international travel information for the most up-to-date travel advisories. For the United States, this information can be found here.
Vaccinations: The consulates of the countries to be visited will provide information on vaccination requirements and/or suggestions. It is recommended you also consult the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) for their current recommendations.
Crime: The areas in Myanmar open to foreigners, travelers, and tourists are generally safe and relatively low crime. However, travelers should still take the necessary precautions to avoid “crimes of opportunity” such as pickpocketing, theft, and mugging. Using in-room safes and keeping a close eye on valuables should help to avoid most issues. Scams involving gems and jewelry merchants selling low-quality items at inflated prices exist within the country. Guarantees from merchants are not always honored. Be sure to carefully consider any purchase of gems and jewelry while in Myanmar.
Depending on the season in which you will travel, it is advisable to prepare for a variety of weather. Layering clothing is recommended, as cool mornings may give way to hot, humid afternoons, and all the buses, restaurants, suites, and public areas are generally air-conditioned.
The following items are essential for any destination: comfortable walking shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellant, hat, umbrella, lightweight raincoat and/or other outerwear garment appropriate to seasonal weather conditions. It is also recommended that you bring duplicates of prescription eyewear, copies of prescriptions for any medications (generic equivalents are usually easier to obtain), copies of credit card information, and copies of your passport information pages and visas.
Comfortable, sporty, casual clothing is appropriate for most touring. We suggest lightweight, light-colored, “expedition-style” clothing in natural, moisture-wicking fabrics that may be layered. A mix of shirts, everyday khakis, slacks, skirts, dresses, and walking shorts are appropriate for your daily travels. Early mornings, late evenings, and air-conditioned spaces may require a light sweater.
At many sites, like temples and pagodas, visitors are required to have knees and shoulders covered; therefore, long pants or skirts, and shirts with sleeves are required. Most religious sites also require that shoes and socks be removed. Sun hats are highly recommended (although cannot be worn in some temples), as is a light rain jacket, especially during the rainy season.
Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, with good ankle support, are highly recommended, as there is a significant amount of walking at most sites. Visitors will be asked to remove their shoes and socks at specific sites; therefore, you may prefer to wear shoes that are easily removed.
Be prepared to spend hours sitting on rusty buses as they bounce over potholes to get to Myanmar destinations if traveling by public transport. The journey might not be comfortable but the scenery is sure to take your mind off your aching body.
Keep an open mind when traveling in Myanmar, the more adventurous you are prepared to be with your diet, the more you will get out of your experience in this exciting country. On the flip side, be wary of the not going overboard on the food front. People from Myanmar have grown up eating street food and local cuisine, so their stomachs are well adapted to the different flavors and spices. You, however, might find coping with some of the foods a bit more challenging. Pace yourself and don’t be afraid to go for plain rice or noodles if you’re starting to feel a bit iffy.
Food hygiene standards in Myanmar are very different compared with the US and Europe, and it isn’t uncommon for street food to have been out all day in the sun while flies have swarmed around it. There is no hard and fast rule for how to stay safe other than to use your common sense. It goes without saying that one should travel with basic over-the-counter stomach medicines, and its probably a good idea to bring along a dose of antibiotics to be on the safe side.
Travelers should also be aware that Myanmar is a haven for vegetarians as there is a plethora of rice and vegetable dishes, all served with a myriad of exotic spices.
There is not much of a tipping culture in Myanmar, given that very few locals earn enough to be able to just give their money away. That being said just because they don’t do it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Leaving a dollar or two on top of your bill in a restaurant will make a huge difference to the daily salary of your server so don’t be afraid to be generous.
Be expected to tip people a little something for taking photographs of them, as they may happily let you take photos of them but then proceed to ask for money afterwards. This is especially common with the dancing fisherman on Inle Lake.
Due to the fact that Myanmar was completely tourist free up until a few years ago, the level of English spoken throughout the country is noticeably lower than in almost every other Asian country. The official language is Burmese and while you are unlikely to be able to get fluent before your holiday, it is useful to learn a couple of basic phrases that will help you win over the locals and maybe even get you out of some sticky situations. There are plenty of resources online that can help you with this. Also, do not underestimate the power of body language and even illustrating what you are trying to say on paper.
Generally speaking, women traveling alone or in a group are unlikely to encounter any problems among the locals in Myanmar. The country is predominantly Buddhist and therefore its people are big advocates of peace and respect. That being said, it is always a good idea, wherever you are in the world, not to draw too much unnecessary attention to yourself.
Local women dress conservatively so by doing the same you will blend in better. No-one will scold you for wearing tiny shorts and a crop top but just know that you will probably be stared at and maybe even hassled by some of the local men. Also, access to many important cultural and religious sites is subject to dress code. Exposed legs or shoulders may mean you are not able to enter.
One of the most exciting things about visiting a new country is getting the opportunity to explore its local markets. Myanmar has a lot to offer in this department, so make sure you pack light and have enough space to take some souvenirs home with you. Hand-woven silks and textiles are cheap to buy and make great gifts, as do the various bamboo lacquerware bowls, vases and jugs.
The majority of what you will find on offer throughout the country will be handmade so be prepared to pay a decent price for it. Of course, you are expected to haggle when you buy things from markets and street vendors. Try and enjoy the experience so that you don’t get ripped off with tourist prices, but don’t go in too hard either – chances are they need those few extra dollars more than you.
The tap water in Myanmar is not drinkable so be sure to stock up on bottled water whenever you can. With this in mind, it is best to avoid eating fruit that you cannot peel as it might have been washed in unclean water. For the same reason, try not to eat salad or any vegetables that haven’t been cooked. Ice cubes should also be avoided as these are often made using tap water and could make you sick. Another precaution to take is with meat – make sure it is thoroughly cooked and served hot. Remember that the health services in Myanmar are dramatically inferior to what you will have back home and getting sick could be a disaster.
Hopefully after reading these Myanmar travel tips you now feel a little better prepared for your Burmese adventure. Having been plagued by a corrupt regime and still bearing the visible scars of a government with an ulterior motive, there’s no doubt that Myanmar can be a challenge for travelers, but boy is it rewarding.
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