Travel is picking up faster than ever in Myanmar, a country that only recently opened its borders up to tourism. And things are changing rapidly. When planning my own 3-week trip, I found all sorts of of conflicting information online – so here’s a rundown of what I experienced.
Visas – Almost everyone requires a tourist visa before entering the country (only business visas are permitted on arrival.) The process is pretty seamless, though not entirely standardized – it seems to vary slightly based on where you apply. If traveling in Southeast Asia, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur both have good reputations for getting everything sorted.
With the option of same-day, one-day or two-day turn around, for about $25-35USD you’re granted a 28-day stay.
What is an inconsistency among travelers is that some have been required to provide proof of exit from Myanmar (i.e. a confirmed plane ticket,) while others get approved for a visa, entering the country with open-ended exit plans. It seems that the latter is becoming more frequent, except in the case of travelers who request same-day turnaround on their visa application.
For more information check out our post here on getting your Myanmar visa in Bangkok.
Money – The currency in Myanmar is the kyat (pronounced chet,) but US dollars are also frequently accepted. VERY few places accept credit cards at the moment. Officially, the exchange rate is ~973 kyat to $1USD, but often it’s regarded as $1 = 1,000, so if you can pay for things in USD you’ll actually be paying slightly less.
Kyat can only be acquired (and sold back) inside of Myanmar, and it’s best to arrive with crisp, new US dollars to exchange. Personally I found the best rates by exchanging my Thai baht to USD at a money exchange in the city (near Siam) rather than at the airport or bringing baht into Myanmar.
Keep in mind that you’ll want to exchange your kyat into USD before leaving, you won’t be able to exchange it in Thailand or elsewhere. You’ll typically get better sell-back rates at currency exchange counters in the city.
Airport – Yangon’s arrivals terminal is small but efficient. You’ll be directed from arrivals through immigration to check your visa and dump out into baggage claim area to collect your luggage and change your money.
Currency –Note that per passport, the maximum exchange permitted is the equivalent of $100USD, but many places in Yangon and throughout the country accept US dollars or will exchange currency at fair rates. If you need to take out money, there are ATMs throughout the country, and more are being installed. Just sort out with your bank prior to arrival if your card will be usable.
Taxi – A taxi from the airport to city center should run you no more than $10USD (it’s about a 45 minute drive,) or a bit higher if you’re splitting with others (the line at immigration/customs is a great spot to find other travelers going your way!) Drivers are usually fine with making several stops if you’re staying different places, and know where most guesthouses and hotels are in the city.
Taxis in Yangon– arriving in Yangon, there’s a distinct absence of tuk-tuks and motorbikes rampant in the rest of Southeast Asia. Taxis are the de facto mode of transportation for all travelers, as the drivers typically speak excellent English and the rates are so cheap. Metered cabs are non-existent, but for a 15-20 minute trip, expect to pay about 2,000 kyat. Always negotiate the cost ahead of time. Going to and from major tourist destinations or having multiple passengers can cost a premium, but the drivers will always bargain down.
The buses are very efficient in Myanmar and the recommended way to get around, but the roads are rough so the rides can be long and bumpy. What looks like it should take a few hours on a map could take 12-14. Trains, in-country flights and boat trips are also available.
Accommodations – it’s currently illegal for Burmese people to host foreign guests, making guesthouses and hostels extremely difficult and expensive to open, therefore really hard to come by.
Unfortunately for travelers on a budget, hotels are typically the only option throughout the country, but it’s really easy to buddy up with other travelers and split the cost of hotel rooms (which tend to run $14-$20 a night for the budget hotels.) You’ll hear of the odd $4 hotel room, and if you’re on an extreme budget – go for it. They’re typically awful, but Myanmar is generally safe for travelers on the tourist track, so if you go for the cheapest accommodations you can find, you’ll probably just be sacrificing a minor amount of comfort and convenience. Yangon does have a few hostels, but bunks can set you back about $18.
That said, it’s really not as expensive as I had imagined. Burgeoning tourist towns like Inle Lake are beginning to offer more options, driving the prices down, but if you’re looking for more off-the-beaten-track places, expect to pay up to $50 for a room. If you’re interested in trekking, many travelers opt to stay in monasteries for free.
Food & Drink
Food is generally very cheap throughout Myanmar. Even in tourist hubs, an Asian dish (curries, noodle soups, stir-fried meats or vegetables) will rarely cost more than 2,000 kyat. Western food is available but definitely at a premium. As with the rest of Asia the tap water is not potable, bottled water typically runs 500kyat in cities and 300kyat in smaller areas, but always be on the lookout for refill stations, they’re safe to use.
Myanmar certainly isn’t known for its party culture but the drinking is cheap (and there is an ex-pat bar or two in almost every destination.) Beers are typically 1,000 with mixed drinks running around 2,000, or if you’re really looking to save try the Mandalay rum – 1,500 for a liter bottle.
The social and political situations in Myanmar can be relatively unstable at times. As with planning a trip anywhere it’s advisable to stay apprised of current events.
That said, never did I feel unsafe in Myanmar. The Burmese people are incredibly gracious and the travelers are typically a calmer and tamer group than the typical Southeast Asian party backpacker (though I’m not saying there’s no partying to be had in Myanmar, if that’s what you’re looking for.)
The government also monitors unstable areas of the country and will restrict access to travelers based on heightened violence. For example, in the north of the country, conflict among factions has been ongoing since 1948 tolling numerous truces and ceasefires followed by uprisings. Travel to these areas for tourists is expressly forbidden.
During my time in Myanmar, religious violence between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority sprung up in Mandalay, involving several deaths. A strict curfew was instated (9PM-5AM,) but this sort of aggression is never directed at foreigners.
As with many areas of Southeast Asia, plenty of people get upset stomachs. Make sure you have your Hep A and B vaccines to help prevent serious food poisoning, and under no circumstances drink the tap water. If you do get sick pharmacies throughout the country dole out antibiotics.
I personally came down with a bit of food poisoning in Cambodia that took me a week or two to get over, but felt great my entire time in Myanmar, and I took most of my meals at small local restaurants. Use common sense and avoid sketchy meat.
Malaria is often a concern among travelers to Southeast Asia, I found that in Myanmar the mosquitos weren’t particularly bad – and this was during rainy season. Bug spray’s widely available throughout the region.
If you get sick or injured, clinics with English-speaking doctors are widespread, with larger hospitals in the major areas like Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.
Odds & Ends
– As a female, it’s respectful to keep your shoulders covered and avoid wearing super short shorts. I always keep a scarf with me when traveling Southeast Asia to cover up.
– Internet is very, very limited in Myanmar, and near non-existent outside of the major cities.
– Phone SIM cards are very expensive.
– There is a much larger degree of begging in Myanmar than other parts of Southeast Asia.
– Knowing even a few courtesies in the Burmese language can go a long way.
Photos courtesy of Jason Van’t Padje – www.therawphotographer.com