Myanmar Travel Tips
Myanmar is magical. Of all my travels thus far, no place else in Asia did it feel like I went back in time than when I travelled to Myanmar. The culture, the food, the fashion, and everything else about the land felt like it had been preserved and only now are agents of change starting to wake up. Now is the time to go, before modernization takes over and tourism overruns this beautiful country. Here are some useful Myanmar travel tips I’ve learned while travelling across this land caught in time.
1. Tourism is new here, so be prepared for hiccups
Myanmar has just only recently opened up its borders to tourism, so when it comes to tourism infrastructure, everything is fairly young. This isn’t Thailand or Vietnam, where there are well travelled paths and transportation to take you around. Be prepared to rough it with overbooked and scarce guesthouses, delayed buses, old, runaway trains, and slow, and barely functional Internet. Tourism in Myanmar is growing rapidly but the industry is having a difficult time keeping up. However, if you are adventurous enough to go now, it definitely is worth seeing Myanmar before it becomes commercialized.
2. Lodging is (relatively) expensive
Strangely, Myanmar’s budget guesthouses and hotels are not as cheap as you might expect. If you thought it would be more in line with the rest of SE Asia, then you’ll be disappointed. A room with a double bed will cost a solo traveller around $15-30 USD per night and around $25-40 USD for a couple. We tried to squeeze 3 people to a bed to save money but that was often met with resistance or an insistence on charging an additional $7-15 per extra person, depending on your haggling skills. Hostels and dorm rooms are few and far between. I actually only encountered one the entire trip and it was a brand new room built into an existing guesthouse in Yangon.
3. The “Sleeper Bus” isn’t a Sleeper bus and it will drop you off at 4am in the morning
I made the mistake thinking that a “VIP Sleeper Bus with A/C” meant exactly what it would mean in Vietnam or Thailand – a nice, clean, air conditioned bus with reclining seats that would arrive at my stop in the morning after a night of sleeping. Instead, what I got was an old, rundown bus with creaky upright seats, operated by 5 young Burmese guys who looked like they decided on a whim that pooling their money together to buy a bus and drive people around would be a good way to make some money. When I asked one of them about the advertised “A/C”, he simply snorted and pointed to the open window. Ah, yes. This is Myanmar.
After hours of driving on bumpy, windy, dirt roads, with the dust and mosquitos from the open windows whipping against my face, somehow I managed to fall into a light slumber. Only to be awoken mere minutes later by the scoffing A/C guy telling me that this was our stop. I looked out the window and saw a few random buildings along the side of the highway. My watch said it was just past 4am and my brain said that this just isn’t right. Unfortunately, I had no way of knowing if this was my actual stop or not and we had no choice but to leave the bus. So, left with our bags in the dead of night and presumably in the middle of nowhere, the bus rode off and we stood there unsure where to go next. Luckily, or perhaps masterfully planned, two men on scooters rode towards us and offered to take us to our guesthouse. That’s when I realized tourists being dropped off in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, must be a regular thing. Of course, since we didn’t have any bookings, we had to go from guesthouse to guesthouse, knocking and waking everyone up to see if they had rooms available. I’d like to say that this was a rare occurrence but I can’t – it happened time and time again. Eventually, I just accepted it as “part of the adventure”.
4. No Tourist SIM cards and horribly slow WiFi/Internet
If you’re like me then when you travel, you like to stay connected. Whether it’s to communicate with friends and family back home, fellow travellers, or be able to check your location with Google Maps. It can come in handy when you really need it. However, when I first saw the prices of SIM cards in Myanmar, I almost spit out my betel nut (I actually did try it once – not recommended!). They ranged from $125-200 USD! Surely, they must be mistaken, I thought – so I asked the clerk as best I could, if there was a mistake and the price was actually in Kyat, the local currency. Nope, it REALLY was $125 USD. I don’t know the history of why SIM cards are so expensive in Myanmar but apparently, they were even as much as $2000 USD back in 2009! WTF.
Undiscouraged by my findings, I decided to do a bit of research using my guesthouse’s slow and shoddy WiFi. If you are lucky, you can find a vendor that will sell you a 2013 SEA Games SIM Card for $25 USD. These are limited run cards that were given free to international athletes attending the games and are only operational for 30 days after activation. After hours of hunting, I finally found one, only to find that the reception was poor to non-existent around the rest of the country. Bottom line is, don’t expected to be very well connected when you’re here.
UPDATE: Recent changes have dramatically reduced the price of SIM cards in the major cities from non-government carriers. You can read more about it from Dustin Main on TooManyAdapters.
5. Bring new, crisp, unfolded $100 US Dollar bills into Myanmar with you
This is probably the most important and useful Myanmar travel tip to remember before you arrive. While many of the major cities have ATMs now, I could never get any of them to work for me. They just would not accept my cards and when I phoned my bank in Canada, they would say that a transaction was never even requested by the ATM. Luckily, I was travelling with some fellow Canadians whose bank cards DID work, so I was able to transfer money through them. However, I would advise you to bring as much cash as you anticipate you’ll be using into Myanmar before you arrive. And make sure that they are CRISP, NEW, PRISTINE $100 US Dollar bills. Most Myanmar currency exchanges and banks will only accept crisp $100 USD bills. This is just how it works. So take out as much as you think you’ll need, and then take a bit more and lay them out flat in a book. You don’t want to be stuck in Myanmar with no money left to get out. Or perhaps you do…
6. Prepare all your documents for your Myanmar Visa application
If you are from one of the many countries that require a visa to travel to Myanmar, then you’ll have to prepare a few things first.
- Bring proof of purchase of your flight tickets into and out of Myanmar
- A planned itinerary of dates and names of the cities / locations that you’ll be at during your stay (scribbles on napkins are generally not accepted)
- 2 Passport photos
- Your passport (be prepared to leave it with them for a few days at least)
I got my visa in Hanoi and it took only a few days to process, but I was without my passport during those days. The itinerary we drafted was really only a rough estimate of where we were going to be. You are certainly allowed to deviate from that plan but you still need to provide them with what you believe your plan to be – the more detailed, the better.
7. Prepare yourself for one of the most beautiful lands in the world
Despite all the difficulties with money, transportation, tourism, and just about everything else related to travelling to Myanmar – it is an absolutely beautiful country filled with breathtaking sights and experiences. From the incomparable Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the amazing Golden Rock near Kinpun, the mesmerizing “dancing” fishermen of Inle Lake, and, of course, the awe inspiring temples of Bagan, Myanmar is one of those special places that you just never forget. This isn’t really a Myanmar travel tip, more like a command – go to Myanmar!
8. Smile and everyone will smile back
Throughout all my travels across 35+ countries, I’ve never met a friendlier people. Perhaps it’s the years of military rule that was recently lifted. Perhaps it’s the lack of tourism in the past that makes them genuinely curious about travellers. Or perhaps it is just in their nature, but the people of Myanmar are one of the most genuinely kind, friendly, and smiley people I’ve ever encountered. Practically everyone will smile at you, whether you smiled first or not. I’ve never seen so much teeth in such a short period of time. It was strange at first but so amazingly comforting and welcoming and contagious, once you get used to it. So smile, because in Myanmar, it costs you nothing and everyone will smile back at you. 🙂
Myanmar was one of the most memorable and one of my favourite places that I travelled to. From the people, the culture, the sights, and the food, everything was so refreshing and genuine. It really does feel like you’re travelling through a land lost in time, before all the mainstream tourists get there. And despite all the hassle and problems, it is absolutely worth going to and, to be honest, I am eagerly waiting for my chance to come back.
Chanting and prayer at Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar.
I hope you found these Myanmar travel tips useful. Are you planning to travel to Myanmar and have questions? Have you already travelled to Myanmar and have some additional Myanmar travel tips? Please post in the comments below and I’ll write you back!