Most travelers start discovering Southeast Asia with trips to Thailand, Malaysia or other locales where foreign tourists have traveled for years. Myanmar isn’t a tourist hub and as such it’s still in the process of solidifying its reputation. While certain aspects of traveling to Myanmar are similar to other Southeast Asian countries, there are certain things that you should know before embarking on your trip to Myanmar.
1. Visa requirements
Myanmar requires a visa for most travelers with exception for several countries: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines and Brunei. Citizens of those countries are granted a 14-day visa-free entry to Myanmar.
While you could apply for a Myanmar visa at a Burmese consulate, obtaining a visa for Myanmar online is a relatively easy procedure. First, you need to have a passport that is going to be valid for at least the next 6 months. To apply for a visa, you will need to take a color photo 4.8 cm x 3.8 cm and fill out an application on the official government website.
The application should take you no longer than 10-15 minutes. (Yes, you should double-check everything before you apply. Getting rejected because you missed a digit in your passport number would really suck.) After completing the application and paying the fee stipulated for your country, you should have a response in about 3 days. A tourist visa is typically valid for 90 days from the moment it’s issued. However, a customs officer can limit the duration however he or she deems appropriate.
You will receive a visa confirmation in your email that you will need to print out and show when you enter the country.
2. Stock up on crisp US dollars
Aside from Myanmar’s native kyat (pronounced chat), US dollars are generally accepted by many places in the tourism industry. But that comes with a significant caveat: Forget about torn and dirty bills that will be accepted at New York subway or you local Starbucks. In Myanmar, you have to present bills that are only in mint condition. When I tried to exchange a $100 bill that had a slight crease in the middle, I was asked if I had another bill, so make sure to stock on crisp US dollars (preferably larger bills: 20, 50 and 100).
3. Drink only bottled water
Tap water is considered generally unsafe to drink in Myanmar, so to stay safe, drink only bottled water. Some travelers that I’ve met even went as far as brushing their teeth with bottled water. Always ask about water quality especially if you stay in rural areas where sanitation standards are often relaxed.
Depending on your country, you might look into getting a couple of shots before your trip.
As a developing country, Myanmar has some diseases that don’t exist in the western world such typhoid, dengue fever, malaria and a couple of their diseases that you probably have never heard about. While some travelers prefer to play it safe and do the required vaccinations before the trip, others go on a trip without ever checking into it.
5. Dress conservatively
Cover up your shoulders while you walk around. Ladies, avoid crop tops of any sort, camis and tanks and go for a t-shirt instead. While some foreign tourists sport shorts and dresses with open shoulders, this type clothing is generally inappropriate in Myanmar especially around religious sites.
Many pagodas and temples in Myanmar have signs warning unsuspecting visitors that “spaghetti straps” and shorts are prohibited. As a courtesy, you should avoid shorts, dresses and skirts above the knee when you go to religious sites. If you don’t have clothing of the proper length, you will be given a long skirt before you can enter a temple or pagoda.
6. Prepare to walk barefoot. A lot.
Always take off your socks and shoes before entering a pagoda or temple. Employees at most visited sites including Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and pagodas and monasteries leading up to Mandalay Hill, the highest peak in Mandalay, will remind you to take off your shoes and leave them next to the entrance.
7. If you want to party, Myanmar probably isn’t a place
Unlike some Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar doesn’t really have a party scene. Of course, there are bars and restaurants especially in bigger cities, but overall drinking and partying isn’t really something that you will see a lot.
Despite this, you’ll find that there are still lots of reasons to visit Myanmar.
8. Learn to haggle
If you want to get a good price on services, prepare to haggle. Haggling is completely normal when you are trying to get a taxi or even pay for a souvenir. Sometimes, haggling requires a bit of a research though. For example, some taxi drivers near airport in Yangon will try to charge you an unreasonably high rate to get you to the city. While a reasonable fare is about 5000-7000 kyats, some cabbies charge almost 10,000 kyats.
If you stop by a souvenir stand, most vendors will quickly approach you and name a price for a specific item that you are looking at. A good strategy is to try to haggle down the price and see if the vendor agrees to that. A few times when I was trying to haggle down the price of a souvenir but the vendor wouldn’t budge, I started walking away. A few seconds later, he ran up to me and said that he agrees to my price.
9. Health care options are scarce
Myanmar has become independent from Great Britain in 1948. However, the dictatorship regime which lasted for the next five decades allocated 1/3 of the budget toward military and just slightly over 1% toward health care. This decades-long policy has had a tragic effect on the country as it lags behind in citizens’ wellness and available medical services. As a tourist, you shouldn’t expect Western-type medical services available everywhere you go.
10. Bring hand sanitizer
Chances are, you will likely end up eating on the go and buying snacks from kiosks and stands on the street while in Myanmar. Don’t expect a bathroom, tap water and soap to be readily available. If hygiene is a concern, you should always carry a small hand sanitizer with you when you walk around.
Also it’s a good idea to bring with a mosquito repellant. Lake Inle, Bagan, Hpa-An and other rural areas have plenty of mosquitoes, and you should spray yourself before going on adventures.
When talking to locals, avoid politics. Myanmar is the least developed country in Southeast Asia and not everything is perfect there. The money you will spend in Myanmar will provide much-needed income for many people in the tourism industry and the people you will meet while traveling in the country have nothing to do with government’s decisions. When you talk to locals, stay away from discussing politics in Myanmar and try to choose neutral topics instead.
Are you traveling to Myanmar for the first time? You can read this handy travel guide to Myanmar.
Do you have other tips? Let us know in the comments below!