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Things to know before visiting Myanmar
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Updated on January 21st, 2020

When I first landed in Yangon nearly 4 months ago, it was to start my next chapter as an expat in Myanmar. Ben and I now live in the southern coastal town of Myeik and have a few Myanmar travel tips to share with you. We’ve learnt a thing or two about the country, travelling around, the locals and the culture. If you are planning a trip to Myanmar make sure you know the following before visiting.

Myanmar is absolutely a country that needs to be on your Southeast Asia bucket list. It is starting to grow in popularity, but it’s still a relatively unexplored country for this region. Come and enjoy the unique culture, history and untouched landscapes. Explore pagodas, islands, mountains and cities and grow accustomed to the smiling Burmese people.

Temples in Bagan Myanmar

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About Myanmar

Where is Myanmar

When I first started telling people I was moving to Myanmar. There were two common reactions, firstly, “Wow! That’s so cool!”, secondly, awkward pause, “Um, where?” Often I would then say “Burma?” and that would clarify for 50%.

So, do you still have a blank look? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Take a look at the map below and it will all come together.

Myanmar or Burma? Why are there two names?

The correct name of the country is Myanmar, so why do so many people also know it as Burma? In 1989, the government ruled the name of Burma to be changed officially to Myanmar. Along with this change came many others, like Rangoon to Yangon, Mergui to Myeik and so on.

The name Burma was used to describe the ethnic population of the nation and Myanmar was given as a way to include everyone. Another main reason was for the country to rid themselves of ties to their past British colonisation and create their own identity.

Buddhist monk

Myanmar culture

Visiting Myanmar is a wonderful country to witness the unique culture and history. Being influenced by their eastern and western neighbours you will find a nice mix of the Indian and Thai cultures merged to form the Myanmar culture. One thing you won’t fail to notice when you first arrive is the occurrence of men wearing traditional dress – even in the cities. This full-length unisex skirt is called a longyi and is a 2-metre circular piece of fabric wrapped and tied in at the waist.

88% of the population is Buddhist and that is evident in the many pagodas, monasteries and other Buddist worshipping sites around the country.

Red smiles are common

Burmese people love to smile. Although you’ll be wondering why their teeth are stained red. Betel nut is commonly chewed all over the country and stains the locals teeth and gums a deep red colour. The nut comes from the areca palm and is prepared so that it can be wrapped in a palm leaf and chewed like chewing tobacco. The nut acts as a mild stimulant.

While I’m all for the people chewing whatever they like, you’ll also spend your trip sidestepping the red residue that is spat out of the mouth. Whether you’re sitting at traffic lights or walking down the street, you’ll definitely notice the spitting sounds and streams of red saliva being evicted from the mouth. Definitely not the most pleasant sight.

Faces are covered in Thanaka

Men, women and children will all have their faces and skin covered in this natural paste. Thanaka comes from the wood of the Thanaka tree which grows abundantly over the country. To create the paste, the Myanmar people will grind the wood over a round wet circular stone. The stone has a groove around the outer edge to collect the paste where it can then be applied to the skin.

Thanaka is used both to protect the skin from the sunlight and also for cosmetic reasons. You will often see the women with accurately placed rectangles of the paste on their cheeks. While on children and men it is mostly lathered on like you would put sunscreen on your own face.

Burmese children wearing Thanaka
Children wearing Thanaka for a celebration

Be respectable when visiting religious sites

It might go without saying to some, but it is disrespectful to climb on pagodas. In Bagan, the main stupas have been blocked off and there are signs asking you not to climb on them. However, even the smaller, lesser-visited ones shouldn’t be climbed on. Pay your respects by visiting and taking photos from afar or at the base. If you want a higher vantage point, take one of the amazing hot air balloon rides over Bagan.

Another point you probably know, but is a good reminder – cover your shoulders and knees and take shoes off within pagoda grounds. I always seem to forget to pack shirts with sleeves so I carry a sarong in my bag to drape around my shoulders in case I come across a temple I want to explore. The elephant style pants can be bought all over Myanmar if you don’t have a pair of long pants.

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Learn some useful Burmese phrases

The Myanmar language does not have syllables that are hard to pronounce like some, although words are long and hard to remember. At least for me anyway. Whenever I go to a new country I always try to learn some basic phrases to 1) appear like I am making an effort and 2) make things a little easier on myself.

Use these common phrases during your travels and the locals will love you for it.

  • Hello – Min-gal-ar-bar
  • How are you – neh-kaun-la
  • I’m well – Neh kaun ba deh
  • Thank you –  je-zu-tin-ba-deh 
  • Thanks – je-zu-bah
  • Bye – Ta ta

People will often ask, Have you finished?’ This confused me at first but now I know it means have you finished eating. Be careful if you say no though because you will most likely get invited to eat with them.

preparing Betel nut on Dome island
Preparing Betel Nut

Myanmar travel tips

Is Myanmar safe?

Myanmar is generally a very safe country to visit. In the regions tourists visit, you will find there is a low level of crime and locals are friendly and willing to assist you. However, the country is currently undergoing political unrest and there are certain areas that are off-limits to foreigners. Before travelling to the more off-the-beaten-path destinations of Myanmar find out if the area is off-limits. You will find most of these areas occur in the Shan, Kachin, Kayin and Rakhine states.

Prior to coming to Myanmar and researching online, I was sure there were going to be swarms of mosquitos full of viruses, savage monkeys and cobras popping out from under every rock. However, as always the internet often makes things appear worse than they are.

Monkeys can be dangerous wherever you go, so it is advised to not feed or encourage them. As for the mosquitoes, yes, I have been stung numerous times, but that could have been avoided if I wore bug spray. So far, no cobra sightings. The biggest danger I have encountered has been the chaotic traffic in Yangon with no official crossing areas.

Reclining Buddha Myeik, Mergui Archipelago

A tourist visa is required to enter

All foreigners (except for some Asian countries) are required to obtain a tourist visa to enter the country. This visa can be applied for online (more than 3 days before arrival or you can get a visa on arrival (VOA). Both visas cost $50 USD and are meant to be the same. However, as Ben and I found out they are slightly different. I had applied for my Myanmar eVisa online ahead of time and Ben got his on arrival. I was granted 28 days and Ben was granted 30. Other than this the only other differences are what you need when applying.

eVisa VS visa on arrival

To apply for the eVisa, apply through the official Myanmar Government website. You are required to fill in an application form which asks for your personal information, intended address during your stay in Myanmar and a digital photo. Pay online and you will hear back within 3 days. I received mine back in less than 24 hours.

The VOA is sightly more work, as you need to be prepared. This is a good option if you didn’t apply for an eVisa on time. You will need to have 2 passport photocopies, a printed application form (although I’m sure you can find this at the desk) and a crisp $50 bill. When you arrive in the immigration clearance hall to the far end of the room is the visa processing desk. There is unlikely to be a line, maybe just one or 2 people in front of you. Give the attendant your paperwork and it will be processed on the spot.

Another difference between the two options is the space it takes up in your passport. I received a single entry stamp with the eVisa, but Ben had a full-page visa plus an entry stamp. So if you have limited passport pages, opt for the eVisa.

You can overstay your visa

A nice little tip is that it is perfectly ok to overstay your visa. I was super sceptical about this and didn’t want to believe the information online and feared I wouldn’t be allowed back in. Although I can confidently say I have now overstayed myself and been allowed re-entry.

If you want to extensively visit Myanmar and the 30 days isn’t enough time, don’t worry about having to depart and then re-enter. You can overstay for a fee of $3 USD/day for up to 70 days. After this the rate increases to $5/day. This definitely adds up, but it is more likely cheaper than a flight out of Myanmar and then back in. To pay this fee when you are flying out you just have to pop to the overstay counter prior to going through immigration – it’s that easy.

overstay counter at Yangon airport

When to visit Myanmar

Myanmar has 2 distinct seasons – the wet and the dry. Myanmar is located in the northern hemisphere and is best visited during the winter months. Apart from some of the mountainous regions in the north of the country, you will most likely not realise it is winter in Myanmar. Between November and February, average monthly temperatures are between 20 and 24°C. March and April is the hottest time of year with average temperatures between 30 and 35°C.

The wet season in Myanmar is VERY wet. The coastal areas average over 5,000 millimetres annually. Check here to see specific city weather averages.

Although in saying that, make sure you pack some layers. The higher elevation areas can get very cold in the mornings and evening. Inle Lake gets down to single digits overnight during January and February.

Fisherman on on Inle Lake

Travelling in Myanmar

You are required to stay in official accommodation

The Myanmar government puts strong regulations on foreigners and as such you are legally required to stay in registered hotels and guest houses. You will be expected to show your passport upon arrival and the accommodation provider will take copies of it. This is also the case when taking domestic flights. Each time we fly to Myeik, we must go through an immigration control point in the arrivals area.

Because of this, you won’t find Airbnb in Myanmar. While some places have listed on Airbnb, the choices are very limited and it’s better to use another booking search engine. Booking.com has the most options at all price ranges. You can also use Hostelworld to compare hostels in the major tourist areas.

Some areas are off-limits to foreigners

We already touched on this a little in the safety section although it is important for you to know if you can travel where you intend. If you are planning on visiting all of the usual touristy destinations of Myanmar, you have nothing to worry about and can skip on past this. Not only are some places unsafe for travellers, but it is also illegal for you to go there. Others can be visited but require special permits. Find out where the restricted areas are in Myanmar.

ATM & money information

The national currency in Myanmar is the Burmese Kyat (MMK). Not that long ago, in 2012, Myanmar didn’t have a single ATM! There are now over 1,000 ATM’s over the country that allows you to withdraw local currency. Many of the ATM’s have the international symbols, however, my Citibank card does not work in all of them. I haven’t had a problem getting cash out, but if you are travelling to smaller towns and villages, withdraw enough for your stay. Most places don’t accept card payments.

The maximum you can withdraw at one time is 300,000 ($200 USD) and each time no matter what ATM you use you will get charged a 6,000 kyat fee. I have tried getting around this but there is no way. That’s just the cost of using an ATM here in Myanmar. This is another reason to make sure you have a travellers card and don’t get charged extortionate international withdrawal fees.

If taxis, tour companies or others ask you to pay in USD, ask what the price is in Kyat. The price is usually more expensive when charged in USD. For example at Yangon airport, taxi drivers ask for $10 USD but you can pay 10,000 Kyat which is less than $7.

Many people do not speak English

English is not widely spoken in Myanmar. You will actually find more locals speaking German than English. In Myeik where I live, the tour guides speak English and a few of the wealthy citizens. Otherwise, all of the tuk-tuk drivers and general hotel and restaurant staff do not.

I haven’t found the lack of English to be a problem and it’s to be expected when travelling that you will have to get good at miming. Right now I think I’m the queen of charades. The biggest issue I found was in Yangon when hailing cab drivers. Although to get around this download the Grab Taxi app which works similarly to Uber. Read the next tip to find out about SIM cards to use Grab.

Myanmar has many ethnic groups – the Moken people are also known as Sea Gypsies

Internet and SIM cards

Getting a SIM card in Myanmar is really affordable and easy. I have actually written an entire post comparing the three major telecom providers. Discover which is the best SIM card for your use in Myanmar. Make sure your phone is unlocked before leaving your home country and you can put SIM cards in around the world, thus avoiding those expensive roaming charges.

Wifi is available in the major tourist locations at hotels, but the coverage is slow and drops out frequently. If you work online, like so many of us do these days, make sure you get your own SIM card and use your phone as a hot spot.

Blackouts are common

Another issue no matter where in the country you are, are the blackouts. Power outages are common if not weekly occurrences in Myeik. Some last just minutes while others last hours. Suburbs of Mandalay have a rotating schedule of daily outages. This is due to there not being enough electricity to keep all of the city powered at once.

This is another reason if you work online – especially if you work on a schedule like teaching English online that you get your own SIM card. My maximum daily hours are 3 and I’m sure my laptop would not last using the hotspot for that long. However, I’m lucky I haven’t had to find out yet. Also, grab yourself a battery-operated light for teaching in the dark. This one is great as it clips on to your laptop.

You must drink bottled water

The tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink even in the cities. Make sure you only drink bottled water and be careful eating at certain restaurants. Some of the most common waterborne viruses are spread through washing salads with tap water.

I absolutely hate having to buy bottled water every day when travelling through unsafe drinking water countries. Luckily most hotels will have the 20L water dispensers in their lobbies. You could also buy a water bottle that filters out all of the nasties.

Bagan temples

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Hello! My name is Erin, the lady behind Curiously Erin. After more than 10 years of travelling and working abroad, I wanted to create a platform where I could share my stories and travels. My goal is to help you live the life you desire and inspire you to travel more.

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