Myanmar is still a mysterious and constantly changing spot in Southeast Asia. This is what you should know about the country in 2017!
I received confirmation for my Myanmar e-visa, and booked my flights to the country soon after from a sweaty, windowless hotel room in Hong Kong. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I’m going to be honest and say that Myanmar is the most challenging country I’ve traveled to as of yet, but that doesn’t mean that it still wasn’t all kinds of awesome.
Myanmar was a unique destination in a sea of backpacker trails and countries that have been overrun by tourism time and again. Myanmar was still touristy in areas, but it also offered a glimpse at traditional Burmese culture and untouched scenery that I haven’t witnessed in quite awhile.
I knew that Myanmar was going to be different than just showing up in a place like Thailand with no plans.
It’s much more do-able to be spontaneous and play it by ear in most other countries in Southeast Asia. For Myanmar, I wanted to research and plan out my trip more, especially in high season. I read a lot about the country from other blogs and reliable news sources. I still found most of it to be outdated, even though it was written just a year ago.
That’s how fast Myanmar is growing.
And even though I hope to give you a few more recent tips on the country, keep in mind that some of these aspects may have already changed in six months time. Keep your wits about you and be ready for whatever may come your way with a visit to Myanmar.
Myanmar, or Burma, as it used to be called, has gone through decades of political instability and questionable military rule. The country was finally opened to tourism in 2011, with the switch over to a civil government. The government has slowly become more democratic since then.
It’s important to note that the military is still a visible force and holds control over some parts of the country today. It’s unclear to many on the outside just how much background control they still hold over the country.
It’s also important to keep in mind that there are still areas of Myanmar that are off-limits to foreigners. The reason for this is due to the long-standing civil war between ethnic groups in the north.
Although a few locals have commented that the fighting has been reduced in the last year, the civil war has been going on since the country first became independent from the UK in 1948. It has been described as one of the longest running civil wars in world history.
Because of the lack of current information I’ve come across about Myanmar in the last six months, I wanted to put together a brief overview of what you can expect from the start of 2017.
Accommodation is relatively expensive
Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, accommodation in Myanmar is a pricy endeavor. I was traveling with a partner, and we generally couldn’t find a shared room for less than US$20 a night. You can expect to pay up to US$30-$35 for “budget” accommodations, depending on how touristy of an area you’re staying in.
Dorms seem to start at around US$12-$15 per bed. It usually worked out cheaper for us to book a private double room in a guesthouse.
I read that you should book everything ahead of time, especially in the high season, because hotels book up so quickly.
The reason for this is because the tourism industry is still catching up to the influx of tourists, and there are simply not enough accommodation options in certain areas. This is also why accommodation can be so expensive.
I ended up booking most of our whole trip ahead of time. On one hand, I was glad that I did because I heard of other backpackers having to go to a lot of guesthouses/hostels in order to find a room for the night, and not always finding the cheapest deals in the process.
However, I met just as many, if not more, travelers who booked as they went and didn’t run into many issues. Because we booked so much of our accommodation beforehand, we didn’t have much wiggle room with our trip.
My advice? Try and book 1-2 days ahead of time, but you don’t generally need to book further ahead than that.
This will give you a guaranteed spot to rest your head for the night. It will also allow you more spontaneity for when you get sick, or simply want to check out a new location that you heard great things about.
ATMs are everywhere
Another tip that kept popping up on countless write-ups about Myanmar was the fact that there are not many ATMs in the country. Most articles recommended getting enough kyat, the local currency, before arriving in the country. For a 28-day trip like we had, this can be difficult when you’re not really sure of the current prices for every day expenses.
We were pleasantly surprised to find ATMs everywhere. Even in small cities and towns, there would be at least one or two ATMs. Basically, we never had an issue finding one when we needed one.
The one point I would note, however, is that if you have an American bank, it very likely still has an embargo on Myanmar.
This means that you won’t be able to use any of your bank cards in Myanmar, so you really will need to exchange what you need in kyat before arriving to the country. I use Chase and USAA and both have an embargo on Myanmar.
Luckily, I was traveling with a Kiwi, and New Zealand has much better banking. We were pretty much always able to get out money from his New Zealand bank account.
US currency is not really used anymore
Yet another out-of-date tip I heard a lot was that you’ll be asked to pay in US dollars for the big ticket items, such as bus tickets and accommodation. I never found this to be true throughout my month in Myanmar.
There was one point where we didn’t have a chance to get out enough kyat and we only had US dollars for an accommodation in Pyin oo Lwin. The guesthouse didn’t accept US dollars, but they still offered to take it down to the local currency exchange for us. You can rest assured that you probably won’t have to use US dollars.
With that said, I do always recommend traveling with some US dollars, because it’s a well-known currency that will be accepted in most countries around Southeast Asia if it’s an emergency. Just don’t expect it to be a given.
Taxis don’t use meters
Unlike Thailand, where if your taxi driver isn’t using a meter you want to run far away because you’re probably getting ripped off, it’s standard practice for taxis to not have meters in Myanmar.
Make sure to agree upon a price ahead of time, and always be weary at bus stations with the first prices you’re quoted. They’re always looking to up the price, especially if you just hopped off a VIP bus.
The WiFi is not as bad as people say it is
Okay, okay the WiFi is pretty horrid, but it’s not that bad. I was told that I could expect 90’s dial-up quality and that I would barely be able to load a webpage. That was the case in some areas, but I’d say 75% of the guesthouses I stayed in had decent enough Wi-Fi to keep up with my online business and freelance work.
Don’t expect to be able to upload or download anything, that won’t work. However, if you’re just planning on using WiFi for research, Facebook, writing, and standard freelance work, don’t worry too much.
The connectivity around Myanmar is only going up, and there’s always the option of getting a sim card with 2G of data if you’re really in need.
What I’m trying to say is, if you’re a digital nomad and you haven’t traveled to Myanmar in fear of disconnecting for too long, put Myanmar on your list this year. The WiFi is useable (mostly).
Be prepared to be sick
Oh lordy, I’m not going to go into the details of how sick I got in Myanmar, but let’s just say it was the most deathly ill I’ve ever been abroad. There was a point where I was bed ridden for seven days straight, and I still never fully recovered until I got to Thailand.
I’ve been in Thailand for over a week and I’m only now just starting to feel better most days.
Every single traveler we talked to in the country got sick at some point. Even with being careful about what we ate and drank, we spent about half of our time in Myanmar sick and unable to do much but run to the bathroom.
This was unfortunate and definitely put a damper on our time in the country.
Of course, there’s always going to be that odd traveler that has a stomach of steel and doesn’t get sick once in the country, but odds are that won’t be you. At the very least you’ll probably have traveler’s diarrhea for most of your time there.
I honestly think the high rate of travel sickness is due to the way food is prepared in the country, and the poor hygiene in local kitchens and street carts. Refrigeration is also a bit wonky and not reliable (hint: don’t even touch the ice cream).
We got sick from street food, meals at nice restaurants, tea that hadn’t been boiled properly, you name it. I’m not sure if it’s really something you can consciously avoid, just make sure to bring the right medicine with you from home to deal with it when it comes.
Cultural customs: longyis, Thanaka, and betel nut
Visiting Myanmar for the first time can be a culture shock. Life moves at a different pace, you’ll come across customs you’ve never heard of before, and vibrant local personalities that make you realize how much of a layered place it is.
A few of my favorite and most unique cultural customs in Myanmar? Longyis, Thanaka, and betel nut.
Let’s start with the first one and my personal favorite – longyis.
Longyis are a cylindrical piece of cloth that are worn like a long skirt for both males and females in Myanmar. Longyi is the common gender-neutral name you’ll find, but if you want to get specific, they’re called paso when worn by men and htamein when worn by women.
You’ll find that 80% of locals wear a longyi. I bought a longyi my first week in Yangon from a local fabric shop. I quickly made friends with the women who sold me the longyi, and they took me to a local tailor to sew a black band around the fabric to make it easier to tie as a foreigner.
Later that week, I even met up with one of those women, and she took me around Yangon for half a day to show me her city. Just another example of Burmese friendliness.
Men generally have more neutral, plaid or striped longyis that are tied around the front. Women, on the other hand, have an array of colors to choose from and wear their longyis on the side. I went for a deep purple with stripes of gold and silver.
I wore my longyi about half the time I was in Myanmar and it was so worth it. Yes, it may take some time getting used to wearing it, but once you do, the response you get from locals is lovely. It starts a conversation, and I feel like it shows a sense of respect for Burmese culture.
Some locals clearly found it amusing, while others were more open and complimentary when they saw you walking down the street in a longyi instead of western wear.
If you want to learn how to tie your own longyi properly, have a local show you! I had to ask multiple locals, but I eventually got the hang of it…for the most part.
Now, onto Thanaka.
Not as many locals wear Thanaka as they do longyis, but you’ll still see it every time you walk out your door. Thanaka is a type of local make-up that is made from ground bark, wood, or roots of the Murraya or Livonia acidissima tree.
Thanaka has been worn by women in Myanmar for 2,000 years and it doesn’t seem to be going out of fashion anytime soon.
It’s used as a moisturizer, sunblock, anti-fungal, and overall healthy skin aid. It can even be used to ward off mosquitos. Thanaka is generally applied to the cheeks and sometimes the forehead, nose, and chin.
It seems like women and young children wear it the most, but you will see the odd male wearing it on the street sometimes.
I had the chance to wear it a few times and although I liked how cooling it was, it was hard to get used to the heavy caked-on feeling of the Thanaka once it dries. With that said, I still carry mine around with me as a moisturizer even though I left Myanmar over two weeks ago.
Another cultural quirk in Myanmar that you should know about is the betel nut.
Betel nut is similar to chewing tobacco. It’s generally tobacco mixed with crushed up betel nuts, lime paste, cloves, aniseed, and cardamom, wrapped in a betel leaf. It’s chewed constantly by taxi drivers or street vendors, and it’s a stimulant that wakes you up and makes you feel a bit dizzy.
I never tried it, but my partner did and he said it tasted like incense and that you constantly have the need to spit. Sounds about right with the amount of loogies I witnessed on a daily basis around Myanmar.
It also makes your teeth look like you’ve just had a vampiric feast. No really, it’s horrible for your teeth and leaves permanent red stains and build-up in your mouth. Not to mention, it has become a deadly addiction in Asia and increases your chances for cancer.
If you see red stains on the street, try not to step in them. They’re probably remnants of betel nut spit.
You can find betel nut stands everywhere in Myanmar. Go ahead and give it a go if you want to see what it tastes like, but I wouldn’t recommend making it into a daily habit.
Another quick tip before I sign off about cultural customs – in Myanmar, never hand over money with your left hand. It’s disrespectful because the left hand is usually seen as the “toilet hand”. Instead, hand over money with your right hand, and lightly touch your right elbow with your left hand during the transaction.
This was a hard one to remember as a left-handed individual, but it’s just another way to show respect.
Night buses are scary shit
I remember writing a weird ode/eulogy in my head at 2am on a night bus in Myanmar. I was still recovering from my seven days of solid sickness, and I found myself on a six hour night bus with no toilet.
The bus was swaying from side to side, the ragged curtains doing a dance in the moonlight. It was a moment that was oddly poetic.
I was feeling my absolute worst, not really sure if I could make it without a toilet for six hours, and equally not sure if the bus was going to tip over around the next corner. The tires would hug the curves of the road just so, to make you wonder if this time would be the time.
An ode to that bus ride and, surely, my imminent death came to my tired brain as I dozed in and out of consciousness, trying not to focus on my aching belly and my equal car sickness.
I thought night buses were bad in Cambodia when I was still just an inexperienced chap. HA! Myanmar takes the cake for scariest night buses in Asia – thus far at least.
Just keep a hold of those handle bars, you will probably go about 2x-3x over the speed limit of what you’re used to around tight corners. It’s quite the ride if you’re not already sick.
There’s not really a drinking culture
One aspect that can be a nice change from the rest of Southeast Asia, there’s not much of a drinking culture in Myanmar. There are a few clubs you can find in Yangon and Mandalay, but they’re a bit bizarre and generally cater to foreigners.
Similar to Taiwan, you just don’t really see public drunkenness from locals. If you’re looking to do a sober month, Myanmar is a great place to do that. It’s much easier to refrain from drinking because the culture for it just isn’t there.
The one exception is palm wine! I’m so sad I didn’t get to try this local specialty for myself, but we heard stories about it from other travelers that were on our three-day trek from Kalaw.
Palm wine is made from the sap of palm trees and there are two kinds. There’s one that is naturally fermented and light in alcohol content, and then there’s the strong, put-you-on-your-ass distilled version.
One of those apparently gives you the nice treat of intense diarrhea as well. I’m sure we can guess which one that is.
But, you do get a crazy kind of drunken high from it. The kicker? That drunken feeling is intense but fades pretty quickly, unlike sipping beer of wine for too long.
Locals are ridiculously friendly
You’ll hear this about a lot of countries in Southeast Asia, but Myanmar has to have some of the friendliest locals I’ve met.
I’d say they’re just as, if not more friendly, than the Khmer people I met in Cambodia a few years ago, and that’s saying something because they’re ridiculously friendly too. I’ve never seen so many people go out of their way to be a genuinely kind human. There was this constant feeling that Burmese people always have each other’s (and your) back.
It’s mainly a Buddhist country (cover up!)
Myanmar is about 90% Buddhist and as you will quickly see when you arrive in the country, people dress relatively conservative. If you’re heading to any temples, make sure to cover your shoulders and have non-form fitting bottoms that go below the knee.
I usually just wore my longyi and a typical Burmese top that covered my shoulders every time I went to temples. Other times, if I wasn’t wearing a high collared top, I would put a scarf around my chest/shoulder area.
In general, I always recommend noticing how locals dress in a new place and try to emulate those norms. If you don’t see short shorts around town, don’t think that’s an okay thing to wear out all the time, even when you’re outside of temples.
Travelers too often forget that you can’t always wear what you would back home. Be considerate and respectful of another culture and pay attention to what’s appropriate. It will make you a better traveler and more culturally aware as a whole.
Wait, SE Asia is cold?
It happens a lot, but people (myself included), are always surprised when they come across cold areas of Southeast Asia. Wait, Southeast Asia can be cold?
In northern parts of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam it can get pretty cold. Central and northern Myanmar is situated even further north, so it can get very cold, especially in the mountains. I mean it’s not Canada or northern Europe kind of cold, but STILL, cold for Southeast Asia.
We were layering up in places like Kalaw and Pyin oo Lwin. It got quite cold during our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, especially at night. Just make sure you have clothes you can layer, a raincoat, and a warm sweater and you’ll be fine.
Bonus: Food you have to try
And just as a bonus, a few local dishes you have to try for yourself when you get to Myanmar.
- Shan noodles – my personal favorite. Shan noodles come from the Shan state in central Myanmar. It’s a simple noodle dish that’s a touch spicy and has all kinds of good flavors. It’s generally made with rice noodles, spicy chicken or pork, peanuts, and greens. It can be made as a “salad” (basically just a dry, but still hot, noodle dish) or a soup.
- Tea leaf salad – also known as Lahpet Thoke, tea leaf salad consists of pickled tea leaves, peanuts, crunchy beans, toasted sesame seeds, fried garlic, and sometimes dried shrimp and tomatoes.
- Mohinga – a spicy fish noodle soup that is a very popular dish in Myanmar. Mohinga is even considered by some to be the national dish of the country. It is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but can now be found throughout the day. The dish is usually made of chickpea flour or toasted rice, garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, crushed chili, lime, coriander, green onions, fried onions, fish paste, fish sauce, and catfish in a spicy broth with rice noodles.
Over to you – have you been to Myanmar? Any other tips for travelers visiting the country? It’s a very interesting time for Burmese culture, and I’m sure the country will change even more in a few years time with the increase of tourism.
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