Myanmar is a Southeast Asian nation. Up until 1989, Myanmar was called Burma which is the English name for Myanmar. In 1989, the ruling military junta changed its name to the Burmese language. They also did the same for a number of other places around the country.
Myanmar is the religious heartland of Buddhism; bordered by India and Bangladesh to the west, Thailand and Laos to the east and China to the north and northeast. To the south, about one third of Myanmar's total perimeter forms an uninterrupted coastline of 1,930 km (1,200 miles) along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. As of 2017 the country's population was 54 million.
Myanmar has recently opened itself up to tourism, and it is becoming a popular spot for backpackers. Typical itineraries usually include: Mandalay, Yangon, Hpa-an, Cin State, Inle Lake, Bagan, Kyaikto and Hsipaw, but there are many other places to explore. Go Travel and Talks advice to you? You should try to get there as quickly as possible, before everyone else does!
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Climate in Myanmar
The climate of Myanmar varies depending on location and elevation. The climate is tropical and it is spread across three seasons.
- Winter is from November to February.
- Summer is between February and May where temperatures can reach above 40°C (104°F)
- Rainy season is from May to October where monsoons are frequent.
The best time to visit is during the drier months between October and April.
Currency in Myanmar
The currency in Myanmar is the Burmase kyat (MMK). At the time of writing, conversions were as follows:
$1 = 1,500k
€1 = 1,700k
Expect to rely on cash when you are travelling in Myanmar. You can easily exchange your US dollars, Euros and other currencies into kyats at any of the major banks and airports. You can also do it on the black market, but the exchange rates are not as good! (despite what Lonely Planet suggest!) Larger bills ($50 / $100) are exchanged at a higher rate than smaller bills. Most places will not exchange ripped or damaged notes, treat your bills with care if you want to exchange them!
When in Myanmar, you will most likely use a mix of US dollars and Burmese kyat. Most hotels, train tickets, entrance fees and domestic flights will be in USA dollars whereas food and products will be in kyat.
An increasing number of hotels, shops and restaurants also now accept credit and debit cards, but there is widespread distrust over electronic payments and banking. ATMs are widely available but not very reliable, so carrying cash is advisable. If you do withdraw money from an ATM, the fee is around 5000k ($4). The withdrawal limit is 300,000k ($200 / €175) per transaction, but this differs between banks. Please remember this is in addition to the exchange rate fee and bank charges.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: Make sure you let your bank know beforehand that you are travelling abroad and where to. This will prevent them from freezing your bank card.
Getting around Myanmar
Buses are very popular in Myanmar, especially for budget conscious travellers. It is really easy to travel by bus in Myanmar and you can find them everywhere. For the more luxurious buses, VIP buses are an amazing option, especially for long haul journeys. These tend to leave in the between 4pm and 10pm and arrive to the destination in the early house of the morning. If you opt for a VIP bus, we recommend JJ Express. These buses come equipped with reclining seats, air conditioning, blankets, water and snacks, personal TV and headphones, a toilet and English speaking staff. They are reasonably priced as well. Expect to pay around $20 for a 12 hour overnight journey and around $15 for an 8 hour bus during the day.
Go Travel and Talk Top Tip: To save time and money, travel with the night buses.
If you are travelling along popular routes during peak season, it is wise to book a day or two in advance. Head to Myanmar Bus Ticket to secure your tickets before departure.
Other bus options include older buses with no air conditioning that make shorter trips, usually between Yangon / Pyay and Taungoo / Yangon. Or you could travel via minibus if you are feeling brave. Please be aware there buses tend to be very overcrowded and quite uncomfortable, although cheaper.
**The roads in Myanmar are not great. The main roads are bearable but expect bad conditions on the ‘back roads’. If you suffer from travel sickness, bring some anti-sickness tablets with you.
You could rent a car in Myanmar quite easily, but remember they drive on the right side of the road and the the steering wheel is also on the right hand side of the car. So, driving might not be as simple as it seems, particularly if you want to overtake slower vehicles on smaller country roads – as the driver you will not have a chance to glimpse past the vehicle in front of you unless you are already on the opposite lane. It can be very confusing! As a means to combat this, public buses always have two drivers; one to communicate overtaking chances and the other behind the wheel! What comes with this, is that the doors don’t open on to the pavement, but on to the road and passengers have to navigate the chaos of the street!
You also have the option of taking a train when exploring Myanmar. However, Myanmar's British built railways are not as developed as in other Southeast Asian countries. Trains are frequently late and very slow, but they are a great way to explore and see the country at ground level. The journeys are as much as an adventure as Myanmar itself. Just relax, enjoy the view, and use this time to talk to friendly locals. There is a premier route from Yangon to Mandalay in which the express trains are clean, comfortable and fairly speedy, equipped with restaurant cars and tables, serving meals, snacks and drinks. But on the other routes, don't expect luxury.
Trains in Myanmar have three classes: First Class (reclining seats), Upper class (padded wooden seats) and Ordinary Class (basic wooden seats). In addition, on some of the routes, the Upper Class sleeping cars come in two types, standard and special sleepers. Standard sleepers are situated off a long corridor and offer 2 and 4 bed compartments with a western style toilet at the end of the corridor. Special sleepers comprise of private compartments each with a toilet and entrance door.
To buy train tickets, you can either get them at the station (Upper class tickets are open 3 days prior to departure), or order them online with 12Go. 21Go is a reliable agency, that offers bus, train, plane and boat tickets, with a mission to make travel across Myanmar easier. Please be advise, you will not get an e-ticket - it is simply a reservation site, you will then need to collect your tickets through a ground agent a few days before departure. For more information head to The Man in Seat 61.
To travel between Mandalay and Bagan, it is best to get a river steamer (Irrawaddy steamers). There are now 4 different ferries that you can take: A twice weekly slow ferry (mostly used by locals), the tourist ferry, the MGRG express ferry and the ferry Malikha. To buy your tickets, head to a local travel agency or book via your hotel / ask at your hostel. You can also book through the tourist information office (MTT), found in the major towns (Mandalay and Yangon both have one). Ideally buy your tickets a day in advance, although it is possible to buy on the day. Make sure you go early though, around 5am! For more information head to The Man in Seat 61.
Medical Advice for Myanmar
When you know where you want to go in Myanmar, go to your doctors and ask to see the nurse to discuss travel vaccinations. They will go through your travel plans and suggest what you need. It is likely that you will need:
- Hepatitis A and B, Diphtheria
- Tetanus, rabies, typhoid
- Japanese Encephalitis
- Malaria Tablets (location dependent)
- Yellow Fever
*In the UK, some of the vaccinations will be free of charge through your doctors surgery, and some will cost. To keep the cost down, you can always visit a travel centre instead, where the injections are slightly cheaper. When thinking about vaccinations for your trip, the following website can be really helpful: Fit for Travel.
What to pack for Myanmar
- Long sleeved tops and long comfortable walking trousers if you are hiking
- Dresses / shorts / light clothes
- Something to cover your shoulders when visiting temples
- Quick dry towel
- Walking shoes / walking boots / trainers / sandals
- Bug spray (high Deet) and sunscreen
- Battery pack / electronics
- First aid kit
- Head torch for exploring temples and finding your way to the bathroom at night!
- Padlocks, x3
- Travel pillow
- Packing cubes. Get different colours to separate your clean and dirty clothes!
- Life Straw. This is an amazing accessory to have when you are trekking and a cheap alternative to buying water along the way, it also saves on buying plastic bottles and for every purchase, a child in a developing country, receives clean drinking water for 1 school year!
- Zip lock bags for traveling with left over food items / prevent liquid items from spilling
- Biodegradable soap ~ especially important when hiking and washing in nature
Safety considerations for Myanmar
- Make sure you take care of your belongings, use your senses - when you don’t feel good about a place, just leave it.
- When taking night buses never use the top luggage compartment and always keep your small backpack locked and under your feet.
- The situation in the northern part of the country and the Rohingya crisis is not solved yet, therefore it is neither recommended to travel far North nor to roam around the border region of Bangladesh.
- Get a VPN for safe browsing when you travel. You can use WIFI in public areas but it is not always secure. A VPN means you can connect to the internet safely, even when the WIFI is unsecure. ExpressVPN is a good one to go for.
- Get insurance before you travel! Even if you are only going on a short trip as you never know when you are going to need it. As a wise man once said, “if you can’t afford travel insurance, then you shouldn’t be travelling”. We recommend World Nomads.
Budget for Myanmar
Myanmar is super affordable but it depends on what you want to do and see. As a guide, a backpacker who stays in comfortable but not the best accommodation, eats out two times per day and travels with the VIP buses, could easily survive on $25 per day.
Be prepared to meet the nicest people in South East Asia and to be asked this wonderful question all the time: “Are you happy?” Is it because they used to be under a military government and weren’t allowed to talk to foreigners at all? Or is it because of the deep-rooted Buddhism? Nevertheless, the people of Myanmar are incredibly friendly and helpful. If you seem to be lost in the streets, many locals will just come to talk to you and help you. They will smile at you, for no apparent reason. You will feel surrounded by kindness and positive attitude.
As mentioned above, Myanmar is mostly a Buddhist country. In this religion feet are unclean and as a result in all the temple, you need to take off your shoes! You also need to cover your body in sign of respect.
Clothes and Habits:
The men and women dress with long skirts called longyi. It is impressive to observe them putting it on and forming little pockets with their hands into the fabric. They all have a yellow paste on their face called the THANAKA, you will encounter it everywhere and be able to buy it on the market. Thanaka comes from a tree. The Myanmar apply the thick and cooling paste on their faces to protect themselves from the sun, wrinkles and inflammations. In smaller villages you will find that many of the elderly women have great fun showing and applying it to foreigners - just go for it!
Another funny thing that you will notice in Myanmar is red spit all over the floor and walls. It comes from the Tobacco locals chew. The main ingredient of this tobacco product is beetle nut and it is commonly known all over the country. A thing to look out for is the beetle nut preparation on the streets. The Myanmar buy the tobacco leaves on the market and then mould a weird mixture inside them, a kind of glue. It is then folded in small package. These homemade packages can be bought everywhere. Although you have all the effects you might get from smoking a cigarette, this home-made tobacco “dish” is not smoked but chewed, and then left in your mouth for up to 30 minutes before you spit it on the floor. Also, if you like tobacco, you should definitely try to smoke some incredibly cheap banana leaf cigars. They are simple, natural and just dried banana leaves! You will find them in most hostels, hotels, restaurants or bars for free.
Food and drink:
Myanmar is a country will many influences, and as a result there is a wonderful mix of flavours and foods. From Thai influences you will encounter great curry, order a vegetable curry and you will receive 10 side dish to eat it with; it is called the Burman buffet. From India you will get all the great spices and from China all the fried noodles, fried vegetables and great fondue!
Open your mind to experience new tastes such as eating tea leaf instead of drinking it! The Tea leaf salad is a must try dish, it is excellent even though is doesn’t look good. As a dessert in every restaurant you will get a small package full of round and thin sweet made of tamarin.