Have you been thinking of visiting Myanmar? Here's a quick guide with all the info you need to know before you go!
Myanmar is the “Land of Immortality (Amarapura),” “Land of the Gems (Yadanarbon),” and “Golden Land (Suvanabhomi)" all at once. With a complex history and religious sites untouched by tourism, Myanmar reflects an image unlike many other Asian countries.
Myanmar is still as inexpensive as other countries in Southeast Asia. It has some of the cheapest beer in the world, and a good meal can cost as little as a couple of US dollars, so it's possible to travel Myanmar on an extremely tight budget.
I visited for the first time in 2016. After a month ferrying between Japan, China, and Vietnam, I whipped my scooter around the ancient city of Bagan and felt the gloom of the sea wash off of me. Myanmar has an excitement waiting to be kindled.
Psst…Want more quick guides? Check out these other posts:
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Bagan, Myanmar
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Yangon for a Day
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Japan
Your Quick Guide to Visiting Hakone for a Day
Read on for my quick tips, concerns for socially responsible travel, and what were my favorite experiences.
Table of Contents
quick tips when visiting Myanmar
mAKE SURE ATM'S WILL ACCEPT YOUR CARD before traveling
To avoid using your US dollars (which many countries consider rude and are in short supply if you are traveling), make sure you have a card provider that can be used at ATMs in Myanmar. As of my trip in 2016, my MasterCard and Visa would not work on a single ATM in Yangon or Bagan but did work at restaurants.
TRUST YOUR GUT
Myanmar as a country is still advancing and attempting to keep up with the new tourism demands. As a rule, you should avoid all uncooked foods, including salad, ice cream, and fruits or vegetables you did not wash yourself. But don't skip out on a meal if it means skipping out on hospitality. I had uncooked peanuts given to me as a gift and also sat down to a meal with a family across the street from my hotel in Bagan, and I did not get sick either time. Trust your gut!
Take the bus
Myanmar is the least safe country to fly in (as of my trip in 2016). However, travel by train or bus in Myanmar is comfortable, cheap, and easy. If you plan to leave your destination city on day trips, most hotels and airport kiosks will have bicycle or scooter rental systems that make getting around convenient almost anywhere—even near remote temples in Bagan.
I traveled with two other women Bagan to Yangon, sometimes at night, sometimes by bus, and sometimes in the city alone. There was not a time when I felt unsafe. In general, I always recommend a few precautions like signing up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program if you are a U.S. citizen.
ask for help
A Buddhist monk I met said, “The Myanmar (‘Land of Smiles’) are the happiest in the world.” Most people are likely to know English, and even more likely to help you. When I lost my bike key in Bagan, the family who owned the hotel I rented from drove me over to look for the key. They even brought their grandmother along so that I would feel safe! I found that this was a perfect example of Myanmar hospitality.
Download reliable apps for finding directions and translating. I like maps.me and Google Translate, as you can keep the files for languages on your phone without needing to use Wifi or data.
SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE TRAVel in Myanmar
Responsible travel in any country requires conversation, research, and a strong effort to understand the cultural norms and adhere to them. Myanmar as a country has been frauded with governmental corruption and a fierce military presence. The current situation is tense. As a people, the Myanmar are extremely welcoming and apologetic to tourists. They want you to like their country and enjoy visiting so that their country can receive some of the benefits of you being there. As a first-time tourist, it’s impossible to remember everything, but trying will make a world of difference, and goes a long way in feeling welcome in a foreign country.
understand the history
Myanmar or Burma? A flag of red or with a white star? The new flag, yellow, green, and red stripes beneath a white star, symbolizes unity in Myanmar along with their new constitution (2008). Even the names, Myanmar or Burma, are still open for debate. A monk I met during my 2016 visit asked us to call his country Myanmar, so I do so out of respect for him. Find out which name your hosts prefer and use it.
The people suffered under a military dictatorship and various human rights violations until Myanmar’s first openly contested election in twenty-five years, finally freeing Aung San Suu Kyi in November 2015. If you are a guest in Yangon, pass respectfully by the home where she was kept under house arrest.
KNOW THE TEMPLE ETIQUETTE
You won’t just see a lot of crimson and orange robes in Myanmar. You’ll also see a lot of unwritten rules, although you might not realize it. Cultivate an attitude of respect for the main religion, Buddhism, by first having a working knowledge of Buddhism and second, memorizing these most basic (and important!) rules. Women should not touch male monks, even in a friendly manner. In the tradition of the Buddhist faith, you walk around Buddhist pagodas clockwise. Remove your shoes before entering a temple. When entering a temple, be careful not to step on the threshold. Stand when a monk or a nun enters the room and give a slight bow when you greet them. Dressing modestly means covering yourself (yes, even in the tropics). I think of dressing appropriately in another culture like wearing a costume; it’s necessary for your performance in another country.
Understand: Young monks and nuns are orphans being cared for by the temple elders themselves. They feed them out of their own alms bowls. A small donation at a temple is not only appropriate but can be a sign of thanks.
be an informed customer
The gem deposits found in Myanmar’s northern region have the highest quality jade in the world, but in the “Land of the Gems,” gems can hold a dark curse. Why? The gem trade in Myanmar consisting of mining, distribution, and manufacturing is brutal. Most of the gems mined in Myanmar are not cut for use in Myanmar, instead, they are transported to other countries. The laborers living around and working at these mines do so in poverty. In fact, the U.S. banned trade in Myanmar jade and rubies in 2013 for the country’s human rights violations. An article by The New York Times called rubies from Myanmar blood-red beauties.
Kayan Lahwi women in the mountainous regions of Myanmar and Thailand protected themselves against tiger and snake bites with neck rings and brass neck coils. Once worn for beauty and cultural identity, many Kayan Lahwi women now wear the neck rings for tourists. Especially around the temples in Bagan, these women will ask you to pay them to take their photograph. Don't stare. As a traveler and not a tourist, you are an ambassador of your country. How you act, what you like, and how you vocalize that can be very influential (for good or bad). As always, ask before you take a photo of someone or their property.
SUPPORT LOCAL ARTISANS
The markets in Myanmar are a source of income for a large part of the population. In Yangon, everything from local produce to handicrafts and clothes to gems are sold. Buying from local artists in Myanmar supports cultural heritage and ensures the preservation of things like lotus weaving, sand painting, and lacquerware that are Myanmar art icons. Myanmar has many beautiful arts, and artists throughout the country are continuing traditional arts forms hundreds of years old.
MY FAVORITE EXPERIENCES in myanmar
Myanmar is a relatively small country, and the train system allows you to travel it quickly. Myanmar has a lot to offer, however, and each region has a different reason for you to visit. You can see all of the top destinations in just a one-week or two-week trip, but to really understand someone, you want to spend as much time with them as possible, and by knowing them intimately, you'll love them deeply. It's the same with visiting Myanmar or any other country.