Myanmar, or Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar which is derived from the Burmese Empire (1500-1000BC) is a country in Southeast Asia. It lies on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east.
Myanmar's people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into British colonial Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. Most of the jobs in the British led administration were occupied by people brought from India and the local Bamar people were sidelined.The local farmers became preys of south Indian money lenders who confiscated their land. The oppression of British rule prompted the Burmese to co-operate with the Japanese during the Second World War. Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia.
The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called "Death Railway") from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labor — a great number of people (estimated at 80,000) died during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.
While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were empty. The Japanese occupation was very brutal, and many Burmese were killed, such as in the Kalagong massacre. Aung San subsequently switched allegiance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.
The new union brought together various states defined by ethnic identity, many of whom had centuries-long histories of autonomy from and struggles against each other. In the interest of securing their collective independence from Britain, the tribes reached an agreement to submit to collective governance -- with power sharing among the ethnicities and states -- for ten years, after which each tribe would be afforded the right to secede from the union. The terms of this "Panglong Agreement" were enshrined in the 1947/1948 constitution of the new Union of Burma. The new central government of the nation quickly worked to consolidate its power, marginalizing and angering tribal leaders and setting off more than a decade of armed conflict. In 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from the Shan, Kachin, Red Karen, Karen, Chin, Mon and Rakhine people met with ethnic Bamar (Burmese) central government authorities to draft a new form of government which would ensure the tribes both autonomy and self-determination within a federal system.
General elections were held in 1960 and U NU took over as prime minister. In 1962 General Ne Win led a coup d'état which ousted the first democratically elected government in Burma, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, which she has endured for 14 of the last 20 years.
What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to inefficient economic policies, rural poverty and corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism," but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.
In response to the government's attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with alms bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the centre of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders. Dialogue between the UN and the military government has stalled.
Despite international condemnation, Aung San Suu Kyi was back under house arrest after being charged of breaching the conditions of her house arrest. She was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010. As of November 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi is participating in politics and the prospects for democracy look better than ever.
Myanmar's culture is heavily influenced by Buddhism. Influence of ancient Indian culture intertwined with local traditions and some Chinese influences can be clearly seen in local architecture and food habits. Various stupas and temples throughout the country bear a distinct resemblance to those in northern India. Like neighbouring Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is the single largest religion, and even some of the most remote villages will have a village temple for people to pray. Other religions which exist in smaller numbers include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
The dominant ethnic group in Myanmar is known as the Bamar, from which the original English name of the country, Burma, was derived. Besides the Bamar, Myanmar is also home to many minority ethnic groups and nationalities which have their own distinct cultures and languages. In addition to the native ethnic minorities, Myanmar is also home to ethnic Chinese and Indians whose ancestors migrated to Myanmar during the colonial period, most visible in the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Generally speaking, the divisions in Myanmar are Bamar-dominated, while the states are dominated by the respective ethnic minorities.
The Rohingya Muslim people are a heavily oppressed minority. Mentioning the ongoing conflict between the Buddhist population and government with the Rohingya could be a sore subject (disagree: as of Sep 2015 most locals expressed their opinion on a subject without a prompt, and all claimed that oppression is caused solely by the trouble Rohingya Muslim created)
Generally speaking, most Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite, and will do their best to make you feel welcome in their country.
Most people in the cities wear neat clothing. Beautiful Longhi with delicate lace blouses adorn the women. Many children, some women, and rarely men (as it is considered feminine), carry on their cheeks a very special, cream-coloured "make-up" - Tannaka paste. It is the abraded part of the bark of the Tannaka tree, which is applied to the cheeks. It has a cooling effect and protects against sunburn. For foreigners, including men, wearing Tanaka is acceptable, and any souvenir shop would help you for free or for nominal fee if you want to try it.
Because the government is slowly becoming more progressive, many of Myanmar's people have made efforts to inform themselves of domestic and international events, and it is increasingly common for people to be willing to discuss politics. If you are traveling with the intention of learning about Myanmar's government, society, and economy, you will have a much easier time finding knowledgeable laypeople than you would in China or even in Thailand. However, despite recent changes, discussing such matters is still taboo, so please don't ask questions that evoke potentially controversial answers unless your conversation partner has made his willingness to engage clear. Though many people are opinionated and knowledgeable, few openly discuss their views.
Myanmar is considered to have three seasons. The hot season is usually from March-April, and temperatures then cool off during the rainy season from May-October. The peak tourism season is the cool season from November-February. Temperatures can climb as high as 36°C in Yangon in the hot season while in the cool season, noontime temperatures are usually a more bearable 32°C, with night temperatures falling to around 19°C. Mandalay is slightly cooler in the cool season, with temperatures falling as low as 13°C, while temperatures in the hot season can go as high as 37°C. Generally, Lower Myanmar, the area around Yangon, receives more rainfall than the drier Upper Myanmar (around Mandalay).
In the highlands such as Inle Lake and Pyin U Lwin, winter temperatures can fall below 10°C at night, while daytime temperatures tend to be very pleasant. Even in the summer, temperatures rarely climb above 32°C. Near the Indian border in Kachin State, there are mountains which are permanently snow capped throughout the year.
In general, most foreign nationals require an advance visa to enter Myanmar. Citizens of Brunei, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand (only via the international airports) are permitted to enter without a visa for a period not longer than 14 days.
Ordinary Visa and Approval Letter
A tourist visa is valid for (3) months from the date of issue. The duration of your stay in Myanmar is 28 days from the date of arrival. It is not extendable. Successful applicants will also be issued an "Arrival Form", which will be stapled into your passport and must be presented on arrival in Myanmar, along with your passport containing the visa sticker. Ensure that the visa sticker, and arrival form have both been signed by the immigration officer before leaving the Embassy. Note that you will still have to fill in the usual customs and immigration forms on your flight into the country. UPDATE: It seems that the Embassies are no longer issuing "Arrival Forms" (as of June 2016 in Bangkok).
If you can not find an Embassy near you, you can still apply for an approval letter. No trip to Embassy is required. Simply upload your photo and a scanned copy of your passport to get the approval letter. The Ministry of Hotels and Tourism has made a special arrangement with Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow the approval letter to be applied online. The process may take up to two weeks. You must enter Myanmar through international airports and not through the border. The visa sticker will be placed into your passport on arrival.
E-Visa and Visa on Arrival
An e-Visa service is, as of September 1, 2014, available to citizens of over 100 countries (see #11 for the full list). The only type of visa issued through the e-Visa service, however, is a single-entry tourist visa for US$50 or business visa for $70, both valid for entry during the 90 days after issuance, and permits a 28 days (tourist visa), 70 days (business visa) stay in Myanmar. The e-Visa permits admission through the following airports:
Note that if you received the e-Visa, you will NOT receive a visa sticker in your passport upon arrival, just the regular entry/exit stamps. Do not line up to the "visa on arrival" counter at the airport, proceed straight to the immigration.
As of September 1, 2016, the e-Visa can be used to enter Myanmar also from the following three land border checkpoints:
Note that it is not yet possible to enter trough Htee Khee border checkpoint with the e-Visa, but this is likely to be changed in the future as soon as the area gets properly connected to the Internet.
Myanmar has announced the resumption of Visa-On-Arrival (VOA) starting in June 2012 for several countries including all ASEAN member states, the EU, New Zealand and the USA. The following categories of VOA are available: BUSINESS VISA, valid up to 70 days upon entry; ENTRY VISA (Meetings/Workshops/Events) valid up to 28 days upon entry; TRANSIT VISA valid up to 24 hours upon entry. Ensure you check the embassy website for the specific details. Note that, according to the Myanmar government website there is no VOA for tourists, but Myanmar Airways claims that VOA is now available for tourists of all nationalities for USD30 (as of February 2013), but only on flights with their airline from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Guangzhou.
The best advice is to check on the Myanmar visa website well before travel and select the best method of applying for a visa. The service is efficient, simple and quick.
BANGKOK All Visas are issued without proof of travel plans. The relative costs are: THB1490 for same-day; THB1350 for next day; THB800 for 2 day. Note that the Myanmar Embassy is closed for all Thai and Myanmar official holidays.
The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok is open 09:00-12:00 and 15:30-16:30. If you come there at 09:00 expect to see 60-80 people in line outside the Embassy, less later though. You can make a photo copy of our passport (which is required) inside the Embassy for a small fee of a couple of baht. Bring a pen. Officials are helpful and friendly. If applying for tourist visa, fill-in your application form which the security guard supplies upon arrival along with a numbered token. Paste one photo. Attach one extra photo (they supply paper clips as well) and the copy of the photo page from your passport. When your token number appears on the display submit completed application at the respective counter. The next step is payment. The official will ask you which day you would like to collect your passport & visa, charge you accordingly (see rates above) and give you receipt.
Collecting passport looks almost the same. There is no real point in coming very early (before 15:30), because the Embassy is completely closed, so you will not be allowed to wait inside. Since the introduction of e-Visa service queues in the Embassy have shortened considerably.
KUALA LUMPUR The Myanmar Embassy in Kuala Lumpur issues 28-day tourist visas. As of July 2013, tourist Visa applications are completed in one day (perhaps more at busy times) and cost MYR110. Official requirements are: original passport, copy of passport, return air tickets and two passport photos (although they will likely only really want one). The embassy is located on Jalan Ampang Hilir. The entry is not clearly marked; look for the white gate with Burmese script. If you have the required passport photo on flash drive, they can print the copies you need in the canteen.
(Update) Now, do not go to Myanmar Embassy at Jalan Ampang Hilir for visa application. The embassy has outsourced it to Ever Fine Travel & Tours, upstair of Happy Holiday Hotel (level M) at Masjid Jamek LRT Station area (between 7-Eleven & Burger King). Total visa cost per person is RM140 (which comprised of RM110 for visa and RM30 for service fee). They will process the visa on same day! Drop off in morning (9.30-12.30) and pickup in afternoon (4-5pm). Just fill up the form, two photo, a photocopy of passport and return ticket and of course RM140.
HANOI The Myanmar embassy in Hanoi issues visas to tourists with a processing time of 4 business days and a USD20 fee (as of September 2013). Thet require: 1) complete application with 2 photos; 2) airline ticket copy; 3) written itinerary / self-plan; 4) hotel confirmations; 5) a letter of recommendation from your employer in Vietnam, this seems to be not terribly important; and 6) return visa to Vietnam if coming back. Visa applications are processed between 08:30-12:00 and visa pickup is 14:00-17:00. The embassy is at 298A Kim Ma Street in Hanoi. As of October 2013, Vietnamese citizens no longer need tourist visas for stays of up to two weeks.
VIENTIANE The Myanmar embassy in Vientiane issues 28-day tourist visa within 1 day (apply one weekday, pick up the next day) for USD20 and no other documents required than passport, 3 photos, a form filled 2 times. Applications can only be made in person in the morning (08:30-11:00) and pick up in person in the afternoon (15:30-16:30). Very friendly staff and easy process.
HONG KONG In Hong Kong, you can get the visa by applying 09:00-12:00, and picking it up after 15:00 on the following business day (your passport, 1 passport-size photo, business card / leave letter from your employer or student ID if you're a student (these are not always requested), and application fee of HKD150 (c. USD19).
WASHINGTON DC The Embassy in Washington D.C. is swamped with visa applications. Myanmar is now going through a lot of growth in which they might not meet their 10 business day processing time. Travellers have reported that it has taken over 3 weeks to get their visa returned to them. Make sure you send your passport to the embassy at least 1 month before travel.
KOLKATA You can get a visa from the Myanmar Consulate at 57K Ballygunge Circular Road in Kolkata. You should have copies of your flight and they will ask you to fill out a form, paste a passport photo, write a letter explaining your intent, and Rs. 1200 for the processing fee. It takes two days to obtain the visa. The hours to fill out the application are between 10 am - 12 pm and the hours to pick your passport up are 2 - 4 pm. You have three months to enter Myanmar and it is valid for one month.
There are no direct flights from Kolkata, but you can fly via Dhaka, Kunming, Bangkok, or Singapore to get to Yangon. Make sure you have the visas necessary for the connecting flight.
As of August 2014 flights into Myanmar are available from several countries and it shows up as a destination in the popular web search engines.
Points of origin include Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Seoul, Doha and many other.
The situation has changed since the 28 Aug 2013, it's now possible to enter Myanmar freely by land from 4 Thai/Myanmar border crossings - Tachileik / Mae Sai, Myawaddy / Mae Sot, Phu Nam Ron / Htee Khee and Kawthoung / Ranong, see Myanmar Geneva Thai Border. Onward travel into the country is possible from each of them, see the Thailand section below.
Hopping across the Thai border into Myanmar's border towns is easy, but crossing into or out of Myanmar proper by land still varies by border (see below). It is becoming easier and will get more streamlined the more often it is done.
It is also possible to go out of the country on the land border with an expired visa. The usual fees of USD3/days apply. Be sure to have the exact change.
Thailand: For all the land borders, you'll need to get a Myanmar Visa beforehand. You can obtain it in the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok, or apply for the e-Visa (except Phu Nam Ron / Htee Khee), see the Visa information above. NO Visa on Arrival are valid on any land borders.
China - a land border exists between Ruili (in Yunnan) and Lashio, although a permit (as well as a visa) and a guide are needed. You will most likely need to join an organized tour, costing CNY1450 (as of 2009). It is impossible for foreigners to cross, even for the day, without first getting a visa in Kunming, and a tour group. Since August 2014, it may be possible to cross this border without a group when obtaining a special permit (as for India, see below), however this is not confirmed. Otherwise it's possible to fly between Mandalay and Kunming, if going to China there's a Chinese consulate that issues visas in Mandalay.
India - a land border crossing exists between India and Myanmar at Moreh/Tamu. Since August 2014 it is possible to cross this border but a special permit (as well as visa) is required. This permit is required by Myanmar, to enter and to exit that border.
The necessary permit is available in Yangon, through some agencies. It also seems to be possible from outside Myanmar through the agency "Exotic Myanmar Travels", it costs 50 USD, allow at least 3 weeks to process. The embassy might tell you it is not possible (they don't give out the permits).
A permit for Manipur State (India) is not required anymore. Travellers don't need a permit to travel from Tamu to Kalewa anymore, as all generally restricted areas in India have been lifted.
There is also a crossing between India and Myanmar in the far north called Pangsau Pass, named for the neighboring Burmese town of Pangsau. The closest town on the Indian side is Nampong, in Arunachal Pradesh. The the pass is a vestige of the Stilwell Road from World War Two. As such, there is a road from Myitkyina to the pass, though it is in very poor condition and is not often used. Three times a month, Indian nationals are allowed to cross into Myanmar to exchange goods at the market in Pangsau, but the crossing is emphatically closed to foreigners. However, there are reports of travelers receiving escorts from the Indian military to (but not beyond) the border itself.
Myanmar's infrastructure is being built. Since the sanctions were lifted, a number of highways (mostly toll) and bridges were built, and many roads are now quite modern, making more destinations accessible. Travel to certain regions is prohibited; for others, special permits must be obtained, and a guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory - these "guides" accompany you to look after you and to report your safe arrival at destination, or else; the places the government doesn't want you to see are typically protected by the other means such as military checkpoints. Note that even with a guide you're not really under his control, he can (and will) offer an advice, but it is up to you to disregard it.
Popular tourist destinations such as Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan are open to foreigners. However, much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travellers, and many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed (for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung). Thus, while travellers can travel freely in the Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be restricted or circumscribed in other places. This is typically caused by an armed conflict or possibility of unrest or terrorist attacks in the area.For example, while the Kengtung - Tachilek road is closed for foreigners, you can still fly between two cities, or visit Tachilek from Mae Sae from Thailand.
In theory, any tourist can apply for a permit to visit any restricted area or to travel on any restricted land route. In practice, it is unlikely that any such permit will be issued in a reasonable amount of time, or at all, as the issuer would be subject to penalties should anything happen to a tourist. Permit requests can be made locally in some cases (for example, requests for the land route to Kalewa can be made in Shwebo) but, in most cases, the request has to be made in Yangon. Requests to visit restricted areas must be made at the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours) office in Yangon (Number 77-91, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon, currently no website available). Applications for local permits can often be made at a local MTT office or at a police station. As of writing this, local permits are available only for the following places & routes:
All other permits must be obtained in Yangon.
You are free to walk around, go to shops and interact with the locals. That being said with many of the more far flung places, and places restricted to foreigners it is better to arrange your internal visa in advance. Companies that can help with internal visas.
The Myanmar roads have improved, but it still takes long time to travel, and the railways are in a very bad shape. This makes flying by far the most comfortable option for travelling long distances. Please note that many airlines engage in the unfortunate practice of dual pricing, with foreigners paying significantly more than Myanmar nationals.
State owned and appallingly run Myanmar Airways (UB) - not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International (8M) "MAI". UB is known for its poor safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it whenever possible. This airline however has a number of convenient flights, such as late evening flight from Bagan to Mandalay, and is known to fly even when there are only a couple passengers.
There are also privately owned airlines serving the main domestic routes in Myanmar. They are:
While slightly more expensive, they are a safer option and would get you to all the main tourist destinations from Yangon or Mandalay. If you want to plan domestic travel ahead, you can buy airline tickets online on any airline website, or on VisitMM (this one however only sells tickets for very few airlines). Booking domestic air travel requires patience - there seem to be no single site aggregating those airlines, so for each route you'd need a search on each airline website to know the schedule and ticket prices (which seems to fluctuate 10-15% across all airlines, so don't expect huge discounts). Most airlines support online booking with credit card payments and and issue e-tickets, long gone are days when they had to rely on Excel spreadsheet. Not required to reconfirm flights either, although it is usually a good idea.
Advance booking is recommended, as some flights get completely full even in the low season - most airlines fly small planes, typically ATR-72.
The private airline companies are usually on time, and even depart early (10-20min), so be on time and reconfirm your flight and flight time 1-2 days before departure. Sometimes the itinerary might be altered some days before departure (meaning that you will still fly to your final destination on the scheduled time, but with an added or removed in between stop, e.g. Yangon-Bagan becomes Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan). This usually only affects your arrival time. En route stops have only 10-20min ground time, and if it is not your final destination, you can stay inside the plane during the stop.
Important for Yangon: Yangon international airport serves all domestic flights from the old terminal building. This building is located about 100m further on the road than the main (new) Yangon International Airport building, under a covered walkway. When taking a taxi from downtown to the airport, mention to the driver that you are on a domestic flight so you'll not end up in the wrong terminal.
The table below gives some example rates for Air Bagan and Air Mandalay (Sep 2015) between most visited places in Myanmar (note: these are high season prices, and usually the fare in the opposite direction is the same price. Check for more up to date rates!)
Myanmar has an extensive but ancient rail network. Trains are slow, noisy, often delayed, have frequent electrical blackouts, and toilets are in abysmal sanitary condition; many are simply holes in the floor that empty out directly onto the ground beneath the train. Few even have toilet seats. Never assume that air-conditioners, fans, or the electrical supply itself will be operational, even if the train authorities promise so. Still, a journey on a train is a great way to see the country and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pyin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower Myanmar (Yangon - Pathein and Yangon - Mawlymaing) are little communities of their own with hawkers selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are available on many overnight express trains, although, in the high season, you may want to reserve a few days in advance (the Yangon-Mandalay trains now run in the daytime only, apparently because the government does not want trains passing Naypyidaw at night). Food service is available on the express up and the express down between Yangon and Mandalay as well as on the Yangon - Mawlymaing run.
Except for the new bridge and rail line that connects Mawlymaing to points on the western side of the Salween River, the rail network is exactly the way it was in British times. The most used line is the 325km line from Yangon to Mandalay with several trains a day (this is also the only double line in Myanmar), and the only one that is competitive in time with buses (note that the fastest trains take 15 hours for the 385km run, an effective rate of 25km/hour!). A second line connects Yangon with Pyay (9 hours for the 175km journey!) with a branch heading off into the delta region town of Pathein. These tracks, the earliest constructed are in poor shape. With the construction of the bridge across the Salween, it is now possible to go by train from Yangon to Mawlymaing (8 hours for the 200km journey) and on to Ye (Ye is closed to foreign travellers). From Mandalay, trains continue on to Myitkyina in Kachin State (350km in 24hours) and to Lashio. There are also rail connections between Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Bagan, but bus or ferry are better alternatives (The 175km from Mandalay to Bagan takes 10hrs).
Don't expect to sleep well in a train, the railroad is in a rather bad shape, and mostly resembles driving on a gravel road. Even sitting is not very comfortable. Don't expect anything close even to India, not to mention developed countries. Some overnight trains make a 4-5 hour stop so the people can sleep (in a train). Paying extra for a sleeper is generally not worth it; the constant bounces and sways of the train have been known to thrash passengers against headboards and walls. It is generally more comfortable to simply reserve a seat.
There is a railway service between Yangon - Bagan at 4 pm till next day 10 pm. The price per ticket is 4500 Kyat (ordinary class)(August 2014).
From Yangon - Bago its a 2 hours ride departure at 6, 8, 11 am, 3, 5 pm. The price per ticket (ordinary class) is 450 Kyat. You get it for the same day at Railway station (August 2014).
The following table summarizes travel time and prices between most visitable places in Myanmar (note: prices are approximate, check with more up to date and reliable sources!):
Myanmar Railways Round Trip takes 2.5 hours to visit Yangon.
By far, the most common issue that tourists have with Myanmar's trains is the constant rocking and shaking. Though the British tracks aren't wide enough to comfortably support the train cars, which have exceptionally high centers of gravity, the bouncing, swaying, and other sudden and drastic movements that the cars make as they rumble along the tracks are not indicative of an unsafe train. As in most developing countries, the railway system is not up to European or American standards, but, while the cars' motions may make the journey seem exceptionally dangerous (swaying back and forth while crossing a river has scared many Westerners), rail travel is a perfectly viable way to see the country. Few tourists have ever been injured in railway accidents. Far more have lost their lives in derailments in Thailand or other comparable countries (but far more take the train there too).
There is also a large river ferry network. Both are to a large extent run by the government, although there are now some private ferry services. The trip from Mandalay to Bagan takes the better part of a day, from Bagan to Yangon is several days. There are reports of a three day river cruise from Mandalay to Bagan with several stop offs, which sounds entertaining. The ferry services from Mandalay to Bagan will be shut down, except for the slow ferry ( available only on certain days in the week), during the months of April, May and June when the water level in the river is low.
Buses of all types, from small to big, atrocious to luxurious, run the roads of Myanmar.Since the ban on importing vehicles was lifted in 2012, the quality of coach transport has improved drastically.High quality Swedish Scania coaches regularly run the Mandalay-Yangon route while lesser vehicles can get travelers to other places. Burmese movies and music is almost always played all night throughout the journey, so bring ear plugs if you want to get sound sleep. Economy seats in Scania coaches are adequately comfortable, but ask for upper class for even better seats.
Fares are quite reasonably priced in kyat and, for the budget traveller, there is no other option because of the high price of train tickets for foreign nationals. Because the quality of train rides have fallen far behind, bus travel is preferable anyway. Many long distance buses assign seats so it is best to book seats at least a day in advance. Because the roads can be bumpy, avoid the rear of the bus and try to sit as far up front as you can get. Long distance buses may also have an extra jump seat that blocks the aisle and, because it is not well secured to the chassis, can be uncomfortable (which also means that there is no such thing as a side seat where taller travelers can thrust their legs). A window near the front of the bus is always the best option.
On several routes connecting Yangon with other popular tourist destinations, like Mandalay and Inle Lake, you can find "VIP" buses with a 2+1 configuration, which is two large leather seats on one side, and a single seat on the opposite side and a generally clean toilet. It is useful to specify the 2+1 configuration when inquiring about these buses.
A scam about bus tickets seems to be popular in Yangon currently. While many travelers make a stopover in Bago, they are told at their guest-house or at the bus station it's not possible to buy tickets up there in the direction to Mandalay. In a country where everything might be possible when it comes to transport, some people tend to believe this. Actually, this is not the case and tracking back to Yangon for a bus ticket up north is not necessary at all. Bago has a bus terminal with several bus offices. Buying your ticket at Bago might be slightly cheaper (of course depending upon your bargaining skills) and gives you more freedom for the rest of your journey.
The following table summarizes travel times and approximate fares between important tourist destinations in Myanmar (Note: most bus fares have gone up with the recent fuel price rises, the fares listed here are rough estimates):
A fully guided 'hop-on hop-off' bus travel pass will be available and will cover all the main tourist destinations (Yangon-Bagan-Kalaw-Inle Lake-Mandalay).
You can also pre-book tickets with travel agencies - order any time and they send you a ticket reservation somewhere between 2 week and a week before your journey.
Also it's worth emphasising that buses are *heavily* air-conditioned - they aim to maintain +18 celsius inside, and it might be quite uncomfortable to sleep. Most of the buses provide blankets, but some (Nyang Shwe - Bagan, for instance) do not - so it'd be reasonable to have some warm closes with you in the cabin.
Old Toyota pickup trucks run everywhere in Myanmar, inexpensively ferrying men, women, children, and monks from one place to another. The rear of the truck is converted into a canvas covered sitting area with three benches, one on each side and one running along the centre of the truck (some smaller trucks have only two rows), and the running board is lowered and fixed into place providing room for six or more people to stand on (holding on to the truck frame). Pickups are ubiquitous in Myanmar and every town has a central point somewhere from where they depart to places both near and far. Tourists who go off the beaten track will find them indispensable because often the only alternative is an expensive taxi or private car.
The basics of pickups are fairly straightforward, wait till it is reasonably full before heading out. On well traveled routes (Mandalay - Pyin U Lwin, for example), they fill up quickly and the journey is quick. On less well-traveled routes (Bhamo-Katha, for example), passengers arrive (early, usually around 6AM), mark their place, and then hang around drinking tea and chatting until the truck fills up. When the pickup does get moving, it may linger or go out of its way in the hope of picking up more passengers. The inside of a pickup can be hot and uncomfortable - passengers, packed in like sardines, face away from the windows (which are tiny) and into the truck - and standing on the running board can be tiring and tough on the arms! On the other hand, the window side seat next to the driver is very comfortable and well worth the little extra that you have to pay, so it is best to go early and reserve that seat. On larger pickups, the seats directly behind the cab are hotter, as heat rises from the muffler.
On dusty roads, protect your camera; retracting the lens with dust on it can cause damage.
If you want an inside look at how the poorest citizens travel long-distance, pickup trucks are the way to go. This type of transport is only for the adventurous tourist!
You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable rates to tour independently. The licenced guides at Schwedagon Paya in Yangon can arrange to have a driver with a car meet you at your hotel. Another way is to arrange for a car through a travel agency, though it can be quite expensive. You can "test" the driver and the car by driving around the city for 10 or 15 minutes. If you are satisfied, a departure date and time and per diem rates (inclusive of petrol) can be negotiated. Some guides are willing to travel with you to serve as interpreters.
Road travel to tourist destinations is generally safe, although some roads may be rough. Highways are often 2-lane, and cars often pass one another recklessly. That being said, driving habits are not quite as aggressive as say, Vietnam. Allow two days to drive from Yangon to Bagan in fair weather. Pyay provides a good midway stopover point. Allow a day to drive from Bagan to Inle Lake.
In cities, it is also considered illegal to cross an amber light without stopping. Despite having crossed 3/4 of the way, you will be required to stop in the middle of the road and make your way back in reverse!
Accidents and fatalities are common. Night-time road travel is not recommended, and medical facilities are extraordinarily limited in rural areas. At government hospitals, bribes may be required for expedient services. Make sure needles are new or carry your own. HIV is a major problem in Myanmar.
All taxis (and by extension all vehicles for transport of people and goods) have red/white license plates, while private vehicles have a black/white one. Tourist agency owned cars have a blue/white license plate.
In Yangon, riding motorcycles and bicycles is illegal. Mandalay's streets, on the other hand, are filled with both.
Cars and pedestrians may not follow the established rules, and crossing the road can be difficult. Drivers will almost never yield to pedestrians, even on striped pedestrian crossings. Take extra care in busy streets, and never expect drivers to be courteous to pedestrians. It might be worth observing how the locals cross busy roads.
The official language of Myanmar is Burmese (known by the government as Myanmar). A few percent of Burmese pronunciation is derived from the ancient language of Pali, however the language is a Sino-Tibetan language related to Chinese and hence tonal (word pitch matters) and analytic (most words are one syllable long). It is written using the Burmese script, based on the Pallava Grantha script. Bilingual signs (English and Burmese) are available in most tourist spots. Numbers often are also written in Burmese script.
There are also many other ethnic groups in Myanmar such as the Mon, Shan, Pa-O and many others who continue to speak their own languages. There is also a sizeable ethnic Chinese community mostly of Yunnan descent, most visible in the city of Mandalay, and many of whom speak Mandarin. Some areas are also home to various ethnic Indian communities who continue to speak various Indian languages. However, with the exception of the elderly, it is rare to find any locals who do not speak Burmese.
English is the second language of many Burmese people. In tourist areas and in major cities, it will be spoken minimally and displayed on billboards and in stores. Tourism industry workers, such as hotel clerks or taxi drivers, generally speak enough English to make basic conversation. However, don't expect to navigate successfully without your phrasebook. A general rule of thumb is that you can always find somebody who speaks English, but it might take a while, especially off the beaten track.
Other Asian languages, such as Japanese, Mandarin, Thai, and Hindi, are also spoken, though mainly by specialized tour guides. Though taxi operators and hotel personnel in Yangon and Mandalay have been known to speak Mandarin and Hindi, don't expect to be able to make conversation with laypeople in these languages.
Be sure to always carry a phrasebook with you. Even if people you encounter are happy to speak in another language, it is universally smiled upon when an attempt to speak Burmese, no matter how ill-fated, is made.
Myanmar's attractions lie largely in the area of the spiritual. Temples, pagodas and historical sites abound with some areas such as Bagan boasting so many attractions that it would be impossible to take them in during a single visit.
Myanmar has some nice and beautiful isolated beaches, some are seasonal beaches (closed during the monsoon season). Beach tourism is fairly developed in Ngapali and Thandwe and is slowly catching up in Chaung Tha, Ngwesaung and areas near Dawei (locations near Dawei have many isolated beaches). With landscapes, tropical climate, beaches, cheap transportation and truly awesome sights, Myanmar is a fascinating destination.
It is important to dress moderately, especially in temples and pagodas. Cover your shoulders and knees, as the locals do. Be patient, polite and show respect. You will be rewarded with lots of nice experiences, because the locals will react more openly and more relaxed towards you and let you take part in their daily lives.
Burma has some of the best and well kept secret dive sites in South East Asia. The main advantage of diving in Burma is being alone on the dive sites. Of course this also means that there are very few boats in the area. So far there is no dive centers offering day trips to Mergui Archipelago], the 800 islands on the west coast of Burma. The best way to visit the area is to board a Liveaboard living from Ranong in Thailand.
Myanmar is still predominantly a cash economy, ATMs and credit/debit cards are getting popular. Myanmar's currency is the kyat, pronounced "chut/chat". Prices may be shown locally using the abbreviation of K (singular or plural) or Ks (plural) either before or after the amount and depending very much on who is doing the sign writing. The ISO abbreviation is MMK and that is what we use in all our guides. The MMK symbolisation is placed before the amount with no intervening space.
Pya are coins, and are rarely seen since their value has become increasingly insignificant with even the largest 50 pya coin worth less than six US or euro cents in Feb 2014.
Most transactions are done in kyat. Foreigners are generally not required to pay in US dollars anymore (2015), usually all hotels, travel agencies and fees can be paid in kyat, however prices are often quoted in US dollars because of frequent fluctuations in the kyat exchange rate with US dollars. According to the law, it is illegal for Myanmar citizens to accept (or hold) dollars without a license but this law is mostly ignored and dollars are generally accepted. Never insist though because it may be dangerous for the receiver. FECs are still legal tender but are rarely seen and are worth very little.
Kyat officially cannot be exchanged abroad, although money changers in places with large overseas Burmese populations such as Singapore will often exchange anyway. Bring very clean, unfolded US dollars or they will not be accepted by hotels, restaurants and money changers. Dispose of remaining kyat before leaving the country.
Due to the low dollar, an increasing preference for paying in kyat is noticeable, especially when paying for food, private transport (car/taxi), and tours and activities.
Credit cards and ATMs
Major hotels and restaurants accept credit cards. Visa is more common than MasterCard, but neither can be used at small guest houses or family-run eateries barring a few minor exceptions. Taxis are almost never able to accept payment in any form other than cash. Unlike most of the developing world, in Myanmar, there are ATMs in nearly every big town, especially in all the major tourist areas. However, due to common power outages and the poor (but improving) civil banking system, ATMs are not as reliable as they are elsewhere. It is a good precaution to carry cash.
ATMs are generally functional and take Visa/MasterCard as well as debit cards with the Plus logo, but there are reports of troubles with ATM cards from some foreign banks. Travelers are advised to carry some cash in pristine US dollars (soiled notes are not accepted in most shops) as a precaution.
There is usually an ATM fee of MMK 5000 (USD 5) associated with the transaction with maximum withdrawal amount being MMK 300,000.
The US dollar is the most preferred currency at currency exchanges, though you can readily also exchange euros in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle lake. Other options are the Chinese yuan (CNY), Thai baht (THB) and Singapore dollars (SGD). The rates in the large cities and the airport are nearly identical, though smaller denominations get a worse rate. Pounds sterling (GBP) don't enjoy the rate of acceptance found in most countries, and few money changers will accept them. If you have GBP that you want to change, it's worth asking around, as some may accept it although not have it listed on their electronic boards (e.g. at the Farmer exchange booth in Mandalay Airport).
Official and black market rates
Currency controls have been relaxed in recent times and most banks are licensed to accept US dollars, euros and Chinese yuan. Singapore dollars can also be changed at some of the larger banks. Exchanging currency with unlicensed (black market) money changers is illegal.
Ensure that your US dollars
USD 100 bills give you the best exchange rate. Changing USD 50 or USD 20 bills gives you a slightly lower rate (10-20 kyat/dollar less)
Warning: The government is cracking down on the currency black market, so do not encourage black market dollar exchangers on the street. As of Feb 2013, there is no restriction at any bank or official money changer to transfer kyat-dollars in either direction, and the rates are good. Anyone you meet who asks you to change with him individually on the streets is likely attempting to scam you.
There are a number of tricks and scams running around Myanmar trapping tourists who are carrying US dollars. Sometimes, guest houses or traders will try and pass you damaged or non-exchangeable bills in change. Always inspect all notes when making a purchase and request that the vendor swap any notes you think you will have trouble using later (this is perfectly acceptable behaviour for both vendors and customers, so don't be shy).
Some moneychangers will also attempt sleight of hand tricks to either swap your good banknotes for damaged, or lower denomination notes. Other reports suggest that the kyats may be counted and then somehow, some disappear from the table during the transaction. For example, after going through an elaborate counting process for piles of ten 1000 kyat notes, some money changers will pull some notes out as they count the piles of ten.
When changing money, be sure that, after any money is counted, it is not touched by anyone until the deal is sealed. Also do not allow your dollars to be removed from your sight until all is agreed; in fact, it is not even necessary to pull out your US dollars until your are paying for the kyats you received. It sounds extreme, but ending up in a country where you cannot access whatever savings you have, and having a good portion of your budget rendered useless (until you get to more relaxed changers in Bangkok) can really put a dampener on your plans.
In June 2013 best exchange rate was at Yangon airport arrivals hall. Also convenient, because taxi drivers prefer kyats. No need for dollar bills at all during visit (hotels, taxis or sights).
Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs)
Visitors to Myanmar were previously required to change USD 200 into FECs upon arrival, but this was abolished in August 2003. FECs are still valid tender but should be avoided at all costs as they are no longer worth their face value (although a one FEC note has good souvenir potential).
Travelers cheques are not accepted in Myanmar. The only exception might be some especially shady money changer, but be prepared to pay an astronomical commission (30% is not uncommon).
It's not possible to be comfortable on less than USD 25/day. Foreigners will likely be charged fees, including video camera, camera, entrance, parking, and zone fees. Most managed tourist sites will charge you for carrying cameras of any sort into the area.
In addition, there is a growing trend to always charge foreigners much more than what locals pay, even for things such as plane tickets and hotel rooms. While dual-pricing is common in many countries for negotiated items, Myanmar is unfortunately taking it to another level by incorporating the practice into hotel literature and airline websites. One can try to bargain, but success is unlikely.
Double rooms with a private bathroom are nearly always more than USD 20, in Yangon you get a double room without bathroom for USD 20. While you cannot save on accommodation, you can save on food. Street food can go as low as USD 0.30 for two small currys with two Indian breads, USD 1 for a normal (vegetarian) dish. Even in touristy places like Bagan you can get dishes for under USD 1 (vegetarian) and USD 2 (meat). A draft Myanmar beer (5%) is around MYK 600, a bottle of Myanmar beer (650 mL) is around MYK 1700, a bottle of Mandalay beer (6.5%, 650 mL) around MYK 1200.
Hotel/guest house prices in touristy places (including Yangon) are currently rising very fast. If you use the Lonely Planet 2011 guide book expect to multiply the listed prices by 3 or even 4 (November 2013). This makes the country quite expensive compared to the rest of South East Asia. (For comparison, average private room rates across the country were USD 3-5 in 2006).
What to buy
There is also a wide variety of beautiful silverware and jewelery as well as textiles, including gorgeous silks and handicrafts such as wooden carvings, silk paintings and stonework.
Some items may require customs permits.
Burmese food is a blend of Chinese, Indian and Mon influences. Rice is at the core of most Burmese food, and good vegetarian food is widely available. Some types of traditional Burmese food can be extremely pungent, but a lot of restaurants serve dishes with strong Indian and Chinese influences, so if you are comfortable with those, you won't have much trouble. Food is inexpensive at most restaurants (costing from MYK500-3000 per item at most local restaurants, but can go as high as MYK8000 at posh restaurants), but there are upscale restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay for upmarket food.
Because the Burmese cuisine is a medley of many regional influences, it has many characteristics. Seafood is more common along the coastline, while preserved meats are more common in inland areas. Many Indian, Chinese, and Shan dishes are served throughout the country. Some dishes to try are:
Most Burmese restaurants are served cafeteria-style where you go to a counter of pre-cooked items and pay for what you select (tourists pay a higher price than locals, but still in a reasonable $10/meal range). Burmese cuisine itself is very unhealthy with a lot of deep fried items swimming in oil, so Thai and Chinese restaurants will be a good option to look for a break.
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink. Most restaurants, with the possible exception of roadside stalls, now use packaged ice made from bottled water, so ice should be safe. When out and about, even the locals drink bottled water and that's your safest option. Bottled water is readily available just about everywhere. As of May 2013, the standard going rate is MYK300 for a 1L bottle of mineral water.
Similar to Chinese Tea Yenwejan is usually provided free at restaurant tables. While not flavourful, it is boiled water, and so safe to drink (do not drink plain water - even in restaurants - unless it is bottled water). However, an overwhelming number of restaurants have extremely poor sanitation and do not necessarily wash the cups properly. Dried tea leaves similar to Laphet thote's tea leaves (except these are wet) are added to the boiled water to give Yenwejan its flavor. Be sure to order it with Laphet thote (Customary/Good combination).
Myanmar's rich and creamy milk tea (very similar to that you find in India or southeast Asia) is an absolute must. This is normally to be had at cafes rather than restaurants (you'll see them packed full of people drinking milk tea). Milk tea is often served with samosas and other condiments which you will be charged for if you eat, and passed on to others if you do not eat them.
Alcohol Hard liquors are not popular with local people. Beer culture is prominent mostly among men, the brand "Myanmar Beer" is most popular in the country. Other popular brands are Mandalay Beer, ABC Stout, and Tiger Beer. A draught Myanmar beer (5%) is around MYK600, a bottle of Myanmar beer (650mL) is around MYK1700, a bottle of Mandalay beer (6.5%, 650mL) around MYK1200.Toddy juice (ta-YEI) is popular in central Myanmar, and is made from fermented palm sugar. An alcoholic drink popular in the Shan State is Shwe le maw, and is reportedly very strong. It is also possible to buy full strength Beer Chang imported from Thailand; exports to most countries are not nearly as strong.
The best way to enjoy fresh, chilled beer is to sit at a restaurant/beer station that displays the Myanmar Beer sign and ask for a glass of freshly poured draught beer. You can do this by saying "See beer one" which translates to "Give me one glass of draught beer." If you're from a Western English-speaking culture this might seem rude, but in fact it's perfectly culturally acceptable and is not too different from how the locals order it. Draught beer is the most reliable way to get chilled beer. The bottled beer tastes inferior and is most likely not as cold as the draught beer.
Beware of alcoholic drinks served in the far northern states. The locals refer to it as alcohol which does not burn when lit, and it is widely suspected to be an opiate concoction rather than a fermented beverage.
There are a lot of nightclubs, including those attached to the five star hotels (eg Grand Plaza), and also local entertainment centres (eg JJs, Asia plaza).
With the increase in tourism in Myanmar, you should have no trouble finding luxurious accommodation in Myanmar if you are prepared to pay over USD80 per night for it. Hotels that charge that much will usually offer a buffet breakfast and laundry service included in the price. If you desire quality accommodation in the major tourist areas, your best bet is to stay at one of the many hotels geared towards tourists.
For a more affordable price, you can get passable accommodation in smaller hotels, but these usually require booking in-person, and you may be disappointed.
Elsewhere, the country offers mediocre hotel accommodation at prices above its neighbouring countries at the same quality, and prices have increased dramatically in the past 12 months (compare prices listed in the latest Lonely Planet to those charged now, for example. Rooms with attached bath may be available for under USD20 everywhere except in Yangon and with shared bath for anywhere from USD10-15 in most places. Almost every hotel licensed for foreigners has running hot water (though, in remote areas, availability may be restricted to certain hours of the day). Hotels, with a few exceptions, are usually clean though, at the budget end, sheets and blankets may be threadbare and the rooms may be poorly ventilated. A few low-end hotels, particularly in Yangon and other large cities, specialize in cubicle rooms - small single rooms with no windows - which, while cheap and clean, are not for the claustrophobic. Rates are quoted as single/double but the rooms are usually the same whether one person or two stay in the room, making good hotels somewhat of a bargain if traveling as a couple. Except at the top-end, some type of breakfast is always included in the price of the room.
Myanmar has a problem providing enough electricity to its people and Power outages are common(As of Jan 2015 there is some improvement).To avoid spending your nights without a fan or air-conditioning, ask if the hotel has a generator (most mid-priced hotels do). On generator nights, the air-conditioning in your room may not work (the price is usually lower as well). Major tourist hotels in Yangon and Mandalay can have near-uninterrupted electricity supply, but can cost anywhere from USD80 to USD300 per night. All hotels, even the most ramshackle, outdated ones, have electrical outlets that can accommodate North American appliances, if not at a higher and unsteady voltage.
If you're on a business visa, you are permitted to sleep at private homes such as a friend's house. If you're on a tourist visa and you wish to do this, you are required by law to register your name on the "overnight register" at the local council for that district. This may cost you a bit of money. In practice, this law is rarely if ever enforced, and it is unheard of for a foreigner to get into trouble with the authorities for neglecting this rule. The authorities do not go around knocking on doors to check if there are any unregistered foreigners sleeping, because given the rarity of foreigners sleeping in private homes, it is simply not worth their time. You should be aware though, that - while you yourself won't get into much trouble - this could cause serious problems for the locals involved.
Work in Myanmar for foreigners is hard to come by. NGOs and other aid groups operate in the capital and remote rural areas but may require specific skill sets to hire you. Another option is European and Asian companies, mostly operating on a small scale. Teaching English is feasible in private schools but many foreigners have reported unreasonable contracts, such as withholding pay and refusing to pay those who resign early. Skip entirely the education ministry, which only hires citizens with teaching certification. If you would like to work and assist Burmese refugees certain NGOs  work in neighbouring Thailand
Myanmar is one of the safest countries in the developing world for tourists to visit, mainly because of the strict Buddhist culture but in part because of the government's Draconian punishments for those who trouble foreigners. Though pickpockets have been known to happen and are increasing in frequency, there is virtually no chance of you being targeted, even in the lesser-visited areas.
That said, common sense is extremely important, especially outside of tourist areas. There are always statistical outliers who will jump at the chance to steal a foreigner's wallet.
Should you be the victim of a crime, there are police stations all over the country which fly Myanmar's flag and have signs, oftentimes in both English and Burmese, that read: "Can I help you?" The police officers in Myanmar are not always up to Western standards, but they are very helpful, and can generally be counted on to get the job done. Most police stations will have at least one employee present who can translate English, and possibly Mandarin or Thai.
Several years ago, there were isolated bombings: 26 April 2005 in Mandalay; 7 May, 21 October and 5 December 2005 in Yangon; 2 January 2006 in Bago. The government's crackdown on crime has mostly put these to a halt, but some border areas remain dangerous and contain active landmines due to various ethnic rebel insurgencies, both past and present.
Despite traditional taboos against it, begging has become a major problem in the main tourist areas such as Bago and Bagan. Children and "mothers" carrying babies are often the ones who beg as they are more effective at soliciting pity. Note that most beggars are part of larger begging syndicates or just after easy money, as tourists are usually seen to be rich. If you really must give, note that most Burmese earn only US$40 a month doing manual labor; giving US$1 to a beggar is very generous.
Officials and other civil servants may discreetly ask you for a bribe, or invent issues (missing forms, closed offices, etc) in order to get you to suggest one. Pretending not to understand or asking to speak to a superior may work. However, visitors of Caucasian descent are rarely targeted, while those of Asian descent (including South Asians and East Asians) may be forced to give bribes, but the brunt of the problem hits normal Burmese. Again, Westerners are very rarely asked for bribes. Then too, most bribes are in the order of a US dollar or less and requested by people earning as little as USD30/month. Oftentimes, paying the equivalent of fifty cents is worth the expedited service.
The poor road infrastructure, and a mixture of extremely ancient vehicles on the country's roads are all what best describe the road conditions. However, driving habits are not very aggressive compared to say, Vietnam, which does make the safety of the roads comfortable for almost everyone. Although rare, youths sometimes compete against each other on the roads, which has lead to some causalities over the past few years. Bus drivers are among the worst dangers, although this is somewhat less of an issue since 2010 due to new, very harsh penalties imposed on bus drivers involved in accidents.
Surprisingly, Burma has a mixture of both right-hand and left-hand drive vehicles, with the majority being right-hand drive but driving is generally done on the right side of the roads.
Unless you have experience driving in countries with poorly disciplined drivers and very shabby vehicles, avoid driving in Burma.
Various insurgent groups operate in parts of Shan, Mon, Chin (Zomi), and Karen States along the Thai and Chinese borders. Travel to these regions generally requires a government permit. The government also restricts travel to Kayah State, Rakhine State and Kachin state due to insurgent activity. However travel is entirely unrestricted to the districts of Yangon, Bago, Ayeyarwady, Sagaing, Taninthayi, Mandalay and Magwe.
First, a bit of political history. Myanmar was under military rule for 40 years, with a reputation for repressing dissent,there was frequent arrests of democracy campaigners . As a foreigner, it's best to abstain from political activities and don't insult the government.
As of Sep 2015, liberty has increased drastically with the gradual democratization of the country and the election coming next month. You'll find locals all around open to discussing politics, and initiate political discussions with you, openly critiquing the government, and talking about bribes, corruption and other issues. Plenty of shops proudly showing a picture of Aung Sang Suu Kyi and their support of the NLD, and the NLD banners are everywhere. There have been a few public protests against private corporations. The turnaround from a repressive police state in the span of a few years has been truly remarkable. Still as a foreigner it is better to remain discreet and let the locals to initiate the discussion about the politics with you.
However, under any circumstances avoid doing things that might make the military or police feel uncomfortable, such as taking pictures of police and police buildings or vehicles. Even if you aren't punished, you might have to suffer some antagonism and a long, uncomfortable investigation at the local police station. Most police officers and some military, however, are ok with that as long as you ask (even with a camera gesture), and some would be happy to have a picture taken with you.
Religious tattoos and images
Displaying tattoos or other images (t-shirt) of religious figures may be considered disrespectful or even illegal. Myanmar police will arrest and may deport people sporting tattoo of Buddha or any other tattoos which can be interpreted as having religious significance. It is better to cover religious tattoos while visiting public places.
As in many developing nations, Myanmar has an abundance of stray, unvaccinated dogs and cats wandering its streets. Though some are timid, many are hostile and almost all have some kind of infectious disease, a phenomena that owes itself to poor public sanitation. Rabies, among other viruses and bacteria, are common in stray animals and they therefore should not be touched, or even approached if avoidance is possible. If you are bitten, chances are that you will require a costly evacuation to Thailand to be screened and treated for illnesses that may arise as a result of the bite.
Hygiene in Myanmar may seem terrible to the average Western traveler but it is possible to stay healthy with some basic precautions such as prophylactic medication, care choosing food and water, and antibacterial ointment. Never drink tap water. Restaurants are legally required to use ice made and sold by bottled water companies, so ordering ice is usually safe in major places. Always drink bottled water and check that the cap is sealed on, not simply screwed on. Diseases such as dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and malaria are endemic. Drug-resistant strains of malaria and tuberculosis are common in many areas. Hepatitis vaccinations are highly recommended and cholera oral vaccine is worthwhile. At the dinner table, Burmese use a spoon and fork, or their fingers when this is more convenient. You might feel better rinsing all of them before meals. Antibacterial wipes or alcohol hand-rub is a good idea at regular intervals.
As in any other developing country: "if you can't fry, roast, peel or boil it - then forget it". Wash your hands frequently with soap and water (tap water is OK for hand washing). Always have hand sanitizer ready, since most germs are spread through hand contact.
Visitors to Myanmar should be healthy and fit, and expect to care for themselves. It is recommended that you ask your doctor whether you are fit for travel to a developing country. Myanmar's public health-care system is poorly funded, and the quality of medical education is still abysmal, as is the case with all types of academic education in Myanmar. As a result, most doctors and medical staff are poorly trained, and quality medical equipment is scarce. Prevention is definitely the best medicine — do not expect to receive adequate medical care in this country. If you should fall sick in Myanmar, you can visit a clinic in major cities for minor ailments such as coughs and colds. Clinics are often crowded and waiting times are long. If you must see a specialist doctor, look around for one that has a postgraduate degree from a developed country. It is a custom for clinics to often list their doctors' qualifications under their names, and it will be made clear if a doctor has a foreign degree.
Local pharmacies and supermarkets are plentiful, stocking all sorts of Western medicines, and there is no concept of a prescription. Simply walk in and ask for the medicine that you want. Pharmacy clerks are familiar with chemical names and it will be helpful if you can say the name of the medicine you want, such as Paracetamol or Lomotil instead of just "painkiller" or "diarrhea pill". As a foreigner, your bowels may not be used to the hygiene conditions of the food, so always keep diarrhea remedies such as Lomotil on hand.
However, for more serious medical care, hospital conditions tend to be unsanitary and there is often a shortage of medical supplies due to economic sanctions. The only hospital that comes close to modern developed standards is Pun Hlaing Hospital, a privately owned hospital which is in a remote township of Yangon called Hlaing Thar Yar, and one should expect very high expenses there. Most of the hospitals are government owned, which means poorly funded. Most of the government officials and rich locals head to Thailand or Singapore for more serious medical treatment and hospitalization. Should you require hospitalization, making a trip to Thailand or Singapore is your best bet. Just ensure your insurance is in order as arranging to be airlifted in an emergency can be rather costly.
Medical facilities are extraordinarily limited in rural areas. At government hospitals, bribes may be required for expedient services. Make sure needles are new or carry your own. HIV is a major problem in Myanmar.
Visit the country in winter, between November and February, when the weather is usually a bit cooler and less humid and you consequently have the lowest chance of getting ill.
With the opening of the country there is now a number of private hospitals built in the major cities, which reportedly provide good medical care. Public medicine, however, remains poor.
Despite recent developments, Myanmar is still a conservative country and visitors should keep that in mind.
Modest clothing is practically required in religious places such as pagodas, temples and monasteries (of which there are thousands). Miniskirts, shorts and sleeveless shirts are not allowed in consecrated areas, where you also have to remove your footwear, so loafers and flip-flops that can be slipped on and off are highly recommended. Myanmar has some of the most stunning temples in Asia and you will be tempted to visit more than you think.
With the opening of the country the population also opened up, and now Burmese living in the large cities such as Yangon and Mandalay tend to dress up more openly, including short skirts, pants and shorts - while around the Inle Lake the vast majority of men and women are dressed up traditionally in a longyi.
You can readily purchase modest clothing that is also light and cool.
Both men and women wear a longyi, a sort of sarong sold everywhere and worn by the vast majority of the population. Even in the most cosmopolitan areas of Yangon and Mandalay, longyi are the rule rather than the exception. Even the president and top army generals wear longyi. They are wrapped in different ways for men and women, so find out how to tie yours. If you turn up at a temple in inappropriate dress, you can always rent a longyi for a pittance. It is certainly permissible, and, in fact, recommended, for foreigners to buy and wear longyi, as they are comfortable and acceptable in any social situation whatsoever. Though women will need to have theirs tailored, generic men's longyi can be bought anywhere. Though locals will shout "white man in lyongi!" occasionally, this should be construed as both pleasant and a compliment as opposed to a form of harassment.
Also avoid t-shirts with images of Buddhas or Buddhist imagery, which is considered highly disrespectful.
Give generously at temples and monasteries but women are not allowed into some sacred areas; actually the restriction should cover only women in menstruation, but since it would be rude to ask and unthinkable to verify, they keep all ladies out. You will often see monks with alms bowls on the streets in the morning (they are not allowed to eat after noon). Note that monks are not allowed to come into physical contact with the opposite sex, so be careful not to touch hands if offering a donation. In addition, you should only donate food to the monks, as they are not allowed to accept money under any circumstances and giving money to a monk is considered a sign of disrespect; those that accept money are almost always fakes. Never touch a monk's robes, no matter what sex you are.
You can also purchase little squares of gold leaf to apply to consecrated statues.
When praying or paying respects, it is important to ensure that the *soles* of your feet do not point towards the Buddha or anyone else. However, statues are arranged so that won't happen unless you get acrobatic about it. Tuck your feet underneath you when kneeling at shrines and temples.
Public displays of affection such as prolonged kissing are shunned. Physical contact such as shaking hands with strangers is uncommon, especially between members of the opposite sex, except in business settings. A friendly smile and a nod of acknowledgement will suffice when introducing yourself.
When receiving items from people who could be considered equal to or higher than you in status, it's respectful to use your left hand to support your right elbow, and receive it with your right hand.
Tourists of Caucasian descent are commonly referred to as bo, which translates "leader", as a sign of respect. Address elders with U (pronounced "oo", as in soon) or "Uncle" for men, and Daw or "Auntie" for women. If these honorifics are too complicated for you, address people with the prefixes "Mister" and "Miss" and you will be understood.
Generally speaking, despite the common negative perception of the government, most ordinary Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite as long as you respect their local customs. Customer service is in general very good (some say better than in Thailand) but customer service staff are invariably poorly paid, so you might wish to tip service staff generously to ensure your money goes into the right hands.
There are there main GSM mobile service providers: MPT, Ooredoo and Telenor. The main operators' SIM cards can be bought at the airport or at any mobile phone shop. A passport or an identity card is legally required when you buy a SIM card, but rarely asked from tourists. The price for the a SIM card is MMK1500 (USD1.5).
"Tourist sim cards" for visiting foreigners come with pre-loaded data and call credit. MPT launched the first tourist SIM card with 1.5 GB of data and 5,000 Kyats of pre-loaded credit. A normal SIM card usually comes with little to no credit, and needs to be "topped off". A top-off of 10,000 Kyat should last a week-two for moderate Internet usage and a few calls abroad. Mobile calls to USA are cheap, around 30 cents a minute. Calling rates will be as cheap as MMK23 per minute for local calling which will vary with the operator you choose. International calling and roaming services are now available and the price vary with the operator. Internet speed is relatively slow compare to another countries, but service providing companies are working for faster internet service.
MPT has a good coverage throughout Myanmar, providing a wide range of GSM, CDMA, land phone and many services. A lot of people are still using MPT services because its coverage.
Ooredoo and Telenor have launched services in 2013 and coverage is available in city areas and tourist attraction sites mainly.
International mail out of Myanmar is reportedly quite efficient; it is oftentimes used by the government and the military. Parcels, letters, and postcards tend to reach international or domestic destinations quite quickly and reliably compared to countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, or Laos. As elsewhere, there is always a risk if you send valuables as ordinary parcels.
Internet availability is spreading fast ,but connections are often slow and many sites are inaccessible. Accessing internet on the smartphone is more popular locally. Internet cafes exist in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan , but are getting rarer.Rates are around MYK300/h in Yangon and MYK1000-3000/h elsewhere. Some hotels,allow free access to the internet through Wi-Fi (generally limited to common areas like the hotel lobby). Many of the hotels catering to tourists now have free unrestricted Wi-Fi available.
In the past, a lot of websites used to be blocked, but this is no longer the case. Today, the vast majority of the Internet is accessible from within the country.
Mobile data services are available for both GSM and CDMA type phones, Major Internet providers are MPT,Telenor and Oredoo.(Update: see Telephone section above for mobile Internet for foreigners). Upon arrival at Yangon International Airport, ask for advice from the information desk. Bear in mind that may be charged per minute of connection or per unit of data used(Depending on the data package and Internet provider), so simply leaving your mobile data connection enabled may consume your mobile credit.
Alternatively, consider looking into satellite phone SIM card services, and get connected in advance before coming to Myanmar.
Some guidebooks say you can over-stay a visa, and merely have to show up at the airport a little early to complete the required paperwork, however there have been several recent reports of individuals having their boarding passes confiscated on their way out of the country. (Tourist visas can not be extended; work visas can be extended in theory, but in practice those on a work visa usually fly to a neighboring country to get a new visa). Probably not a good idea to book a hotel in your destination city until you know if you can get out. Keep some cash handy to pay extra charges in case of oversize or overweight baggage as credit card acceptance in not widespread and passengers are expected to pay charges using currency. It is emphatically recommended (and is becoming increasingly necessary) that you purchase visas appropriate for the duration and purpose of your trip.