Are you going on your first trip to Myanmar?
With Myanmar’s tourism sector still fairly new, finding good, up-to-date information about travel to Myanmar was a little bit of a struggle. For example, many guidebooks advise you to carry only crisp US dollar bills but when I visited in February 2017, the Myanmar Kyat (MMK) was widely accepted. There were a number of things I wish I knew beforehand and so, here are the top 15 things I learned on my first trip to Myanmar.*
1. There is a $100 USD limit on currency exchange per passport at the airport.
A few years ago, US dollars were the preferred form of currency. Now the Myanmar Kyat (MMK) reigns, but there are still only a few ATMs around the country, even in the main cities of Yangon, Bagan, Heho, and Mandalay. Your safest bet is to withdraw money at the airport, but if you need to exchange some money, remember there is a $100 USD limit per passport, so borrow a friend’s if you need more.
UPDATE: For tourists staying in the general downtown area, Anawrahta or Maha Bandoola Street would be two streets in downtown (they run parallel) where there would be lots of money exchange counters and banks, which also exchange. Probably best from 27th to 41st streets. The ATMs are working increasingly well, although definitely confirm that your home bank will support banking in Myanmar. There is also Western Union. Yankin Cnter near Inya Lake has about 6 ATMs next to each other, as do most shopping places. Chances are that one works. Sometimes an ATM can be easier because the USDs you exchange have to be crisp and new that many currency exchange vendors won’t even accept a bill with a slight fold in it.
2. Many people still wear traditional dress.
In Myanmar, the men and women don the longyi, a sarong-esque bottom piece, as an everyday fashion item. The women also paint their faces with thanaka, a cosmetic paste that is made from ground bark. Not only is the yellowish-white makeup symbolic of the country’s beauty ideals, but it also has a practical use as natural sunblock.
3. The taxi fare from Yangon Airport to the city center is only $8.
There is a fixed price for taxis leaving from the airport to downtown Yangon, which is 11,000 MMK (~$8 USD). Don’t be tricked into paying anything more than that. One set of travelers shared they paid $25, which made sense to them since the ride to the city center is about 45-minutes long. In order to avoid this, agree on the price of 11,000 MMK before hitting the road. If the driver doesn’t concede, report them to a security guard and jump into the next cab.
4. Hop on the Yangon Circular Railway and ride it the whole way through.
For locals, the Yangon Circular Train is an inexpensive way to move around the city. But for those passing through Yangon with not enough time on their hands, the circular railway is a good dose of sightseeing and relaxing. For three hours, you’ll travel across the whole city to its outermost reaches (basically, the countryside), and then you’ll loop back around until you arrive to the city center. The train is non-air conditioned and the windows have no glass, so feel free to stick your head out and watch life go by. The passengers are friendly characters as well. The cost is 100-200 MMK (>$1 USD) for the whole ride.
Tip: Vendors selling snacks will walk up and down the aisles but there was never a water vendor. Avoid dehydration by bringing your own water bottle.
5. Purchase a $1 tourist map while in Bagan for exact locations of temples.
In the digital age, most people rely on their phones for maps. But without reliable cell service, purchasing a 1,000 MMK (>$1 USD) Bagan Tourist Map from the hotel concierge was the best investment I made. The foldable map is highly detailed, with names and numbers for every temple, as well as indicators to which temples are best for sunrise and sunset. And most importantly, the comprehensive map lists every small winding road and dirt path in the archaeological zone, making trip planning an absolute breeze.
6. Find people to rent a boat with if you’re looking to spend a day on Inle Lake.
My favorite part of my Myanmar trip was a whole day boating expedition across Inle Lake for only 4,000 MMK (>$3 USD) with my cousin, our friend Ryan, and a couple we met at our hotel. We asked the hotel to arrange the trip with a local boat captain who charged us 20,000 MMK for five people from sunrise to sunset (6 am to 7 pm). The standard costs listed in tour books are 15,000-18,000 MMK, but we were happy to add a little more seeing how gracious our boatman was. Our boatman ferried us to major sightseeing spots around the lake and allowed us to customize our plans so we enjoyed lunch and dinner without worrying about a time crunch. In the morning, it was absolutely freezing but he had heavy blankets to keep us warm.
Tip: The front seat of the wooden canoe early in the morning is the coldest seat on the boat so make sure to wear a sweater or something warm if you plan on sitting up there.
7. There is rotating market schedule in Inle Lake.
The five-day market is a rotating market that takes place in several townships around the Inle Lake region. Ask your hotel/hostel if they can advise you where the marketplace will be the day of your boat trip. The marketplace is not held on days of the full moon.
Tip: Even though Ywama Floating Village is touted as the best place to buy silver, you can find the same of assortment of crafts for a fraction of the price at Phaung Daw Oo Paya Pagoda.
8. Getting a stomach bug in Myanmar is common.
Many travelers I spoke to before my first trip to Myanmar lamented over getting food poisoning and lo and behold, my cousin and I got sick on our fifth day traveling. We blame a lukewarm Tom Yam Goong soup from Leo Restaurant in Nyang-U that no one in our group ate but us.
Tip: If you’re too weak to visit a hospital, ask your hotel if they can call for a local doctor to perform an on-site visit for only $25 (including medicine.) Don’t attempt to travel while sick. Bed rest is key to making sure you lose out on only a day’s worth of traveling, and not your whole itinerary.
9. Check to make sure your e-bike is running properly.
It costs 8,000 MMK (~$6 USD )to rent an e-bike in Bagan, but before you sign off on a vehicle for the day, make sure to give it a test ride. Check for good handlebar alignment, steady acceleration, and working breaks. Without good breaks, treading the sandy backroads to far-off temples can become very dangerous as your bike will be prone to slipping. Also make sure your headlights are working because you’ll most likely be out after sundown and the roads are dark.
10. There is no one temple to view the hot air balloons. It boils down to a game of luck.
The day my friend Ryan and I caught the hot air balloons floating straight over our temple, the Thitsarwadi Temple, during sunrise, we thought, “Wow! We found the best temple to watch the balloons.” The next day, I brought my cousin to the spot and the hot air balloons stayed in the distance. An art hawker at the temple shared that the flight path of all the balloons depends on the wind so it’s a matter of luck, but as long as you’re near the golf course where they are launched from, the probability of the balloons being in close proximity is much greater.
11. The Intha Fisherman will ask you for money after you strike a pose.
The Intha are the indigenous group that live around Inle Lake, and are recognized for the riveting balancing acts they perform atop their wooden long boats. Catch them with their nets steadied on their outstretched legs, but they will immediately ask for money as soon as you capture their pose. It’s a bit of a human circus so decide if you want to participate, but should you take a picture, share the wealth. This is how they make their living.
12. If a temple is locked in Bagan, look for the temple guard.
Should you find a temple you’d like to explore/watch the sunset from is locked, have no fear. There is a groundskeeper for every temple in Bagan and their house is usually positioned in front of or behind the temple. You can ask the owner to open the door and giving gratuity to the groundskeeper and his/her family is suggested for the continued upkeep of the temple.
13. Overnight bus travel is not as horrible as people say it is.
Contrary to the widespread sentiment that overnight bus travel in Myanmar is horrible, I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. Now, don’t get me wrong—the local buses are a bit more rundown than the fancier assortment we splurged on. But a 12-hour bus ride with a comfortable neck pillow, a proper blanket, a working recliner, and in-seat entertainment was one of the best long-haul bus experiences I’ve ever had. And you can now book buses online at myanmarbusticket.com. Recommended bus lines are JJ Express Bus and Shwe Mandalar. Be sure to book in advance during high season and Lunar New Year.
14. Myanmar is more expensive than most of its neighbors in Southeast Asia.
Save for food (roughly 4,000 MMK (~$3 USD per meal) and local transport, my first trip to Myanmar was more expensive than anticipated. A hotel room for $40 per night in Bagan bought us a basic room with no amenities, a shower with faucets similar to the spigots used for your lawn hose, and beds with only a thin blanket to suffice. During holiday travels, the prices of overnight buses with more reputable companies averaged to about $20 per person. And one-way flights to and from the major cities sit in the $75-100 price bracket.
15. Visiting a teahouse is the best insight into the local culture.
Teahouses in Myanmar are where the locals congregate to talk about everything from political affairs to weekend plans. There are some high-end teahouses and those with a more hole-in-the-wall flair. There are Chinese teashops and Indian/Muslim-owned establishments. At the Chinese tea shop we visited, we were treated to the cups of milky, sweet Burmese tea, and dim sum like items such as steamed rice buns.
*Shout-out to the lovely sisters Candy and Crystal from The Travel Pockets for the inspiration on this blog format. Read their post on the 15 things they learned on their first trip to Cuba here.
Is there anything else the those embarking on their first trip to Myanmar should know about about? Comment below!
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