At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks


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Myanmar, also known as Burma, is probably one of the most interesting countries in Southeast Asia at the moment, thanks to its multiple ethnic groups and its strong rural traditional values.

No matter where you look, you’ll see men wearing sarong-like longyis and chewing betel nuts. You’ll also see women with their faces smothered in thanakha (a natural sunblock), as well as cheroot-smoking grannies.

Young Faces of Myanmar

It’s these cultural hints, as well as its many historical pagodas and ancient sites, that still give Myanmar the power to surprise and delight even the most jaded of travelers.

Are you planning on visiting Myanmar in the near future, or are you curious about this mysterious country that recently opened to tourism? Here I want to share with you 16 things I learned and experienced while traveling to Myanmar.

Some of these make the country unique, while others are plain travel logistics that you should know beforehand.

Disclaimer: As beautiful a country as Myanmar is, it has been experiencing civil unrest and armed conflict since 26 April 2021. This is due to a military regime and coup in the country, which has resulted in violent conflict. So all travel to Myanmar at this stage is strongly unadvised.

Bagan, Myanmar

1 – You Need a Visa to Visit Myanmar

You will need a valid Visa when traveling to Myanmar. I obtained my Visa roughly a week before going to Myanmar from the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok.

Now, though, you can now get a Tourist Visa online at Myanmar’s official site.

My visa to Myanmar
My visa to Myanmar!

2 – Tourism is Booming, but the Tourism Infrastructure is Lacking

The country’s tourism has increased exponentially over the past five years. Unfortunately, Myanmar still needs to develop its tourism infrastructure to accommodate this bigger influx of foreigners.

Hotels are lacking, and many of the existing ones are not on par with similar types of accommodation in other Southeast Asian countries. Buses are slowly becoming more frequent and slowly reaching more destinations outside the main ones.

Still, to this day, if you want to go off the beaten path in Myanmar, you will have to plan it carefully or dedicate a lot of time in transit since the limited network is not well connected and is unreliable.

Small boats at Inle Lake in Myanmar

Regarding hotels, I recommend at least booking the first night in the country or each city. I use Booking.com to find some decent and affordable hotels. More recently, though, I discovered that Vrbo or Agoda offers many cheaper options in hotels and local homes too.

Hotels are often fully booked. So if you want to find walk-in accommodation, chances are you will either have to search for a while or pay more than your budget. This brings me to my next point.

Update: Now there are more options, so unless you’re going to the most popular cities during high season, you should be ok with walk-ins in some hotels.

3 – Hotels Are Expensive

As tourism increases, hotel demand also increases. Unfortunately, the country is not developing fast enough to meet this demand, so their answer is to raise the price.

A hotel that could have cost $25 a night in 2011 now costs $100 or more (without adding any extra features). This shortage is expected to last for the next 5 to 10 years. For this reason, book ahead of time.

Update: More registered hotels have sprung up in recent years, so now there are more budget-friendly options, even in the $10+ range per night.

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I recommend checking Booking.com for their cheapest hotel options when visiting Burma’s regions of Bagan, Mandalay, Yangon, Nyaung Shwe, and everywhere else in the country.

Yangon, Myanmar

4 – Schedule Enough Time to Move Around

Allocate your transportation time wisely. It normally takes longer than you think to get from point A to point B. Overnight buses are not comfortable or smooth as roads are in bad condition.

Instead, they are quite bumpy, freezing cold, blast loud music and TV shows throughout the night, and have random stops here and there. You’ll see locals sleeping soundly, but you probably won’t. You’ll need some time off the next day to relax and recharge.

Update: Roads have improved in the last few years, so buses and local transportation in Myanmar are more reliable now. Also, you can now book some of your local transportation online, and I highly recommend booking ahead of time via Bookaway.

Train Transportation in Myanmar

5 – Wi-Fi is Extremely Unreliable

I expected Wi-Fi to be pretty bad, but in most cases, it had slow speeds that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy or that simply didn’t work at all.

Internet access only appeared in the country in 2000, and until 2012 Gmail and YouTube were blocked. So, you can imagine how underdeveloped their network is.

Still, you might find some heavenly good Wi-Fi spots, mostly at expensive hotels (though not guaranteed) and higher-end cafes and restaurants. But again, it’s not guaranteed, so don’t trust their “we have Wi-Fi” signs until you actually try the connection.

When I went to Myanmar for the second time in 2016, the Wi-Fi situation improved, but it was still pretty bad. They also allowed us to get sim cards with data, which worked better than most Wi-Fi at cafes and hotels.

Even if you successfully find a good Wi-Fi connection, do note that the Myanmar government is known to monitor all internet activities and what they do with the collected data is unknown.

If you plan to use Wi-Fi, get a Virtual Private Network (VPN) from a trustworthy provider like ExpressVPN or NordVPN to encrypt your traffic, and prevent government surveillance. (Check out this post comparing the best VPNs for travel.)

6 – Have Plenty of Crisp US Dollars

The country works on a closed money economy, so you cannot exchange for the official currency (the Kyat) outside Myanmar.

When exchanging, the higher the denomination of your US Dollar, the better the exchange rate. ($100 bill gets you the most Kyats – pronounced “chats”).

When bringing dollars, they should be new, crisp, and clean dollars. Seriously. Any stain, mark, or significant crease on your dollar will make it unusable under their eyes.

This is because the business will not be able to exchange it with the government, so they end up with “worthless” US dollars in their hands.

Credit cards are only accepted in higher-end places and often carry a 3% fee added to the total.

Compensation money

In theory, you will only need to exchange about half of your budget. You can pay for trains, boats, hotels, and plane tickets in US Dollars. Buses, taxis, food, and souvenirs are all sold in Kyat.

Note: US dollars must be printed after the year 2000, preferably after 2003. They must not contain the serial numbers CB, BC, or AB. They will get rejected. This is due to the mass counterfeiting of $100 bills by North Korea in the past.

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7 – Do Not Change Money in the Black Market

Banks and official money-changers will give you the “real” and best rate. The black market will seem to offer “better” rates, but they are often counterfeit.

Years before, when banks were not available everywhere and ATMs were non-existent, exchanging in the black market was a good thing, but not anymore.

Many of the money-changers on the street (outside the official market) will try to scam you by refusing to let you count or by counting themselves the money very quickly so you can’t follow.

The purpose is to either give you less money or to try to pass some counterfeit bills. So, if you still decide to use the black market, don’t hand them your US dollars until you verify each bill and count it all.

People of Myanmar in Bagan

8 – There are Plenty of ATMs Now, but Some Cards Still Don’t Work Well in all Banks

A few years ago, there were no ATMs in the country, but today they are found everywhere in major destinations. But, I recommend you travel with two debit cards since not all banks allow withdrawals from several ATMs in Myanmar.

Still, you will need to bring US Dollars when you enter Myanmar since many purchases are still based on that currency.

Shwe Leik Too Temple in Bagan, Myanmar

9 – You Can Still Travel to Burma Cheaply

Myanmar may be one of the most expensive Southeast Asian countries I’ve visited so far, but I still managed to do it for under $45 a day. To be exact: $38.67 daily on an average budget travel style.

So, in general, I did everything I wanted and still had a cheap budget. Accommodation is expensive (maybe not so much anymore), but food and local transportation are pretty cheap.

Visiting religious sites is also cheap, so you won’t blow your budget if you want to sightsee a lot. I highly recommend you seek local advice or a Myanmar travel guide.

This is a fantastic way to get some great deals on Myanmar trips, like visiting the U Bein Teak Bridge in Amarapura. And if you find cheap accommodation, you’re golden!

10 – Men Wear “Skirts”

The traditional Burmese dress is the longyi, a wraparound skirt worn by men and women.

Men tie theirs in the front, and women fold the cloth over and secure it at the side. It’s completely acceptable for a foreigner to wear a longyi, which can also be a great conversation starter.

Myanmar
See how everyone has a longyi?!
Shwedagon Pagoda
Me with a longyi!

11 – People Chew Betel Nuts as a Pastime

Chewing betel nuts is a national pastime. Small street stalls selling these palm-sized green leaves are everywhere.

The leaves are filled with hard squares of betel nut, spices, and sometimes a pinch of tobacco and then folded up and popped in the mouth and chewed.

It’s funny that in Myanmar, everyone loves to smile, yet their teeth are burgundy stained or decayed. So, get used to the red-stained teeth! These are both due to the prolonged and frequent use of the betel nut, which serves as a mild intoxicant.

Visiting Myanmar - Bagan's Sunset

12 – Know the Best Time to Go to Burma

Like many countries in Southeast Asia, there is a predominately wet season, a predominately dry season, and the shoulder seasons in between. The best time to go is between mid-November and mid-February.

After that, it gets ridiculously hot (around April), followed by the monsoon starting in May. I went there in November and December, and while it was hot during the day, it wasn’t unbearable.

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13 – The Country Still has Restricted Parts to Tourism

I believe it’s better to tour the country on your own, so you have the freedom to go where you want and stay for as long as you like (within your Visa, of course).

But bear in mind that there are regions in the country, like the Northern Shan State, that are still restricted to tourism. These require a government permit and the use of a Myanmar Travel & Tours guide.

Politics and Unrest in Myanmar

14 – Do Not Bring up Politics or Talk About Local Laws

Myanmar was long considered a pariah state under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. After 2011 the country began to open up to the world, including its tourism.

A gradual liberalization began in 2010, leading to free elections in 2015 and the installation of a more democratic government.

Given its complex political background, talking about politics or other potentially sensitive subjects with locals can be tricky and offensive. If someone expresses their political and religious views, let them do so and allow them to lead the conversation.

While it has improved much in recent years, some political expressions from locals can come with a consequence if local authorities hear something “undesirable.”

Religion in Myanmar
Myanmar is very religious. It’s good to admire it, but sometimes it’s best not to talk about it.

Update: A coup in 2021 has resulted in military rule yet again within the country. And despite travel restrictions reducing since the impact of Covid19, civil unrest has made it a risky country to visit at the moment. While the country is open for tourism, be mindful of the risk of politically motivated violence and civil unrest.

15 – Some of Your Money will Undoubtedly go to the Government

Years ago, most of your money went to the government (which prevented many tourists from visiting since they didn’t want to support it).

Today, though, most businesses operate independently without the need to accept the former “government money vouchers.”

Still, when you go to Bagan and Inle Lake (among other places), you will need to pay a government fee to enter the city. It is (almost) inevitable to “support” the government with your Myanmar visit, whether you like it or not.

Farmers working in Myanmar

16 – Cleanliness and (Common Sense) Safety are Thrown Into the Back Seat

Don’t be surprised to see a rat run through your feet as you eat in the restaurant (one passed way too close to mine). And do not feel discouraged if you actually get food poisoning at one point (it will probably happen).

Burmese are known for their lack of cleanliness in the kitchen and in general. Do NOT drink the water unless it is bottled and always make sure your plate and cutlery are dry. This will help avoid a bad belly.

Painting in Myanmar
Umm, is that safe, Mr?

On safety, do not worry. It’s not about your safety that’s the issue, but rather the local’s approach to doing things safely.

They just don’t care for the most part and do things however they feel. Like in this picture with the man painting while standing on bamboo – with absolutely no safety net or rope!

I have seen things like this many times, and they were all interesting and a bit scary to watch. But that’s Myanmar!

Interesting country, eh? I would go back in a heartbeat!

Visiting Myanmar | 16 Things to Know Before You Go
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26 Comments

  1. A really useful post with lots of practical tips – this is somewhere I would love to visit and you’ve included lots of facts I wouldn’t necessarily have been aware of.

  2. Wow…thanks for sharing these tips. Amazing photos and useful reading. I have to spare a little to afford journey to Myanmar but anyway, one day I’ll make it πŸ˜‰

  3. Very helpful! Looking to cycle through Myanmar in the next couple of years. Looking forwards it now!

  4. I guess Myanmar is still pretty much going through rebirth-pains. It will have to be in my back burner for the time being.

    1. They are… It’s a country that fell behind, compared to its neighboring countries, but it is slowly picking up the pieces and trying its best to catch up.

  5. I found their way of not using common safety sense as quite funny. I loved watching construction workers in hard hats and bare feet. Oh man, or the garbage pickup guys in flip-flops and shorts. That garbage truck was horrid.

  6. Great post! Odd to Myanmar next month..and this surely helps πŸ™‚
    At some level….I expect it to be similar to India….in terms of safety standards…or lack of it!
    Born and brought up in India, what might seem to be shocking to tourists who come to India is a way of life for us πŸ™‚
    Happy travels!

  7. Thanks for the fantastic tips! Going to Myanmar in just over a week and these are really useful!

  8. Hi Norbert

    Good to read your comments on Myanmar . We are heading there in January for 3 weeks . Thinking of heading down to Mergui archipelago . What do you think?

    We will be in Bsli for 6 weeks and then making our way up to Myanmar from Singapore . After that it’s off to India for a few weeks.

    Keep well

    Peter and Jayne (Lloyd-Jones) remember us?

    1. Hey Peter!! Glad to see you around! You’re gonna love Myanmar! So, I haven’t gone to the Mergui Archipelago, so I can’t speak from experience. But Bagan is stunning! Inle Lake is so cute! The bridge in Mandalay is worth seeing.

      I did that a few years ago. Wen’t overland from Singapore to Thailand by train. It’s an easy ride and pretty popular among backpackers. Then flew to Yangon from Bangkok.

  9. Thanks for the tips, they were really entertaining. When I read that point about WiFi and how you should protect yourself when you’re using it with a VPN, I looked into this topic online. Apparently, any unsecured WiFi creates a threat of you’re data being stolen or leaked, which I didn’t know about beforehand.

  10. Myanmar is still recovering. Everyone is trying hard, but a country can’t change drastically in a blink of eyes. So, I hope everyone can be patient and wait for us. WE, citizens of Myanmar, will try our best. No matter how long it takes, we will continue to try our best until we can proudly say, “Welcome to Myanmar.” I am glad that people are still considering to visit Myanmar. Although we aren’t perfect, we will welcome you with bright smiles:)

    1. Thanks, Jay! Myanmar is a stunning country, and I’m glad you guys are welcoming everyone with open arms and showing the best your country has to offer.

  11. I think anyone with a moral conscience would avoid travel to this police state, where dissidents are shot on sight or imprisoned, despite is magnetic appeal. Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned for yet another seven years and cut off from her sons and husband. Such is Burma today.

    If I need u travel there, you are complicit in this criminal regime.