- Currency: Kyat (US Dollars accepted)
- Capital city: Became Naypidaw in 2005
- Main religion: Buddhism
- Main Language: Burmese
- Telephone code: +95
- Time: GMT + 6.5 hours
- Emergency numbers: Ambulance (192) Police (199) Fire (191)
Burmese Language Essentials
- Hello: Min gala ba
- Thank-you: Che zu beh
- How are you? Nei kaun, ye la
- Excuse me: Thi: khan ba
- Good Luck: Kan kaun ba zei
- How much? Be lau’le
Practical Info for Travellers Before Heading to Myanmar:
(By Eugene Lee)
1. Book a flight
- Gasp! A plane ticket. But in order to travel within the country officially, you will need a plane ticket into Yangon. The entry into Myanmar from Thailand by land will not permit you to travel within it as your passport will be held at the border office on the Myanmar side and you cannot go any further (borders are only good for visa runs).
- You can fly direct from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, although some airlines have “what were they thinking” routes such as Korean Air keeping a fun stop in Seoul for the Bangkok-Yangon route, so best check your map and prices. Air Asia is known to be the cheapest with a 2 week-advance ticket, so buy ahead of time.
2. Apply for a visa
- The Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok (a short walk from Surasak BTS station) can process your application in 3 business days for 810 Baht. Do not dare to apply as a photographer, journalist, writer, NGO worker, or anything of those sorts because there is a screening interview as you submit your application. The interview is fairly easy unless if you had already flagged yourself in the application. You don’t need a proof of a plane ticket to get your visa.
- You can now apply for a visa online.
3. Bring crispy, new US Dollar bills
- The USD is a currency of choice in Myanmar. You will mainly need 1, 5, and 10 bills for dollar use, other than the big bills for your initial exchange for Kyat (pronounced- “Chet”, like “Checkers”). The reason for this is that all guest houses, sightseeing points, and trekking tours require you to pay in USD (tourist-related business must pay their taxes in USD). Remember to bring bills in mint-condition as creased, old, torn, or wet bills are never accepted.
4. There are no ATMs within the country
- Make sure you prepare with your budget beforehand. Although some hotels have credit card cash advance for—ready to hear it?—a 20% service charge.
Where can you go?
- Myanmar is divided into 7 divisions and 7 states. States contain more ethnic groups while Divisions are more of Burmese occupancy. Think of the country as if it is a whole fried egg: the yellow yolk in the centre can be traveled by foreigners, but the egg whites would be restricted. Theoretically, you can travel to see all the states/divisions, though some permits take around 2 weeks to approve with a deep hole burning in your back pocket. By land, you can travel south as far as Maylamine without an additional permit.
- The beaches facing the Bay of Bengal, such as Ngapali Beach, are a bit more difficult to access by land but worth the commitment. The price range there is much higher than the rest of Myanmar, so make sure to arrange for that. Many travellers tend to stick to the big four. (See above – Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan)
- To your relief, the foreigner pricing in Myanmar is minimal, and aside from bus ticketing (+40%) it is hardly noticeable. The $USD can be substituted for any purchases, though you will get a less favorable rate of 1000K to $1 USD. Exchanging money is not hard, though competitive rates are in Yangon and Mandalay.
- If you really want to piss your money away, exchange at the banks or the exchange kiosk in the airport, for a killer rate of 7 Kyat to 1 USD. Otherwise, take it to the “black market”. It is not hard to find as plenty of street people will ask you to come to their “shop”, where you can exchange anywhere from 1000 to 1300 Kyat per 1 USD, depending on the amount you are trading. Take your time counting and checking when exchanging money, because torn bills cannot be used in Myanmar.
- Beer, a popular price index, costs about 1,500K for a bottle of Myanmar or Mandalay bran, with beer stations serving draught for about 700K. You will rarely pay more than 4,000K for a meal at a normal restaurant, and having a cup of tea/coffee and samosa each day is a must!
- Before you start, Plan a general route. By law, foreigners are not allowed to rent motorcycles. Instead, you can hire a driver and hold onto his waist from the back seat for about $10/day. Trains are government-operated and expensive, but also slow and prone to low-speed derailing if you are traveling outside the established routes. There is a good boat service between Mandalay and Bagan to spice up your mixture of transportation methods.
- Like many other SE Asia countries, Myanmar buses will seat aisles and about 50 more people than what-you-thought-was-already-full. The “VIP” (air-con) buses are generally much roomier, and price difference is trivial. If you don’t plan on karaoke-ing through the night with the locals, bring some ear plugs. If you want some unforgettably Spartan bus experience, try the Bagan-Inle Lake or the Yangon-Ngapali Beach route.
- Vehicles, including motorcycles, are priced about 8 times higher than the neighboring countries, likely as a part of the military government’s effort to isolate each regions from communicating/mobilizing. It is rare to see a post-1980’s vehicle. If you are planning a rough road route, hiring a solid car will likely require dipping past your scheduled budget.
- Harsh as it may sound, you can’t afford a mobile phone here. It costs over $2000 to arrange a SIM card, with a similar reason to cars being so expensive (but it explains for the plethora of horsecarts around).
- Internet is readily available, even in smaller cities. Available, but not to be confused with fast. If you are a Hotmail/Yahoo!/GMX user, welcome to the Gmail bandwagon. The latter is (supposedly) not monitored by the government and thus will deliver your Myanmar letters all 100% of the time without any delay. Even the Myanmar government workers use Gmail! Youtube, Blogspot, and other opinion-announcing websites are blocked. Ironically, you can still poke your friend on Facebook.
- October marks the beginning of wet season and April is the peak of the dry heat. There won’t be any transportation obstacles arising from season changes, but it can get much colder, especially in Shan State and Sagain Division (You’ll need a permit along with a real good reason to get into Kachin State). Most of Myanmar is more north than any other SE Asian countries!
- Breakfast is always included with your guest house stay! Singles and triples are on the rare side, and dorms are almost non-existent (we only found 1 dorm during the whole trip). Don’t worry about booking ahead of time (even during the high season).
- To sum up in one word? Unbelievable. Myanmar is a photographer’s playground. Bring some extra memory cards or film as it can be hard to fuel up on quality supplies once you are out of Yangon. Some of the best spotted sunset/sunrises—Shwe Dagon (Yangon), Teakwood Bridge (Mandalay), Nam Ban Market (Inle Lake), Temples of Bagan. For you serious goers, try the Balloons over Bagan ($250/hr) or the Northern Scenery Tour (2 weeks by train, 1200 Euros).
- It may not be as dangerous as you think, but don’t go venturing off into restricted Division/States, even if you’ve obtained a ride to there. It can get serious if you are caught in the rot. You’ll need permits to reach some places, and even then, land route is not an option for you. Also, foreigners are not allowed to be on school properties. It is your responsibility to know the restrictions. To ease your mind a bit, unless you were trying to rub friction with the law, it is highly unlikely that anyone of authority would harass you, not even for that crinkled, washed-out dollar bill in your back pocket.
We urge those who are thinking about visiting Myanmar to fully inform themselves in advance. Those who make the decision to visit must be aware that best intentions aside, some money will inevitably filter down to the regime. That said, independent tourism expenditure is one of the few avenues of income for many local people.