What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Myanmar

Myanmar has changed at breakneck speed since the country started opening up to visitors around 2012. Here are some things that travelers should be aware in their trip to Myanmar.

At the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda.

Greetings

The standard greeting of “mingalabar” (pronounced min-gah-lah-bah”) means “auspiciousness wishes.” Saying it to local people will usually get you a smile and happy nod in return. Bonus points if say thank you: kye zu tin ba deh, pronounced “cheh-zu-tin-ba-deh”.

Check weather before you go

Late October to February is the coolest time of year, while March and April have scorching temperatures. If you plan traveling during the rainy season which comes from May through early October, be sure to pack an umbrella / raincoat, and some waterproof shoes, because the city’s streets often flood. Be careful when walking around town this time of year, as a layer of slime forms, making the sidewalks dangerously slick. Also check if your visit coincides with any major holidays throughout the year, for example Thingyan, as they can impact travel and cause businesses to close for days on end.

Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar.

Bring new dollars

Folds, pen marks, ink stains, wrinkles, any other kind of blemish, or old bills, can devalue or render your cash useless. There’s no agreed-upon explanation for this practice, but rest assured that the crumpled, stained Myanmar kyat notes you get in exchange will still hold their full value. Also, be sure to bring either $50 or $100 to change, as smaller notes will be exchanged at a lower rate. There are ATMs in major cities like Yangon or Mandalay, and they accept most major international credit cards. Just don’t try to withdraw money on a payday (usually the last or first day of the month) as the ATMs will often be empty. Also, make sure to use the last of your bills or exchange in-country, as you can’t once you leave Myanmar.

Get a local SIM card

Get it when you arrive at the airport for cheap and easy access to the internet. While more and more establishments in Yangon are installing Wi-Fi, it can be hard to find when you need it, and internet packages are cheap and easy to get for your phone. Try to get Ooredoo or Telenor, both of which have user-friendly English-language apps that can walk you through your data usage and topping up phone credit as needed.

Download a ride-sharing app

In Yangon, motorbikes are illegal, and parts of the city have also banned bicycles. The good news is you can use ride-sharing app to book car. Remember to have Grab installed on your phone, or download the local competitor Oway.  If you’re paying with cash, be sure to bring smaller kyat notes, because taxis drivers often have difficulty making change for larger bills. You can use a ride-sharing app in Mandalay too.

Respect the faith

Devotees pour water over a relic at the birthday corner in Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon.

Myanmar is a deeply Buddhist country, some of the country’s holiest Buddhist sites, such as the golden Shwedagon Pagoda and Sule Pagoda – believed to enshrine a strand of hair from the Buddha. Nearly all Buddhists in Myanmar practice Theravāda—one of the most ancient branches of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the Tipitaka, thought to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. Monks and nuns will often walk through the city with their alms bowls, seeking donations. If they walk up to you and you don’t feel the urge to donate, just put your hands together in prayer and nod in respect. Also dress respectfully when visiting religious sites—wear a skirt or pants that reach your ankles and have your chest and shoulders covered by a modest shirt or scarf.

Stay at a guesthouse

Instead of spending money on hotels, check out guest houses which are locally owned, have restaurants in-house, and provide centrally-located lodging on a budget. You can also rent homes or rooms on AirBnb, but keep in mind that these rooms are being rented out illegally. Try to stay in the downtown area or anywhere around the most attractions within a short drive.

Buddhist monks collecting the morning alms on the street.

Go for some remote destinations, but worthwhile experience

Tourism is still a developing industry, so be patient and do a little research ahead of time. And be sure you’re not going to restricted areas or areas of civil conflict if you decide to go travel further. Fly to Myitkyina and then continue a three hours ride by car to Indawgyi, one of the largest lakes in Southeast Asia, where you can kayak the lake, bicycle to old villages, or, if it’s the right season, indulge in some of Myanmar’s best bird-watching. According to local tourism company, only around 600 foreigners come here a year, making Indawgyi a serene alternative to the over-visited Inle Lake. For somewhere even more remote, fly to Khamti to access the Myanmar side of the semi-autonomous Nagaland, which only recently opened to foreigners.

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