Myanmar, or Burma, officially the Union of Myanmar 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.
Like most of Southeast Asia's countries, 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 (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centered 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 its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. 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 labour — Allied prisoners-of-war, indentured Thai labourers, and Burmese people. They had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died (estimated at 80,000) 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 only empty promises. In fact, the Japanese occupation was more brutal than the British colonisation, and the Japanese treated the Burmese people worse than the British had. Aung San subsequently switched alliegance 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.
Though initially the country was democratic, General Ne Win led a military coup which ousted the democratically elected government in 1962, 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.
Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to widespread 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 gasoline, 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 begging 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 center 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 is presently back under house arrest after being charged of breaching the conditions of her house arrest. The release date of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is expected in November 2010.
General elections have been announced for the 7th of November 2010. At the time of writing it is not sure if restrictions will be implemented on visas or travel. Get your latest updates from the Myanmar embassies.
Aung San Suu Kyu was released from house arrest on 13 November 2010.
Myanmar's culture is largely a result of heavy Indian influences intertwined with local traditions and some Chinese influences. This can be seen in the various stupas and temples throughout the country, which 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 many to pray. Other religions which exist in smaller numbers include Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.
While the Bamar form the majority, Myanmar is also home to many minority ethnic groups and nationalities which have thier own distinct cultures. Generally speaking, the divisions in Myanmar are Bamar-dominated, while the states are dominated by the respective ethnic minorities.
Generally speaking, most Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite, and will do their best to make you feel welcome in their country.
Generally, Myanmar is considered to have 3 seasons. The hot season is usually from March-April, and temperatures would 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.
To go or not to go?
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy, as well as most Western governments, have called for tourists not to visit the country, as this helps prop up the military junta and some infrastructure has been constructed using forced and child labour. On the other hand, other pro-democracy advocates such as Ma Thanegi, and the vast majority of people in Myanmar, encourage tourism as a way of getting funds into local hands - despite the fact that the government will also derive some financial benefit. In addition, many feel that the presence of foreign tourists deters the government from the worst of its excesses.
In the end, the choice is yours. If you want to visit and avoid supporting the junta, then: avoid five star hotels, eat at local restaurants, and generally attempt to ensure that your money is going to locals, rather than large, partially government-owned enterprises. Remember that foreign corporations can operate in-country only as joint partners with the junta.
Visa on arrival is apparently suspended from September 1, 2010 until the elections in November. Normal visas are still issued at Myanmar embassies.
In May 2010, visa on arrival was introduced at Yangon and Mandalay airports, at US$30 for 28 days (no extension possible). You need to show the immigration officer the following:
You might be asked to show that you have $300 in cash (families $600) and a reservation for a hotel or guesthouse which has a hotel license.
The visa on arrival process in Yangon is relatively fast and hassle free. Usually no questions asked, but the process is a bit chaotic. Only real problem is that the immigrations officers are very picky about the US dollar bills, they better be brand new and with no creases!
While ASEAN and PRC nationals may have had visa-free access in the past, the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore declares that "all nationalities" must obtain visas before travel (9 April 2008). Some additional restrictions, requirements or conditions may be applied to applications - reports have included a need for a detailed itinerary, a detailed job history, etc. be prepared for some unusual questions (either on the forms, or from the Consulate staff) when applying for your visa. Though not explicitly stated, it has been reported that the authorities only allow one trip to the country every 6 months.
The easiest way to get the visa is to apply through a travel agency in your home country. The form is simple and requires an ID photo or two. In Bangkok, it takes one or two business days. A standard application for a tourist visa requires: a completed visa form (available from the Embassy), a completed arrival form (again, from the Embassy), a photocopy of the photo page from your passport, two passport sized photos, the applicable fee (810 Thai Baht - US$24 as at September 2009). In Hong Kong, you can get the visa the same day afternoon if you submit the application by 11:00am (your passport, 3 passport-size photos, business card / leave letter from your employer or student ID if you're a student, and application fee of HK$150 - US$19).
Tourist visas are issued for a single entry, valid for one month from the date of issue (as of 3/3/10). The visa is good for a stay of up to four weeks (from date of entry), although you can overstay if you are willing to pay a $3 a day fee when you leave. 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.
Due to economic sanctions from most western countries, international flights into Myanmar are limited. The usual way to get into Myanmar would be to fly into Yangon from either Bangkok or Singapore, both which have good connections from around the world and have several flights into Yangon daily. The only other international point of entry to Myanmar is Mandalay, which is served by a weekly flight to/from Kunming.
There is a $10 exit fee, to be paid before you check in for your flight out of Myanmar. The fee is paid at a dedicated counter inside the Yangon International airport. Do not forget to ask for the receipt of your payment (blue paper): without this receipt, you cannot check in for your flight
Hopping across the Thai border into Myanmar's border towns is easy, but crossing into or out of Myanmar proper by land varies between difficult and impossible. Visa-free entry is possible at some border crossings, but you must then exit Myanmar via the same border crossing, usually (but not always) on the same day that you enter, and fees apply (normally US$10). All land border crossings into Myanmar give only restricted access to the border areas. The only way to visit locations throughout the country, is to enter and exit Myanmar by air.
China - foreigners can enter Myanmar at Lashio via Ruili (in Yunnan), although a permit (as well as a visa) and a guide are needed. You will most likely need to join an organized tour, costing 1450 RMB as of January 2009. As of April 2009, it is impossible for foriegners to cross over from Ruili, even for the day, without first getting a visa in Kunming, ie a tour group. Crossing in the opposite direction is more difficult to arrange and details are uncertain; however, it's possible to fly from Mandalay to Kunming, and there's even a Chinese consulate that issues visas in Mandalay.
India - a land border crossing exists between India and Myanmar at Moreh/Tamu. While there have been confirmed reports of some travellers crossing into Myanmar from India, with their own transport as well as with permits arranged in advance, the general consensus is that obtaining all the necessary permits is very hard. At the least, a foreign (a person who is neither a citizen of India nor a citizen of Myanmar) will need to get a Indian permit to visit the state of Manipur, and an MTT permit to enter or leave Myanmar at Tamu. Travellers may also need a permit to travel from Tamu to Kalewa, although there are unconfirmed reports that this is no longer required.
Bangladesh / Laos - it is not currently feasible to independently cross the borders between Myanmar and Bangladesh or Laos.
Myanmar's infrastructure is in poor shape. As a result of the political situation, Myanmar is subject to trade sanctions from much of the western world, and this can cause problems for unwary travellers. Travel to certain regions is prohibited; for others, special permits must be obtained, and a guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory - although whether these "guides" accompany you to look after you, or to keep you from going to places the government doesn't want you to see, is moot.
Much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travelers, and many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed (for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung). Thus, while travelers can travel freely in the Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be restricted or circumscribed in other places. 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. 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, ). 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.
Myanmar is not North Korea, and you are basically 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.
1) Real Burma Travel 2) Burma Travel Packages 3) Travel Myanmar 4) Asia Tours 5) Mr Myanmar Travel 6) Remote Asia Travel
The poor state of Myanmar's roads and railways make flying by far the most comfortable option of traveling long distances.
State-run Myanma Airways (UB) - not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International (8M) "MAI" - is known for its poor safety record. Even locals prefer to avoid it whenever possible.
There are also three privately owned airlines serving the main domestic routes in Myanmar. They are Air Bagan (W9), Air Mandalay (6T) and Yangon Airways (YH). While more expensive, they are a safer option and would get you to all the main tourist destinations from Yangon or Mandalay.
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 inbetween 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 200m further on the road than the main (new) Yangon International Airport building. 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 Yangon Airways (September 2010) between most visitable places in Myanmar (note: these are low 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, often delayed, and charge exorbitant prices from foreign travelers making buses a cheaper and faster alternative. 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 Mandalay (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 travelers). 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).
There is a new (as from March 2010) railway service between Yangon-Bagan (16 hours, first class $30, upper class $40, sleeper $50).
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!):
|Mandalay||Pyin U Lwin||4 hrs||US$2||US$4||None|
|Pyin U Lwin||Hsipaw||7 hrs||US$2||US$6||None|
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.
Buses of all types ply the roads of Myanmar. Luxury (relatively speaking) buses do the Mandalay-Yangon run while lesser vehicles can get travelers to other places. Fares are reasonable and in Kyat and, for the budget traveler, there is no other option because of the high price of train tickets for foreign nationals. Many long distance buses assign seats so it is best to book seats at least a day in advance. Because the roads are bad, avoid the rear of the bus and try to sit as far up front as you can get. Long distance buses 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.
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 guesthouse 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 is. 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 gas price hike, the fares listed here are rough estimates):
|Mandalay||Pyin U Lwin||2 hrs||K1500|
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 center 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. Travelers 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.
You can hire a private car and driver at reasonable rates to tour independently. The licensed 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. 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.
The official language of Myanmar is Burmese (known by the government as Myanmar). A majority of Burmese pronunciation is derived from the ancient language of Pali (at the time of the Buddha), but 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 ancient Pali 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.
Myanmar is a former British colony, and as a result - and because English is still being taught in kindergartens and primary schools - many Burmese understand at least some rudimentary English. Most well-educated upper class Burmese will be fluent in English, while in the main cities like Yangon and Mandalay, many locals will know enough English for basic communication. In fact, you may find more English spoken in Myanmar than in Thailand.
In a misguided attempt to fight rampant black marketeering, the Myanmar government has an unfortunate habit of declaring notes to be worthless: this happened for the first time on May 15, 1964, when the 50 and 100 kyat notes were demonetized. On November 3, 1985, the 20, 50 and 100 kyat notes were demonetized again and replaced with new kyat notes in the unusual denominations of 25, 35 and 75, possibly chosen because of dictator Ne Win's predilection for numerology; the 75-kyat note was introduced on his 75th birthday.
Only two years later, on September 5, 1987, the government once again demonetized the 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes with no prior warning, rendering some 75% of the country's currency worthless. A new series of 15, 45 and 90-kyat notes was issued, incorporating Ne Win's favorite number 9. The resulting economic disturbances led to serious riots and eventually the 1989 coup by General Saw Maung, The post-coup notes come in more normal denominations from 1 to 1000 kyat, and this time the old ones remain legal tender... so far.
Myanmar's currency is the kyat (abbreviated K), pronounced "chut/chat". Pya are coins, and are rarely seen. Foreign travelers are required to pay in US$ for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel, and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are technically required to pay in kyat for most other transactions (trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.). According to the law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen 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.
Kyat officially cannot be exchanged abroad, though money changers in places with large overseas Burmese populations such as Singapore will often exchange anyway. Bring very clean, unfolded US$ cash (if not they will not be accepted by hotels,restaurants and money changers), and dispose of remaining kyat before leaving.
Due to the low dollar (September 2010), an increasing preference for paying in kyat is noticeable, especially when paying for food, private transport (car/taxi), and tours/activities.
Visitors must bring enough cash with them to cover their entire visit, as there's no easy way to get more without leaving the country. However in an emergency, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card through Singapore. People have reported that hotels charge a commission ranging from 7% up to 30% and may need to sight your passport to process the transaction.
The currency of choice in Myanmar is the US$ nationwide, though you can readily also exchange euros in Yangon and Mandalay but perhaps not beyond. Other solid options are the Chinese Yuan (CNY) and Thai baht (THB). Your best rates would be in Yangon and Mandalay.
Be sure to bring a mix of US$ denominations when visiting Myanmar because money changers will not give change and 20/10/5/1-dollar notes are deliciously useful for some entry fees and transportation.
Never exchange money in a bank or at the airport as the rates are excruciatingly uncompetitive: the official rate "floats" around a farcical 6 (yes, six) kyats to the US dollar while the going street rate fluctuates considerably around 960 kyat (960 Kyat to the US$ in September 2010 in Yangon, slightly less in Mandalay, and only 890 in Inle Lake), and dissident newspaper The Irrawaddy is a good source for recent exchange rates. Exchanging money on the black market is only theoretically illegal: ask in any farmers' market, jewelry shop or travel agents.
You have to bring all the money to be spend in Myanmar, into the country as USD bills. Only good banknotes are accepted! This cannot be stressed enough. A good number of travellers find themselves in possession of a small fortune in worthless bills (at least, worthless when dealing with Myanmar moneychangers) due to their condition being less than perfect.
Ensure that your dollars:
The bills for 50,100, 200 and 500 kyat are most of the time in a horrible condition, but are generally accepted when making small purchases. The 1000 kyat bills are slightly better, and when exchanging dollars into kyat, check that the banknotes you receive are in a general good shape.
There are a number of tricks and scams running around Myanmar trapping tourists who are carrying US Dollars. Sometimes, guesthouses or traders will try and pass you damaged or nonexchangeable bills in change. Always inspect all notes when making a purchase and request that the vendor swap any bills you think you will have trouble using down the track (this is perfectly acceptable behavior for 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 bills. 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 US 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.
Is it safe?
So, you're traveling around carrying 100s, if not 1000s, of dollars stuffed into your pockets in a country where most people subsist on a few dollars a day. Everyone around you knows that if they could get their hands on the money in your pockets, they'll be set for life. What, you may ask, are the odds that someone will try to relieve you of your money? The answer: almost nil. There have been almost no instances of a tourist being mugged and only the rare pilferage. Myanmar is an extremely safe country for travelers. Some say it is because of the nature of the people. Others say it is because the punishment for robbing from a foreigner is draconian. Actually, it's the Buddhism: you do not take what is not given you, which is stricter than "Thou shalt not steal" because it rewords as "Thou shalt not help thyself, even in the home of a dear friend." Whatever the cause, your money will be safe!
Visitors to Myanmar were previously required to change US$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).
Due to EU and US sanctions, credit cards are rarely accepted in Myanmar. There are places where cash can be obtained with a credit card, however the rates are extremely uncompetitive (with premiums certainly no lower than around 7%, and with quotes of 30% and more frequently reported). An exceptionally small minority of up-market hotels accept credit card payments (and will surcharge accordingly).
Some ATMs can be found in large cities, but these are purely for locals and cannot be used for withdrawing money.
Travellers 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 quite possible to be comfortable on less than US$20/day. Foreigners will likely be charged fees, including video camera, digital camera, entrance, parking, and zone fees.
There is also a wide variety of beautiful silverware and jewellery as well as textiles, including gorgeous silks and handcrafts 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. Burmese food is often extremely pungent. Food is inexpensive at most restaurants (around 500-1500 kyat), but there are many upscale restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay for upmarket food.
What to eat
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:
Where to eat
Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink, likewise ice may be contaminated. Bottled water is readily available at many tourist sites.
Similar to ChineseTea 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). Dried tea leaves similar to Laphet thote's tea leaves (except these are wet) are added to the boiled water to give Yenwejan Be sure to order it with Laphet thote (Customary/Good combination).
Alcohol is frowned upon by conservative Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, but consumed widely, mostly among men. Myanmar Beer (lager) is most popular in the country. Other variants, including Mandalay Beer exist. However, many of such companies are government-owned and/or have links to the drug trade. 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.
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).
While not as inexpensive as neighboring Thailand, Myanmar has surprisingly good hotel accommodation at reasonable prices. Rooms with attached bath are available for under US$10 everywhere except in Yangon and with shared bath for anywhere from US$3 to US$6 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 a real bargain if traveling as a couple. Except at the top-end, breakfast is always included in the price of the room.
Myanmar has a problem providing enough electricity to its people and power supply is severely restricted everywhere. In many places, electricity may be available only for a few hours each evening or, in some cases, only every alternate evening. If you don't want to spend your nights without a fan or AC, ask if the hotel has a generator (most mid-priced hotels do). On generator nights, the AC in your room may not work (the price is usually lower as well).
At the top-end, Myanmar has some excellent hotels including one or two great ones (The Strand in Yangon and Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Yangon). The Myanmar government runs many hotels, including some beautiful colonial era ones (though not the two listed in the previous sentence). Many large five-star hotels in Yangon and Mandalay are run by friends of the government or by people with connections to the drug trade. Socially conscious travelers may want to avoid these two types of hotels.
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 skip the education ministry, which only hires citizens with teaching certification. If you would like to work and assist Burmese refugees certain NGOs work in neighboring Thailand
The government punishes crime, particularly against tourists, severely; it has a hard enough time convincing tourists to go there due to its international reputation. In addition, many locals, being devout Buddhists, are wary of retribution in their next life should they commit any crimes against others. As a result, as far as crime and personal safety go, Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists, and it is generally safe to walk on the streets alone at night. In fact, you are less likely to be a victim of crime in Myanmar than in Thailand or Malaysia. However, as with anywhere else, little crime does not mean no crime and it is still no excuse to ditch your common sense.
Since 2005, Yangon and Mandalay have seen a barely perceptible rise in the very low level of street robberies. 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.
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. In addition, the poor can always obtain food for free from the nearest monastery if they can't afford to pay for it, so begging is not necessary for their survival. If you really must give, note that most Burmese earn only US$40 a month doing manual labour; giving US$1 to a beggar is very generous.
Myanmar is one of the world's most corrupt countries. 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 folks earning as little as US$30/month.
Various insurgent groups continue to operate in the Shan, Mon, Chin (Zomi), and Karen States of Myanmar, along the Thai and Chinese borders. Travel to these regions is generally requires a government permit. The government also restricts travel to Kayah State and Rakhine State due to insurgent activity. However travel is entirely unrestricted to the districts of Yangon, Bago, Ayeyarwady, Sagaing, Taninthayi, Mandalay and Magwe.
The price of computers and a home internet connection is prohibitive so most people surf at Internet cafés. Web-based email websites such as Yahoo! or Hotmail are usually blocked, though G-mail is usually available. The government records screenshots every five minutes from PCs in Internet cafés to monitor Internet usage. If you don't want your privacy violated in this way, save your surfing for Thailand or wherever you head next.
Myanmar has been under strong military rule for the past 40 years, with a reputation for repressing dissent, as in the case of the frequent house arrests of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi, and currently has more than 1,500 political prisoners [sentences of 65 years and hard labor in remote camps were given to leaders of the Saffron Revolution]. When in Myanmar, abstain from political activities and don't insult the government.
Discuss politics, if you must, with people who have had time to get a feel for you. The danger however, is primarily posed to those you speak with, and thus you should take care with their safety. Let them lead the conversation. Also, realize that many phone lines are tapped. And if you absolutely must wave a democracy banner in front of a cop shop, you'll simply find yourself on the next outbound flight.
Avoid doing things that might make the military or police feel uncomfortable, such as taking pictures of police and police buildings or vehicles.
Ice and tap water are a gamble. Always buy bottled water and check that the cap is sealed on, not simply screwed on. When in doubt, shop at City Mart, a reputable local food retailing chain. 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 but unvaccinated travellers have survived after suffering no more than the odd case of diarrhea. 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.
As in any other developing country: "if you can't fry, roast, peel or boil it - then forget it".
Myanmar's healthcare system is in a poor state. If you should fall sick in Myanmar, you can visit the doctor in major cities for minor ailments such as coughs and colds. 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. Most of the government officials and rich locals head to Thailand or Singapore for more serious medical treatment and hospitalisation and you will be better off doing so too. Just ensure your insurance is in order as arranging to be airlifted in an emergency can be rather costly.
The people cover their arms and legs; they are also courteous and considerate and low-key dress is highly appreciated, particularly in 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 shoes, so prefer loafers and flip-flops that can slip on & off at the entrance--Myanmar has some of the most stunning temples in Asia and you will be tempted to visit more than you think.
Both men and women wear a longyi, a sort of sarong sold everywhere. 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.
Also avoid t-shirts with images of Buddhas or Buddhist imagery, which is considered highly disrespectful. Folks are forgiving about it, but one should not look like a bigger fool than is necessary.
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 begging for alms in the streets in the morning (they are not allowed to eat after noon). Note that monks are not allowed to come into contact with the opposite sex. 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.
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. Do not point to images of Buddha with your index finger; use your thumb instead. Tuck your feet underneath you when kneeling at shrines and temples.
When receiving business cards, 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.
Generally speaking, despite the common negative perception of the government, most ordinary Burmese people are incredibly friendly and polite as long as you repect their local customs. Customer service is in general very good (some say better than in Thailand), so you might wish to tip service staff generously to ensure your money goes into the right hands.
International phone calls can be arranged at the Central Telephone & Telegraph Office at the corner of Ponsodan and Mahabandoola Streets in Yangon. International Direct Dial calls are also available at most hotels and at many public call offices (often a phone in a shop), but they are expensive, e.g. a call to the US costs $6 to $7/min. As of 2010, the only mobile telephone network is the MPTGSM network provided by the Myanmar Government's Post and Telecommunication agency. This works on the GSM900 band, so is visible to multi-band GSM phones. However, MPT has no international roaming arrangements, so manual attempts to connect to the network are refused. If your own mobile telephone can detect the MPTGSM network, then you may be able to buy a $20 SIM card which will work for 28 days.
International mail out of Myanmar is reportedly quite efficient. As elsewhere, there is always a risk if you send valuables as ordinary parcels.
The hotel in Yangon said that postcards mailed in the country had less than 1% chance of being delivered abroad.
Internet is now widely and cheaply available in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, but more limited elsewhere. However access is very slow and many sites are inaccessible. Rates are around 1000 kyat/hour in Yangon and 2000-5000 kyat/hour elsewhere.
A list of proxys to circumvent blocks can be found at proxy.org .
Webmail: most free webmail providers are blocked, however many Internet cafés circumvent this - jot down the workaround in case it's still unknown in the next café you visit. If one Internet café can't connect you, the next one probably will the next day. As of January 2010, Hotmail and Yahoo are blocked, while Gmail is available.
As of May 2006, the following workarounds worked:
Myanmar has two ISPs, MPT and Bagan. Proxy sites are blocked by MPT, but may work with the Bagan ISP.