Know Before You Go - Myanmar
Do I need a visa? Is it safe? How do I get around? We cover the essentials so you can travel like a pro, and relax while you do!
PASSPORT & VISA
United States citizens are required to obtain a visa prior to visiting Myanmar. Additional requirements for the visa include obtaining two additional passport photographs that meet the requirements of the visa application, using the visa within three months of approval, as well as a full blank page available in your passport for the visa/stamp. You can apply online through their eVisa program, saving you a trip to an embassy, or use one of numerous services to handle your application for you.
HEALTH & SAFETY
If you're traveling to Myanmar, chances are you are sticking to the primary tourist spots of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle. These places are considered safe, and in our own experience we felt safer than walking the streets of our hometown. Straying off of this path, especially to the north, is highly discouraged due to current unrest and violence between ethnic groups. In fact, most tourists are not permitted in areas outside of the above, so you shouldn't have to worry about this anyway.
It is advisable to obtain travel health insurance prior to leaving. If you do require emergency care, you will likely need to be taken to a hospital outside of the country.
Finally, make sure you carry toilet paper with you in your day pack. There's a reason people greet and transact with only their right hands...
METHODS OF PAYMENT
When Myanmar was first being opened to international visitors, new, crisp U.S. dollars were the best and often only method of payment. Credit cards were only accepted by the largest of vendors, those being large hotels or tour operators, and carried a fee. ATMs were not available, so any hope of being able to transact involved bringing enough cash with you for the duration of your stay. Today U.S. dollars are still accepted, but the local currency, known as the kyat (pronounced "chat"), is now accepted nearly everywhere. ATMs can now be found in popular areas, but be sure to confirm with your bank prior to departing. You can also still use major credit cards at larger vendors, but cash remains king. If you do want to exchange cash for kyat, keep in mind that crisp, new bills are not only preferred, but you may be declined if your bills aren't considered pristine enough. Additionally, the higher the denomination the better the exchange rate you can negotiate.
Haggling is accepted, and anticipated, at all street vendors. In fact if you don't you will grossly overpay for whatever you buy. That said, some modern shops may have fixed prices, but it can still be worthwhile to negotiate in a less dramatic way, such as asking for two items for a discounted price.
Tipping is generally expected and recommended in all of the typical circumstances. A tip of $1-$5 for restaurants, housekeeping, and porters is expected. For drivers, $10 per day is typical, and double that for private tour guides to $20.
Transportation in Myanmar varies greatly depending on the distance. Taxis or buses for short distances work as expected, but for longer distances, such as Yangon to Bagan, flights are our preferred method, though they will still leave you shaking your head. Buses are more reliable, and actually safer in our opinion, than trains in Myanmar. In fact, we advise you to avoid all trains in the country. Most are in very poor condition, and let's just say it isn't surprising if they derail at regular intervals. They may be the cheapest option, but you get what you pay for. Buses, on the other hand, are safer and more comfortable, but will take longer to get to your destination. Finally, traveling by plane will get you to your destination the fastest, with the known risk of delays and other airport headaches. We took three intra-country flights, all of which were ticketed by Air Mandalay, and not once did we actually fly with this carrier as our tickets were changed the day of each and every flight. Navigating the airports, unsurprisingly, was also chaos. There is no concept of gates, or for that matter the posting of departure information. Each experience was a game of trial and error until we inevitably earned the pity of, or annoyed, some kind agent into helping us find our way. Our recommendation, give yourself and others plenty of time and grace.
WHEN TO GO
Myanmar has two distinct seasons: dry and wet. To give yourself the best odds for clear weather, travel during the dry season between November and February, and be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen. The tourism industry is ramping up quickly in Myanmar, but is still unprepared for the crowds during peak season, so be sure to book accomodations well in advance.
WHAT TO EAT
There are too many amazing flavors to try in Myanmar to list here. Be adventurous, but remember this: don't drink the tap water. This means bottled water only, or unopened soft drinks, but it also means don't brush your teeth with tap water, don't eat salads that have been washed with water, etc. etc. And if you're looking for the best curry in Yangon, you have to go to Green Gallery. Seating is limited, but it's worth it.
Trends are rapidly changing in Myanmar, but you will still notice that locals dress conservatively, often covering nearly all of their skin. You are not expected to wear a longyi, the sarong/skirt garment you see most everyone wearing, but you will be expected to also dress conservatively, especially at religious sites where shoulders and knees must be covered.
OTHER DOS AND DON'TS
Remember that you are visiting a country coming out of decades of oppressive military rule which also considers many things sacred or holy that you may not understand. Be polite and respectful in all situations, and you should be fine. That said, a few tips to recall when you are visiting:
Don't ask political questions unless asked first. There is still a high level of sensitivity that Big Brother is watching.
Don't take pictures of military personnel or installations.
Ask people prior to taking their photograph. Some, especially the older generations, may not look at the camera much less smile, and that is ok. Remember the world they've lived in and be thankful they are welcoming you into it.
Don't touch a monk, even offering to shake hands, unless they initiate it.
There are certain areas where women are not allowed to enter.
When sitting, don't point your feet towards any person or pagoda as it is considered disrespectful. If you aren't sure where to point them, tuck them underneath you.