Eight Things I wish I Knew Before Travelling to Myanmar

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Having recently opened their boarders to tourists, I was extremely excited to travel to Myanmar. I was looking forward to getting my hands and feet a bit more dirty, especially just having visited cosmopolitan Thailand. However, with the country still at the beginning stages of its tourism, a bit more pre-planning was necessary.

Sunrises in Bagan are everything
Sunrises in Bagan are everything

Here are some things I wish I knew before travelling to Myanmar:

Getting a visa

I got an online visa. It was easy, quick and I received a response almost immediately. They do ask you to upload a passport picture, but I just took one on my phone and it was accepted.

They also ask for basic travel plans, including arriving and departing flights. At the time of my application, I thought it was necessary to provide proof of my departing flight, so I booked it. Turns out, it wasn’t required and I ended up forfeiting my pre-booked flight, as my travel plans changed throughout my travels.

Getting in and out

Initially, I thought flying in and out of the country was the only option, but crossing boarders overland to and from Thailand are also possible. Flying is still the most popular and flexible route, but buses connecting from Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Yangon and Mandalay respectively are fairly easy and inexpensive options too.

Beautifully paved highways, waiting for transportation boom
Beautifully paved highways, waiting for transportation boom

Charm tip: Just be extra cautious crossing boarders overland from the north of Myanmar to Thailand. There’s a lot more political unrest in that area of the country which can cause crossing boarders more stressful than need be!

Money

ATMs and banks are pretty common finds in the larger cities now. However, be prepare to pay high transaction fees on the Myanmar side. A fellow traveller paid 10,000 kyats for a transactions once, and that doesn’t even include the fee from his own bank at home!

Certain ATMs also limit how much you can take out at a time and only operates within certain hours and days of the week – think working business hours.

Not really knowing what the ATM situation was going to be, I ended up taking crisp and clean American dollars with me, which I exchanged some for Kyats when I arrived in Myanmar.

It’s noticeable the country still prefers the American dollar. Especially for accommodations or bigger ticket items. Often merchants will quote in dollars too and if you ask for Kyats, sometimes their conversion rates were way off, making it safer and more appropriate to pay in dollars.

Language

Surprisingly, language was less of an issue than I thought it would be. Since the country opened its boarders, many locals saw the opportunity to grow and learn. Often, locals would stop me and just try to speak to me. Not a lot to worry about safety here, as they just want to learn about you and improve their English.

Monks like to hang out around tourist areas so they can chat with tourists and improve their English. These monks travelled such long distances to get to the U-Bridge in Mandalay, with hopes to go back to their towns to teach the young children English.
Monks like to hang out around tourist areas so they can chat with tourists and improve their English. These monks travelled such long distances to get to the U-Bridge in Mandalay, with hopes of taking new knowledge back to teach the children in their villages.

And in areas where English is really scarce, people in Myanmar are polite and friendly. Body language and hand signals can go a long way!

Transportation

Myanmar has a surprisingly well-connected system of buses to take you from destination to destination. Travelling via bus is usually the quickest way to get around and there are often plenty of bus companies to choose from too. To find travel details, the easiest way is to ask your hostel for a schedule or just drop by the bus station.

I often asked my hostel beforehand for an idea of departure times and arrive at the bus station accordingly. I never took the buses I meant to take though, as they’d either be full or didn’t exist at all. But there was always another one departing shortly, so I never felt stranded.

In smaller towns, ask around and locals who can converse with you will be more than happy to help you. Often, they’d help speak to the driver to help arrange your drop off location too, which is usually at a family member’s establishment, but that’s one less detail to plan!

Where's the Charm

Train transportation is also a great option. It’s well connected around Yangon and Naypyidaw. But be warned, taking the train is often the slowest option and can be fairly uncomfortable.

Where's the Charm

Regardless of the transportation option you pick, travelling within Myanmar can take a lot of time. It always took longer than what Google Maps said. Be patient, get some snacks and drinks beforehand and mentally prepare yourself, it’s not the most comfortable ride, but it’ll always get you there!

Where's the Charm

Clothing

Myanmar is still a very conservative, Buddhist country and are not completely used to Western styles yet, especially women’s.

While many local women were fairly covered, always shielding their shoulders and legs, I couldn’t fully integrate myself, especially in the scorching heat. I still wore tank tops with thicker straps (spaghetti straps are really frowned upon and are even forbidden in many attractions). As for bottoms, I often opted for dresses that hit around the knee or thin pants. The only times I wore shorts was on my hike to Inle Lake, everywhere else I just felt uncomfortable and out of place.

Personal items

While Myanmar is very much self-sufficient, it’s not Westernized at all. If you want to use any Western products during your trip, like sunscreen, bug spray, facial creams, women sanitary items, family planning items, etc, make sure to get it beforehand.

Convenience stores or grocery stores don’t really exist in Myanmar. Many shops are independent and English is not widely spoken, so locating a specific product can be pretty challenging. Also, Western products are typically overpriced and who knows how long it’s been sitting on the shelf, locals never buy those things anyways.

Comfort Stations

Myanmar is most definitely progressing at a massive pace, but plumbing is still a bit behind. Don’t be shocked if the majority of the lavatories you visit are Turkish toilets (a.k.a squat toilet) or every shower you encounter is a bucket shower.

Just carry your own stash of toilet paper and you’ll be fine! And when you finally depart this beautiful country, you’ll have a new-found appreciation for modern plumbing!

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