Travelling in Myanmar is different from any other Southeast Asian countries, for many reasons. The food is different, the travel methods are different, the WIFI is slow, the ATMs may not operate, credit cards are usually not accepted, and it takes some good luck to find a good restaurant or a nice cappuccino. Everything is different. The good thing is that it is very safe, and Burmese people are very welcoming.
Because everything is very different, a trip to Myanmar needs planning. A lot of thorough planning. So much planning that one could really call it Travel Research. The first thing one should look into when traveling to Myanmar is the money situation; which is also different from its neighbouring countries.
The money situation in Myanmar.
Since 2013 the government has started to reduce the use of dollars; nearly all museums and archaeological zone fees are now payable in kyats. Airline tickets are paid in dollars, and most hotels can still be paid in dollars, but also in kyats. Exchange counters in Myanmar do not charge commission and the difference between buy and sell rate is about 2 to 4 percent. In Europe the difference is closer to 20 percent. The banks and exchange offices at the airports have a good exchange rate.
You need to arrange pristine dollar or euro bills. Only crisp, clean bills are accepted: example USD note
You will get a better rate for large dollar bills (100 dollar). There are a few exchange offices that offer a better rate for larger euro bills (100/200 euro), but most have the same rate for 50, 100 or 200 euro bills.
Which currency to take to Myanmar; euro or dollars? The best choice for Europeans (except the Brits) is to take euro notes and change these to kyats. If you find you need dollars you can also change euro notes straight to dollars at any exchange office.
Most hotels are priced in US dollars, but one can sometimes also pay with kyats at good rates. So, getting some US-dollars in Thailand, or before going to Myanmar is advisable. Since 2013 all zone-fees like the Shwedagon pagoda and Inle lake zone fee can be paid with kyats.
You might suppose that with the introduction of many ATMs the pristine dollar or euro bills would be a thing of the past; but it is probably still smart to bring cash money - if only as a backup. Also, the maximum withdrawal amount is 300.000 kyats, which is about 200 US-dollars now. Then the ATM service fees do add up!
Keep in mind that there are very good online discount hotel room deals to be had; and these are priced in dollars. Usually, one can pay in cash on arrival, and using dollars is convenient and one avoids surprises with exchange rates. When booking online, first book a minimum of days, e.g. two days, since you have to pay the full amount on arrival. Then, if you like the hotel, you can always book extra days online, usually at the same discount rate.
The safety situation in Mrauk-U.
Since 2017 there has been turbulence in Rakhine state, when the army of Myanmar started an offensive against the Rohingya. In january 2019 a third party entered the scene, as the Arakan Army clashed with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) in Mrauk-U. The Arakan Army is an armed rebel group, which wants independence for northern Rakhine state. Arakan is the old name for Rakhine state.
Sittwe was open for tourists until 2020, but there is a negative travel advice from the US, UK and German governments for Mrauk-U. Despite this, in 2019, there were still some tourists going to Mrauk-U. The UK advises against all but essential travel to the northern part of Rakhine state, which includes Sittwe. It is likely that Northern Rakhine state will be off-limits for quite a few more years to come.
In August 2020, Sittwe became a hotspot for the coronavirus; it seems the military did not much to help contain the spread of the virus in Rakhine state; on the contrary. From Sittwe, the virus spread to Yangon during September; and from there the outbreak has spread to the rest of the country, reaching 100.000 infected in December 2020.
In the last few years, a Pandora's box has been opened in Rakhine state, and the unrest has severely impacted tourism to Myanmar. One wonders who is responsible for all this mayhem.
The safety situation in Northern Shan state.
The situation in Northern Shan state was relatively quiet until the 15th august 2019; when the Northern Alliance rebels attacked an elite military college in Pyin-U-Lwin. They also destroyed the Goke Twin bridge across the Goktwin valley, thus blocking highway nr. 3 to Hsipaw and Lashio. The Goke Twin bridge was quite quickly restored.
The town of Hsipaw seemed to be still safe after that, but in November 2019 a German tourist went on a motorbike into unauthorized territory, hit an anti-personnel mine, and was killed.
Since this attack, there have been no major incidents in the region. Backpackers and trekkers have already returned to Hsipaw. Foreigners can travel freely between Mandalay, Pyin-U-Lwin, Hsipaw and Lashio.
Check your governments' travel advice, as it could be negative for Northern Shan state. There is a negative travel advice from the US, UK and German governments for Northern Shan state; this includes villages like Hsipaw, Kyaukme and Lashio. Travel insurance companies will not cover the cost of hospitals nor flying out to Thailand in an emergency. Pyin-U-Lwin is close to Gokteik, and probably safe because of a large military presence in town.
And there is no need to worry about safety if you visit the "Big-4" in Myanmar: Yangon, Inle lake, Mandalay and Bagan. The conflicts of the Myanmar government are with armed groups on the fringes of the country. The "Big-4" are perfectly safe areas to visit. Tourists have never been targeted by these groups, and will not be in danger, if they do not go into restricted areas.
Is the "Road to Democracy" a dead end?
A few definitions of Burmese roads to start with:
The "Burma road"?
It is in China and it runs from Kunming to Lashio, Burma.
The "Ledo road"?
It is in Northern Burma, nowadays called the Stilwell road.
The "Burma railway"?
Ran mostly through Thailand, and the Burmese part has vanished.
Rudyard Kipling's poem "Road to Mandalay"?
The "Road to Mandalay" is a metaphor, it is actually situated in Moulmein.
And the "Roadmap to Democracy"? That is about the planned road to full democracy; after the first free elections in Myanmar in 2015.
In the past decade, western countries have been rather naive in their dealings with Myanmar. Companies from China, Russia, Ukraine, Korea, India, the Philippines and Israel have sold arms and military equipment to the Tatmadaw. In 2014, the U.K. Defense Academy has run two-week courses for Tatmadaw officers in Myanmar, with sessions on humanitarian law, the recruitment of child soldiers, and "democratic control of the armed forces."
All that has changed with the february 1st coup of 2021, which has brought Myanmar to the brink of civil war. It appears that the well-meant lessons on democracy have missed their mark. The road to full democracy turns out to be a long and twisty path, or perhaps a dead end?
At the end of march 2020, Myanmar suspended visas to all foreign nationals, stopped international flights, and closed all borders. On April 22 it introduced mandatory quarantine for 21 days at a government facility or hotel, and 7-day home quarantine. This 4-week quarantine is double the time of the quarantine in most other countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) has been advising that asymptomatic people should self-isolate for 10 days after testing, and many countries now recommend the 10-day quarantine instead of 14 days.
On September 7, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced in a video conference that the government planned to reduce mandatory quarantine from 21 days to just 14 days, in line with international standards. The number of people in quarantine had increased almost 50 percent in the three weeks since the first second wave case was detected in Sittwe. Aung San Suu Kyi said the new policy would also open quarantine space for new suspected cases. The previous 28-day quarantine period, introduced on April 16, is thus changed to a 14-day quarantine after the immigration processes and medical tests, followed by a 7-day home quarantine.
The hotel situation in Myanmar
Hotel prices in Yangon have doubled in 2012 and tripled in 2013, but in recent years the hotel rates have been declining. The overall picture is that the steep rise in the number of tourist arrivals has slowed down since 2017, because of the Rakhine unrest.
The Burmese cuisine is strongly influenced by India, for example the many tea shops serve milk-tea (Laphet-yeh) that is similar to the Indian "Masala Chai". There used to be a large Indian population, and there are still many Indian restaurants.
Burmese curry is very different from the Indian curries - a Burmese curry is usually a few pieces of chicken floating around in a bowl of oil. One can find a good, creamy Indian curry in a few Indian restaurants; and also the regular dishes like Thali, Samosas, Masala dosa, Dal are easy to find.
Things have been improving rapidly the last few years; new restaurants have been opening left and right. The value of the kyat has also tumbled because of the high inflation in Myanmar; which helps to bring dinner prices down - except in the few high-end restaurants that are priced in dollars (e.g. L'Opera, Le Planteur and The Strand). The pricing range is large; for example a large bottle of Mandalay beer can be 2000 to 3000 kyat, but in a resort on Inle lake they sometimes charge up to 9000 kyat for the exact same bottle.
If you are a Foodie then you should try Shan noodles, and the Lahpet Thoke or Burmese Tea Leaf Salad is worth a try. And if you are quite bold and interested in exotic food then you might like Ngapi (a fermented fish paste) or Pè Ngapi (fermented beans).
There are some tourist traps and scams in Burma; though much less than in other asian countries. There used to be money changing scams in Yangon when people changed on the black market; before 2012. The latest popular scam is the Dala ferry tour Scam. If you take the ferry across the Yangon river to Dala (Dallah), some rickshaw drivers offer a guided tour for "whatever you want to pay". Turns out to be quite expensive (some end up paying 100$ or more). You will be asked to buy a bag of rice at 50$ for orphans or victims of the Nargis cyclone or such things.
And get your Myanmar E-visa ONLY at the official goverments' site! It is very easy, though you need to enter your data carefully. Do not enter a wrong passport number and make sure you do not forget your own name - some people manage to do so.
Inle lake has become quite touristy in the last 10 years, so is it a tourist trap or not? That is a valid question and worth asking. Yes, Inle has become quite popular, and for example Indein village can be a bit busy with other boats. And what about the commission your boat driver might get during the stops at some of the shops?
For hundreds of years elephants helped extract teak and hardwoods from jungles that even modern machinery cannot penetrate. The new Government of Myanmar has set a temporary national logging ban in 2016 and a 10-year logging ban in the Pegu Yoma region. It is good news for Myanmars nature and forests but a major problem for the 5500 captive elephants.
Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE) is planning to develop Elephant Conservation based tourism; and it has so far opened 18 elephant camps across the country, with some 205 elephants. They plan to develop elephant camps for 3000 "unemployed" elephants. The admission fee for foreigners to the elephant parks is is 10.000 kyats which is about 7 dollars.
One of the older ethical parks for retired timber logging elephants, already opened in 2011, is Green Hill Valley camp near Kalaw (www.ghvelephant.com). Palin Elephant Camp is only 8km from Nyaung U/Bagan (15 minutes drive). Winga Baw Elephant Camp is near Bago, about a 2 hour drive from Yangon.
Other more remote camps are the small Loikaw Elephant Camp near Loikaw, and 2 hours drive from Taungoo the Pho Kyar Elephant Camp. Nat Pauk Elephant camp is near Katha, north of Mandalay.
Nat Pauk Elephant camp - Katha was the biggest timber logging town and the setting for George Orwell's famous book Burmese Days.
Finally, a story about Tirthankara Adinatha and his brother Bahubali, which may be relevant to Buddhists or the world in general:
Tirthankar Adinath said that, although just moments away from enlightenment, Bahubali could not achieve it because he did not realise that he was standing on "the elephant" - Ego.
Understanding his folly, the sisters approached him and said "O more bhai, ave to gaj ti utro" (O my dear brother, at least now get down from the elephant). This saying from the sisters led Bahubali to question: "Am I really standing on any kind of elephant?".
From this question he soon realised that the elephant he was standing upon was his pride and ego.