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, creditcards are usually not accepted, and it takes some good luck to find good restaurants or cappucino. Everything is different. The good thing is that it's 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 it's neighboring 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
- An example of kyat notes:
example kyat notes
- 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.
Hotel booking and payment.
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 just about 200 US-dollars at the moment. Then the ATM service fees do add up!
Keep in mind that there are very good online discount 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.
More on dual-currency, dual-pricing and money exchange:
Unrest impacts tourism in Myanmar.
Since 2017 there has been turbulence in Rakhine state (Arakan), when the army of Myanmar started an offensive against the Rohingya. This seems to have opened a Pandora's box, because since january 2019 there have also been hostilities between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar army) in Mrauk-U.
Sittwe is currently open for tourists (July 2020), but there is a negative travel advice from the US, UK and German governments for
Mrauk-U. There were in 2019, surprisingly, 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.
However, since August 2020, Sittwe has become a hotspot for the coronavirus. There are now 72 new cases in one day in Sittwe, three in Mrauk-U and two in Thandwe Township. Doctors are now treating at least 50 patients at Sittwe General Hospital. There is now a semi-lockdown in four more townships of Rakhine - Kyaukphyu, Mrauk-U, Taunggok and Thandwe.
The situation in Northern Shan state was relatively quiet until 15 august 2019; when the Northern Alliance rebels attacked an elite military college in Pyin-U-Lwin. 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. More on the safety situation in Shan state:
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 Organisation (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.
www.who.int/southeastasia - WHO: COVID-19 Situation in South-East Asia Region
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. More on the hotel and tourism situation:
The hotel situation (June 28, 2020)
New sunset viewing hills in Bagan.
During 2017 the government has built new sunset viewing hills, and once these were finished all sunset temples and pagodas were closed.
In 2019 Bagan has been awarded World Heritage status. More information on hotels, tourism and sunset temples in Bagan:
The Myanmar restaurant scene.
And finally something about the Burmese cuisine that is strongly influenced by China and India. 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. So it can be a bit difficult to find a good, creamy curry; but the regular dishes like Thali, Samosas, Masala dosa, Dal, and so on are easy to find.
Things have been improving rapidly the last few years; new restaurants have been opening up 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 huge; 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 beer.
If you're a Foodie then you should try Shan noodles, and the Lahpet Thoke or Burmese Tea Leaf Salad is really worth a try. And if you're quite bold and interested in exotic food then you might like Ngapi (a fermented fish paste) or fermented beans (Pè Ngapi).
More on the new Inle lake eateries:
Inle lake eateries
- Yes, there used to be ten airlines in Myanmar. But Apex Airlines, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, and FMI airlines have suspended all flights in 2018.
- And Asian Wings Airways suspended all operations on January 1, 2019.
- So that's only five airlines left.
- Since all flight prices are fixed you can book a flight only a few days before.
- Wifi in Burma is rather slow and unreliable, specially in southern Shan state. A SIM card is advisible.
- Gokteik viaduct is the world's highest rail bridge at 300 meter? It is only 100m and not the highest anymore.
- The "Burma road"? It's in China and it runs from Kunming to Lashio, Burma.
- The "Ledo road"? It's in Northern Burma, also called the Stilwell road.
- The "Burma railway"? Ran mostly through Thailand, and the Burmese part has now been removed.
- The "Road to Mandalay"? It is from the poem "Mandalay" by Rudyard Kipling.
- The "Roadmap to Democracy"? That's about the long road to full democracy; after the first free elections in Myanmar in 2015.
And the railway journeys in Myanmar, which are often described as a bumpy? That can be called a myth, or better, a generalization. Some lines are bumpy, that is true, but there have been a lot of improvements, for example the Mawlamyine to Yangon railway line has been upgraded a few years ago and is now quite good. More on the railways:
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 don't 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's 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?
More on Inle lake tourism: A Hard Sell on Inle lake?
New Elephant Parks in Myanmar.
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 foreigner to the elephant parks is is 10.000 kyats which is about 7 US 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.
More about all the camps in Myanmar on the site of Myanma Timber Enterprise (MTE): myanmarelephantcamp.com
Links to Elephant parks in Myanmar.
- www.nytimes.com/2016 - Unemployed, Myanmar’s Elephants Grow Heavier.
- nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI - Smithsonian Conservation Institute - Status of elephants in Myanmar.
- time.com/43317/burma - Time: Burma’s Logging Ban is a disaster for Elephants.
- www.ghvelephant.com - Green Hill Valley camp; for retired timber logging elephants.
- Nat Pauk Elephant camp - Katha was the biggest timber logging town and the setting for George Orwell's famous book Burmese Days.
- Elephant literature.
- Elephant Bill by J. H. Williams - The tale of Billy Williams, who used elephants to help defeat the Japanese in Burma.
- Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke. About Elephant Bill.
- Shooting an Elephant and other essays by George Orwell. One of Orwells' best stories and his first anti-colonialist essay, situated in Moulmein. More entertaining than "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 didn't realise that he was standing on "the elephant" - Ego. Now 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.