Having just returned from a trip around Myanmar, I feel like I have learnt a few things which will assist anyone heading there for the first time. Being a frequent traveller to South East Asia, I thought I was pretty prepared however, there were a few things that even caught me off guard. Here’s my top Myanmar travel tips to make your trip a lot smoother.
I have prepared this list of top Myanmar travel tips you should know before travelling to Myanmar. Tourism to Myanmar has been encouraged by the Government since 1992, however tourism numbers have trickled since then, only reaching 1 million tourists in 2012. This is significantly less than neighbouring South East Asian countries. The tourism sector is at best underdeveloped but we found it quite easy to get around. There is a good variety of accommodation ranging from 5 star hotels such as those we stayed at, the Sule Shangri-La Hotel and the Sedona Hotel right through to guesthouses and hostels. There is something to suit all budgets.
Myanmar is located between Thailand in the east, China in the north and Bangladesh and India in the west. There are a lot of media reports regarding the current political state in Myanmar particularly in relation to the minority Rohingya population. Now I’m not going to get into politics or the issues surrounding the plight of the Rohingya however I will state that having been there, you won’t see any of it unless you go looking for it. We stayed on the main tourist trail and saw nothing but kind, lovely people.
I was told by someone while over there that tourist numbers are well down this year compared to last year. The reason is believed to be due to the media coverage surrounding the Rohingya and possible upcoming trade sanctions from the USA. This is very sad to hear as the locals will be the only ones that suffer from the decline in tourism. Myanmar has only been open to tourists for around 25 years, which isn’t long in the grand scheme of things. The local people need support from tourism and they are definitely enjoying having access to the outside world. Please do your homework and don’t decide not to visit because of what you see on television, not everything we see in the media is correct.
I’ve seen a lot of media reports and had a number of people warn me about visiting Myanmar. I can honestly say having been there and experienced it, that Myanmar is the safest South East Asian country I have had the pleasure of visiting.
I never at anytime felt unsafe or in any danger, I never felt like someone was trying to ‘rip me off’ and I always found the local people to be very appreciative when we gave them a tip. I actually felt safe and relaxed and it was very refreshing considering this was not what I was expecting.
Compared to other South East Asian countries there are very few people begging for money, you will get the occasional child put their hand out but it’s not very often. The Burmese will be interested in you, particularly kids and do often ask to take photos. Its your call, just say no and they are fine, personally I don’t have an issue with it.
You will use cash for everything other than hotels and some purchases but pretty much expect to use local currency. You will need to take US dollars and exchange them as you require. Now, I can’t be more clear here, you will need crisp clean, uncreased US notes. I came home with US$200 that no one would accept because they had a fold or a mark or cease in the note. They are very vigilant about this and don’t be surprised if they refuse to exchange it or give you a lower rate because the note is not up to scratch.
I took a heap of different denominations, don’t bother with that, take $50 & $100 notes and change them as required. There are money exchange stores everywhere or for the best rates try one of the banks. We got our best rate in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake where you are a little more restricted with choices the rates are lower due to lack of competition. This is no different to any other country I have travelled in.
When visiting temples in Myanmar women are required to dress conservatively and to cover their shoulders and have their pants or skirt below their knees. I wore t-shirts with 3/4 jean pants which were below my knees or a t-shirt with a skirt that fell just below my knee. I only had one surprise at the Shwedagon Pagoda, I had a t-shirt on with an open back and I was asked to put a shawl on otherwise we didn’t have any issues at any of the other temples we visited.
Men will also need to dress respectfully, no shorty shorts or sleeveless shirts. There didn’t seem to be an issue with kids. Alannah is a teen and she was made to wear a wrap at a couple of temples when her shorts were just above the knee.
Download the Grab app and use this for getting around Yangon and many other South East Asian countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. Grab is similar to Uber and runs on data or wifi. You create an account and then you are ready to go.
We particularly liked this app as it eliminated the haggling with cab drivers that is often very frustrating when travelling in Asia. You put in point of pick up and point of drop off and the app will tell you how much it will cost. Any trip around Yangon was rarely more then a few dollars and a trip from downtown Yangon to the Yangon Airport, which is a 45 min drive, was AU$8. The app was wonderful and we used this over a metered cab. Grab cabs were everywhere and we rarely waited more than 5 mins for it to arrive.
We got a local SIM card as soon as we got off our flight. They are located outside the arrivals hall at Yangon International Airport and you will have a choice of about 5 different telco’s. We paid about AU$10 each for 4GBs that is valid for a month. This got me through the whole 2 week trip but Craig needed to top up with an extra GB for AU$3 when we only had a couple of days left. That’s pretty good though as we used Craig’s phone for all the Grab bookings and navigation.
I strongly recommend you get a local SIM card, as this will enable you to use Grab cabs when out and about and you wont have to try and find free wifi all the time, its so cost effective doing this way.
This one is a personal choice for each person, we chose not to eat street food and stick to a reasonable standard of restaurant mostly due to our itinerary. We were catching overnight buses every 3rd night so any amount of food poisoning would have made life very difficult for us.
We were vaccinated with Hep A & B and typhoid so catching these wasn’t a concern for us. It did mean our trip cost us a little more overall but I’m happy with that decision. Food poisoning is terrible for anyone but I would have hated for the kids to have got it and then lose a couple of days of sightseeing or worse still a whole itinerary change. Every hotel that we stayed in included breakfast on site, from memory nearly all I checked out did, it was great not having to worry about organising breakfast each day.
We used JJ Express for moving around the country. We did mostly overnight buses and this saved us money on accommodation and meant that we didn’t lose days travelling between places. We did JJ Express from Yangon – Bagan (overnight), Bagan – Mandalay (day), Mandalay – Inle Lake (overnight) and Inle Lake to Yangon (overnight). If you are travelling in peak season you will have to factor in early morning arrivals at your accomodation.
We arrived at all our destinations between 4am-6am. We were travelling right at the end of the low season and were lucky enough to be able to check in straight away. Had we been travelling during peak season we would not have been so lucky. My plan was to either drop off bags and go and watch the sunrise or find somewhere to have breakfast if our rooms weren’t ready. The kids would have really struggled with this idea though so I’m glad it worked out so well for us.
JJ Express is best described as ‘organised chaos’! Doesn’t look like there’s a system in place but there is and it works. However, like all things in Asia, you need to be patient and go with the flow. Like on our trip from Bagan to Mandalay when our 1st class coach had issues (not identified to us), we were placed on a local mini bus for the 5 hour trip. The bus was overcrowded, took an interesting route and drove dangerously in wet conditions, made it though so all good in the end and we did get a refund!
When you do get the JJ Express 1st class coach you ordered, you are seated in a comfortable recliner seat and have the most comfortable ride possible. I’ll leave it at that.
Myanmar is well known for having an abundance of precious stones, in particular jade, rubys and sapphires. There were precious stone and jewellery stores everywhere and you could definitely get a great bargain. I purchased a matching set of sapphire earrings and pendant, I don’t know stones all that well but I liked what I saw and I liked the price so we were in business.
Speaking to other people the general consensus is that the stones were real. I spoke to one gentleman in particular who assured me the stones where authentic due to them having some flaws and that a created stone would not have visible flaws. This was reassuring but always inspect them well and in the end if you are happy with the product and price then you have a good deal. I highly recommend Bokyoke Market in downtown Yangon for stones, there are many stores to choose from. I had a recommendation from the staff at the Shangri-La Hotel to go to store 49 and that’s what I did.
Where possible use local tour guides, they are knowledgable, friendly and will go the extra mile to please. If you like to be organised give me a shout out, I have a couple of contacts for different places. If people approach you in places such as the Shwedagon Pagoda and offer a tour, give them a chance. They are generally affordable and it stimulates the local economy.
We had a tour guide in Mandalay that brought his drone along and we had fun with the kids taking some footage in Mingun. While we were having dinner, our fabulous tour guide from Trip With Me made a video for us which I uploaded to our Facebook page. Now that’s going way above and beyond and we will and truly appreciated.
We loved our trip to Myanmar, we had a fabulous time, we never at anytime felt in fear for our safety or the kids and we found the Burmese people to be the kindest and most friendly we have come across in all our travels in South East Asia.
We were very cautious with food though, we do tend to err on the side of caution as a good bout of food poisoning can ruin a trip and I don’t want that for the kids. Remember Alannah and I got it in Siem Reap! Also on this trip we were on overnight buses every 3rd night with no on board toilet so this would have been really difficult had anyone got sick. This does mean that we spent a great deal more on food than we could have had we chose to eat in markets and street stalls. I was happy to take that hit for the good of all!
Myanmar is a malaria zone so after a lot of research we decided to put us all on malaria medication. This is a personal choice and one made after a great deal of research. We found the tablets went well however we had a couple of issues with sunburn which is a side effect of the medication. This was a much better option than contracting malaria and we did each get quite a few bites so a good decision all round for us.
This was another busy trip for us, we packed in a lot and saw the main places we wanted to see. We were able to take it easy a bit in Bagan and Inle Lake particularly because it was very hot and we would go out in the morning and then have pool time in the afternoon during the hottest time of the day then would try and catch the sunset before dinner. The kids are great, if they know they can get to the pool at some stage!
Hope these top Myanmar travel tips have helped you, if you have travelled to Myanmar and think I have missed something, please let me know in the comments below and I will add it. I would also love to hear your about your experiences in Myanmar.
Sal, Craig & Our3kids