In 2011, after 15 years of a boycott to escape the repression of the military junta, Myanmar opened its doors to visitors. The country, which now has a democratically elected government, is improving its tourism infrastructure, but still has trouble handling the huge influx of visitors.
If you're thinking of traveling to Myanmar, these tips will help you maximize your stay in this culturally rich nation with some of the most hospitable people you're likely to encounter.
1. Book in advance
Although more and more new hotels are popping up, there is still a shortage of accommodations in the most popular destinations in Myanmar.
Standards tend to be lower and prices higher than in other Southeast Asian countries, so be prepared, spend a little more and look for the recommended locations.
Dormitories are sometimes available and range from ca. $ 10-20. Low-key guesthouse rooms go for $15-30 (though the lower end is usually pretty shabby), while mid-range rooms go for anything from $50-100.
Especially in high season (October to March), it's a good idea to book well in advance to get the best options and bring your reservation documents with you. You'll lose some of the spontaneity of backpacking, but it's worth it to get a comfortable night's rest.
2. Earplugs or noise-canceling headphones are essential
Trains in Myanmar are very slow. Buses are faster and cheaper, but keep in mind that music videos, romantic movies, or dramatic soap operas are broadcast at maximum volume from the in-flight TV. While the other passengers may find it very entertaining, you might feel differently; invest in some noise-canceling headphones or wax earplugs to preserve your health.
3. Travel by boat
If you decide to take a domestic flight, note that it is cheaper to book through agencies once you are in Myanmar than from outside the country. Buses can be the fastest way to get around after flying, but they are also bumpy, noisy and often uncomfortable.
Boat routes conveniently connect some major destinations and allow tourists to travel at their leisure and see a bit of country life on the riverside. Popular routes are Mandalay to Bagan, Yangon to Ngwe Saung and Dawei to Kawthaung / Ranong.
4. Watch out for no-go zones
Conflict between various ethnic armed groups in northern Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states means parts of these regions are off limits to tourists. Armed clashes have occurred in border areas with Thailand, Laos and China, so extra caution is advised in these areas.
Permits are available for some restricted areas. You do, however, need to apply at least a month in advance with authorized tour agents. For up-to-date information on the region and a list of tour operators, visit myanmartourism.org.
5. Bring cash
ATMs are available in more cities and tourist areas, but you shouldn't count on being able to withdraw cash everywhere (plus a $5 fee on top of your bank fee). So bring plenty of US dollars. You can easily change dollars to kyats once you arrive.
Food, drink and transportation are paid for in kyats, while both currencies can be used for more expensive services such as hotel rooms, trekking and tours.
More upscale hotels usually have credit card machines, and banknotes must be in absolutely pristine condition – dollar bills with bills, wrinkles or tears are not accepted.
6. BBQ it
You may find that Burmese food is not quite the same as its neighbors: It can lack the freshness and inventiveness of Thai cuisine and the depth and variety of flavor of Indian curries.
This doesn't mean it's impossible to find a decent meal, but – much like accommodation – you should do your research to find the tastiest places to eat.
A reliable, easy and popular option is to go to food stalls that serve a selection of different meats, fish and seafood that you choose, drop into a basket and are grilled right in front of you. Yangon's 19. Street and the night market in Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake offer lots of fresh, appetizing foods.
7. Don't rely on Wi-Fi
Wifi in Myanmar is very limited. Even in upscale hotels, connections are often spotty and very slow. However, SIM cards have become much cheaper since 2014, and if you buy one, you can use 3G relatively cheaply.
Don't expect to find 3G coverage everywhere, however. It is important to take a guidebook with you to make sure you are never without accommodation, food options and to find your way around without the internet.
8. Burma or Myanmar? Know your names
The military junta renamed the country Myanmar in 1989 on the grounds that Burma was a colonial name. Some countries still officially call it Burma, and even the co-ruling party, the National League for Democracy, prefers Burma. Every day, most locals will call Myanmar. During the visit you can use both interchangeably.
9. Think before you speak
The first democratically elected government came to power in early 2016 after decades of military rule. Yet the military still holds about a third of government offices, and the country has a long way to go before people can freely express their views without fear of retribution.Discussing politics with Burmese citizens remains a touchy subject and people are still afraid of getting into trouble.
On the other hand, a great way to get a better understanding of modern life and culture in Myanmar is to engage people in conversation about their lives in general and how quickly the country is changing – without directly asking about politics.
Burmese people are exceptionally friendly, warm and welcoming; don't miss the opportunity to get to know your hosts while you are there.
Explore Myanmar with the Rough Guide to Myanmar. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don't forget to buy travel insurance before you go.