As Myanmar/Burma opens up, sanctions lift and life there rapidly changes, more travellers are venturing into this alluring country. Because changes happen so quickly, it is difficult to find up-to-date information on what to expect when visiting the country. Here is a brief run-down on what travelling in Burma is currently like.
The country is embracing change but is in the early stages of making it. What that looks like to an outsider is increased openness about political opinions, whether by displaying National Democratic League posters or photos of Aung San Suu Kyi or expressing them verbally; increased internet and mobile connectivity; and a cautious but hopeful energy.
Planning your Burma trip
The massive uptake in tourism in 2012 and 2013 has hit Burma hard. Flights from Thailand can fill up, and there is definitely a shortage of hotel rooms in major destinations such as Yangon, Bagan, and Nyaung Shwe (the tourist centre for Inle Lake). This lack of infrastructure means that you definitely need to plan your accommodation ahead in tourist centres. It also means that prices have doubled and tripled since last year’s tourist season – Burma is no longer one of Southeast Asia’s cheap destinations.
Once you decide to visit Burma, you should book your international flight. Two months in advance is prudent, but one month should also be okay, especially if you are booking it from a nearby country such as Thailand. It is cheaper and easier to book domestic flights once you are in Burma.
Accommodation in Yangon fills up as far as a month in advance, particularly if it is listed in a guidebook. Though it is not impossible to show up and find a room, it is very difficult and potentially stressful, and you will likely end up paying quite a bit more than you want. The no-deposit system of cheaper hotels that do not take credit cards is difficult, but if you email or phone ahead you can expect most places to honour your reservation.
If there are absolutely no rooms, monasteries will take travellers in for a small fee, and provide blankets and pillows. We have heard of this happening recently in Nyaung Shwe.
Budget and money tips
In January 2013, KBZ and CB banks opened international ATMs throughout Burma. These accept both Visa and Mastercard, and charge a fee of 5000 kyat. The ATMs are a real game-changer for travellers, as it means they no longer have to carry thousands of pristine US dollars into the country to change, or budget their cash load for the entire trip. Western Union also began accepting international funds transfers in January 2013.
Despite the presence of ATMs, you should still carry some US cash with you, especially in smaller notes. There are a few hotels and other venues that either only accept US cash or will give you a poor exchange rate if you pay in kyat. As always, your US bills need to be perfect and made no earlier than 2006.
It is still very rare for credits cards to be accepted, though some top-tier hotels will take them.
The accommodation prices listed in nearly every guidebook have doubled or tripled. In some places, particularly Bagan, your money will not go very far. There, you can expect to pay between US$35 and US$40 for a dingy room that feels more like it is worth $10. Be sure to include these new rates in your budget.
Safety: in places open to foreigners, Burma is relatively safe, with very little crime even when travellers are carrying around thousands of dollars for their trips. Still, you should take the usual precautions of using hotel lockers for your valuables. Women travellers should not experience any harassment or different treatment.
Getting around: transport is relatively straightforward and unchanged, with the exception of more cars on the roads. Bus rides are bumpy and you might consider bringing along tablets for motion sickness.
Closures to tourists: at the time of writing, many locations in Kachin state were closed due to fighting. When we visited, we were told that Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, was closed to foreigners, though reports indicate that the city is open and accessible by plane or train. Conflict in Rahkine state has closed Mrauk U and Sittwe to foreign travellers, though the information is also foggy and likely to change.
Unfortunately, information on conflicts and closed areas is difficult to come by, and it is best to ask about the situation once you have arrived in Burma. The country’s official travel site, www.myanmartourism.org, is out of date and not a reliable source of information. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree is a good source of news from travellers on the ground.
Etiquette in Burma
- Burma is emerging from decades of isolation, and as such it feels a bit more conservative than nearby countries. Many men and women still wear longgyis, for example, a sarong-type garment. You rarely see anyone expose their knees or shoulders, and you will make everyone more comfortable if you do the same.
- Though people are more free when discussing politics, some guardedness remains; do not instigate political conversations.
- Money is handed over and received with the right hand, while the left hand loosely supports the right arm.
- Never use your feet to point at a person or thing.
- A smile always goes a long way, as does knowing a couple of words in Burmese.