Myanmar stepped onto the Southeast Asian travel circuit in 2011 after decades under military rule. It soon emerged as a sought after destination with its pagoda strewn horizons and fascinating cultures as intrepid travellers were eager to explore the country. However, it is still plagued with political and social issues and ethnic divisions, most notably the attempted genocide of the Rohingya population, which has left many people reconsidering travelling to Myanmar on ethical grounds.
However, for those who are still intrigued by this incredible country, it’s definitely worth a visit and is a highly rewarding experience. For a country that has only been opened to the world for less than a decade, there is still a sense of mystery surrounding it, so this post has 10 things you need to know about travelling to Myanmar that hopefully covers all the essential information.
It also includes why boycotting the country on ethical and responsible travel grounds is not the appropriate response to its appalling human rights record as well as why you need to taste Burmese food, emerging hiking hotspots and what to do now that temples have slowly been closed in Bagan.
So, keep reading for everything you need to know when travelling to Myanmar!
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1. The people are some of the friendliest on the planet
Mingalabar! is hello in Burmese and it’s a phrase you’ll hear constantly throughout Myanmar. From the farmers you pass on your Inle Lake trek, to the souvenir sellers at Bagan and the local passengers on buses, everyone will greet you with a giant smile and hello.
Southeast Asia is considered one of the friendliest regions in the world, and Myanmar only adds to the wide smiles you’ll find in neighbouring countries like Thailand and Laos. However, what perhaps sets Myanmar apart is the fact that tourism is still a new industry in the country. Although you will find street vendors selling paintings of U-Bein bridge and taxi driver’s offering tours around Mandalay, there is still a lack of any sort of hassling or in-your-face touts that are so common in other well visited Asian countries. In Myanmar, money still comes after kindness and genuine hospitality.
For example, a lady selling wide legged, elephant pants (likely imported from Thailand) at Bagan approached me at a sunset viewpoint, but as soon as I said I wasn’t interested in buying, she merely shrugged and continued to have a conversation with me about how Bagan has changed with tourism and where to still find good spots for photographs. She simply waved me off as I got back on my scooter to leave. That’s not an experience you would have at many other tourist attractions in Asia.
So although you might come for the temples, you’ll likely not want to leave Myanmar because of the people.
2. Hiking is an up and coming must-do activity
For any outdoor enthusiast, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s emerging hiking destination. It might be surprising, as most people don’t associate Myanmar with incredible nature, but the rolling hills and swathes of untouched forest means there’s plenty to explore. Although you won’t find anything in the form of hiking infrastructure and well marked trails, there are a few multiday treks that are becoming very popular additions to many itineraries.
Popular hiking areas
The most popular trek is the two night, three day trip to Inle Lake from Kalaw. I wrote an in depth trek report about it which you can read here. It’s an incredible journey through rural areas of Shan State where you stay in the homes of the Pa’o ethnic group in villages along the way.
Kalaw also offers many day hikes in the area around the town, which you can do in preparation for the three day trek if you have plenty of time. Any of the local guesthouses or hostels will be able to recommend and provide information on accessible trails.
The other area fast becoming a popular destination, particularly amongst backpackers, is Hsipaw in northern Shan State. From Hsipaw town, there are everything from day hikes, to multiday treks and even bike riding in the surrounding hills. The Palaung villages in this area are extremely interesting to visit and the ability to stay in organised home stays allows for some families to make some extra income.
I wrote about trekking around Hsipaw for Remote Lands and you can read the article here.
The final area for excellent hiking is in Chin State. Although it’s still one of the least visited areas of the country, the forested region has plans to become a future hotspot for adventurous travellers. The remote villages further into the hills from the town of Mindat are where you can find the last remaining face tattooed women and a fascinating culture that has been unexploited by tourism, thus far. The government has recently invested in training a few local people as official guides, however, when I was in Mindat (December 2018) they were notoriously hard to find. Still, in future, this is likely to be a highlight for any trip to Myanmar.
Guided or independent hiking?
It’s recommended to do most of these treks with a guide and/or organised group, as trails are unmarked and homestays are not publicly advertised. The language and cultural barrier would also be significant, especially in Chin State, and heading into Chin villages is unadvised without a local guide. I had heard of people doing the Kalaw to Inle Lake trek independently, however, I would make sure you had a good GPS app like Maps.Me, because the trail would be difficult to follow otherwise. However, I suspect that with time, trails will start to become easier to tackle independently as the demand for such treks increases. But the country is still far behind in terms of proper hiking infrastructure.
3. Bus travel is easy and convenient
Ease of transport is most people’s main concern when travelling to countries where there isn’t a well-developed tourist industry. Surprisingly, Myanmar is similar to Thailand in that it has a well connected and relatively organised bus network. Many hotels and hostels also have relationships with bus companies whereby, included in their ticket price, you will get a door-to-door service. This sometimes involves getting picked up by a tuktuk and taken to the station, or if the bus is just a minivan, it will often pick you up directly at your accommodation. It’s very convenient and easy to organise.
The quality of the buses may not be on par with some of the Thai buses. However, most of the big buses aren’t too bad and there are some emerging companies that run overnight trips between the major cities who have invested in nice, comfortable new coaches, giving travellers choice in quality and price. Still, I found my accommodation were the best places to purchase tickets for most routes.
4. The food is a delicious blend of Chinese, Thai and INdian
With the country closed for a long time, Burmese food has largely been confined inside the borders of the country. However, now people are discovering Burmese food as an interesting blend of Chinese, Thai and Indian influences and it’s starting to be highly regarded by travel foodies.
You can find curries, noodle soups, stir fries, plenty of pork-based dishes and, of course, an abundance of rice. My favourite dish was Shan noodle soup, which can be found in many local restaurants and street stalls. It’s a broth based soup, with rice noodles and usually, pork or chicken and some green vegetables.
5. Temples may be closing in Bagan but DON’T worry
For the last couple of years, the famous temples of Bagan have been slowly closed to tourists with concerns about their preservation. Previously, tourists could enter all of them and climb up to their rooftops for a photo that became “insta famous”. As of the beginning of 2019, however, almost all of the temples had been closed, although there were a couple still left open (although not publicly advertised as such). Don’t worry though because, the huge complex is still open to the extent that you can roam around without much restriction, other than entering inside the temples themselves.
I met many people who were complaining about these closures, even going so far to say that they had come to Myanmar specifically for that experience of watching the sunrise from the rooftop of one of the temples and for ‘that’ photo that everyone had seen on instagram. However, at the moment, there is still a couple of temples open for tourists to climb. You can pay a local taxi driver to show you or read my blog post on Bagan with specific locations here. Maps.Me also seems to have up to date information on which temples are still open.
Also, it’s important to recognise the impacts of overtourism and the significance of preserving these structures, which ultimately means, people won’t be able to climb all over them in the future and that’s in the interest of protecting these sites. So, please don’t climb a temple unless it’s still open and permitted.
6. Tourism benefits the local people more than it does the government
One of the main reasons people reconsider their plans or desires of travelling to Myanmar, is in regards to the ethical considerations of travelling to a country with appalling human rights records. The logic is that by boycotting the country or not visiting, tourist dollars will not be able to fund some of the government’s malicious actions. However, in reality, tourism benefits the local population more than it does the government.
Tourism generates a large amount of jobs and employment opportunities for people, both directly and indirectly. Industries and sectors such as hospitality, retail, transport, energy, agriculture and education all benefit in some way from increased tourist numbers. I had many people tell me that the last couple of years (in the wake of the Rohingya crisis being heavily reported in Western media) had been really tough for them as tourist numbers has plateaued after years of fast growth. It’s all the people in these sectors that tourism affects who really feel the ebbing and flowing of tourist visitors depending on the political climate, rather than those in government. So the next time you think a travel boycott is the answer to irresponsible and cruel governments, think about the local people who need to make a livelihood and who could benefit from extra customers instead because they are the ones who ultimately suffer the most.
You can read more about why you shouldn’t boycott the country in this article here.
I wrote an article for The Culture-ist on the ethics of travelling to Myanmar in the wake of the Rohingya Crisis and you can read it here.
7. Brush up on religious etiquette
Myanmar is a devout Buddhist country with 90% of the population following Buddhism. It’s probably the country where I’ve seen the most monks, with many of the young children even attending monasteries for their schooling. Buddhists have many superstitions and customs, which means that there is some religious etiquette to follow, especially when entering temples. For example, you should never point your feet at Buddha, even when you’re sitting or lying down. If a homestay has a small Buddhist shrine (which many of them do), do not sleep with your feet pointing in its direction. The head is also holy for Buddhists so avoid touching anyone’s heads. Temples are also obviously conservative places to enter and you should dress respectively, with women and men expected to cover their legs and remove their shoes before entering.
However, Burmese people are not so devout that they will impose their beliefs on other people and if you make any mistakes they will only kindly remind you (likely still with a smile).
8. local currency rules over USD
For a long time, USD was considered the best currency to take and use in Myanmar. However, that was up until 2012 when there were still no ATMs in the country. However, a lot has changed in the past few years and there are now thousands of ATMs across all cities and most larger towns, which makes getting cash out with your foreign card not difficult at all.
The local currency (Kyat) is now the preferred currency by most vendors, hotels and businesses and only some accommodation and tour operators will happily accept USD. This means that the best and most cost effective thing to do is to just bring your own card and withdraw Kyat (ch-at) from an ATM.
Forex shops are still easy to come by though and if you prefer to bring cash, USD is still the best currency for exchanging and purchasing.
9. It’s not a ‘backward’ country
Many people consider Myanmar a bit of a ‘backward’ country, after decades under strict military rule. However, most travellers are often surprised by just how quickly Myanmar has caught up to its Southeast Asian neighbours with things like ATMS and Wi-Fi. As I said above, in 2012 the country still had no ATMs and Wi-Fi was hit and miss unless you stayed in places like the Hilton. However, today, you don’t have to worry too much about these travel essentials as they are practically found everywhere.
ATMs are in almost all places (although in some rural areas it can be challenging) and I never had a problem with using my foreign card. Wi-Fi is available at all hostels and hotels and most touristy cafes and restaurants. And it’s not bad. Some people complain about the strength and speed of the WiFi there, however, I didn’t find it too slow. It’s also easy to get a local SIM card (I went with Telenor), and opt for a data pack, if you want to stay connected everywhere. I found Telenor worked in most places and was reasonably priced (except on the trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw and in the Shan Hills).
The country is definitely not as isolated and closed off as it once was and you’ll notice the impact of Western media and culture, especially in the urban areas.
10. travelling in Myanmar is safe and rewarding
Myanmar has a host of longstanding problems such as military influence in the government, the persecution of the Rohingya population, the unresolved civil war in the far north and the illegal production and cross border trade of opium. This unsurprisingly puts a lot of people off visiting the country and many Western governments still impose heavy travel warnings for some areas.
However, on the flip side, it is also one of the safest countries for travellers in terms of petty theft and crime. As my first point on this post says, the Burmese are the friendliest people you may ever come across on your travels and as a foreigner you will be treated with genuine hospitality and respect. As a solo traveller, I felt completely safe being on my own, even at night and even in some rural places that I visited where very few tourists go (like Chin state and in the Shan Hills). Many of these issues that I mentioned at the start of this section are mostly away from the main tourist areas and you could easily spend time in the country and not know that any of that was occurring.
However, there are still some strict travel regulations for those wishing to go far north into Kachin State and authorities would be asking what your purpose of travel is. Occasionally, the conflict in Kachin State spills over into Shan State, as it did when I was in Hsipaw, and there was a higher military presence in the villages. Otherwise, much of the clashes occur along the border regions where very few tourists would go.
The Rohingya population inhabit Rakhine State on the south western coast of the country. It has a couple of major attractions like Mrauk U and Ngapali Beach, however, from what I heard they are still a distance away from the troubles at the border areas. So, I wouldn’t be concerned with travel plans being impacted by any internal problems.
However, I’m not suggesting that you ignore these issues and you should be aware that the country is far from perfect. Burmese people are generally open to talking about things like human rights and corruption and I had many conversations with people about the Rohingya crisis and the drug-fuelled conflict in the north. As in any country though, I would only begin talking about this when prompted by a local and remember that these issues still divide opinion in much of the country.
Otherwise, Myanmar is an extremely rewarding country to travel in and it’s certainly one of my favourite experiences to date. I hope this post has helped answer some questions and enlightened you on what to expect when traveling to Myanmar!