Myanmar could have the fastest growing tourism industry in the world. The country has only recently been opened to travellers and is therefore one of the more unexplored travel destinations, which makes it even more wonderful to visit! With this new tourism and the prejudices your trip requires some preparation. These are the 10 most important things to know before you travel to Myanmar.
#1 Myanmar is safe
Myanmar is known for its political unrest, domestic fights and new democracy. The country has indeed only recently made its first steps on the ‘path to democracy’, about which you will read a lot in articles about Myanmar politics. But that doesn’t mean that it is unsafe. The big cities and well-known tourist attractions are very safe for tourists. The few areas where it is not recommended to travel around are not open for tourists. To be sure of a safe trip, make sure you check the travel advice on the website of your gouvernment. When I was in Myanmar, there some unrest at the border with Thailand, so the border crossing in the south was closed. Do not take any risks in such a situation and avoid that location. I took a flight from Yangon to Bangkok to leave Myanmar instead.
#2 The capital of Myanmar is a ghost town
Did you think the popular Yangon is the capital of Myanmar? Wrong! It is the most important city of the country, but it was replaced as its capital a few years ago. The capital was moved in 2005 to Nay Pyi Taw (translated: ‘Royal City of the Sun’), in the middle of the country. This move was not a big success though. The city is located in the middle of nowhere and people simply did not want to move there. Although many ministries and official bodies are located in Nay Pyi Taw, there are still many in Yangon as well. During the construction of Nay Pyi Taw it was assumed that people would be thrilled to move to this new metropolis. The grand scale on which the city was built now makes it an absurd place. I would love to see the abandoned eight-lane roads during a next trip! So you can add the capital to your itinerary, but you shouldn’t try to book your flight to it.
#3 Pay with crispy dollars
You can pay in Myanmar with the local currency ‘kyat’, but it is easier to use U.S. dollars. The fact that two currencies are used in Myanmar also means that there are two different prices at some places. Unfortunately you will not always be able to get around the higher tourist price by paying with kyat. Sometimes it is not even possible as a foreigner to pay in kyat and even if you can, you will often not get the lower price anyways.
Make sure that your dollars are new, crispy and completely undamaged, or they will not be accepted. Tip: do not keep your dollars rolled up in a wallet, but a money belt or can. I have read that it is recommended to bring all the money you think to spend in Myanmar with you, as there were almost no (working) ATM’s. I didn’t bring any dollars myself and could easily get dollars from ATM’s twice – at Mandalay airport and Nyaungshwe at Inle Lake.
#4 Myanmar might have the most beautiful beaches in Asia
Myanmar is known for its beautiful, ancient temples, but the country has much more to offer. Did you know that Myanmar might have the most beautiful beaches in Asia? In the far south of the country is the Myeik Archipelago with the most beautiful bounty beaches and hundreds of idyllic islands. It is not easy to get there, so you will probably have the magical beaches and islands all to yourself. Because of this poor accessibility, I skipped the beaches during my trip, but on a next trip the Myeik Archipel will be at the top of my wishlist!
#5 Bring warm clothes
When thinking of a Asian country such as Myanmar, you picture yourself walking around in shorts and t-shirts. You will probably forget to bring some warm clothing to, as it is hard to image how cold it can be at night. During the day it is warm and sometimes even very hot in Myanmar, but in the evenings it cools down quickly. Especially if you are planning to catch some early sunsets or sunrises, you should bring a warm sweater. So don’t forget to pack a sweater and some jeans with your shorts and slippers!
#6 Do not use the northern border crossing with Thailand
The border crossing at the villages of Tachileik (Myanmar) and Mae-Sai (Thailand) seems the perfect place to enter Myanmar, if you are heading to the northern city Mandalay first. But it is not. You can indeed cross the border here, but from Tachileik you can not (easily) travel overland to the rest of Myanmar. You will have to take a flight to Mandalay from there.
When I say ‘not easy’, I mean that you can get from Tachileik to the rest of the country by exception. I read read that it is possible to get a permit to travel on the road from Tachileik to the west. But it is hard to get such a permit and the road is so bad it will take even more time than just travelling to the southern border crossing at Myawaddy-Mae Sot and then take the night bus to Mandalay. In short: do not take the border crossing in the north, but take a flight or cross the border in the south.
#7 Parts of the country are not open for tourists
You can only travel to these areas after arranging a permit far in advance. I was told it is not easily to get such permit for tourists. It is not a bad thing to skip these part however, as the roads there are so bad that it takes days to get from one point to another. Do want to give it a try anyways? Then use the help of a local travel organisation to arrange your permit and travel plans.
#8 You can not buy a visa at the border
If you are traveling to Myanmar, you must make sure that you have already a visa. In many countries you can arrange your visa at the border crossing itself, but that does not apply to Myanmar. make sure you arrange your visa well in advance.
#9 You need a special permit to drive in Myanmar
A national or international driving license is not enough to be able to get on the road in Myanmar. If you want to rent a car to travel through the country yourself, you’ll have to apply for a local travel certificate from the Ministry of Transport in advance.
#10 Myanmar can be quite pricey
You might be used to the low prices in Asian countries, but that is only partly true in Myanmar. Actually, everything in the country is very cheap except for the accommodations. As tourism is only starting in this country, there are far fewer hotels and hostels than in other places. The growing tourism is therefore driving up the prices. So do not expect beautiful boutique hotels for a bargain price and do not count on dorms for only a few euros as a backpacker.