Myanmar: Travel Tips, Tales, and More
Myanmar is one of the most enticing, mystifying, beguiling, and sometimes foreboding locations you will ever see. Golden pagodas, unspoiled beaches, awe-inspiring mountains, a network of winding rivers, 135 ethnic tribes, and influences from India, Thailand, and China are just the beginning of what makes Myanmar worth the voyage
Before you book a flight or hotel, check with the U.S. State Department or other agencies that monitor travel safety for the latest advisories. Right now, travel to Myanmar is fine, but it is ever-changing, and, especially with little ones, you want to makes sure you’re embarking on a safe (and ethical) journey.
•You’ll need a visa if you are a U.S. citizen. You should ensure you have all the documents you need early in the process, this includes a U.S passport with a minimum of six months remaining before expiration. You can only get a tourist visa for 28 days. Your visa is valid for three months prior to your travel day. Most require an itinerary and proof of tickets as part of the process.
Burmese currency is the kyat. Your best bet for exchanging dollars is at the bank, as you won’t run the risk of getting counterfeit bills.
• You must bring with you all the U.S. dollars you will need for the entire trip, and it must be all new bills, preferably in $100 denominations –¬ and not folded! (This is critical.) There are very few ATM machines, so you won’t be able to access cash. My husband had some brand new bills, which he folded in his wallet, and no one would accept them. We were told it’s due to counterfeit money on the black market. Also bring small bills for tipping and making small purchases. (You can pay for your hotel and flights with credit cards, but Myanmar is still basically a cash economy.)
• Travelers’ checks? Come to think of it, does anybody still use them? Well, you won’t be using them in Myanmar.
INTERNET & MOBILE PHONES
• Wi-Fi is inconsistent at best. The better hotels have it, but usually only in the lobby or public areas. According to DK Eyewitness Travel, less than 1% of the Burmese have access to the Internet.
• Few companies support cell service in Myanmar. In other words, your phone makes a pretty good paperweight here, but little more. You can rent a cell phone at the airport for about $5.00 a day.
• The Burmese people are kind and generous. Be respectful of their belief systems and practices. An American couple we encountered refused to take off their hats in the Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, even when asked by one of the monks, and one Burmese tourist was so distraught over their behavior that she began to cry. It was one of the most shameful scenes I have ever seen.Take off your shoes and hat in religious buildings or don’t go in. Period.
• Dress conservatively. You may see a few locals wearing shorts in cities, but generally T-shirts and shorts are considered underwear, and wearing them is seen as disrespectful. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering temples and Burmese homes – and you will not be admitted into temples with bare shoulders or bare knees.
• Women are not admitted to some temples.
• Do not shake hands with, or touch, monks or nuns. A small bow is the most appropriate greeting.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
• Check with the World Health Organization regarding immunization. The basics are typhoid, Hepatitis A&B, Malaria-depending on where you are traveling and tetanus. If you are coming to Myanmar from South America or Africa, you will need a certificate showing you have had a yellow fever inoculation.
• The standards for hygiene in Myanmar are likely very different than what you are used to. Use the restroom at your hotel or restaurant before you go out to visit a village or hike to see monuments, as there are not always public facilities. Always bring tissues with your, as there is not always toilet paper in public restrooms.
• In restaurants, if you have concerns about the cleanliness, ask for a cup of very hot water and subtly put your silverware in the cup to “sanitize” your utensils.
• Drink only bottled water. Do not drink tap water. Even in hotels where they claim it’s safe, drink bottled. Why tempt fate?
• The food in Myanmar can be really delicious – but it can be a health challenge for even the most experienced traveler. I didn’t get sick, but Yao Yao and Jim did. Having said that, I got very sick on sushi in a well known New York restaurant – so there you go . . .
• Steps to the upper terraces of most temples are incredibly steep, with no handrails, and can be a challenge for even the fittest and most agile visitors.
• Buy medical evacuation insurance, especially if you have children. It’s not expensive, and if you or anyone in your family needs emergency surgery or gets seriously ill, you’ll be glad you spent the few hundred dollars. (We typically use Travel Guard.) There are a just a few things we look for in an insurance company: If you’re injured or seriously ill, you’ll want them to cover transport to a country and medical facility of your choice (there are some restrictions). And in case of a military event or terrorist attack, you’ll want them to evacuate you out of the country.
• If you’re using a tour company that arranges your guides, be very clear about what you’re interested in and what your concerns are. If you love art, you will want to spend more time in museums than shopping. If you’re not an adventurous eater, it’s important to make that clear. If you have bad knees, allergies, or any other special issue, be very clear about your needs and limitations. We saw several tourists who were unable to get in and out of the boats on Inle Lake, and they spent much of their time in the hotel.
• Check the World Health Organization website for the recommended immunizations.
• Diapers, formula and the like are not common outside of big cities. You will not have five brands to pick from and typically all products are in Burmese.
• Bring batteries, media sticks and anything else you need for your electronics. You will either not find what you need in Myanmar or of inferior quality.
• Bring an adapter for your electronics.
• Bring a jacket or sweater if you’re going to the Hill Country or Inle Lake area – it’s cold in the mornings .
• Bring cotton clothes that dry easily. Though it gets very hot, make sure to wear clothes that are not too revealing, or you will not be allowed into the monasteries or temples.
• Bring a shawl or wrap to cover bare shoulders and arms for the temples.
• Bring slip-on shoes you can put on and take off easily, are comfortable, and that you don’t mind getting wet, dusty, or dirty.
• Bring tissues. You will be using them for more than toilet paper. Many local restaurants don’t provide napkins or they put a roll of toilet paper on the table. And who knows – you may even need to blow your nose!
• Bring wipes. Monasteries require you to remove your shoes, and so do many other monuments all over Myanmar. Your feet will get dirty. If you or your children have cuts or open wounds, make sure they are completely covered. I carry blister bandages and regular bandages.
• Bring mosquito repellant.
• Bring all medication you think you may need. (Finding migraine Excedrin is not as easy as you would think it is. Bring sunscreen and or a hat.
• Bring antibiotic cream, Pepto-Bismol, ibuprofen, anti-inflammatory medications, and Benadryl. Your doctor will probably prescribe a Cipro tablet, just in case . . .
• Though I usually bring food for my daughter for the plane rides, I brought dried fruit, kid’s snack bars, and other easy-to-carry snack foods for those times when Yao Yao was hungry and we didn’t have great food option. Most hotels will pack you a snack or lunch if you are going somewhere remote and don’t want to eat locally-though it’s that half the fun!
US Embassy Packing Guide
CDC Travel Guidelines
World Health Organization
Lonely Planet Myanmar
Burma at Blog/Andrew Marshall Andrew Marshall blogs regularly onReuters and is the author of The Trouser People (Counterpoint), updated in 2012.
DK Eyewitness Travel
Wanderlust and Lipstick
Books Worth Reading
Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and Its Aftermath in Burma, Emma Larkin
Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps (Faber) is a personal historical account, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters from Burma (Penguin) provides insights from Burma’s most celebrated politician and activist.
George Orwell’s Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)
Golden Earth (Eland) by Norman Lewis
Read Burma’s leading daily newspaper online at Myanmar Times