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Beginner Tips for Visiting Myanmar

Of the 10 ASEAN countries in South East Asia, Myamnar or formerly known as Burma, is probably the least expected destination by travelers. The military junta government had not been supportive toward tourism activities, putting the country tourism in a hibernation state. The circumstances changed when a civilian government was put on helm, and tourism has since blossomed, unwrapping this once xenophobic and repressive country to the eye of the global.

Sule Pagoda, Yangon
As the country just opened to globalization not long ago, we took opportunity to visit the country in end 2015 before modernization engulfed the country. Indeed, the trip was an unique and eye-opening experience, probably one of the most unexpected trip we have went through thus far.

Hence, we would like to share some of our experience and things to watch out if you are planning a trip to Myanmar. If the items have been updated, please do notify us. You know, things really get outpaced fast in this era.

1. Money Exchange - The currency of Myanmar is Burmese Kyat and there are no ways it is obtainable elsewhere than Myanmar.

Stack of Burmese Kyat. Exchanged using 200 USD
Contrary to popular belief, US Dollars and Euro are not the only two currencies accepted for exchange. Singapore dollars, Australian dollars and even Malaysian Ringgit are accepted at Airport. Though the money exchanges elsewhere might only accepting US Dollars and Euro.

On top of that, the US dollars bill must be in crisp and pristine condition. We got our dollars bills rejected because there was a slight wrinkle on it. Besides, a bend or even a tiny black dot on the dollar bills might get the dollar bills returned to you. 

However, there are tips to overcome this

  • Iron your dollar bills
  • Tell the money exchange this is the only paper currency left, and most likely they will exchange for you (which we have tried)
Do take note that bigger denomination dollars will get you the better exchange rate. In addition, our experience tell us the best exchange rate was in airport.

2. US dollars still can be used for certain transactions - There is no need to change all your US dollar bills to Myanmar Kyats, unless you want to be cool by having a stash of cash of Myanmar Kyats and look like a millionaire. Some businesses such as hotels, attraction tickets, inter-city buses do accept payment in US dollars, while Myanmar Kyats are being used mainly for daily purchase.

Trust me, there is nothing cool on having a big stack of cash with you. You ended up having the anxiety on losing the cash.

3. ATM - Internet tells us there are no ATM in Myanmar, even in the capital Yangon. However we do see a few working ATMs around Yangon, but not in Bagan though. Hence, plan your cash flow properly, best if change to enough cash to fund your trips till you back to the big towns.

Credit cards may not be commonly accepted in Myanmar.

4. Visa - Yes, you will need to secure an E-Visa prior arrival. The E-Visa can be applied by clicking here. The fees is $50 for a 28 days Visa, and it should be approved within a few days. Kindly take note E-Visa is only approved for arrival at Yangon International Airport, Mandalay International Airport, Nay Pwi Taw International Airport.

Good News! As of 1st September 2016, E-Visa can be used on 3 different land entry points - Tachileik Land border check point, Mywaddy Land border check point and Kawthaung Land border check point.

5. Touts - While Burmese generally are friendly and always display an affection to help, the simple cautious needed to be exercise against over friendly people. As tourism blossoms, undeniably touts are there to take advantage of unwary tourists.

Be wary of random friendly approaching you.
General tips to avoid touts:

a) Avoid getting connected to people approach you for help, i.e. guiding to a particular place, showing interest at where are you going, or greet you randomly on the street.
b) Be wary toward people who speaks and commands English proficiently. Why? Simply because they need to speak English to be able to "help" you.
c) Do not share where are you going to with random people in the street. After knowing your answer, most likely the touts will say they are heading to same place also, and try to take advantage of you.

This is our personal experience - While we were flipping through our notes on where to sample the local delicacy - Mohinga in Yangon. A guy in mid-30 approached us, asking if there is anything he could help.

Due to our own negligence and unwary, we told him we are looking for a place for good mohinga. Apparently there was such a coincidence, he was heading to get a mohinga as well and offered to guide us there. Initially we were grateful toward his help but we smelt something fishy upon arriving at the restaurant.

He sat at the same table with us, and we ordered mohinga without further due. However, we were surprised he did not order anything. After I asked him, he said he was feeling full and do not feel like taking any food.

Something not right was brewing, and we suspected him was trying to tout us and make a fortune out of us. We told him we were heading to counter to pay the bill, and thank god, he was going for a short cigarette break. As he stood by side of the restaurant and smoked, we slipped through the other side and quickly make a few turns to get ourselves disappear among the crowd.

 Lessons learnt for today!

6. Depart early to Yangon Airport for your subsequent flight - Traffic congestion is a common problem in any country big cities. However, the circumstances get complicated with the city banning motorcycles, trishaws and bicycles. This means the entire Yangon city is clogged with cars, and the traffic condition is a stand-still during peak hours.

We were unfortunate to experience the horrible traffic jam. Typically, a journey from Yangon International Airport to Shwedagon Pagoda with a distance of 15km takes about 45 minutes but we were stucked in the car for close to 2 hours!

Plan and call your taxi to Yangon International Airport earlier by factoring the time stuck in the traffic.

7. WiFi - Frequent social media updaters might be disappointed to hear this. Although WiFi or Internet coverage is well spreaded in Myanmar despite its lack of development, the speed might be slow. The bandwidth is being throttled as well. Instagrammers or Facebookers, time to put away your social media and enjoy the beauty of Myanmar for a few days here.

Telco plan with mobile data is available and can be purchased at telco shop with a photocopy of the foreign passport.

8. Health - As a rule of thumb, taking care own health is essential when visiting any third world countries. There are always risk of hepatitis A , typhoid, rabies or even Malaria, hence consult and discuss with your doctors prior coming here. Our doctor suggested us to take hepatitis A vaccination.

The sanitary condition at a random Myanmar night market. The picture speaks.
A few tips to keep yourself healthy at Myanmar :

a) Only take bottled water. There are water pots offering free drinking water at almost every corner in the city, but the hygiene remains a question mark.
b) Only take boiled and cooked food.
c) Do not buy cakes, sliced fruits or any food that may be contaminated from the hawker.

Always go for bottled water

Just to let you know, we had diarrhea for 7 days continuously after a possible food poisoning case in Myanmar. Carry some charcoal tables, loperamides, oral rehydration solutions, and mosquitoes repellent will help.

Some other interesting facts to know about Myanmar:

9. Four decades ago, the notorious and superstitious General Ne Win decreed that all traffic were to drive on the right. The eccentricities was due to 2 theories as reported by www.minordiversion.com. One of it was that Ne Win's astronlonger wife claimed the country would be better off driving on the right. The second was that Ne Win dreamt that the country should change a driving direction.

Well, driving on the right was not a big issue. However, most of the cars in Myanmar are second owernship cars impornted from various countries such as Japan and China predominantly. This resulted some cars had driver seat on the right, while some driver seat on the left. Thus, you will see people seated on the right seat and drives on the right hand side; and the bus door unloading passengers to the middle of the road.

What an unique world of Myanmar driving!

10. Do not be surprised when you see men here dress in a sarong, which is their traditional clothes - longyi. Meanwhile, the women applied some form of white powder, called Thanaka on their face, arms, neck or even to the extent of whole body. It is for cosmetic purposes, at the meantime giving cooling sensation and protection against sunburn.

Man with Longyi

Ladies with Thanaka applied

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