After 50 years of isolation, Myanmar finally opened up to the outside world. Just what was it like to visit this country? There was limited information that I could find before flying over, which actually added to the excitement of not knowing what to expect. However, to help you get started on key information, here’s what I have!
What to know before visiting Myanmar!
1. You need to apply for a visa BEFORE arriving.
Even if you’re a Singaporean, like me. It’s been close to 30 countries that I’ve visited; I’ve never had to apply for one in any country before arriving, so I was genuinely surprised to discover this requirement. (New rule for Singaporeans from 1 Dec 2016 — visa is exempted for visits less than 30 days).
You can apply for the visa online via http://www.evisa.moip.gov.mm/. Fill in particulars, add in a recent photo, pay online (USD$50) and submit. Once approved, the approval letter (which is the visa) will be emailed to you. I received mine the next day. Print it out and have it with you when you check in, and when you go through immigrations in Myanmar.
a) Validity is 90 days from approval, therefore you should not apply more than 90 days before your trip.
b) The form requires your accommodation name and address in Myanmar. It must be a registered hotel, motel, inn, guest-house or resort, not a residential address.
c) If your application is rejected, they will not give reasons. There will also be no refund, the horror! To cover all bases, just like submitting passport photos, I made sure my fringe wasn’t blocking my eyes and brows, and wore conservative tops.
2. You can visit different states by taking domestic flights or
very cold overnight coaches.
I took three coach rides in total over 6 days, haha. I had read that coach rides include the driver blasting music loudly throughout the journey. Thankfully, my Burmese friend had chosen good bus companies and we didn’t have to suffer any loud music. Tickets are very affordable (about S$18 to S$22) and for all my trips, the buses set off at night, reaching pre-dawn or dawn.
Another Burmese friend who took a coach from Yangon endured loud music blasted for the entire journey (11 hours?!?) to join us at Inle (Shan State).
Myanmar overnight coaches are actually very comfortable (but the roads can be really uneven, especially from Bagan to Inle).
Tips: Bring eyeshades for covering your eyes, ear-plugs in case, a jacket (it will still be very cold even if you use the blanket).
Here’s a summary of the coach companies we took:
Yangon to Bagan: Elite Express –> Comfortable seats, comes with small personal screen for movies, USB port (you can charge your phone!), blanket, water, snacks, toothbrush & toothpaste distributed during break.
Bagan to Inle: Bagan Prince (the one in photo above) –> 3 separated seats in one row. Each seat comes with neck pillow, blanket, water, snacks. Bus suspension wasn’t very good so ride was bumpy along uneven roads.
Inle to Yangon: Mandalar Min –> Good seats, comes with small personal screen for movies, USB port (you can charge your phone!), blanket, water, headphones.
Among the 3, Mandalar Min was my favorite. The seats were more spacious compared to the rest, the coach was quiet and comfortable, I managed to sleep most of the trip.
3. If you’re changing currency in the country,
bring notes in GREAT condition!
Your USD notes need to be in mint condition — as good and crisp as NEW. Other currency notes need to be in good condition. The staff was scrutinizing my Singaporean dollar notes and even rejected one piece due to the fold removing some of the marks.
This blog has a good post on dealing with money in Myanmar.
4. Have some USD with you.
Entrance tickets are differentiated between prices for locals versus foreigners. In some instances, as foreigners, you will be quoted directly in USD. In other instances and if you have a choice, it might be cheaper to pay in Burmese kyats (such as for the pass to enter Bagan — 25000kyats or USD$25).
5.The country is only slowly opening up to tourism.
Depending on season, accommodation can be expensive due to high demand vs more hotels that they can build. Getting around is also not as easy especially if you don’t understand Burmese. I imagined solo-travelling to Bagan and was very sure it will be a HUGE struggle.
The locals are curious about your presence and are learning to adapt to your ways, the same that you’re learning about their ways of life.
6. There are certain etiquettes to observe.
Although there’re certain etiquettes that you should observe, such as not using the left hand to pass over anything including money, not wearing too-revealing clothes, not having your feet pointed towards Buddha statues at temples, I don’t think a local will flip if a foreigner lapses in their customs. However, as a form of respect towards cultural differences, you should still mind basic manners. I have found Burmese to be very hospitable and genuinely warm people.
7. Slippers/Sandals are the best shoes
as a visitor to Myanmar.
Bring slippers/sandals if you intend to visit temples/pagodas. Of course you’re visiting temples and pagodas! Be prepared to get dirty feet. Rain or sun, you need to remove shoes and socks before entering temples and pagodas. That means stepping on dirt and dried/wet bird shit. It also means sometimes, the tiles can be scorchingly hot in the afternoon sun.
I started my trip in Yangon, and we went to Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important temple in the city. After my friend had parked his car at the carpark, he took off his shoes and left them in the car, telling us to do the same. Which means we walked barefooted from the carpark’s gravel road, to the pagoda grounds. That was our first “culture shock”. We were rather horrified by the incident and he warned us that Bagan will be worse. Shwedagon Pagoda’s floors are smooth tiles, while Bagan’s temples are just brick floors.
Wet wipes will be useful for cleaning feet afterwards. A plastic bag is good to have if you wanna carry your shoes along (for eg. Shwedagon Pagoda has several exits so you might not return to the same entrance)
8. Men and women all wear longyis.
A longyi is the traditional bottom that Burmese wear. For men, it’s like a cylindrical loop and wrapped around the waist and tied with a knot in the middle. For ladies, it’s a rectangular piece of cloth held together by strings at the waistline. In Singapore, we refer to these kind of clothing as a sarong.
Because everyone else wears a longyi in Myanmar, it was actually quite fun to wear one. You will see many longyi sellers and be tempted to buy one! (I have 3 in total now!) Some patterns are printed onto the fabric, while quality ones are stitched. Patterns also differ according to states, such as Shan styles or Kachin styles.
9. Ladies, you can wear sleeveless tops, but…
You won’t really see anyone else wearing none-sleeved tops, so it’s a respectful gesture if you will not wear them too so you won’t put locals at unease. You might get some unnecessary attention.. I actually preferred to have my shoulders and arms covered even when I’m not at temples, and just be dressed in respectable clothing.
I also saw a grand total of 2 girls wearing shorts in Yangon, for my entire trip of 6 days in Myanmar. Myanmar is the only country that I’ve been to without packing, buying, or wearing any shorts.
10. Shoulders and knees must be covered
when you visit temples and pagodas.
Make sure you’re in appropriate attire when you visit temples and pagodas. Shoulders and knees must be covered. Outside some religious places, there will be signboards that indicate spaghetti-strap blouses are not allowed. Locals are always in sleeved tops and long bottoms.
A scarf/shawl is especially handy for temple-hopping. Wrap it around the shoulders or at the waist to cover the knees, you’re done!
10. You need to pay a fee to enter Bagan.
There is a tourist fee of 25,000 kyats per pax (the prices fluctuate) to enter Bagan. This is a pass in the form of a card, for entering “Bagan Archaeological Zone”. The pass is valid for five days, carry it with you when you’re in Bagan because officials do random checks (we were checked at Shwesandaw Pagoda).
11. You can’t climb the temples of Bagan anymore.
They have locked up the staircases of most pagodas and banned people from climbing up, which kinda ruined my plans for sunset and sunrise. 5 bigger ones are still opened though, such as Shwesandaw Pagoda, from where I took this photo.
12. Bagan’s hot-air balloon rides depend on seasons and weather.
Similar to its amazing sunrises and sunsets.
Hot-air balloon rides are available typically between mid-Oct to mid-Mar only, due to weather. They’re also very expensive, by the way!
Also, Bagan is famous for its amazing sunsets and sunrises – I’d been so taken by photos online that I imagined I’ll see them for the days I was there. It was actually too cloudy or raining, so I didn’t see any mind-blowing one. Till the next time!
13. The red stains on the ground are not blood.
If someone smiles at you and you reel back in horror because his mouth and teeth are ‘blood-filled’, that sight is actually from the betel nut locals chew on. Similarly, the red stains on the floor are what they spat out. Yep, you wouldn’t want to step on them.
14. Yangon = Traffic jams.
Perhaps you, like me, assume there won’t be many vehicles in Yangon. Hell no. We were constantly in frustrating, traffic jams. Motorbikes have been banned in Yangon since 2003, so there are a lot of cars and buses. When you’re caught in jams, you will see youngsters walking past your car on the road, trying to sell you food or drinks.
Tip: Buffer enough time to get to the overnight bus terminal or the airport.
15. A torchlight will save you peace of mind.
Blackouts are very common, even in Yangon. You really wouldn’t want to be caught in pitch black darkness, while using the toilet during a bus break in the middle of nowhere, just an example (we saw it happen). Nor walk back to your hotel along roads with no lights (which I discovered to be very common). There are some relics and fading murals in Bagan’s dim pagodas which you can see better with a torchlight.
16. Bring your medication & essentials.
Like visiting any developing country in SE Asia, it will be good to have your own medicine with you, because medicine, and all the things we’re used to in the modern city, might not be easy to obtain in Myanmar, especially in the outskirts. I drink Vitamin C every night for a boost. I also brought paracetamol, charcoal pills, gastric pills and essential oils.
Hopefully, the information in this will be useful for planning a trip to Myanmar! Share your excitement with me if you’re visiting this country soon!
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Visited: Sep 2016
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