Before travelling to Burma, I dutifully read through my guidebook to ensure I was prepared and listened to my travel agent (I rarely use an agent to book my travel, but I was working so much before I left I didn’t have time to plan my trip so I used an agent to book hotels and transport for me). Having now visited, it is clear to me that the Myanmar’s tourism landscape is changing at a rate of knots, so much so that no guidebook or agent could keep up. So I thought I would give some useful tips for anyone thinking of travelling to Myanmar, based on my experience.
Money, Money, Money
The thing that I was most worried about in Myanmar was the money situation. Outdated guidebooks say a few things:
1. You must have crisp new US$ notes only : This is partially true. Ripped and badly damaged notes won’t be accepted, but I had some bends in mine, and one had a scribble on it and I had no issue exchanging it for Kyat. None of my notes were inspected with a fine tooth comb either.
2. The exchange rate at banks and the airport are bad : This is no longer the case. I received 981 Kyat to the US$1 at the airport, which was the best rate I found all over Burma. Banks all gave me a similar rate, and the rate didn’t seem to be any different in Yangon then further north in places like Mandalay or Inle Lake. The bank rates that I found were:
US$100 note – 980 Kyat for US$1
US$50 note – 960 Kyat for US$1
US$5,10 & 20 note – 940 Kyat for US$1
US$1 &2 note – 920 Kyat for US$1
Euro – 1,349 Kyat for EUR1
SGD – 781 Kyat for SGD1
The rates at hotels were about 900 Kyat for US$1. I was also approached on the street in Yangon near the market and offered 1000 Kyat for US$1, but it felt like a dodgy transaction so I didn’t proceed.
I was also told that some government places wouldn’t accept Kyat, and therefore small US$ notes were required. This wasn’t the case, and I had no issue paying in Kyat everywhere (exchange rate used was usually about 1000 Kyat to the US$1).
3. Prices are Escalating at a Rate of Knots : Whatever price your guidebook says, at least double it or more! Prices are constantly increasing in Myanmar, especially in Yangon. That said, I still found Burma cheaper to travel in than India, so it is certainly a cost-effective place to visit.
4. There is no internet in Myanmar
I was actually looking forward to an imposed internet break, but found that WiFi was widely available in Burma. All my hotels had free WiFi, as did many restaurants (mid-range ones) and cafes. There was still no global roaming available on my phone, but I could check into Facebook and let everyone know I was fine. But yes, the internet was incredibly slow!
5. Myanmar is Unsafe for Women
The agent that booked my hotels kept telling me how dangerous Myanmar was for single women. They aren’t used to seeing women on their own, and it was not advisable for me to be anywhere alone. I relented and agreed to spend a bit more on accommodation on transport because of these warnings. In retrospect I don’t believe I needed to.
Burma is certainly safer for women than India, although the same rules of careful travel apply. It is important to dress conservatively, it is a Buddhist country after all. You will get strange looks, but they are more expressions of amusement rather than anything sinister. For example I went jogging in Bagan and Inle Lake, and found I was the subject of much amusement of the local monks and shopkeepers (both men and women). But looked at me strangely (as if I was insane) and then went on with their daily business. I get far more perverted looks when I walk down the street in India on an average day.
People on public transport (I did two long distance bus trips) were polite and helpful, but no one tried to hit on me or ask me personal questions. Overall I felt quite comfortable travelling solo in Myanmar.
6. Buddha is Sacred
Buddha is everywhere in Burma, the countryside is dotted with golden peaked pagodas and huge statues of Buddha. I was most dismayed to find Buddha was not always sacred though; an ugly ATM had been installed in the middle of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the most sacred temple in the country.
7. Don’t Forget Your Airport Gate
I took a couple of flights in Myanmar, and no matter how big the airport looks, you don’t need to worry about remembering your gate number. In Mandalay, there were about 8 gates, but everyone was put in one large room and flights were yelled out by ground staff. No screens, no intercom calls and certainly no schedule. You can turn up on time for your flight, but they will all take off whenever the ground staff feel like it and in any order… or so it seems!
8. That Song Sounds Familiar
Make sure you listen to the radio when you are in Burma. Listen carefully, because while the words are all Burmese, the tunes are not. Everything on the radio seemed to be a Burmese cover version of a popular tune from the last 4 decades. I heard everything from Pink to Jefferson Airplane. I dare you not to sing along!
9. Myanmar is Poor Country
This one is true. Burma is clearly a poor country, but this doesn’t mean that it is dilapidated or filthy. To the contrary, I found Burma to be quite clean and well maintained (but my perspective may be skewed as Bombay is my reference point). I was never terrified of going to a public toilet in Myanmar, which is a huge relief on those long distance bus rides.
I absolutely loved seeing Myanmar, and I can’t recommend it enough. But don’t wait too long, because I am sure it won’t be long before the country is over-run with tourists.