Know Before You Go: Burma
First published 22nd April, 2011
Burma. Just the name conjures up all kinds of images, from glittering, golden pagodas, to despotic, totalitarianism regimes. It's a land where people regularly rub ground-up tree bark on their faces and drinking sweetened tea is not a snack, but a way of life. Before you visit this enigmatic land, you should know a number of logistical details.
First things first: you need to get a tourist visa before you arrive. Don't believe the "visa on arrival" signs, as the programme doesn't exist in the way you think it would. Yes, you can get a "visa on arrival", but you have to arrange for that first via an embassy, which means you don't really get it issued on arrival. So, you'll need to go to the closest Myanmar (Burma) embassy in person during its visa hours, fill out the paperwork that they give you and get a visa for Burma. Most people are issued a visa without a problem, but if you have a background in human rights, journalism, or any other subject that the government disapproves of, you might be denied. Needless to say, when stating your occupation, it's best to choose something fairly dull and innocuous like 'claims adjuster' or 'manager'.
Once you get your visa, you are granted 28 days within the country, starting on the day that you enter. At the time of writing, you may overstay your visa for a fee of $3 a day (payable to immigration when you exit), but this should be done with caution. Anything done outside of the official rules will cause you to be looked at with suspicion, so if you don't want to attract too much attention to yourself, it's best to stay within the 28 day limit. In addition, if you wish to come back to the country, it may be more difficult to get another visa if they see that you already have one overstay. With all of that said, though, I know of some travellers who have overstayed their visa up to 2 weeks without any problem.
As a country with no ATMs and almost non-existent credit card use, Burma is a modern curiosity and this means that you have to do a little more planning than normal.
First, you need to plan how much money you are going to bring. A decent estimate for a budget traveler is around $30 per day per person, although you can certainly do it for less and quite definitely you can do it for more. Then, add a few hundred extra dollars for unexpected costs and incidentals to be on the safe side.
Now that you have an approximate budget, you need to get the bills to bring in, and not just any bills, either. You must bring in absolutely pristine US dollar bills, preferably of the $100 denomination. When I say pristine, I mean no folds, no tears, and no discolourations of any kind. If the bill does not look like it has just come straight from the printing press, it will be rejected outright or it will be exchanged at a lower rate. So, when you go to the bank to get your bills, be really picky about them as a bad bill can mean you are carrying around worthless cash. To keep your money flat, try putting it inside a heavy book or buying a large, hard wallet.
Once inside Burma, you will need to go through the fun process of exchanging your US dollars for the local currency, kyat (pronounced "jaht"). At writing time, $1 is currently fluctuating between 850-900 kyat and this varies greatly day-by-day and even during the day. (Locals say the rate is best in the morning.) The easiest and quickest way is to exchange with your hotel, although they typically will give a slightly lower rate. For better rates go to the gem dealers in the northwest part of the main building at Bogyoke Aung San market in Rangoon. Ask if they can change money and if they can, what their rate is. If you have good looking bills, you can usually bargain with them a bit for a better rate. Once you get your piles of money, make sure to count it all before leaving. If talking to a random gem dealer in the back of a market is not your game, some travel agencies can exchange your money for a reasonable rate and sometimes they will even count out the stacks of bills with a machine so that you don't have to. Note that $5 bills are currently not changed.
Most people change the bulk of their money in Rangoon as it is easier and there are better rates than in the other cities. It is advisable, though, to keep some US dollars with you as most hotels, even budget ones, prefer that you pay in dollars. You will also need to pay $10 in US currency as a departure tax when leaving the country, so make sure you stash that away.
There's no place safer to go in Southeast Asia than Burma, which is a good thing considering the bricks of cash you will be carrying around with you after exchanging your US dollars. Crime against foreigners is practically unheard of, especially violent crime. I do know of one foreigner who had his wallet stolen at a crowded rock concert in Rangoon, but outside of that, I haven't heard of any incidents of theft to tourists.
If you're travelling alone, you may attract attention, but not in a bad way. Most people in Burma do not understand why anyone would decide to eat a meal alone, much less travel to a foreign country without a partner. You may even find that local people will accompany you when you go somewhere but this is purely a gesture of hospitality as they want you to not feel lonely.
Very few hotels offer WiFi because it costs around $1,000 just to install the line. Fortunately, internet cafes are all over the place and are pretty cheap at less than $0.50 per hour. Sure, you may spend half of that time just waiting for sites to load, but that's part of the charm!
Many sites are blocked, but if the site has an https version, it can be accessed (e.g. https://mail.google.com instead of http://mail.google.com). Gmail is the preferred email for everyone within the country, so if you want to be in contact with people while you are in Burma, now is the time to get a gmail account. In fact, Yahoo and some other email addresses cannot be accessed at all.
If you are impatient or have an absolute emergency where you need to use internet that is not slow, head to the most expensive hotel in town and pay for their WiFi. It won't be cheap (think $4 for a coffee) but it's the price you need to pay to get online sometimes.
I've never recommended making hotel reservations anywhere or anytime, except for Burma. In Burma, in order to take foreign guests, a hotel must be specially licensed by the government. As such, foreigners can only legally stay in a limited number of hotels. Now with the influx of tourists into the country, Burma's officially-licensed budget guesthouses are quite often full every day and turning people away. So, if you can, it will save a lot of frustration to call or email ahead to your guesthouse of choice, instead of being rejected several times. This is especially important in popular areas such as Rangoon and Mandalay.
The most important thing to bring to the country is a flashlight. The reasons are quite simple: electricity goes out often and the roads and sidewalks boast large holes. Often the holes lead to streams of raw sewage, so unless you feel like taking a surprise dip in someone else's faeces, it's best to carry around that flashlight. I only warn you of this hazard because I've heard too many stories of people accidentally landing waist deep in murky liquids that can be smelled across the block.
As for clothing, this might be the place to retire your board shorts and BeerLao singlet. Burma is very conservative and is the kind of country where cleavage is regularly blurred out on television. For women, this generally means wearing outfits that cover knees and shoulders, even when it is searing hot outside. For men, you have a little more leniency but if you want to be respected more, a collared shirt will do the trick. Sandals are the preferred footwear for any outfit, so your flip-flops will do just fine.
The Big G
I might as well talk about the elephant that is in every room in Burma: the military junta government. As a casual tourist, you are unlikely to see much of its heavy hand; in fact, you might go your whole trip without seeing one person in military attire. I've even overheard one tourist say "I don't see what the big deal is. Everyone seems happy here." Especially if you stay within the well-trodden Rangoon-Bagan-Mandalay-Inle route, it is very easy to get that impression. But realise that you can see only what you are allowed to see and you can experience only what you are allowed to experience. What really goes on behind the curtain lies behind walls that you can't see and in areas where you can't visit.
Talking about government-related topics is off limits to most of the people in Burma, so you are unlikely to get frank opinions from someone you just met on the street. What you will get are veiled references to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the spiritual leader of the opposition, and hushed tones about the state of their current life. Talking about the government in public is something of a local art form that you will probably not be able to pick up in your short time there. As a visitor, you should definitely not push anyone to talk about the government as it can not only get you in trouble, but it can land your local conversation partner in jail as well. As such, visiting Burma should be about meeting and interacting with people and not about learning about the unfortunate government to which they are subjected.
Also realise that some of the money that you spend will end up in government hands, despite any of your attempts to prevent it. There is a lot more gray than black and white in Burma, so sometimes even your 'independently owned hostel' is owned by someone with some military connections. It doesn't mean that the owner is a bad person, it just means that they do what they have to in order to run their business and sometimes that means greasing the wheels of the local official.
The good news is that by going to Burma, you are helping to provide some outside influence that has been missing for most of the last 40 years. Especially by going off the beaten track by just a little bit, you will be able to meet some people who are genuinely excited to see you because they have not seen a foreigner for so long.
Finally, where there is great difficulty, there is great reward. Burma is not the easiest place to travel and is definitely not a standard vacation destination. But, if you can see through the hardships, you will find a country of warm people, hidden temples and adventure that you won't be able to find in other parts of Southeast Asia.
Story by Edward Moore
Read 15 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (4)
- Burma (3)
- Cambodia (19)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (13)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (14)
- All stories
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Malaysia (6)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (59)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (29)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (18)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (14)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (15)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.