Know Before You Go: Burma

Jump to story list

Updated on 17th June, 2013. 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.


Visas

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.

Money

Burma now has a growing number of ATMs in major urban centres, but in rural areas and smaller towns there are none, so plan accordingly.


Pack a big wallet

First, you need to plan how much money you are going to bring. A decent estimate for a budget traveler is around $40 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 930 kyat and this varies greatly day-by-day and even during the day. You'll get the best exchange rate in the entire country at Yangon International Airport. Otherwise the easiest and quickest way is to exchange with your hotel, although they typically will give a slightly lower rate. A second option is official exchange kiosks dotted around Yangon. Once you get your piles of money, make sure to count it all before leaving.

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.

Safety

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.


Burma is an incredibly beautiful country

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.

Internet

Internet has become far more common through 2013 and many hotels and guesthouses now offer free WiFi (of varying quality). A second option is internet cafes which are are all over the place and are pretty cheap at less than $0.50 per hour.

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.

Hotels

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 (in high season) 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.

Packing

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.


Locals relaxing

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



Read 16 comment(s)

  • thanks i bought a house for a poor family in pagan for 100 usd many years ago they as well as the people in the country side are extremely poor if you choose to be politically correct and not go to Burma the people get no money a better idea would be to go and not patronize [when possible] government guest houses it is a fantastic country nothing compares maybe remote non touristy parts of se asia

    Posted by sean plunkett on 10th May, 2011

  • Having been to Burma four times recently I agree with Mr Moore's comments but would add that outside Rangoon and Mandalay it can (at least in my experience) be relatively easy to find accommodation in small family-run guesthouses at local prices which are a fraction of those charged in hotels and guesthouses licensed to take foreigners. I found also that if I went regularly to the same tea-house, people in their late teens and early twenties were curious and would, albeit very quietly, ask how the outside world views Burma.Having said that I am sure I was followed for a while in Rangoon. For several days there were nearly always one or two men wearing slacks and dark glasses who just happened to be sitting or standing nearby.A little disquieting.

    Most Burmese know there is little a casual visitors to Burma can do to ameliorate their plight: just knowing that they are not forgotten by the outside world is I believe good reason not to shun visits to this enigmatic country.

    Posted by Erno Bedo on 7th July, 2011

  • can you advise the travel plan for burma last 3 years i couldnt make a trip to burma but touching other countries.
    may be this time i will travel to rangoon and mandalay.
    do advise the palces to see and visit.
    rgds/sathees
    skype-sriviknesh

    Posted by satheesh on 4th August, 2011

  • Very similar, but with more focus on responsible travel:

    http://www.ecoburma.com/choices/responsible-travel-to-burma-101/

    Posted by Chris on 1st December, 2011

  • go to the wiki travel site they have a whole lotta info on burma

    Posted by sbplunkett on 2nd December, 2011

  • Hi
    Just thought I would add some additional info on visa procedures in Burma. This is latest and updated. Might be helpful to those looking to travel there now. http://www.travelwireasia.com/901/travel-therapist-how-to-get-a-visa-for-burma-myanmar/ I found all your infor very helpful. Especially the cultural and political part of it :-)

    Posted by TravelAsia13 on 21st December, 2011

  • There seems to be alot of changes in the last 4mths (mentioned by a local tour guide), I traveled in November and found that they are now selling pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi and you can speak about her openly, however the locals still are so used to not mentioning her name that they still refer to her in other ways.
    Internet is more open, yahoo and hotmail was available, however locals prefer google and google talk, actually it seems like a good idea to use google talk as it is seems to be 'lighter' and works much better with little bandwidth.
    Also the banks started selling at the same rate as the black market or higher (not sure if due to Hillary Clintons arriva??)
    Awesome people, enjoy!

    Posted by Wayne on 21st December, 2011

  • I m a Burmese American currently living in Florida, I m so amazed by his advices that he knows more about Burma than some Burmese. All I want to say is keep up the good job.

    Posted by Kyaw on 10th April, 2012

  • This is such a clear and lovely write-up. Thank you. I am planning a trip to Burma this X'mas and it is really nice to know these practical tips beforehand. Pristine 100 dollar bills - Who knew?!

    One thing I would really appreciate is a list of hotels/guest-houses that are relatively "more independent". Any idea where I can find this information?

    Posted by Drops of Jupiter on 4th September, 2012

  • I just came back from Myanmar last month and What is mentioned is very well true, people are very much friendly and always try their best to answer my equiries. To me it is also consider the safest place to go to as well compared to the other country I backpacked before.

    Posted by ChiSao on 24th November, 2012

  • Definitely relevant advises and tips, thank you. This will be my first journey to Myanmar. Maybee there's already some loosening up compared to what's said above.

    Posted by Knud Kielgast on 19th December, 2012

  • I was in Burma in 2011 when it wasn't nearly so difficult to find accommodation, but I found it cheaper and easier to go through a local travel agent to book transport and accommmodation. I most countries I travel to I would do this mylsef, though in Burma it was cheaper to go through a travel agent (they got better prices). Same with flights. And there was little risk of being scammed - everyone was so honest!

    Posted by David on 10th January, 2013

  • Hi, we are currently in Vietnam and hoping to get to Burma at the end of March or early April. Is it easy to travel round under your own steam or book through an agent.

    I am in touch with an agent in Cambodia who is charging quite a lot for a tour etc and I reckon I can do it cheaper.

    David, can you let me know who you used in Burma to book various trips with?

    Many thanks

    Posted by pippin on 2nd March, 2013

  • Two banks of Myanmar are now accepting international credit cards and debit cars for cash withdrawals at ATM. Banks are: KBZ and CB. Usually around $5.00US fee per withdrawal.

    Posted by Eric Scheir on 15th June, 2013

  • Thank you very much that you warned me about "visa on arrival". Do you know, may be it is possible to open visa to Myanmar (Burma) via Internet like we all can do it with Sri Lankan Visa?

    Is it true about that anyone can make "visa-run" to Burma from the Thailand? As I know a lot of people make "visa-run" to Burma to continue their Thai Visas!

    Posted by Alex Cardo on 7th April, 2014

  • Do you know are there any additional (hidden) taxes, when you get a bill in hotel or restaurant in Burma? I had some problems in Maldives and Sri Lanka with this hidden payments.

    For example hotel room can cost $1000 / night, and you plan to spent this amount of money, but you'll be surprised at your checkout when you'll see $1650 / night with government taxes, bed taxes, seasonal taxes, ijusttodayinventthis taxes, etc...I think you're understand what am I talking about.

    Is it there, in Burma???

    Posted by Nick Veir on 7th April, 2014

Add your comment

Feature story quicklinks




Newsletter signup

Sign up for Travelfish Burp!

Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.

We respect your email privacy