Your Preparation Guide for Myanmar Travel
Part 1: Safety and Preparation for Myanmar
Myanmar (Burma) has recently become more accessible for the average traveler. While it shares the border with Thailand, it is important to prepare for the differences between the two. Traveling in Myanmar is not like travelling anywhere else in Southeast Asia. To make the most of your time there, it is key to have a basic itinerary and a list of places where you plan on staying. As Myanmar is still in the midst of developing a tourism infrastructure, if one is not prepared, your relaxing vacation could easily turn into a logistical nightmare.
Prepping for your trip
1. Don’t forget the visa
It takes about one week to get one and there is no expedited service. Myanmar is the one place that I would recommend investing in a travel guidebook, as Internet access is basically nonexistent there. Also, as it isn’t too touristy in Myanmar yet, the places recommended are actually good places.
2. Bring more cash than you’ll need
Bring enough money in cash for the entire trip, and know the exchange rate before you arrive. If you can, try to exchange some money before you arrive, though it is unlikely that an international bank will carry the Burmese Kyat. This might sound like insanely unsafe advice, but Myanmar has just started building an ATM/credit card acceptance infrastructure, and even that is located only in Yangon at this time, so not bringing cash means risking being stranded without any means to access your money or credit cards.
3. Obtain pristine USD
USD must look brand new to be easily accepted. One of my $20 bills had a slight creased corner, and no one would accept the money–not even the currency exchange rate business. However, Burmese people are very willing to accept international currency.
4. Bring malaria pills and bug spray
Malaria is the best way to ruin any trip. Take precautions, especially if you are going to be traveling up north, to Bagan or Inle Lake.
5. Invest in Lonely Planet
In Myanmar, the Lonely Planet is your best friend. I have never used the Lonely Planet in any of my Southeast Asian travels, and so when I traveled to Myanmar, I didn’t buy one. This was one of my more foolish choices, however, luckily, I had a wiser travel friend who brought the guidebook along. Without it, we would have been lost.
6. Book your hotel/hostel ahead of time
To some travelers, this might seem like obvious advice, but for the spontaneous backpacker, this is a crucial difference between the rest of Southeast Asia and Myanmar. In Myanmar, there currently aren’t enough hotels and hostels for the new wave of tourists, meaning that to ensure lodging, one has to plan ahead of time. Furthermore, Myanmar customs requires a hotel and address for your stay in Myanmar upon arrival. Plan to spend more money on hotels/hostels/food in Myanmar than in Thailand. As there is more demand and less supply, travel costs are easily double. When I was there, we paid $40 USD a night for a room, instead of $18 USD in Thailand.
In-Country Safety Precautions:
1. Don’t call Myanmar “Burma” while in the country.
You can, however, say, Burmese people and Burmese food.
2. There are armed soldiers on every block in Myanmar.
Do smile at them (they’ll smile back), but don’t talk to them. It can get them in trouble if their superiors find out. If you decide to go to Aung San’s house or any of her father’s memorials, take a bike and go alone. Don’t ask a cab driver to take you there. It will make him uncomfortable and will most likely get him in trouble.
One can travel by bus, airplane or train throughout Myanmar. All entail a reflection on your priorities in life. What is more important, safety or speed? Not supporting a military junta or comfort?
Pros: Cheap, and supports privately owned companies. The buses are timely and efficient.
Cons: The most prolonged, terrifying experience of my life. Ten hours of driving on a twisting, steep incline at breakneck speeds sandwiched between mountains and cliffs on the sides, and two other buses in front and behind. One wrong turn, and the entire bus would have veered off the road and plunged down the cliff to our demise.
Pros: Reasonably priced, supports private companies (not owned by members of the military junta.) It was my first time on a dual-propeller plane, and it flew low enough to the ground to give us an amazing view of the famous Irrawaddy River.
Cons: I didn’t sleep the night before, dreading the one-hour flight that turned out to be fine. The motto for the airplane was, “You’re safe with us.” As that seemed like a strange thing to reassure people of, I researched and found the company’s substantial history of airplane accidents and safety complaints.
Pros: Nice trains, and safe. I didn’t take any trains, as I tried to not support the military junta during my time there.
Cons: Slow, very slow. Also, the trains are owned by military junta members, which will not earn you any favors with other travelers or the locals.