A trip to Myanmar is as exciting as it is mysterious. This country is so different from its’ South East Asian counterparts, it doesn’t even seem like its in the same region. (Only the weather gives it away.) Due to the stark differences between Myanmar and neighboring Thailand, there are quite a few things you should know before you go:
Tourism has just started developing
2012 was the first year that Myanmar was open to the general public. Because the country has only the been accessible for a few years, there is still a lack of familiar global entities in the market. Its honestly quite refreshing not to see a Starbucks every few feet! Because tourist infrastructure is still developing, quite often demand exceeds supply. Book well in advance, and expect hotel cost to be a little higher than neighboring regions.
Wifi is almost nonexistent
Internet access can be quite tricky within the Burmese borders. Although you can purchase sim cards at the airport, and various top-up places, wifi access still moves at snail-mail speeds. Cell phone connectivity will vastly surpass anything remotely similar on a laptop or tablet device. Even sending a basic HTML email can be laborious. It once took me over an hour to send a confirmation email!
ATM’s are few and far between
Yangon has gone through heaps of changes in recent years, and there are many ATMs accepting foreign cards, however its hard to find the same convenience in Bagan or near Inle Lake. Similarly, in the weeks I spent in Myanmar, I didnt use my visa card a single time. Every transaction you make will be in cash, and if you can’t obtain enough from an ATM, you’ll need to exchange some. Unfortunately, any and all bills you bring into the country must be crisp, unmarked and unbent. (Yes, I’m serious) Most exchange places will refuse your bills if they have been folded or creased in any way.
Be wary of counterfeit currency
Be very careful where you choose to exchange your dollars in Myanmar. Although some places might have a higher rate than others, make sure each place you exchange is a valid exchanging location. There are many places that might try to give you counterfeit bills for your foreign currency.
You will have to pay for government vouchers
The government charges a ‘foreigner tax’ to have the priveledge of visiting most historical landmarks. Expect to pay around $10 USD to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, and similar prices for other temples in Yangon. In Bagan, however, you must pay a $25 USD fee up-front in order to access the area. Inle Lake is the same way. They will provide you with a small card as a receipt for your payment, and you may get asked to produce this receipt throughout your time in the historical areas.
You will need a visa (But can get a same-day in Bangkok!)
You will need to prepare your visa before you arrive at the airport. There are no Visa-on-Arrivals currently offered to foreigners. If you happen to be in Thailand and wish to catch a bus/place north, you can obtain a Burmese visa (same day) for approximately $40 USD. The cheapest way to get a Burmese visa is in person at your local embassy for about $30, but for a little more you can also acquire an e-visa.
After you have gone through the logistical process of preparing your trip, make sure you understand some of the more important characteristics of Burmese culture.
Myanmar people are devotely Buddhist
There have been cases of westerners visiting Myanmar with Buddha-head-tattoos deported or jailed. Other cases include a westerner who posted a photo of Buddha wearing headphones to his social media account, as an advertisement, who also received extremely harsh punishment for his faux-paus. Fortunately, the rules about the treatment of Buddha are quite simple:
Always take off your shoes
You will always go barefoot around temples and shrines, and often when entering businesses. It’s best to carry little wet-wipes to freshen your toes after a stroll through a religious monument.
Never point your feet (or finger!) at Buddha
With over 80% of Burmese people being Buddhist, Myanmar is quite strict about their religious rules. Be careful to point your feet away from the statues of Buddha (during sitting, mostly). While it is technically considered blasphemous to point a finger at Buddha, recent years have made it less severe to do so. Keep in mind that you should gesture with an open hand, palm-up, to show respect. Always take a photo from below. Try not to step in front of a praying person. If all else fails, just keep a watchful eye on other templegoers’ body language, and do as they do.
The head is the most holy part of the body
Never touch a person, especially a child on their head. Its considered the holiest part of a person, and must be treated as such. Also be careful about using the feet or the left hand to point an object out to another, as these are thought to be dirty parts of a person.
Travel clockwise around a temple/pagoda
It’s customary to travel clockwise, not counter-clockwise around a temple. Though not a strict rule, you might get strange looks if you happen to be going against the flow of traffic!
Men wear skirts
When visiting Myanmar, you will notice a lot of men in “skirts”. Local leg-wear is called a “Longyi”. Most men and women still hold tight to their traditional dress. (and why not? Longyi’s are super comfortable!) In fact, you might be required to wear one at a temple if your pants are not long enough.
Smooching sounds abound!
When at, or passing by a restaurant, you will probably hear the sound of someone blowing a kiss. This is not a cat-call, but rather this sound is used to get a servers’ attention!