Myanmar is a country that takes you back to the past and allows you to experience a traditional way of life. The country is vastly rural and a place where the 21st century is still working to catch up.
Once called Burma, the country is situated in Southeast Asia with large neighbors like India and Thailand. But while the lifestyle is simplistic, the ornate Buddhist pagodas are the opposite. Myanmar is known as a Buddhist country with 90% of the population practicing Theravada Buddhism and many tourists are eager to catch a glimpse of the famous Shwedagon Paya or view some of the 4000 sacred stupas. But amongst the golden temples, there is also a lush landscape and pristine beaches to invite you in for an adventure.
ကြိုဆိုပါတယ် – Welcome to Myanmar
Myanmar is a unique country because it has and old capital and a new capital city. In 2005, the newly constructed city of Naypyitaw became the official capital city. But the city is like a ghost town with just under 1 million people living within the city limits, which are the almost 5 times the size of London, England. Naypyitaw was built for the future with 20 lane wide roads that have hardly any drivers. But wehre Naypyitaw has failed to become the central hub, the old capital of Yangon remains the most popular with locals and tourists.
Yangon, also sometimes called Rangoon, is the largest city in the country and famous for being the home of the Shwedagon Paya. Other architectural beauties that are mixed in with the pagodas, include British colonial and modern architecture. The old capital has also remained as the central hub for Myanmar’s commercial and artistic industries. With new investments, returning political exiles, and tourists, the old capital puts Myanmar’s future on display.
Culture and Language
Myanmar is an ethnically diverse country with up to 135 different ethnic groups. The different groups started back as early as 11,000 BCE, which is when science suggests that early settlement began of the central dry zone. But it wasn’t until the 849 that the Pagan Dynasty began to unite what is now, modern day Myanmar. The Pagan Dynasty ruled until 1297 and social, religious, and economic reform. During this time, the Burmese language also became dominant within the region.
Myanmar also went through a period of British rule, which changed the country’s traditions. As the country struggled to regain their own identity, World War II broke out and Myanmar took a stance against the Japanese. While the British returned after the war, Aung San became the nationalist leader who fought for his country’s freedom. But he was ultimately assassinated with people guessing it was due to his socialist ideologies. But Myanmar did become independent by 1948 and while it has struggled, democratic reforms began in 2011.
While democracy was brought to the country, it still struggles to thrive. The divide between ethnic groups is posing as a challenge because people will not unite. Another issue is that the government has once again turned oppressive. There are now laws against journalists who are critical of the country’s government, which can be seen as taking a step back in the wrong direction.
While the politics are not perfect, visitors are less likely to see clashes and more likely be able to experience an authentic lifestyle. With religion as a powerful icon throughout Myanmar, tourists will see people’s faith on full display from the wandering monks, towering pagodas, and other sacred sites. Visitors should show respect to the monks and in return they will be shown generous hospitality.
Cleanliness is also important with the Burmese people believing that your head is the most sacred and your feet the dirtiest. For this reason, you will often be asked to remove your shoes and you should avoid pointing your feet towards other people. The culture is also very caring and eagerly share amongst themselves, which means that meals may be served with dishes in the middle of the table, where each person may then serve themselves.
Burmese is the official language of Myanmar, which began with the Bamar people. The Bamar people are also the country’s main ethnic group. The vast majority of the population will speak Burmese as either a first or second language. Burmese is also used by the government and media, which makes it the most prominent in the streets.
But with multiple ethnic groups, you may find other languages are spoken throughout the country, especially in rural areas. Each ethnic group may have its own dialect, which has been passed down from generation to generation.
English is the most popular foreign language in the country and Myanmar was followed suit with its neighboring countries by expanding the use of the foreign language. While Burmese is the primary language for education, English is the second taught language in institutions, which means that it is becoming more popular. While you still can’t get by with only English, visitors may find that it is more common in the popular tourist areas.
For US citizens who are interested in visiting Myanmar, you will need to obtain a tourist visa before your arrival to the country. There are no options to apply for a visa on arrival, so you will need to plan accordingly. There is an eVisa option, which can be applied for online or through the Burmese Embassy. The online option is the easiest and fastest way to be approved for your visa and the website can be found on the US travel.state.gov website or by searching for the official government website for the Myanmar eVisa. It will cost you $50 US dollars and is valid for 90 days from the date of issue. However, you are only allowed to stay a maximum of 28 days in Myanmar.
Once you have completed the online application, you should be sent a letter of approval. This letter of approval is what you will show upon your arrival to the airport for an entry stamp into the country. You will also need to be time conscious because once you have been approved for a visa, you have three months to use the visa before it expires.
Other requirements include having a US passport with 6 months validity and one blank page for your entry stamp. There is a $10,000 US dollar currency restriction for both entering and exiting the country. You may also need to check the WHO website for current yellow fever countries, as you may be required to show proof of your vaccine if you are arriving from a specific country with yellow fever.
It is also important that you are aware of keeping your identification and travel documents with you because security checkpoints are common throughout the country. While the cities are less busy with checkpoints, heading out into the countryside, you may find that officials will ask for your documents. Other places that will ask for your documents are airports, train stations, and hotels.
While the tourist is a very important part of your budget, you will also need to consider the budget for the rest of your trip too. Myanmar is an expensive country to visit and is often said to be more expensive than its neighboring countries. However, you can still travel Myanmar on a backpacker’s budget or go all out and live the life of luxury. The most important considerations of your budget are airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
Airfare will be the biggest portion of your budget, as Myanmar is far away, and you are only allowed entry into the country from the international airport. The eVisa does not give you permission to cross by land. Flights from the US to Myanmar can be well over $1,000 US dollars, but you may be able to find deals that will lower the cost to $700-$800 US dollars. The time that you travel and how early you book your flight can also affect the cost.
The tourist high season runs from October to May, which is also Myanmar’s dry season – similar to other South East Asian countries. Airline tickets will be more expensive during this time. You can also save a little money by booking your airline ticket further in advance to the date of your departure from the United States.
Once you have booked at ticket, you should look towards deciding on your accommodation for the duration of your stay. Dorm beds will be affordable, but still cost more than other Asian countries with the average price being $12 US dollars per night. In the capital, everything is more expensive, and you should expect to pay up to $20 US dollars per night for your accommodation. Double rooms will cost a little more with the average price being $16 US dollars per night. The influx of tourism to Myanmar also means that you should reserve accommodation ahead of your travel. There may not be as many places ready to accommodate tourists as there are tourists looking for a place to sleep.
You can also find luxury accommodation options like hotels and resorts. Hotels will likely cost up to $100 US dollars per night, depending on what you are looking for in your accommodation. Some hotels will cost more, especially if they are more Western. Resorts will also be expensive with prices costing hundreds to thousands of US dollars per night. Again, the places in the capital will be more expensive than the rest of the country. Though, anywhere with more tourists will be more expensive than local establishments or destinations.
While it’s important to get your beauty sleep while you travel, you’ll also be eager to try the local cuisine. Burmese cuisine is unique because it has been influenced by different ethnic groups, as well as neighboring countries like India, Thailand, and China. The cuisine can be divided in two categories based on location – coastal and inland.
Tea leaf salad is Myanmar’s most popular dish, which is served as an appetizer, side dish, or snack. The salad uses shredded cabbage and other vegetables, which are mixed with slightly bitter tea leaves. A typical dish is the shan-style rice, which is often topped with flakes of fish and deep-fried pork. Curry is also popular in Myanmar and the country has their own varieties on the traditional Indian cuisine that is based on region. Finally, deep frying food is popular throughout Myanmar and you may find dishes both sweet and savory are fried up and served as a snack or meal.
If you are traveling on a budget, but still want to try the local dishes, street food is the best affordable option. Many street food dishes are sold for less than $1 US dollar and they gave give a hint of authentic Myanmar cuisine. If you would like to eat out at a restaurant, it is important to remember that local places will be more affordable than touristy spots. A mid-range local restaurant will usually cost less than $5 US dollars per person. However, touristy places may dramatically raise the prices to $15 US dollars or more per person.
You should also know that you can save on your budget by not drinking. Most people don’t really drink in Myanmar and it is usually more of an activity for tourists. However, if you do want to drink, you can stay on budget as it can be affordable. Most drinks are under $2 US dollars but in touristy spots it may cost up to $4 US dollars.
Overall, you can make Myanmar fit your budget. Most backpackers will spend $30-$40 US dollars per day if they are super tight on their funds. A better budget would be to spend about $60 US dollars per day. A more moderate budget would have you spending over $100 US dollars per day and up to about $180 US dollars per day. Luxury vacations will easily push your budget to hundreds or thousands of US dollars per day.
How to Get Around
While some people will choose to travel with a private car and driver, most people will want to save money on transportation so that they can stay on budget. For many travelers, taking the bus is the best way to travel the country. There are plenty of buses that travel between towns in Myanmar and they are quite affordable with most tickets costing $20 US dollars or less. The buses are nicely kept and comfortable.
You can also travel by train, which is even more affordable than traveling by bus. However, the trains are not as reliable, and they can be more stressful. However, most train tickets will cost less than $2 US dollars for first class.
The fastest way to travel would be to use domestic flights, but they can be very expensive. Most flights will range in cost from $70-$130 US dollars for a one-way trip. If you can’t take the time to travel using another method and can afford a plane, this would be the best way to travel to see more of Myanmar.
Other transportation methods include taxis or renting a moped. Taxis in all forms (tuk tuks, motorcycles, and even carts) will usually cost less than $5 US dollars for your journey. Grab Car is another affordable option and it is Myanmar’s version of Uber. If you want to drive yourself, a scooter rental would usually be less than $8 US dollars for the day. If you would prefer a private driver, many cities will have the option to book a car for about $30 US dollars per day.
Walking is another option that is free and safe in the touristy areas. You can experience the local lifestyle and explore the streets more by walking, but you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep your belongings close by to be safe.
Top Places to Visit: Cities
While there are technically two capitals by the people’s standard, there are plenty of other cities to visit too. Here, we will give a brief overview of the top city destinations in Myanmar.
If visiting an urban ghost town sounds like fun, then the nearly abandoned capital of Naypyitaw is the place to go. While the government officially moved the capital to this city, it has struggled to become the seat of the country outside of official meetings. Instead, tourists can walk the empty streets, drive the empty roads, and stay in empty hotels. With very limited tourism and even people, it is certainly an adventure for the more curious traveler.
While Yangon is no longer the official capital, it still very much acts as a capital as it is Myanmar’s central hub for everything related to business, tourism, and culture. While the government may be holding meetings in Naypyitaw, Yangon is drawing in tourists with its energy and entertainment. Here, you can see how Yangon has stayed current with the times. Plus, the famous Shwedagon Pagoda is located here.
Bagan is known for its pagodas, which are absolutely everywhere. Their unique architecture helps enhance the city’s ancient mythology, while a yearly hot air balloon festival also draws in tourists. With amazing views and a beautiful landscape, Bagan is one of Myanmar’s top city destinations.
Mandalay is the place to go is you want to witness how Myanmar became the country it is today. While there is not much to do here, the city’s pagodas, palaces, and monasteries still tell an important story. For the best experience, you can hire a guide to unlock Mandalay’s secrets.
For the nature lovers, Hpa An or Kyaiktiyo is the place to go for epic landscapes awaiting new adventures. Hpa An is most famous for the Saddan Cave and Mount Zwegabin, though it is also close by to the Golden Rock Pagoda. Tourists who want to escape the city bustle, can take a short trip from Yangon and experience the beauty of Hpa An.
Points of Interest
While visiting the cities is always fun, there are also many points of interest throughout Myanmar, which are highly popular with tourists.
Also called the Kyaiktiyo Zedi, this pagoda sits on a large boulder on the cliffside. Everything is covered in gold and locals say the boulder has maintained its position because it is being held by Buddha. You will have to climb up to the pagoda and you should show respect, as this area is also a pilgrimage site for Myanmar Buddhists.
This is Myanmar’s most sacred site and it is located in the old capital of Yangon. The Shwedagon Pagoda is also called the Greater Dragon Pagoda and is an impressive sight amongst the old capital’s skyline. The stunning gold color of the pagoda is impossible to miss, and the entire site also houses shrines, temples, and stupas. However, be aware that there is a temple dress code of long pants and shirts with elbow length sleeves. You will also be asked to remove your shoes for entry into the pagoda.
If you are willing to climb 777 steps, the reward is a stunning view and close-up look of the Taung Kalat Monastery. From the top, you can see Bagan and Mount Popa. Macaque monkeys also call the area home and you will pass plenty of them on your climb to the top.
Inle Lake is a stunning location, where you can witness a traditional way of life by observing the Mon people, lake fishermen, and view the stilt houses. There are workshops that can show you an in-depth look into the daily life of a local and you can see the market. Another popular feature are the floating gardens, which locals grow to sustain themselves.
For a truly off the beaten path location, Mrauk U will take you deep into the Myanmar mythology. This ancient city was once an Arakan capital and had great importance to the area. Now, it takes a long time to reach with several boat rides up the Kaladan River. But upon arrival, you will see and ancient fortress and carved temples. With a medieval feel, you can step back in time and visit this stunning ancient site.
Get Out and Go
While Myanmar may not be as popular as other neighboring countries, it is still a stunning location to visit. In Myanmar, you can witness the beauty of culture and religion as the past is put proudly on display and merged with modern society. With amazing pagodas and gorgeous landscapes, you can visit Myanmar before it explodes onto the scene as a mega tourist hotspot.