Tips for first-time travellers to Myanmar

Myanmar is a fantastic country! I can’t say it enough to go and visit now, if not sooner! Here we’ve put together our top tips for first-time travellers to the country – what you need to know, how much it costs, how to get between cities and very importantly (in our opinion) the food situation.

Where to go

We travelled to four different places in Myanmar:

  • Yangon – former capital, largest city in Myanmar with lots of shrines and things to see and do. It’s very busy and there can be a lot of traffic. Considering it’s a huge city it’s very cheap here! You have to go to the Shwedagon Pagoda and spend a few hours there.
  • Bagan – Ancient city of a thousand open temples that you can enter and climb at your will for sunrise/sunsets. Made up of three areas: Nyuang Shwe, Old Bagan, New Bagan.
  • Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) – Cool tourist town where you can take a boat trip out to Inle Lake and see floating markets, houses on stilts, silk makers, long-neck Kyan tribespeople and Hpaung Daw Oo pagoda – a notable Buddhist site.
  • Ngapali beach – Small strip of land bordered by rainforests and the sea. Lots of high-end hotels on the South End but cheaper resorts and guest houses in the North, near Thandwe airport. There are palm trees lining every road, loads of small local restaurants, amazing seafood, gorgeous empty beaches and traditional fishing villages.

Other places I would have liked to see if we had more time: Mandalay in the North of the country, Naypyidaw the new capital, Bago for its religious sites, Kalaw, Amarapura.

How to get there and get around

To save time, we flew three times domesticaly, rather than taking 8+ hour bus journeys across the country.  Although it was quite expensive to fly (more info below), it saved us a lot of time and stress because the country is so big and we only had 8 days there.

We took one overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan at the start of the trip that was fine. It was 10 hours but we slept through most of it and the coach was comfortable enough.

In the cities themselves, there are lots of means of transport available. In Yangon it’s cheap enough to take taxi’s around the city at a maximum 3k kyats (£1.70) per journey.

In Bagan we hired an E-bike which was definitely the best way to get around quickly and freely. We paid 6k per day (£3.50) from a local stall outside our hotel and the battery lasted two full days with no problems at all. Also there is space under the seat where you can store your bag, suncream, water etc as you don’t want to carry that around in the heat. The city is far too big to see it all on a bicycle, and the sand roads to the temples are not suitable for bicycles.

In Nyuang Shw/Inle Lake there are free bicycles at most of the hotels, so you can cycle around the town and out to the villages and sights. Tourists are not allowed legally to have E-bikes/mopeds, which I think is a good thing for the pollution levels, considering the main economy comes from boat trips on the lake and the boats did not look energy efficient!

In Ngapali, again there were free bikes from the hotels, but if you want to see the whole area it’s better to take an E-bike. We took one from a local seller for 6k (£3.50) for half a day.

Costs

Learn to haggle, and haggle a lot! Take is casually and have fun and it will help you to save money – you won’t offend people, it’s the culture of south east asia). Generally, remember that most items are very cheap to make and the people are trying to make a profit, so I usually half the first number they give you and start the haggle from there. This goes for taxi’s, souvenirs and mostly everything on the street.

  • Flights – domestic flights range between £65-80 each. All together we paid approximately £430 for all of our inter-travel for two of us. For our trip, we thought it was worth paying for a 45 minute flight rather than pay £20 each for a 10 hour bus journey, losing you half a day. If you can, it’s worth enquring at your hotels for airport transfers if you are flying – as most hotels offer this.
  • Buses – its possible to take buses between each main tourist destination at around £18 per person per journey. We only took one so I’m not too sure what they are like or prices.
  • Taxis – vary between places. Always haggle the price before you get in the taxi and if possible know how far it is you’re going so you can wage the prce accordingly. We learnt this in Ngapali when we took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, which turned out to be 2 minutes away – and stupidly paid our sly driver 3,000k when we could have walked! Taxi costs from the airports we visited are below:Yangon Intl Airport to downtown (40 mins) – 8,000k (£5)
    Bagan bus station to New Bagan (20 min) – 30,000k (£18 – worth grouping together with other tourists to split the cost!)
    New Bagan to Nyaung U Airport (20 mins) – 6,000k (£3.50)
    Heho Airport to Inle Lake (45 min) – 25,000k (£15 – again worth grouping with others) If you talk with the driver they will offer you a discount on your return to the airport for 15,000k (£9)
  • Food – again varies between area. All of these prices are for two people. You can expect to pay around 4,000k (£2) for breakfast (if your hotel doesn’t provide) 7,000k (£4) for lunch and 15,000k (£9) for dinner. Maximum £15 per day for two, including drinks.
  • Hotels – varies. We paid £22 per night in Bagan, £55 per night in Nyaung Shwe and £80 in Ngapali. Obviously you can go above or below this depending on what you want. If we were backpacking and staying in hostels it would have been much less.
  • Extra costs – 25,000k (£15) per foreign tourist archeological charges in Bagan for upkeep of the temples. 17,000k (£10) per foreigner for upkeep of Inle Lake. 8,000k (£5) each entry fee for Shwedagon Pagoda. 500k (30p) charge for photography at Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda (Inle Lake).
  • Approximate total spend for two people – £1,100 – excluding return flights to Myamar (approx £500 each)

Currency exchange:

We found it almost impossible to get the local currency (kyats) outside of the county. It’s best you take US dollars and change it at the airport when you get there. If you wait to change dollars at a local shop or hotel, the exchange rates can vary massively. In March 2017 the exchange rate was 1.533 per $1 or £1.68 per 1kyat. Make sure you take enough dollars for your whole trip as we were unable to withdraw cash at all. Inform your bank before you travel so they don’t block your cards. Luckily H found this out before I left for Myanmar, and managed to borrow from his colleagues in the meantime, or we could have had a big problem. Some things to note – the local people are quite funny about dollars being dirty, ripped or folded so keep them in good condition. Also ask for the biggest bills you can get as you get a much better rate for 100 and 50 dollar bills, and it goes down for 20 and 10 notes! The Burmese kyats are not very strong at the moment so it’s worth bearing in mind that you will get big piles of money when exchanging from dollars. So keep your bags safe or split up the changing of money between destinations.

Cultural appropriation

Myanmar is a Buddhist country that is fairly new to Western tourists. Bear in mind that when you go inside any religious building you are supposed to cover your shoulders, chest and legs. I mostly wore loose trousers while I was there and tshirts/vests with a scarf to go in pagodas. Saying that – I saw lots of female tourists wearing dresses and shorts outside. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable though, let alone for the mosquito’s that got my feet and arms every day. One of the best things  brought from Myanmar was my longyi skirt – a long piece of square material that all men and women wear that you tie at the back. Beautiful designs and super comfy and airy.

Weather – We visited Myanmar in early March and it was 30 degrees plus every day. Even in the evening you could wear short sleeves. It was slightly cooler in Nyuang Shwe (Inle Lake) as it is surrounded by mountains and water. The most popular time to visit is December, following the dry season in runs from October to May.  The monsoon season is from June until early October where we heard it can rain for 24 hours of the day. The hottest time of year is between March & June when temperatures of 40°C are not uncommon.

Key words – Mingalabar (hello), In (yes), Hin (no), jazabar (thank you), chat (kyats). We found the level of English to be very good, apart from in Yangon, everywhere else we could communicate in good English with everyone we met.

Food & Drink (get ready to drink beer every day cause it’s cheap)! Food was a bit hit and miss at the start, but as we went on it got much better and we had some amazing meals! You can expect to eat rice and curries almost every day and egg features heavily in the menu’s too. Fish is a good bet as its caught fresh and local and is delicious. Myanmar brews its own brands of Beer, which is very cheap (£1.20 per bottle) and comes in huge 640ml bottles. I would take precautions for upset stomachs while you are there, such as immodium as it’s likely you might have a bad day or two. I got food poisoning on our last night and spent all night over the toilet which wasn’t fun. Take rehydration salts with you in case that happens to you and always wash your hands before eating!

Security

We had no problems what so ever in Myanmar with unwanted attention or harassment/issues of any kind. The people are so polite and will welcome you with open arms and a smile. Make the effort to talk to them and get to know the culture and their life.

 

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