Getting to know Myanmar before traveling

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If you’re looking for a country relatively-untouched by tourism, with stunning landscapes, fascinating culture, and welcoming people, then Myanmar could be the place for you.

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Money in Myanmar

Thankfully Myanmar now has a smattering of ATMs in the bigger cities and tourist spots which means you don’t have to worry so much about running out of cash. In theory they accept Visa and MasterCard but Visa seems to be more likely to work. If you’re hoping to rely on ATMs, take both types in case. Also be warned there’s a fee of about $6 for each withdrawal. They dispense kyat.

Two currencies are used by tourists in Myanmar – US dollars and the local kyat (pronounced chat). You’ll mainly use US dollars for hotels, trains, boats, tours and some souvenirs. Kyat will be used for daily transactions like food, drinks and buses. A lot of places will accept both but you won’t get a favourable exchange rate for the one they don’t prefer.

Myanmar currency – kyat (via Myanmar Tours)

The biggest issue you will have is with the quality of your US notes. They need to be in pristine condition with no marks, dirt, tears, folds, etc. The people in Myanmar will have absolutely no qualms just rejecting them and insisting you pay with clean ones! Also, try to collect smaller notes as you go along because often people won’t have change for large notes and, once again, they’ll just reject them.

Transportation

Transport is easy, in a sense. Just don’t expect it to be convenient or comfortable.

The first option are flights, but I’d only really recommend this if you’re in a hurry. It will obviously cost a lot more, you’ll have to book in advance and you won’t get to see any of the interesting life that land transportation takes you past.

Trains are another option in many places. They should also be your last option. The trains are overpriced, slow and extremely uncomfortable. Even if you’re used to old trains swaying from side to side, you’ll be shocked by how these ones feel like they’re jumping off the track. My bag came flying off the shelf on one trip and, on an overnight journey, I somehow had to sleep while gripping on to a railing to stop myself from being thrown into the aisle in the middle of the night. Still, it’s an experience worth having on a short journey and the one benefit is that they normally take you right into the centre of a city.

Pickup truck in Myanmar (via TheSmartLocal)

Buses are the easiest way to get around and once you get outside some of the larger cities, perhaps the only way. They’re quite cheap – it normally averages out at about $1 or $1.50 an hour – and are quite direct. The problems with the actual journey are the seats aren’t particularly large or comfortable, the airconditioning is normally either too hot or too cold, and there’s often annoying loud local music playing. The other thing you’ll need to cope with is that often there aren’t many departures, so your whole day might revolve around waiting for a particular bus… and often they have a habit of arriving at 4 or 5 or 6 in the morning. Annoying.

The other modes of transport worth mentioning are:

  • Motorbike taxis: which are good for short distances between nearby towns or to outlying suburbs
  • Pickup trucks: which are good for trips between 1 and 2 hours between towns (although you will be squeezed in with a bunch of locals)
  • Shared taxis: which are more expensive but a good way to get between places if you don’t want to wait hours for a bus
  • Boats: which can be an expensive but extremely comfortable and picturesque way to get between major cities on the Irrawaddy River (the most popular route being between Bagan and Mandalay and vice versa).

Accommodation

Hotel in Myanmar (via Magzter)

The amount of accommodation in Myanmar is not keeping pace with the burgeoning tourist numbers which means there’s a chronic shortage in many places. It also means prices are quickly going up because owners have realised they can get away with it.

If you don’t book in advance you will generally be able to find something in the ‘affordable guesthouse’ range but it might not be your first choice. The hardest places to find accommodation are Bagan and Inle Lake.

Most hotels and guesthouses aren’t very reliable with email bookings so the best thing is to call ahead and try to make a reservation. Most places you stay will let you use their phone for a small fee to ring and make bookings. This is advisable if you don’t feel like wandering the streets when you arrive somewhere at 5 in the morning. The nicer and more expensive places will take advance bookings from websites.

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