Myanmar, still known as Burma to many, is fondly referred to as 'the Golden Land' because of the abundant use of gold leaf on its temples and shrines. It is a country with a rich diversity of cultures, religions and languages - home to more than 100 ethnic groups - and a history spanning over three millennia, reflected in some of Southeast Asia's most opulently adorned temples. The majestic gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the temple ruins of Bagan, and the mystical Mandalay are just some of the unique drawcards that bring visitors to Myanmar's well-guarded borders.
Myanmar is situated along the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, and its northern borders stretch all the way up to the Eastern Himalayan mountain range. It borders India to the west, China to the north, and Thailand and Laos to the east. One third of Myanmar's perimeter is uninterrupted and largely undeveloped coastline.
This scenic country has a rocky political past. It was a British Colony from 1885 until 1948, and since independence has largely been ruled by a military dictatorship. However, Myanmar has taken long strides towards democracy in the last few years. Certainly, this once secretive and isolated country has enthusiastically flung open its borders to travellers, and although ethnic conflict is still a problem, foreigners are seldom targeted.
Myanmar is still a fairly young international travel destination due to its internal politics, but its lovely beaches, incredible historical attractions, snow-capped mountains, and jungle wilderness attract lots of attention. Myanmar is one of the most authentic and unspoiled countries in Asia, an irresistible destination for travellers wanting to experience the ancient traditions of the continent.
Myanmar is a perfect destination for those who enjoy off-the-beaten track travel. The sightseeing in the country includes scenic wonders, religious sites, and many historical attractions.
Thousands of ancient and intriguing temples, each one unique, await visitors in Bagan. The floating villages of Lake Inle can be explored on a hired longtail boat to the beautiful double storied gardens. The city of Mandalay draws visitors with its scenic surroundings, royal palace complex and the Mahamuni Buddha. The Ngwe Saung coastline attracts people with its white sands and unspoiled beauty. The astounding Shwedagon Pagoda will blind you with its golden plated domes, standing sentinel over the city of Yangon. Myanmar's many bustling markets will enchant visitors and the country's sacred sites are excpetionally moving. These are just a few of the attractions that await visitors to Myanmar.
Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar's most famous sight, an iconic landmark that stands as a highlight for any visitor to the region. The stupa is covered in gold plates weighing an estimated 52 metric tons and topped with a 76-carat diamond, as well as being covered by many other jewels. The temple was built between the 6th and 10th centuries, although the site atop Singuttara Hill has been considered holy for over 2,500 years.
Also known as the Golden Temple, Shwedagon is the most sacred site for Burmese Buddhists, and is a daily focus for worship. Relics of the Buddha are said to be housed in the stupa, along with many other historical artefacts and great treasures. There are stairways at the north, south, east, and west and you can ascend using any of these, or the elevator if you want to skip the climb. The southern entrance is the most used because it rises out of the city; and the eastern stairway, although damaged by the British long ago, is popular because it leads down to the bazaars, making it a good exit point for prospective shoppers.
Shwedagon is a place of worship, prayer and meditation, and it is important to act with respect and keep noise levels down. Dress conservatively, with long pants and sleeves, and remove your shoes when entering the complex. Be discreet when using your camera. Sunset and sunrise are the most powerful times to visit the stupa.
Located at the base of steep green hills, Inle Lake is remarkable because of its inhabitants: around 70 000 people who live on and around the lake. Whole villages rest on stilts surrounded by water, rather like a bamboo and teak Venice, where men steer rowing boats through water roads. The men have adapted a unique way to row, wrapping one leg around an oar and standing with the other, which frees their hands to fish at the same time.
Tourists can hire a boat and guide to lead them through floating markets and workshops making silks, cigars (cheroots), and jewellery. An impressive wooden temple on the water is also open to visitors; bizarrely, the monks at the temple are famous for having trained cats to jump through hoops and perform tricks.
Visitors first arrive in the town of Nyaungshwe to a host of riverside guesthouses and restaurants. Boat hire can be done through hotels or independently at the town's river. Expensive hotels on the lake can be booked in advance but more rustic accommodation can usually be found without pre-planning. Depending on the season the town can flood, making the concept of living on water a little more practical than it first seemed.
The Bogyoke Aung San Market is the perfect place for tourists to start their visit to Myanmar, not only because it is the best place in town to convert foreign currency, but because it gives an idea of what the country has in store.
In the past, the official exchange rate of the Myanmar kyat was kept artificially strong by government-set rates, creating a large black market trade in the currency at a much better price for tourists. The black market has endured and the best place to change currency is in the central jewellery section of the market. To maximise the rates it is best to ask several different vendors and bargain hard. Be careful to count your money and do the exchange math yourself. Exchanging currency on the black market is risky, but many travellers go this route.
Once you have converted money the market is a great place to buy crafts, artwork, jewellery or antiques. Popular souvenirs include Burmese cigars, and old Burmese currency, some of which was issued in the curious but numerologically auspicious denominations of 35, 75 and 90 kyat notes. Bogyoke Aung San Market is open daily from about 9am to 5pm and is centrally located in downtown Yangon. Locals will be happy to direct you if you get lost.
Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate and three seasons: the very hot summer from March to May; the wet and humid monsoon from May to October; and the cold, dry winter from November to February. During the long rainy season it can rain almost daily, and typhoons occasionally occur in Myanmar between April and October. There is less rainfall in the interior than on the coast. It is a hot country, and the average daily temperatures usually reach around 86°F (30°C) in the hot months, while the evenings are slightly cooler. During the winter season, average temperatures are around 77°F (25°C) with evening temperatures dropping to 59°F (15°C). Coastal areas are usually much more humid, but slightly cooler overall. The hottest and driest months are March and April, when temperatures can rise as high as 110°F (43°C), with high humidity thrown in. Visitors should note that climate in Myanmar varies according to altitude and can be quite changeable.
The best time to visit Myanmar is between November and February, which allows you to miss the rainy monsoon season and the worst of the heat, which can be extremely oppressive.
The official currency is the kyat (MMK) - pronounced 'Chat'. The best foreign currency to travel on in Myanmar is the US dollar, but it is less of an alternative currency than it once was. Notes will not be accepted if they are damaged or torn in any way, or have pen marks on them.
There is a big difference between the official and unofficial exchange rates in Myanmar, with street moneychangers offering more favourable rates than official channels. It's risky to change money with people on the street, though many tourists do.
ATMs accepting international credit cards are increasingly common in cities, towns and tourist areas, but machines don't always work in areas that are off the beaten track.
Burmese is the official language, yet English is widely spoken and understood.
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. European plugs with two circular metal pins are most common.
US nationals: US citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
UK nationals: British citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
AU nationals: Australian citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
ZA nationals: South African citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
IR nationals: Irish citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
NZ nationals: New Zealand citizens must have a passport that is valid for at least six months beyond the date of their arrival in Myanmar. A visa is required.
All foreign passengers to Myanmar must hold confirmed return/onward tickets, and the necessary travel documentation for their next destination. They will also require a tourist visa, which is valid for 28 days. Note that applications for visa extensions are not possible once in Myanmar; however, a fine of USD 3 per day overstayed, can be paid at Immigration upon departure. Note that a yellow fever vaccination certificate is required to enter Myanmar, if arriving within six days of leaving or transiting through an infected area. NOTE: It is highly recommended that your passport has at least six months' validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
Vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B are recommended for all travellers. Malaria is common in Myanmar, especially during the rainy season (May to October) and visitors are usually encouraged to take anti-malaria medication, although there is no danger if you are only visiting the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Travellers from yellow fever infected areas require a vaccination certificate to enter Myanmar. If you will be spending a lot of time outdoors in rural areas you should also consider getting vaccinated for rabies and Japanese encephalitis.
The tap water should not be drunk but bottled water is available throughout the country.
There are basic medical facilities in Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay, but in general medical facilities in Myanmar are poor and evacuation is recommended for serious medical cases. Payment in cash is usually required before any treatment. Comprehensive medical insurance is advised.
The Burmese offer their help freely and genuinely, and don't expect much in return, though gratuity is greatly appreciated. Tipping 10 percent on a meal is considered quite generous. Porters, drivers and tour guides expect a small tip.
Due to the ongoing risk of armed conflict, travellers are advised to avoid some parts of Myanmar, including most of the states of Rakhine and Kachin and the north of the state of Shan. Special care should be taken in border areas; there are only a handful of legal crossing points. While Myanmar does boast one of the lowest crime rates in the world, violent political protests are still common and should be avoided at all costs. Visitors are also advised not to take any photographs of the police, military, or demonstrations.
The monsoon season is June to September in the southwest of Myanmar and December to April in the northeast, and flooding may occur. Severe weather often also precedes monsoon season.
It is rude to step over any part of a person or touch an adult on the head, and hugging and kissing in public is frowned upon. Most Burmese families don't wear shoes in their homes and if visiting it is advised to remove shoes before entering the house. Monks should be treated with respect, even if they are children, and women should not speak to or touch monks. Religion practices, beliefs and sites should be treated with respect; insulting religion is a prosecutable offense in Myanmar. Homosexuality is technically illegal but the law is seldom enforced.
Business hours are generally 9am to 5pm from Monday to Friday. Lightweight suits are recommended during the day and jackets are needed for top-level meetings. Most commercial business transactions will be conducted in English. Business cards in Burmese script can be useful. It is important to maintain trust, honesty, and friendship in a business relationship. Favours received, such as a reference, should be repaid later in the future.
The international dialing code for Myanmar (Burma) is +95. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code. Most businesses in the country list a few numbers, as landlines often go dead and calls don't go through. Prepaid SIM cards are widely available and travellers can expect to find wifi in big cities, where most hotels and guesthouses, and some restaurants will usually offer it for free. The government has been known to monitor and censor internet usage and some websites may not be available.
Two litres of liquor, 400 cigarettes, 50 cigars or 250gm of tobacco, and 150ml of perfume are allowed per person. Valuables including jewellery, cameras, electronic equipment, etc, should be declared at customs upon arrival. Purchases of locally bought goods may require receipts upon departure.
Ministry of Hotels and Tourism: www.tourism.gov.mm/
Embassy of Myanmar, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 332 3344.
Embassy of Myanmar, London, United Kingdom (also responsible for Ireland): +44 (0) 20 7499 4340.
Embassy of Myanmar, Ontario, Canada: +1 613 232 9990.
Embassy of Myanmar, Canberra, Australia (also responsible for New Zealand): +61 (0)2 6273 3811, 6273 3751.
Embassy of Myanmar, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 341 2557/2556.
United States Embassy, Yangon (Rangoon): +95 1 536 509.
British Embassy, Yangon (Rangoon): +95 1 370 865.
Canadian Embassy, Yangon (Rangoon): +95 1 384 805.
Australian Embassy, Yangon (Rangoon): +95 1 230 7410.
South African Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand (also responsible for Myanmar): +66 2 659 2900.
New Zealand Embassy, Yangon (Rangoon): +95 1 230 6046.
The shining jewel of Yangon's many attractions is Shwedagon Pagoda, the golden temple visible throughout the city and an iconic sight emblematic of the country and its strong Buddhist influence. Other major attractions include the 2,200-year-old Sule Pagoda, Little India and Chinatown, and the vibrant night markets including Bogyoke Aung San Market, which is also arguably the best place to exchange money. Inle Lake is lined with gardens and luxurious villas, providing a cooling distraction at sunset, when locals and visitors can enjoy the views. Other popular attractions in Yangon include the Taukkyan War Cemetery, a beautifully maintained graveyard and memorial to those who died fighting the Japanese is World War II, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery, and the Kyaikto, or Golden Rock, which is a glorious landmark.
The city has seen a big increase in tourists recently, and infrastructure is improving to accommodate visitors. Hopefully Yangon won't lose its charm and off-the-beaten track appeal as it becomes more popular.
Bagan is an ancient city dating back to the 9th century that was home to the first kingdom of a unified Myanmar. A seemingly impossible collection of thousands of temples and monuments scattered over a vast plain, the buildings range in condition from ruined to resplendent, although many retain the power and majesty their devout designers intended. Most of the structures were built between the 11th and 12th centuries, when Bagan was the capital of the First Burmese Empire. Regrettably, many temples have suffered under the government's poor attempts at restoration, but others have been well preserved by organisations like UNESCO.
The temples can best be viewed via bicycle, which allows for independent exploration as bike trails link all the temples. This attraction still feels relatively undiscovered and allows visitors to feel that they are the only ones exploring a temple. Each is thoroughly unique so visitors can spend days exploring and remain enthralled. Sunset is prime time in Bagan, as locals and visitors alike head for the highest temples to enjoy the magnificent sunsets over the stupa-dotted plain. Another popular way of seeing the temples is from the air, in a hot air balloon.
Ngwe Saung is one of the most laid-back places in the country, where visitors can unwind along a gorgeous, 10-mile (15km) stretch of palm-lined beach. A small touristy village has materialised on the beach's parallel road, with craft stalls selling cheap trinkets and delicious seafood. At low tide a small island appears which you can walk to and around.
Package tours can arrange transport and hotel, but the beach is easy to get to from Yangon without pre-arrangement. The bus station next to Yangon's train station sells tickets for the five to six hour ride to the lovely coast. However, passengers should be wary of being passed off to smaller buses and charged again. Ngwe Saung is a popular excursion from Yangon, and many choose to stay one or two nights to enjoy the lovely beaches.
Mandalay is Myanmar's second-largest city and the former royal capital of the Burmese kingdom. A good place to start a visit is to hike up the 780-foot (240m) stairwell to the top of Mandalay Hill, a holy site with an ornately decorated temple with a Buddha statue overlooking the former capital city and far-reaching flatlands. Dominating the city's centre are the 150-year-old palace grounds of King Mindon and King Thibaw, with an adjacent temple and surrounding moat. For local travellers the Mahamuni Buddha is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists in Myanmar.
Aside from sightseeing, shopping is Mandalay's major pastime. A jewel market, where visitors can watch craftsmen shape gems, is worth a visit. Crafts such as monk's umbrellas, gold leaf, ornate furniture, and lacquer-ware are made and sold within the city. Motorbike taxis are available, as are trishaws, which are traditionally used in rural Myanmar.
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