In 2011, after 15 years of a tourism boycott to avoid aiding the oppressive military junta, Myanmar opened its doors to visitors. The country, now with a democratically elected government, is improving its tourism infrastructure but still struggles to cope with the huge influx of visitors.
If you're thinking of backpacking Myanmar, these tips will help you maximise your stay in this culturally rich nation with some of the most hospitable people you’re ever likely to encounter.
1. Book ahead
Although new hotels are popping up at an increasing rate, there is still a shortage of accommodation in the most popular destinations in Myanmar.
Standards are generally lower and prices higher than in other Southeast Asian countries, so be prepared so spend a little extra and do some research to find recommended places.
Dorms are sometimes available, and range from about $10–20. Low-key guesthouse rooms go for $15–30 (though the lower end is usually fairly shabby), while mid-range hotel rooms go for anything from $50–100.
Especially in high season (October to March), it’s a good idea to book well in advance to get the best options, and bring the reservation paperwork with you. You’ll lose some of the spontaneity of backpacking, but it’s worth it to get a comfortable night’s sleep.
2. Earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones are essential
Trains in Myanmar are very slow. Buses are faster and cheaper, but bear in mind that music videos, romantic films or drama-fuelled soap operas will be blared out at maximum volume from the on-board TV. While the other passengers may find it tremendously entertaining, you might feel differently; invest in some noise-cancelling headphones or proper wax earplugs to keep your sanity.
3. Travel by boat
If you choose to take a domestic flight, note that it’s cheaper to book through agencies once you’re in Myanmar than from outside the country. Buses may be the fastest mode of transport after flying, but they are also bumpy, noisy and often uncomfortable.
Boat routes conveniently connect some major destinations and allow tourists to travel in peace and see a slice of rural life on the riverbanks. Popular routes include Mandalay to Bagan, Yangon to Ngwe Saung and Dawei to Kawthaung/Ranong.
4. Be aware of no-go zones
Conflicts between different armed ethnic groups in northern Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states means that parts of those regions are out of bounds for tourists. There have been armed clashes in the areas bordering Thailand, Laos and China, so take extra care in those areas.
Permits are available for some restricted areas, but you need to apply at least a month in advance with authorised tour agents. See myanmartourism.org for up-to-date regional info and a list of tour operators.
5. Bring cash
ATMs are appearing in more cities and touristy areas, but you shouldn’t rely on being able to withdraw cash wherever you go (plus there’s a $5 fee on top of whatever your bank charges you), so bring plenty of US dollars. You can easily change dollars to kyat once you arrive.
Food, drink and transport are paid for in kyat, while either currency can be used for more expensive services such as hotel rooms, treks and tours.
More upmarket hotels typically have credit card machines, and banknotes have to be in absolutely pristine condition – dollar bills with marks, folds or tears won’t be accepted.
6. BBQ it
You may find that Burmese food doesn’t quite match up to that of its neighbours: it can lack the freshness and inventiveness of Thai cuisine, and the depth and variety of flavour of Indian curries.
That’s not to say finding a decent meal is impossible, but – much like accommodation – you should do your research to find the tastiest places to eat.
A dependable, easy and popular option is to go to food stalls serving an array of different meat, fish and seafood, which you select, drop into a basket and hand over to be grilled right in front of you. Yangon’s 19th Street and the night market in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake, both have plenty of fresh, appetizing choices.
7. Don’t rely on wifi
Wifi in Myanmar is very limited. Even in upmarket hotels, connections are often patchy and very slow. Since 2014, however, SIM cards have become much more affordable, and buying one means you can use 3G relatively cheaply.
However, don’t expect to find 3G coverage everywhere. Taking a guidebook with you is essential to make sure you’re never without accommodation and eating options, and you can find your way around without the internet.
8. Burma or Myanmar? Know your names
The military junta renamed the country Myanmar in 1989, on the basis that Burma was a colonial name. Some countries still officially call it Burma, and even the co-ruling party, the National League for Democracy, prefer Burma. However, on a day-to-day basis you’ll find most local people call it Myanmar. While visiting, you can use both interchangeably.
9. Think before you speak
The first democratically elected government came into power in early 2016, after decades of military rule. However, the military still hold around a third of the seats in government, and the country still has a long way to go before people can freely express their views without fear of retribution. Discussing politics with Burmese citizens remains a delicate issue and people still fear it will get them into trouble.
On the other hand, engaging people in conversations about their lives in general and how the country is rapidly changing – without directly asking about politics – is a great way to get a better understanding of modern life and culture in Myanmar.
The Burmese people are exceptionally welcoming, warm and friendly; don’t miss the opportunity to get to know your hosts while you’re there.