Myanmar is a fascinating country that is fast becoming discovered by tourists. The people are friendly, the atmosphere is spectacular and the experience is unforgettable. Now is the time to visit Myanmar.
Following my recent visit, here are 8 things to know before backpacking Myanmar:
1. Most nationals need a visa to get in the country
Different websites may tell you different things but at this moment in time most nationals do need a visa to enter Myanmar. The two main types of visas are a standard tourist visa and an e-visa. An e-visa can be applied for online at the official government website and usually takes approximately 1 – 3 days to be approved for a fee of $50 US dollars. The e-visa is valid for 28 days and requires entry by air but enables you to leave the country by land. A standard visa must be applied for at an embassy and enables you to enter via land or air. This type of visa costs much less at $30 US dollars.
2. Hostels aren’t very plentiful
Unlike Thailand and Cambodia, Myanmar has a limited number of hostels. The standard type of accommodation is a guesthouse or hotel. This means that finding a cheap dorm can be quite difficult, which affects those travelling solo more than those travelling as a pair or in a group. Many of the guesthouses do have twin rooms that can be booked for around $20 US dollar a night. Pairing up with another traveller might be the best way to save money when booking accommodation in Myanmar.
3. Spitting is common in Burmese culture
Chewing Betel Nut was once a common practice in many Asian cultures however, these days, much of that practice has vanished; except in Myanmar. Betel Nut is like coffee to the Burmese, they wrap it in a leaf, add a bit of limestone powder and chew it all day long. It is embedded in their culture so much so that most of the men you come across will have red, decaying teeth as a result. The roads around Myanmar are covered in red stains from where people spit out the Betel Nut, the same way one would spit out Tobacco. It’s just what they do. Although the government is trying to restrict the practice, it may be a long while before it is erased from their culture.
4. It’s easy and safe to get from A to B by land
Before only a few years ago most of us thought Myanmar was a no go zone, but the fact is that the country has been open to tourism since 1992. During that time it seems Myanmar has developed a lot of infrastructure for tourists, including well paved roads, efficient buses and trains (the train is the same one that has been running for the past 100 hundred years and well worth the experience), and a number of well educated hotel owners that can help you book your next journey on the spot. Whether by train, car or bus, getting from A to B in Myanmar is very easy and safe.
5. Take the train, at least once!
Speaking of trains, this is one of the best experiences you can have in Myanmar. This old, rustic carrier will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time a few hundred years, especially when you arrive at the station and see men signaling the train’s arrival with an orange flag. The most common route is from Mandalay to Hsipaw but you can get the train from almost all cities around Myanmar, for as little as $1!
6. Wi-Fi is on the slow side
We can’t say we were surprised. For a country that only received 3G coverage less than 3 years ago the fact that they have Wi-Fi at all is unexpected. If you’re a digital nomad or a Facebook enthusiast be prepared for a challenge. You may get some average coverage but rarely is it YouTube worthy. There are a few telecommunications companies that offer SIM cards with regular coverage in all cities across Myanmar and you can pick these up on arrival at the airport.
7. Take US dollars
US dollars are used all throughout Myanmar. Every hotel and guesthouse sets their price in USD and most tours do as well. It seems the country isn’t too fond of many other currencies and changing anything but USD can be quite difficult. While kyat is the most used currency you will get by with much ease by having USD with you. Alternatively there are ATM’s in most cities but we found them to charge large fees.
8. The country is far from westernised
Aside from the odd Coca Cola and packet of Oreos, Myanmar is a far way from being westernised. Their equivalent to 7-11 is the small corner shop selling about 5 unfamiliar snacks with the ingredients listed in Burmese. Their equivalent to Mc Donald’s is a local restaurant selling local food at a local price. There are no Lays for your bus journeys or Mars bars for you chocolate fix. Everything is local and, in a way, that’s what makes the experience in Myanmar even more authentic. It’s the one place in Asia yet to be overcome with westernisation and perhaps it’s for the better.