Since the tourism boycott was relaxed in 2010 and ended two years later, record numbers of travelers have visited Myanmar, whose infra- structure, how ever, has struggled to keep pace. Accommodations have been in short supply at all levels, although dozens of new hotels are under construction to help meet the spiraling demand. There has also been a boom in domestic air travel, a consequence of the generally poor state of the roads. That said, it is possible to get almost anywhere by public transport. Some regions remain offlimits to foreigners due to the ongoing insurgencies, but these are mostly peripheral areas, away from the tourist hubs. Given the complexities of travel, it is wise, at least for those not trav eling on prearranged tours, to seek help from a Yangonbased travel agent.
When to Go
The tourist season starts in early October, once the monsoon rains have cleared, and peaks between December and February, when temperatures even in the central dry zone around Bagan and Mandalay are bearable during the day. From March onward, the heat builds steadily, regularly rising above 40° C (104° F) in Yangon and the Delta and to 45° C (113° F) in the Upper Ayeyarwady area, although Inle Lake remains pleasant. The southwest mon- soon erupts in May, disrupting travel across the country for around five months, especially in the far south and southeast. While temperatures are lower at this time, humidity levels are considerably higher.
The relatively short duration of the tourist season, from October to March, puts great pressure on hotels and other essential services in the main visitor destinations. This is especially true during peak season from December to mid-February, when it can be difficult to find any kind of accommodations in places like Bagan and Inle Lake. It is best to make hotel reservations for this period at least a couple of months in advance, and confirm your booking a few days before arrival. It is also a good idea to book any internal flights as far ahead as possible, as seats on more popular routes may be in short supply. A reliable travel agent will be of invaluable help when trying to make advance bookings.
Visas and Passports
Visitors from all countries (except for those belonging to ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) require a visa, but most can now apply for an eVisa online through the official Ministry of Immigration and Population website. It is necessary to upload a color passport photo and to make a payment of $50 with a credit or debit card. Passports must be valid for at least six months after the intended date of arrival in Myanmar. Applications are usually processed within three days, and travelers receive notification of approval by email.
Currently eVisas are only valid for entry through one of the three main international airports: Yangon, Mandalay, and Nay Pyi Taw. Travelers arriving by land must apply for a visa from a Myanmar consulate in their home country, or in one of the neighboring states. Both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur are popular places to apply for a visa in advance, with requirements and processing time usually similar to that for an eVisa.
Both eVisas and tourist visas issued by consulates are valid for entry into Myanmar for three months from the date of issue and last 28 days, extendable up to an additional 14 days for a fee of $3 a day, payable at the airport on departure.
Customs regulations are straightforward in Myanmar. Visitors are allowed to bring two liters of alcoholic beverage and 400 cigarettes with them. Any foreign currency exceeding US$2,000, along with valuable pieces of jewelry or gold, must be declared. Upon arrival, a Passenger’s Declaration Form (PDF) should be completed, a copy of which will be handed to you. When leaving Myanmar, gemstones (including jade), jewelry, and silverware bought in the country may only be exported on production of a cash memo compiled by an authorized retailer. A full list of customs regulations appears on the Myanmar Customs website.
Travel Safety Advice
Visitors can get uptodate safety information from the UK Foreign and Common- wealth Office, the State Department in the US and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Australia.
What to Take
Travelers are advised to take with them everything they may require on their trip, especially medicines, toiletries, elec tronic gadg ets, batteries, and chargers, all of which are either of inferior quality or in short supply in Myanmar. A flashlight or head torch will be useful when walk- ing along unlit roads or uneven sidewalks at night. Luxury hotels go to some lengths to ensure guest rooms are free of mos- quitos, but a mosquito net could be useful if staying in inexpensive hotels or in rural areas. Palecolored, lightweight cotton clothing is best for Myanmar’s intense tropical heat, as is a broadbrimmed hat. A robust and light water bottle will come in useful, and a packet of purifi cation tablets, for those rare times when it may not be pos sible to find safe bottled water, is recom mended. Travelers who wish to avoid generating unnecessary plastic waste might also con sider purchasing a compact pump- action water filter.
During the tourism boycott led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), “responsible travel” in Myanmar meant avoid- ing the country altogether. That changed in 2010 when the ban was relaxed, but only a small percentage of the millions of foreign visitors since have fol- lowed NLD requests to travel independently rather than with a tour operator, and to stay in small, familyrun guesthouses rather than large hotels owned by supporters of the former military government. One reason for this has been government reluctance to issue permits to potential B&B and homestay owners, which has limited the availability of ethical alternatives. However, plenty of local accommodations exist, and have significantly less environmental impact than luxury hotels. Spending money with local people also ensures more of it ends up with the host community, an issue particularly relevant at Inle Lake, where the surge in visitors has not resulted in an improvement in the living standards of the locals. Few ordinary Burmese dare articulate opposition to development initiatives by powerful interests, but the proliferation of luxury lake resorts, and consequent inflation in the price of staples, has been far from welcome.
Proof of vaccination against yellow fever is required for anyone arriving from countries in the infected zone (most of Africa and South America), or for anyone who has visited these regions less than six days prior to arrival. The World Health Organization recommends that travelers are also immunized against diphtheria and tetanus; measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); varicella (chickenpox); hepatitis A and B; and typhoid. While almost eradicated from Mandalay and Yangon, malaria is a problem in the rest of the country. Some strains recently identified in Myanmar are known to be resistant to Larium (Mefloquine), so Malarone or Doxycycline are recommended as prophylaxes.
Official tourist information is available from the state-run travel agent, Myanmar Travels and Tours (MTT). MTT’s Yangon office on Mahabandula Garden Street hands out free maps for destinations across the country, and there are other branches in Mandalay and Bagan. MTT agents can also help arrange permits to restricted regions, such as Hkakabo Razi in the far north and the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago; however, privately run agencies generally offer much more useful information and assistance with planning an itinerary, and many can also help organize permits. Go-Myanmar.com is particularly helpful, with excellent online tourist information, and a Yangon office that can organize tours all over Myanmar.
Shops in Myanmar open from 9:30am to 6 or 7pm Monday to Saturday, sometimes closing on Saturday afternoons. Markets start just before dawn and tend to close by 11am or noon. Banks work 10am to 3pm Monday to Friday, and government offices (including post offices) from 10am to 4:40pm. Opening times, however, are generally more flexible in tourist centers such as Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) and Bagan, where businesses trade for as long as there are customers to service. This includes corner shops, Internet cafés, and bars, although travel agents tend to wind up by 7pm.
Admission charges are levied at most major sites, including monuments, museums, and botanical gar dens. In Bagan, the government issues tickets that have to be paid for in US dollars on arrival. Mandalay’s combina- tion ticket covers all the princi- pal tourist locations and can be bought in kyat. Some important pagodas, including Yangon’s Shwedagon and Botataung, charge foreign visitors for entry. Photographers should note that many places of wor ship demand an additional fee for the use of cameras.
Facilities for the disabled are rare, although major pagodas and sites such as Mandalay Hill have ele va tors that bypass the stairways. Car access is generally good for most destinations, but wheelchair users will have to arrange a vehicle with sufficient trunk space. At Bagan and some other archeological sites, horse carts are on hand to aid access to the monu ments. Throughout the country, sidewalks are uneven and present a major challenge, especially in the big cities with heavy traffic.
High-end hotels, by contrast, usually have lug gage ramps and elevators. Mid-scale and budget places tend to be spread over several floors and may not always have function- ing eleva tors. As yet, dedicated disabled toilets are nonexistent.
The websites of Disability World, Mobility International USA, Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality, Accessible Journeys, and Disability Rights UK offer a range of useful resources for international travel
. Traveling with Children
Children are adored and welcomed almost everywhere in this family-oriented country. Parents traveling with offspring of all ages are a common sight at pagodas and other attrac- tions. However, diapers, formula powder, baby food, wipes, and other childcare products are a rarity outside big city malls. Waste disposal facilities are also uncommon, so consider switch- ing to reusables. All restaurants are welcoming to youngsters, although most do not offer any special menus, and much of the food may be too spicy for kids. Yogurt and ice cream, however, are widely available. Given the state of city sidewalks, strollers (pushchairs) are more trouble than they’re worth, so bring a good carrier or backpack.
With its tonal variations, Burmese can be a challenging language to learn. However, in tourist areas, most vendors, taxi drivers, and boatmen will speak and understand some English, albeit fractured and accented. By contrast, the English spoken in hotels, airline offices, and banks tends to be more fluent. When traveling in rural areas, especially the ethnic minority ones, it makes sense to employ an Englishspeaking guide.
The Burmese are exceptionally polite and considerate, and expect foreigners to behave in a similar way. Should you need to express frustra tion or com- plain about some thing, do so calmly and without raising your voice. As in any part of the world, losing your temper is likely to be counterproductive. When meeting people of the same sex, it is customary to shake hands. However, between people of different sexes it is not, except in a business con- text, where international norms apply. Men’s names are prefixed by the hon orific “U,” women’s by “Daw.” Touching people’s heads is considered highly disrespect- ful; avoid it even with children. Never point at or touch objects with your feet or sit with your legs outstretched, particularly when visiting pagodas. Bear in mind, too, that Myanmar is a highly conserva tive country and that local people may be offended by public displays of affection such as hugs or kisses.
Religious sites require sober dress. Keep arms and legs covered at all times (no shorts or crop tops), and be sure to leave footwear at the entrance to any pagoda; racks are usually provided for storage.
Finally, exercise great caution when discussing current affairs or politics. Although in recent times the regime has become nominally more demo cratic and transparent, and the press freer, criticism of the government in public can lead to trouble with the authorities for local people.
The fabulously photogenic pagodas and landscapes of Myanmar can be freely photo- graphed. People are generally happy to pose, but always seek permission first. It is never acceptable to take photo graphs of women bathing in the open. Photographing meditating monks is considered disrespect- ful. Some ethnic minorities dis- like tourists taking pictures of pregnant women, and sol diers and police may also refuse to be snapped while on duty. Finally, never photograph a military installation or vehicle.
Time and Calendar
Myanmar Standard Time (MST) is six and a half hours ahead of GMT, 10.5 hours ahead of New York, 13.5 hours ahead of Los Angeles, an hour ahead of India, and an hour behind Thailand. Myanmar runs accord ing to the standard sevenday week, but the Buddhist week has eight days, with Wednesday split into two halves. The tradi tional Burmese calendar also differs from the Gregorian one, being based on lunar months: Tabodwe (January/February); Tabaung (February/March); Tagu (March/April); Kason (April/May); Nayon (May/June); Waso (June/ July); Wagaung (July/August); Tawthalin (August/September); Thadingyut (September/ October); Tazaungmon (October/November); Nadaw (November/December); and Pyatho (December/January).
Myanmar runs on 230 volts/50 Hz and uses twopin plugs, for which a universal adapter is required when bringing devices from abroad. Electricity supplies are frequently interrupted, even in the big cities, and most hotels and business premises have diesel generator backup.