Myanmar

It’s a new era for this extraordinary and complex land, where the landscape is scattered with gilded pagodas and the traditional ways of Asia endure.

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Overview

In a nation of multiple ethnic groups, exploring Myanmar can sometimes feel like you’ve stumbled into a living edition of National Geographic, c 1910. For all the recent changes, Myanmar remains at heart a rural nation of traditional values. You’ll encounter men wearing the sarong-like longyi and chewing betel nut, spitting the blood-red juice onto the ground, women with faces smothered in thanakha (a natural sunblock), and cheroot-smoking grannies. Trishaws still ply city streets, while the horse or bullock and cart is common rural transport. Drinking tea – a British colonial custom – is enthusiastically embraced in thousands of teahouses.

In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government in more than half a century. Sanctions have been dropped and Asian investors especially are coming to do business. Modern travel conveniences, such as mobile-phone coverage and internet access, are now common. But the economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are largely confined to the big cities and towns, and large swaths of the country remain off limits due to ongoing ethnic conflict. The Burmese military continue to play a key, if less visible, role in politics. The new Myanmar is very much a work in progress.

Most of Myanmar (except the mountains in the north) have a hot and humid tropical climate. Temperatures are well above 30 °C during the day and mostly around 20 °C at night. Temperatures from mid March to May can reach 40 °C and even a bit more in Mandalay, making this time rather unpleasant for visiting most places except the mountains. This time is often called the hot dry season. From June to October is rainy season. There is massive amounts of rainfall this time of year which can make travel unpleasant. At the same time most of the more popular sights will be empty and hotels will have plenty of vacancies. If someone is hardcore loner this would their time to travel. The wettest places along the coast receive a massive 1,400 mm during the wettest months. The best time to visit is during the cool dry season which is December to February. During this period there is still warm and pleasant weather. It usually is dry and rather sunny during these months. Some places even can get chilly at night, especially more inland or in the mountains. On long bus rides bring some warm cloths for the night.

What you should know

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Summary

Surface area: 676,577 km²
Population: 50 million
Capital: Naypyidaw
Official religion: Buddhism
Language: Burmese

Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, changed its name in 1989, a period marked by massive civil upheaval. The military dictatorship that had secured control for the past twenty-five years has seen its power challenged by the popular National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won the elections that year; but the military government refused to relinquish its power and now, nearly fifteen years later, Myanmar remains under its control.

Visa

Many people believe that it is difficult to obtain a visa in Myanmar. This is true if an international crisis is underway. The easiest way to obtain a visa is to first travel to Bangkok and then purchase a visa. This can be done easily by going to the Myanmar embassy before 11:00 a.m. and then collecting the passport with visa after 3:00 p.m. The visa office remains open until approximately 6:00 p.m., although the rest of the embassy is closed

Money

The official currency is the kyat (pronounced CH-AT), subdivided into 100 pya. Exchanging FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificates) is no longer necessary upon arrival. When paying for train tickets, buses, planes and hotel rooms, most people want US dollars instead of the local currency. Many will refuse to take local currency for purchases.

Coins are 1K, 5K, 10K, 50K, 100K. Notes come in denominations of 50 pya, 1K, 5K, 10K, 20K, 50K, 100K, 200K, 500K, 1,000K, 5,000K.

When shopping on the street or in non-touristy stores people always want kyats. Therefore keep a certain number of kyats with you at all times when traveling in the country. Remember that kyats are a non-exchangeable currency which means that as soon as you leave the country it is almost impossible to exchange it. Even if you could exchange kyats in another country, sellers would likely give you the worst official government rate

The official exchange rate for kyats is set by the federal government and does not reflect inflation. The official rate is around 7 kyats to US$1. On the black market, the rate is more around 1500 to 2500 kyats per US$1. Never exchange your money in banks or the airport because you will get a very bad rate: from 450 kyats for US$1 to 1,000 kyats for US$1. It is best to change money in Yangon. Also try changing money in hotels and guesthouses or at the jewelry market in Yangon. Remember to check and count all invoices. Some cities in the north give very good rates for Chinese RMB and not for USD. In general the USD dollar is preferred to the EURO

Food

Eating in Myanmar is an interesting experience. The food is a mix of Indian, Thai, Chinese and local. Many small restaurants will serve either curry or noodles. In a curry restaurant, a metal tray will be presented with lots of small portions of different types of curry, plus some bread and rice. Noodle restaurants will serve different types of noodle soups and more frequently as one moves north. Many minority groups have their own cuisine which is very good and different from the traditional one. Groups like the Shan are known throughout Myanmar for having amazing food.

There has always been a Chinese population in Myanmar and Chinese restaurants can be found in almost every town in Myanmar, especially north of Mandalay. Most Chinese food is like Southern Chinese food, although some spicier and savory versions of this food can be found too. Chinese food can be a good alternative after eating curry for several weeks.

In big cities or in a tourist center it is always possible to find Western food, perhaps it is an opportunity to remember home. Western food is almost always more expensive than local food.

Security

In areas of Myanmar where traveler access is permitted, security is very safe. There is very little crime and traffic, although significant, is not as wild as some neighboring countries. There are still some areas with active insurgents, particularly in the northeastern part of the country. These areas of Myanmar are closed to all foreigners.

Best of all, you’ll find locals who are friendly, fun, engaging, thoughtful, curious and passionate – they want to play a role in the world and know what you think of their country. Now is the time to make that connection.

Top Spots

Yangon

Yangon, capital of Myanmar until 2005, remains one of the country’s main centers and is probably your entry point if you are planning a trip to Myanmar. Some of the region’s most authentic British colonial architecture is found in the city, and the combination with newer skyscrapers gives the city a unique feel.

Naypyidaw

Naypyidaw is the capital of Myanmar. It is located in the central area of the country, more than 300 kilometers north of the former capital, Yangon, in the Mandalay division. Naypyidaw consists of the city proper (center) and three surrounding municipalities, Pyinmana, Lewe and Tatkon.

Mandalay

Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar with a population of just under 1 million people. It is also the religious and cultural center of Myanmar with more than 700 pagodas and home to many religious texts. This is a great city to spend a couple of days sightseeing and people watching. Just be careful with outdoor sewers!

Inle Lake

Inle Lake is one of the best places in Myanmar. It is the second largest lake in Myanmar and is framed on both sides by impressive mountains. It is a great place to enjoy walks and views of village life on the water.

Bagan

Bagan is a stunning city with ancient temples on the Irrawaddy River that rivals almost all other ancient cities in Asia. Bagan is located on the banks of the Ayerwaddy River and is home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world, many of which date back to the 11th and 12th centuries.

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