Myanmar is cool AF.
It may not be as popular as Thailand or Vietnam (or Cambodia or Singapore or Hong Kong or… You get the picture), but as someone who’s done her fair share of bopping around South East Asia, I can honestly say that it’s my favorite place I’ve visited so far. The people are kind (a woman I was buying necklaces from took me to her house to use the bathroom after I mentioned I had to pee) and the culture hasn’t been touched by tourism yet, mostly because it’s such a new industry.
But even though tourism in Myanmar has been open for the better part of the last decade, there still isn’t a whole lot out of information out there about what to expect when you get there. Searching for information on the Internet is like waiting for Austin Ames in a drought — useless and disappointing.
Before I went, I did my due diligence and read up on what I was supposed to know as a tourist visiting the country, but when I got there it was clear that the information, which was mostly from 2016, was a little bit outdated. The country is changing so rapidly that it’s hard for the information highway (remember when the Internet was called that?) to keep up.
In an attempt to do my part, here’s some updated information that was relevant as of March 2017. By the time you read this it will probably completely useless (I do my best, ok?) but will at least provide some type of framework for what you should bring and how you should act on your visit. Just make sure you go visit soon! Before all the tourists come and ruin everything.
1. You Can Still Call It Burma
I’m going to spare you a lot of confusion and awkward mumbling right off the bat: Even though Burma changed its name to Myanmar in 1989, the two names are still used interchangeably. The people/food/clothing/culture is still referred to as “Burmese,” and the country itself is usually listed as Myanmar (Formerly known as Burma). You’ll get used to it.
2. A Lot Of The Information You Read Online Is Outdated
Before I got to Burma (which, by the way, you can still use interchangeably with Myanmar) I was positive that there wasn’t even going to be so much as an ATM to get money from anywhere in the country. Every article written before 2016 makes it sound like the entire country is still living in the dark ages, which is absolutely not the case. It’s definitely very much still a developing nation, but they have things like cars and the Internet and cell phones, so you won’t feel like you’ve landed on Mars or some alternate universe where Facebook and Instagram don’t exist (and yes, there are geotags for literally every single place you’ll go).
3. Investing In A Tour Guide Is Worth It
No matter how many versions of the Lonely Planet e-books you read, there’s no substitute for actual local knowledge. Trust me on this one: Do not try to do this trip without a tour guide. I’m a firm believer that you can do a lot of cities on your own, but Myanmar really, really isn’t one of them. There is so much history and religion to learn about, and you just won’t get the same experience if you don’t have a local showing you around. Plus, considering tourism is still a fairly new industry, it’s incredibly difficult to get anything done without the help of someone who speaks the language.
4. You Need A Sim Card
The WiFi sitch in Myanmar isn’t as bad as the Internet may imply, but it’s still not great, which means you could find yourself SOL in a sketchy situation if you aren’t careuful. (Or, even worse, you wouldn’t be able to post to your Instagram/Snapchat/Facebook stories for you entire trip. Side Note: WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DAMN STORIES?!). I would advise getting a local SIM card upon landing for any country you visit, but it’s especially important in Myanmar. I paid around $11 for one from Telenor, which is the biggest carrier, and it worked everywhere and had plenty of data.
5. It’s Not As Cheap As You Might Think
Even though tourism is still growing, the local economy still relies heavily on tourists — most of the artisans would have no income at all if it wasn’t for the few tourists who pass through their stalls every day. Because of this, things are still pretty pricey. Haggle their offering price down to half, and don’t believe them when they say your purchase is the “lucky first sale of the day.” I fell for that, and got laughed at after the fact.
6. You Should Bring US Dollars
Everywhere you’ll go accepts US dollars, but they have to be crisp, new bills. It’s much easier to carry them than try to do the calculation to “kyat” (the local currency, pronounced “chat”) every time you want to buy something. Plus, you’ll end up getting a better deal with dollars.
7. Covering Up Is Only Necessary At Religious Sites
Because Myanmar is a Buddhist country, you’ll have to have your knees and shoulders covered when you go into temples. Anywhere else, you can wear whatever you want (and TG for that, because it is really hot). The only time I got in trouble was when I tried to tie a Longyi (a traditional Burmese skirt) to look like a strapless dress, and was told I looked “really, really offensive.” My b.