Last updated February 2013
As Myanmar’s travel infrastructure is less developed than in many other SE Asian countries, it really pays off to prepare yourself. Planning ahead for your trip will avoid much frustration, your expectations will likely match the reality better than without preparing yourself, and the experience will almost surely be more rewarding and meaningful for both you and the people in Myanmar. It is a good idea to allow plenty of time for your itinerary as Myanmar is a ‘slow travel’ destination. If you approach the country and its people with an open mind and a respectful attitude, Myanmar’s beauty will certainly reward you!
WHERE CAN I GO?
One of the main issues you will encounter in your trip planning is that much of the country is off-limits to foreigners. Tourism Transparency has developed a map that shows all Restricted Areas for tourists. The map is updated each month and, in between the monthly updates, changes are mentioned in the map’s sidebar so the latest information is always available to you.
In some towns the demand for accommodation is almost as high as the supply so it would be wise to call ahead for accommodation, especially for the most popular destinations in the high season. It is best to call well in advance and confirm your reservation 1 or 2 days before your arrival. People have found themselves stranded in places like Bagan and Inle Lake without a reservation in the peak season. Please don’t assume you will find a place to sleep in remote places without checking in advance. There are very few guesthouses off the tourist path and they may not be licensed to accommodate foreigners. Be careful to not compromise people’s safety by putting them in a situation where they have to accommodate you because of poor planning. Homestays are against the law and could get the local people into trouble. It is sometimes possible to sleep in a monastery when no guesthouses are available, for example on a trekking trip. However, some monasteries don’t put up visitors around tourist centers anymore as they cannot accommodate the overflow of tourists in the high season.
All visitors to Myanmar are required to carry a valid passport and a Myanmar visa. The passport must be valid for six months beyond the intended length of stay. Visa requirements for Myanmar change regularly so it's best to check with the Myanmar embassy in your country. Visa on arrival at the Yangon airport is only available for some organized tour groups and business travelers who have a letter of support from a recognized Myanmar supporter, so it is definitely recommended to obtain a visa BEFORE traveling. If you are flying to Myanmar from Bangkok, you can easily obtain a visa at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok in one, two or three days (higher fee for faster service). In Bangkok, arrive at the embassy in the morning for application and bring passport, passport photos and passport copies. Tourist visa’s validity expires 90 days after issue and only allows a 28-day, single-entry visit. There are also 28-day business visas ($30), multiple-entry business visas, and 28-day special visas for former Myanmar citizens. Meditation visas are also available if you show a letter of support from the monastery where you intend to meditate.
This is immensely important, as it can completely ruin your trip if you are not aware of the special money situation in Myanmar. Travelers should bring their entire travel budget in crisp, new, unfolded dollar bills. This means the bills should have no creases, folds or dog ears. The notes need to be absolutely pristine in order to be accepted for exchange in local Kyats. For the best exchange rates you should have new 100 dollar bills (with large Franklin head) and 50 dollars bills (with large Grant head). Notes with CB serial numbers and with small Franklin head (for 100 dollar bills) and notes with AB or CB serial numbers and with small Grant head (for 50 dollar bills) are not very well accepted. Unlike the situation before autumn 2012, the exchange rate is now the same across the country and there is no benefit in changing money on the black market.
That said, the first ever ATMs accessible for foreigners (with Mastercard and Visa only!) have just been installed in Yangon. For example, you can find them at Junction Centre, at Inya Lake Hotel and other places. Do let us know where you encounter more ATMs.
The prices are still very low but they are definitely on the increase, particularly for accommodation. Due to the dramatically increased numbers of tourists visiting Myanmar, many hotels and guesthouses have increased their prices. Some have quadrupled their prices, and we’re not kidding. Daily expenses are low besides accommodation (guesthouses range from $20 to $50 per night) and private taxi services (usually about $100/day): a typical Myanmar dinner can be had for $1 and a bottle of Mandalay rum will only set you back $2. A five hour train ride might cost $10 and renting a bicycle for the day can be done for under $3. Most independent travelers spend $40-$60 per day for a guesthouse, food, drinks, transportation, shopping, and occasional guiding and taxi services.
WHERE DOES MY MONEY GO?
In Myanmar it is often unclear who owns tourism businesses and who benefits from tourist expenditure. We want to bring transparency to existing businesses for tourists to better know where their money goes and to patronized businesses that are engaged in effective outreach programs. Tourism Transparency is building a database of tourism-related businesses and organizations to provide transparency about ownership of business and to recommend places that are benefitting the local communities. Please let us know if you come across a great project you think we should research.
While there are internet cafes and and WIFI hotspots in the major cities, it is best to not rely on being totally connected during your Myanmar visit. Connections are slow or spotty and sometimes service is down for multiple days. You can get 3G service for $200, but the prices are rumored to go down to 100$ soon.
Local telephone networks don’t allow international roaming. You can buy a one month Myanmar SIM card at the airport or at any other mobile shop in town for a small fee (ranging from 25,000 to 27,000 Kyats). If you don’t want to rent a Myanmar Sim card, you can make phone calls from virtually every guesthouse or at one of the many public phone desks.