Myanmar Travel Guide
Myanmar is more famously known as Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient is probably know as its most famous citizen by people outside Myanmar. The majority of people are very poor by western standard but are also among the most generous in the world. Friendly & often shy. Say Mingalaba, the word for hello & watch them smile. Some areas are subject to unrest & these areas are off-limits to tourists so check before venturing off the beaten track. Always follow a guide’s advice.
The country’s fascinating traditional culture, emphatic landscape and Yangon, its charming capital make it a destination most of us will not want to miss out on.
Humans lived in the region that is now Myanmar (or Burma, as it’s mostly called throughout history, hence that name here) as early as 11,000 years ago, but the first identifiable civilisation is that of the Pyu although both Burman and Mon tradition claim that the fabled Suvarnabhumi mentioned in ancient Pali and Sanskrit texts was a Mon kingdom centred on Thaton in present day Mon state. The Pyu arrived in Burma in the 1st century BC and established city kingdoms at Binnaka, Mongamo, Sri Ksetra, Peikthanomyo, and Halingyi. During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India.
The 6th century Mon kingdom of Dvaravati in the lower Chao Phraya valley in present day Thailand extended its frontiers to the Tenasserim Yoma (mountains). With subjugation by the Khmer Empire from Angkor in the 11th century the Mon shifted further west deeper into present day Myanmar. Oral tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century BC and had received an envoy of monks from Ashoka in the 2nd century BC. To the north another group of people, the Bamar (Mranma/Myanma), also began to settle in the area. By 849, they had founded a powerful kingdom centred on the city of Pagan (spelled Bagan today) filling the void left by the Pyu. The Pagan Kingdom officially ruled between 1044 and 1278. From that time onwards to the late 18th century, there were several periods of smaller kingdoms, including Ava, Hanthawaddy Pegu, Rakhine Kingdom, Arakan and several Shan States. Ava, Pegu and sometimes the Shan States were almost constantly in war durning this centuries.
Soon after the fall of Ava in 1752, a new dynasty rose in Shwebo to challenge the power of Hanthawaddy. Over the next 70 years, the highly militaristic Konbaung dynasty went on to create the largest Burmese empire, second only to the empire of Bayinnaung. From 1760 to 1776, Burma and Siam were involved in continuous warfare. In 1760, Alaungpaya captured the Tenasserim coast. King Hsinbyushin sacked Ayutthaya in 1767, and successfully defended against China’s invasions between 1765 and 1770. The Siamese used the Burmese preoccupation with China to recover their lost territories by 1770, and in addition, went on to capture Lan Na in 1776, ending over two centuries of Burmese suzerainty over the region.
The British began conquering Burma in 1824. For a period of sixty-two years, Burma was under British control. Burma was administered as a province of British India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony.
During World War II, Burma became a major frontline in the Southeast Asian Theatre. The British administration collapsed ahead of the advancing Japanese troops, jails and asylums were opened and Rangoon was deserted except for the many Anglo-Burmese and Indians who remained at their posts. By July 1945, the British had retaken the country. Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese, some Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, also served in the British Burma Army.
On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, it did not become a member of the Commonwealth. Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d’état. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control.
The name of the country changed from the official English name from the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar” in 1989. Constant social, economical, political and natural problems have occurred throughout the last tens of years.
In 2016 the National League for Democracy won control of the government but under the constitution, the military retained a measure of power, holding key ministries.
Myanmar’s geography is very diverse. Most people live along or near the Irrawaddy River Valley that flows roughly down the centre of the country. Myanmar is much larger than just the Irrawaddy River Valley. In the far mountainous north, the climate is similar to Tibet though less severe or as cold, while the south is covered by dense jungle. The centre is a large plain, much like the savannah of Africa. On the far eastern and western sides of the country there are dense mountainous jungles where remote minority groups live. Then there is a long part of land going much further south than Yangon, where there are still island nomads living a traditional life. Myanmar shares international borders with Thailand, India, Laos, China and Bangladesh.
Sights and Activities
Bagan is a stunning ancient temple city on the Irrawaddy River that rivals almost all other ancient cities in Asia. Bagan sits 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 dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Although ‘only’ 2,200 remain today, there once were an estimated 13,000! Ananda is Bagan’s holiest temple and dates back to 1091.
Inle Lake is one of the best sights in Myanmar. It is the second largest lake in Myanmar and is framed on both sides with stunning mountains. It is a great place to enjoy hikes and the sights of village life on the water. Read more about this stunning place in the Inle Lake article.
Although not as popular compared to many other South East Asian countries regarding its beach life, there are some fine long and white beaches like the ones around Ngapali in western Rakhine State. It is still relatively low key with a good choice of budget and midrange places. Recently though, several more upmarket hotels cater to the more wealthy people. Getting there either requires flying or taking a long bumpy bus ride. Still, it is worth the effort because it still is quiet compared to other countries and has excellent seafood.
Travelling by boat along the mighty Irrawaddy River is a travel experience which is one of a kind. The best and most travelled part is between Mandalay and Bhamo more to the north. Another experience is to take the train between Mandalay and Lashio via Hsipaw, and Pyin Oo Lwin. The trains are slow & crowded but very cheap & fascinating .. like the boat trip, it gives you an insight into the everyday life of local people. The Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw section includes the famous Gokteik Viaduct.
Other sights and activities
Mount Popa – 50 kilometres from Bagan, is a peak topped by gold stupas. Reaching it requires you to go up 777 steps on your bare feet.
Kyaikhto – 160 kilometres from Yangon, is famous for its golden boulder and pagoda balancing over a cliff.
Minority people near Kengtung – Ann and Akha people, in the northeast of the country.
Sri Kittara – ancient sight near Pyay, halfway between Yangon and Mandalay.
When to go & Weather
Most of Myanmar (except the mountains in the north) has 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 November 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.
Citizens of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Philippines may enter Myanmar without a visa for a stay of up to 14 days, provided they enter by air. This 14 day stay is strictly not extendable for any reason. All other nationalities are required to apply for a visa in advance. Some additional restrictions, requirements or conditions may be applied to applications. Reports have included a need for a detailed itinerary, a detailed job history, etc. Be prepared for some unusual questions (either on the forms, or from the consulate staff) when applying for your visa.
Myanmar’s E-Visa Online is fully operational as of September 2014. To apply for a Visa you need a digital photo of you (check requirements), $50 and provide an address in Myanmar. It takes up to 3 workdays and then an “Entry Visa Approval Letter to Myanmar” is emailed to you.
A same-day visa can be issued at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok. To get the visa the same day, you must tell the visa clerk that you are leaving tomorrow. They will issue your visa later that same day by 15:30, valid starting the date of issue.
The easiest way to get the visa is to apply through a travel agency in your home country. The form is simple and requires an ID photo or two. In Bangkok, it takes one or two business days. A standard application for a tourist visa requires: a completed visa form (available from the embassy), a completed arrival form (again, from the embassy), a photocopy of the photo page from your passport, two passport sized photos, the applicable fee (810 baht/USD24). In Hong Kong, you can get the visa by applying between 09:00-12:00, and picking it up after 15:00 on the following business day (your passport, 3 passport photos, business card / leave letter from your employer or student ID if you’re a student, and application fee of HK$150/USD19).
Tourists visas are valid for 3 months. The visa is valid for a stay of up to four weeks (from date of entry), although you can overstay if you are willing to pay a USD3 a day fee when you leave. Employment is not allowed on a tourist visa, and working without proper authorisation runs you the risk of being arrested and deported. Successful applicants will also be issued an “Arrival Form”, which will be stapled into your passport and must be presented on arrival in Myanmar, along with your passport containing the visa sticker.
Eating in Myanmar is an interesting experience. The food is a blend of Indian, Thai, Chinese and local cuisine. Many smaller restaurants will serve either curry or noodles. If at a curry restaurant a metal tray will be brought to you with many small servings of different kinds of curry plus some bread and rice. Noodle restaurants will serve different kinds of noodle soup and more common the further north one travels. Many minority groups have there own cuisine that is very good and different from the traditional. 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 ever city in Myanmar, although there tends to more of them north of Mandalay. Most of the Chinese food is like southern Chinese food, although some spicier and saltier versions of Chinese food can be found as well. Chinese food can be a good switch after eating curry for several weeks straight.
If in one of the major cities or a tourist centre it always possible to find western food. Although not great it can be a good break and chance to remember home. The western food is almost always more expensive then the local food.
Typical Burmese dishes include:
Laphet thote – A salad of fermented tea leaves and a variety of nuts. It is commonly mixed with sliced lettuce, and is eaten with rice. The dish originally comes from Shan State.
Mohinga – A dish of rice vermicelli with fish gravy (orange in colour), usually accompanied by coriander and chilli powder. Its taste can range from sweet to spicy, and is usually eaten at breakfast. It is considered by many to be the national dish, and is widely available throughout the country, albeit in different styles in different regions.
Nan Gyi Thoke – A special dish of rice noodle salad with chicken sauce. It is mostly eaten in mid-Myanmar.
Onnokauswe – A dish of thicker noodles in a thick soup of coconut milk with chicken. It is served with a variety of condiments accompanying it, ranging from fried fruit fritters to solidified duck blood. “Khao soi”(“noodle” in Burmese), often found on the streets of Chiang Mai, is derived from this Burmese counterpart. It is also comparable to the more spicier Laksa often found in peninsular SE countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
On the streets of any Myanmar town there will always be something cooking or being deep fried. Most of this is different kinds of snack food is extremely cheap. Some of the snack is very good. Make sure to try many different kinds of street snack food while in the country.