This is a follow-up post to Varsha’s first post about Myanmar on the Brokelings blog. This post more or less aims to cover the ancillary but noteworthy things you should know if you are interested in traveling to Myanmar.
This and That: All the miscellaneous but important things
How do I get there from India?
There are no direct flights as on the day of this post being written. It’s a bit strange considering we share our borders. Nevertheless, your best bet to get there would be flying via Singapore, Thailand or Malaysia. I flew Air Asia, I booked the flights with the shortest duration, albeit I was in transit for longer than in air. Flying time would approximately be 5 hours! The flight rates depend on when you are visiting the nation. November to March, I was told is the peak tourist season, as the weather is pleasant and there is minimal rainfall.
You can either choose to fly to Yangon and make your way up to the north of the State or fly to Mandalay and travel down south to Yangon. The main hubs frequently visited are Yangon, Kalaw, Nyuangshwe, Bagan and Mandalay. It does not make much of a difference where you start traveling from, it is very subjective.
Do I need a visa?
The Myanmar Government website is updated, user friendly and should be your go-to for any visa related information. About a 100 countries’ nationals require an e-visa before entering the country through identified airports, this list can be found here. It is a very simple process, you just need to enter your personal and passport details in a preordained form. Please note that you need to enter confirmed accommodation booking details to submit your form. Make sure you submit it through the official website, the formal charge for a tourist visa is 50$ and 56$ (Express).
You might be drawn to other websites that will charge you around 100$ for the same, but be cautious. I got mine through the official website, in 14 hours.
What about the money?
So, the currency commonly used in Myanmar is Kyats, the exchange rate is roughly as follows: 1 USD- 1,500 Kyats and 1 INR – 20 Kyats [Kyats (Pronounced as “Chyats”)]
You could exchange USD bills when you land in the airport. But, there’s a huge disclaimer, which I read about when I was planning on travelling. The exchange counters are very very VERY finicky about the condition of the US Dollar bills being exchanged. Even the slightest of a pen mark or a tiniest dog ear shall render the note ineligible. It needs to be crisp and clean, don’t be surprised, as I am not exaggerating! Their currencies are in the following denominations – 10,000; 5,000; 2,000; 1,000; 500; 200; 100 and 50 kyats. It is advisable as and when you get them, that you segregate them through rubber bands or packets, as it is very easy to get confused between these notes. Also considering the exchange rates, you will surely end up with this huge ward of cash when you exchange money.
There are ATMs available at every nook and corner in big cities like Yangon and Mandalay, whereas stores in Bagan and Nyuangshwe do accept cards. However, it is advisable you have cash, just in case you do not have access to a functional ATM.
Travelling within Myanmar
It is quite easy traveling within Myanmar to different regions; you can either take a bus or flight, depending on how much you are willing to shell out! I decided to take over night buses, so I would be saving on accommodation for the night. But, there is a possibility of taking trains, if you have the time, I have heard the train rides amidst great landscapes make those long hours worthwhile. Boat rides to different regions are also a possibility, as cruises are arranged on the Irrawaddy river. You can either book them in advance, or just book them when you are in that particular city. The hostels/hotels are usually very well connected with travel agencies, and your bookings can be made within a couple of minutes.
What about travelling in cities and towns?
In Yangon, it’s advisable that you download the ‘grab’ app, it is a taxi app and the user interface is good to book cabs. In Bagan, as mentioned, electronic bikes can be rented in every corner of the road. I was told, that it is illegal for a foreigner to ride a bike in Myanmar, I am not aware of its veracity. Anyway, you can find rickshaws and tuk tuk to go around too. You could also rent bicycles for about 1,500 kyats.
Where to stay?
I think there is just one answer for three places, viz Inle, Bagan and Mandalay, it’s Ostello Bello. It is an Italian chain of hostels and they have perfected this hotel management business. They organise group trips to all the relevant places in the region and go out of their way to ensure you have an amazing experience and meet other travellers. They also organize games nights, trivia night, fun activities in the evening as part of their effort to allow backpackers to socialize! As I was travelling alone from India, staying here was definitely a bonus to travel with new people. The dorms were clean, with hot water facility, air conditioning and their attendants at the travel desk are very cooperative. If you are visiting other regions, it is best you head over to hostelworld to make bookings.
What to eat and drink?
Well, well, this is definitely a toughie! One of the main reasons for travelling to Myanmar was eating this fascinating cuisine that originated as a confluence of Chinese cuisine, Indian cuisine and Thai cuisine. My taste buds and palette were quite amazed by the flavors and zest that the Myanmar cuisine had to offer. I am an egg-eating vegetarian, so you might not find this section very trustworthy. But, I did eat some mind-blowing food during my travels! It was quite hard to find vegetarian food on the menus at certain places, but it always helps if you can try to talk to the local people and let them know your food habits and allergies. They were always kind enough to oblige and cater to them!
Just like the rest of south East Asia, food markets laid out in tents are quite common and home to some amazing food. You just have to be adventurous. I do not want to pour my heart out about the food, don’t want to shed tears of joy.
But, my top three dishes were: Shan Noodles (AKA Noodles made in heaven), Mohinga (Vegetarian variant-National Dish) and tea leaf salad (Ah, take me back already!).
Almost all Myanmar restaurants serve free green tea with the food you order, it is traditional. The concept of teahouses is quite common and you must visit them if you enjoy tea. It is probably because of the British influence. About the alcohol, I enjoyed the beers, they have so many, mostly lager beer, very similar to the rest of the beers I have had in south East Asia.
How safe is it?
Honestly, having lived in India, travelling in Myanmar was quite a breather. I was extremely cautious about my money, but the people were so cordial and friendly, I let go of my apprehensions. But, you have to be mindful of your things! However, there were instances when I had dropped money off (too many notes) and people were nice enough to give them to me. They are quite humble and the tour guides that approach you do not constantly pester or haggle with you. Once you deny, they let you be. Based on my experience, I believe that Myanmar is hassle-free in terms of safety.
Woman of colour travelling solo is safe, too?
A hundred times ‘Yes!’. Myanmar is one of the most hospitable countries I have had the opportunity of visiting. From ending up in a stranded bus stop at 4 in the morning to waiting for a bus at 11 PM in the night, at not point in time did I feel vulnerable or harassed by the cab and rickshaw drivers. The people generally keep to their business, unless you approach them to strike a conversation, which they are more than willing to engage.
Moving on to addressing a more general topic, for any woman travelling, there is a possibility that travelling may wear you down a bit and affect your menstrual cycle. It is advisable that you have a few safety tampons/sanitary napkins on you in case of emergency as shops generally shut by 7 PM. You should be able to find them in general super markets, the Aeon chain of supermarkets has a wide variety but only in the city. However, finding tampons in smaller towns maybe a bit tricky.
Hope you guys enjoyed reading the posts as much as I loved writing them. Do get in touch if you want to visit this golden country, or access to Lonely Planet Guide-Myanmar (My BFF in Myanmar) or/and want a few Kyats I found while cleaning my bag in India!
After having impulsively deciding to work for the War Crimes Tribunal in Cambodia, the then hesitant Varsha has now decided not to stop her almost solo adventures especially through South East Asia. Varsha first featured on Brokelings to motivate women to travel more in our #WithHer campaign which you can read more about here.
We’ll grow and be able to share more such inspiring experiences only if you start writing for us. We’re constantly on the lookout for stories on broke-experiential-unplanned travel.
Go bond with Varsha on her Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/varshayogish/