Myanmar Quick Guide
- Population: 54.5 million
- Language: Burmese (official) (Note: minority ethnic groups have their own languages)
- Government: Nominally civilian parliamentary government took power in March 2011
- Capital: In 2005 the capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw
- Currency: Kyat
- GDP: $51.9 billion (2011 est.)
- GDP Growth Rate: 5.5% (2011 est.)
- Size compared to US: Slightly smaller than Texas
- Religions: Buddhist 89%, Christian 4% (Baptist 3%, Roman Catholic 1%), Muslim 4%, animist 1%, other 2%
- Ethnic Groups: Burman 68%, Shan 9%, Karen 7%, Rakhine 4%, Chinese 3%, Indian 2%, Mon 2%, other 5%
- Median Age: 27.2 years
- Visa Information: There are no open border crossings, so the only way to reach Burma is by air. A popular and economical option is to fly on Air Asia’s flight from Bangkok to Yangon. As of 2010 they suspended their visa-on-arrival program, so you must obtain a visa before entering the country. More information about entry/exit requirements can be found on the State Dept’s website.
US Citizens: Here is what you need to know in order get a single-entry 28 day visa valid for 3 months from the Myanmar consulate in Bangkok.
- The Myanmar consulate is located at 132 Sathon Nua Road. The closest Skytrain stop is Surasak and it’s about a 5 minute walk from there. Exit the Skytrain by the 7 Eleven and keep walking straight until you see it on the left side of the road. The entrance to the visa office is located on the side of the building. Also, don’t listen to any hagglers hanging around outside the consulate who claim they can help you get your visa processed.
- Make sure you arrive at the consulate before 11am on a weekday to fill out and submit the visa application form. Along with the form you need to make a copy of your passport and bring 2 passport photos, as well as the application fee. I don’t think we had to show proof of our round-trip plane tickets from Bangkok to Yangon, but if you’ve already booked them it can’t hurt to have a copy with you. I also can’t remember the exact amount for the express visa processing fee but I think it was about 1,000 baht/person. The express visa means you submit your application in the morning (before 11am) and it’s ready the same day after 3:30pm. I think the average processing time is 2-3 days, but we were leaving Bangkok that night, so we opted to have it processed the same day. They did ask us for proof as to why we needed an express visa, so we showed them our bus tickets to Krabi for that same night. I’m not sure if they ask this of everyone, but be prepared to show proof if applying for an express visa.
- Transportation: The transportation in Myanmar wasn’t as terrible as I was anticipating, but then again my expectations were pretty low. I read stories about people’s bus rides from hell on unpaved roads with no A/C in 110 degree heat, while packed to the brim with a bunch of nauseous people puking their brains out. They have coach buses, but they’re pretty old (the Chinese send all their crappy used buses to Myanmar). Nothing in Myanmar was as cheap as I was expecting and most bus rides were $15-$20 USD. Some other backpackers told us that their buses were absolutely freezing, so we came prepared with our long pants and fleeces, which seemed ridiculous given how hot it was during the day. In truth we never had a cold bus ride, in fact we were usually sweating profusely, except when driving through the mountains around Inle at night.
On our trip from Mandalay to Bagan the bus broke down after every time we stopped, so everybody had to get out and push it until it started again. After the third or fourth time it broke down I thought we weren’t going to make it, but we finally got there, albeit several hours later than expected. Most of the major routes are paved, but the Mandalay to Bagan route was unpaved for several hours, and I’ve heard the Inle to Bagan route is a total nightmare. The buses also leave at the most bizarre times and they often arrive really early in the morning, like 2-4am, which is slightly inconvenient! That’s how we ended up having to sleep in the lobby of our guesthouse in Mandalay after we showed up at 2am and they had no available rooms.
Like the rest of Asia, the Burmese also like to blast TV shows and movies throughout the entire bus. I had my earphones turned up to the highest possible volume and I couldn’t even hear what song was playing because the TVs were that loud. They also really enjoy these cheesy, slap-stick comedies that look like they were made with a cellphone in someone’s basement. After traveling around Asia for several months I thought I had adjusted to the blaring of “entertainment” on all forms of public transportation, but I was not prepared for that noise level. On our bus back to Yangon from Bagan, the driver started to play the creepiest music to wake everybody up as we pulled into a rest area. I would do anything to hear that music again – it was like funeral and carnival music converged into one terrifying tune. I think everybody thought they were about to be murdered. But in the end bus travel in Myanmar wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought, and it was a great way to get a feel for the people and the culture.
One of the craziest parts about traveling in Myanmar is that you will inevitably see the same people over and over again. Most backpackers will be on the same circuit as you, trying to see the “big four” – Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Yangon. I know a lot of backpackers are on the same trail everywhere in Asia, so it’s not unusual to bump into people you meet in different places along the way, but this is to extreme proportions. Since there still aren’t too many tourists don’t be surprised to see the person who sat next to you on your Air Asia flight, to be staying at the same guesthouse as you, to be on your bus to Inle, to be at the same restaurant as you in Bagan and to see them at every other stop along the way. We literally saw the same people everywhere we went that it didn’t even seem weird anymore!
- Weather: We were in Myanmar in late April/early May. I think April is supposed to be the hottest month of the year and May is when the monsoons begin. Yangon was really hot, like high 90s. Inle Lake was very temperate with days in the mid 80s and nights in the low 60s. Mandalay was extremely hot like Yangon, but Bagan takes the prize for heat. I’ve only ever experienced heat like that in India. We could only go out really early in the morning, from 4:30am-8:30am to watch the sunrise, and then we’d have to go back to our guesthouse because it was too hot at 8am in the morning. And then we’d go back out again for sunset. The heat in Bagan was oppressive, so it’s probably best to visit at a different time of the year when you don’t have to hide in the shade or indoors all day.
- Food: We had varying degrees of quality of Burmese food. The food in Yangon was excellent, but once we got to some of the smaller towns the food was hit or miss, with some pretty dreadful meals mixed in. I feel like Burmese food is heavily influenced by India, which makes sense given it’s location geographically. It’s an interesting assortment of food as it straddles India and SEA, drawing on influences from both regions. If you have a sensitive stomach it’s probably best to stick to vegetarian food while in Myanmar because I don’t think you want to know where most of the meat comes from. They have excellent vegetarian dishes with cauliflower, potatoes, curry and rice, so it’s easy to stick to a veg diet.
- People: The Burmese people have been isolated for so long, so they really enjoy speaking with foreigners. I was shocked by the amount of people who spoke english, even people outside of the tourism industry. Most people were extremely welcoming and curious to know about your travels and where you’re from. You’ll notice that more people will stare at you here than in other countries in SEA, but again this is just due to their isolation and is usually completely non-threatening.
- Dress: Women should try to dress more conservatively and not wear tank-tops. I still wore shorts because it was so hot, which I think was fine. In the tourist towns you can get away with wearing whatever you want, but if you don’t want to attract undue attention to yourself in the cities try not to wear anything too scandalous.