In a misguided attempt to fight rampant black marketeering, the Myanmar government has an unfortunate habit of declaring notes to be worthless: this happened for the first time on May 15, 1964, when the 50 and 100 kyat notes were demonetized. On November 3, 1985, the 20, 50 and 100 kyat notes were demonetized again and replaced with new kyat notes in the unusual denominations of 25, 35 and 75, possibly chosen because of dictator Ne Win's predilection for numerology; the 75-kyat note was introduced on his 75th birthday.
Only two years later, on September 5, 1987, the government once again demonetized the 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes with no prior warning, rendering some 75% of the country's currency worthless. A new series of 15, 45 and 90-kyat notes was issued, incorporating Ne Win's favorite number 9. The resulting economic disturbances led to serious riots and eventually the 1989 coup by General Saw Maung, The post-coup notes come in more normal denominations from 1 to 1000 kyat, and this time the old ones remain legal tender... so far.
Myanmar's currency is the kyat (abbreviated K), pronounced "zhet". Pya are coins, and are rarely seen. Foreign travelers are required to pay in US$ for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel, and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are technically required to pay in kyat for most other transactions (trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.). According to the law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen to accept (or hold) dollars without a license but this law is mostly ignored and dollars are generally accepted. Never insist though because it may be dangerous for the receiver. FECs are still legal tender but are rarely seen.
Kyat cannot be exchanged abroad. Bring US$ cash, and dispose of remaining kyat before leaving.
Visitors must plan carefully and bring enough cash with them to cover their entire visit, as there's no easy way to get more without leaving the country. However in an emergency, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card through Singapore. The hotel requires a passport and charges 7%.
Never exchange money in a bank or at the airport as the rates are excruciatingly uncompetitive: the official rate "floats" around a farcical 6 (yes, six) kyat to the US dollar . In reality, the true (so-called "black market") exchange rate fluctuates considerably around both sides of the 1000 kyat to the US$ mark (1230 Kyat to the US$ in February 2008 in Yangon, slightly less in Mandalay), and dissident newspaper The Irrawaddy (not available in the country) is a good source for recent exchange rates. Exchanging money on the black market is illegal in theory, but common in practice and easy to do in markets, jewelry shops, travel agents, etc.
The currency of choice in Myanmar is the US$ though it is possible to exchange euros in Yangon and Mandalay. Outside Yangon and Mandalay, it may be hard, if not impossible, to exchange anything other than the US$.
Foreign currency (including US$) must be in good condition. Torn bills are virtually impossible to change, and the same sometimes applies to notes which have been written on, otherwise marked, or even repeatedly folded. When getting currency from a bank to take to Myanmar, request new notes. Some US$100 bills with certain serial number prefixes (especially "CB") are sometimes regarded as suspect due to past counterfiet notes with that pefixes was circulated, so it may be better to take US$50 or smaller denominations.
It is best to bring a mix of US$ denominations when visiting Myanmar. A few $100 bills, a few $50 bills, a few $20 bills, and a few $1, $5, and $10 bills. Money changers will usually not change 20, 10, 5, and 1 dollar bills, but they are useful to pay for entry fees and transportation.
What to buy
- Precious stones Myanmar is a significant miner of jade, rubies, and sapphire (the granting of a license to the French over the ruby mines in Mogok were one of the causes leading to the Third Burmese War) and these can be obtained at a fraction of what it would cost in the West. Be warned, however, that there are a lot of fakes for sale amongst the genuine stuff and, unless you know your gems, buy from an official government store or risk being cheated. Bogoyoke Aung San Market in Yangon has many licensed shops and is generally as safe place for the purchase of these stones.
- Lacquerware A popular purchase in Myanmar is lacquerware, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. Beware of fraudulent lacquerware, though, which is poorly made, but looks authentic. (As a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality and the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality.)
- Tapestries Known as kalaga, or shwe chi doe, there is a long tradition of weaving tapestries in Burma. Burmese tapestries are decorated with gold and silver thread and sequins and usually depict tales from the Buddhist scriptures (the jatakas) or other non-secular objects from Burmese Buddhism (mythical animals, the hintha and the kalong are also popular subjects). The tapestry tradition is dying out but many are made for tourists and are available in Mandalay and Yangon. Burmese tapestries don't last so be warned if someone tries to sell you an antique shwe chi doe!
- Antiques Myanmar is probably the last unspoiled market for antiques and, with a good eye, it is easy to pick up bargains there. Old Raj coins are the most popular (and have little value except as souvenirs) but everything ranging from Ming china to Portuguese furniture (in Moulmein) can be found. Unfortunately, the Burmese antique sellers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and, increasingly, the bargains were probably made the day before in the shop-owners backyard! It is against the law to export religious antiques (manuscripts, Buddhas, etc.).
- Textiles Textiles in Myanmar are stunning. Each region and each ethnic group has its own style. Chin fabrics are particularly stunning. They are handwoven in intricate geometric patterns, often in deep reds and mossy greens and white. They can be quite pricy, perhaps US$20 for the cloth to make a longyi (sarong).
There is also a wide variety of beautiful silverware and jewellery as well as textiles, including gorgeous silks and handcrafts such as wooden carvings, silk paintings and stonework.
Some items may require customs permits.
Burmese food is a blend of Chinese, Indian and Mon influences. Rice is at the core of most Burmese food, and good vegetarian food is widely available. Burmese food is often extremely pungent. Food is inexpensive at most restaurants (around 500-1500 kyat), but there are many upscale restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay for upmarket food.
What to eat
Because the Burmese cuisine is a medley of many regional influences, it has many characteristics. Seafood is more common along the coastline, while preserved meats are more common in inland areas. Many Indian, Chinese, and Shan dishes are served throughout the country. Some dishes to try are:
- Mohinga (pronounced mo-HIN-ga) is a dish of thin noodles in a curried soup (orange in colour). Its taste can range from sweet to spicy, and is usually eaten during breakfast.
- Onnokauswe (pronounced oun-NO-kao-sui) is a dish of thicker noodles in a thick soup of coconut milk. Often added is chicken, and it has a strong taste and odour.
- Laphet thote (pronounced la-peh THOU) is 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.
- Mee swan (pronounced mee-SUAN) is a Chinese dish of noodles in a broth, served with herbs and little meat.
- Palata (prounced pa-la-ta) is an Indian bread (parata), which is fried and served with sugar for breakfast, or with curried meats for lunch and dinner.
- Shan food The Shan are an ethnic group who inhabit Shan State around Inle lake, near the Thai border. Their food is marvelous and spicy. It can be found in Yangon if you search.
- Curry Myanma people have a very different definition of curry than other countries. It is very spicy compared to Indian and Thai options, and like most other dishes, is served room temperature. The Burmese curry does not contain coconut milk, unlike its south-east asian counterparts, and boasts a large quantity of onion. Myanmar is the highest per-capita consumer of onions in the world.
Where to eat
- Black Canyon Coffee Found in Mandalay (Next to Sedona Hotel) and in Yangon (next to International Hotel) offers Air-conditioned dining and wonderful Starbucks-style coffee for all those yearning for a quality caffeine shot in this country.
- Mac Burger Due to US sanctions American corporations aren't allowed to do business in Myanmar. However, this Yangon McDonalds knock-off is the closest you'll. Just becareful when ordering due to the giant roaches that have taken up residence there.
Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink, likewise ice may be contaminated. Bottled water is readily available at many tourist sites.
Tea(Yenwejan) is usually provided free at restaurant tables. While not flavourful, it is boiled water, and so safe to drink (do not drink plain water - even in restaurants - unless it is bottled water). Be sure to order it with Laphet thote (Customary/Good combination).
Alcohol is frowned upon by conservative Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, but consumed widely, mostly among men. Myanmar Beer (lager) is most popular in the country. Other variants, including Mandalay Beer exist. However, many of such companies are government-owned and/or have links to the drug trade. Toddy juice (ta-YEI) is popular in central Myanmar, and is made from fermented palm sugar. An alcoholic drink popular in the Shan State is Shwe le maw, and is reportedly very strong. It is also possible to buy full strength Beer Chang imported from Thailand; exports to most countries are not nearly as strong.
Beware of alcoholic drinks served in the far northern states. The locals refer to it as alcohol which does not burn when lit, and it is widely suspected to be an opiate concoction rather than a fermented beverage.
There are a lot of nightclubs, including those attached to the five star hotels (eg Grand Plaza), and also local entertainment centres (eg JJs, Asia plaza).
Work in Myanmar for foreigners is hard to come by. NGOs and other aid groups do work in the capital and the remote areas of Myanmar, but because of the unstable political situation and the government's edicts, it is difficult to carry out tasks. In addition, several organisations have pulled out of Myanmar, after complaints of the government's continual probes. Foreign companies, mainly based in Singapore, Thailand, and China do operate, but on a small scale. Teaching English is feasible in the city's private schools, but is off-limits in the public education system.
Myanmar is very safe for the visitor. You may have your passport checked once or twice but that's all. In the areas you'll see, the chance of you being a victim of crime is remote.
Since 2005, Yangon and Mandalay have seen a negligible rise in street robberies. There have been some bombings recently - 26 April 2005 in Mandalay; 7 May, 21 October and 5 December 2005 in Yangon; 2 January 2006 in Bago. The government blames Western secret services and Western secret services blame the government; both also blame insurgents.
Burmese people are incredibly hospitable. Unlike many other countries hosting tourists, they are happy to see foreign faces. They are generally honest and kind.
Myanmar (also known as Burma) is a country in Southeast Asia.
It lies on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh
and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand
to the east.
Like most of Southeast Asia's countries, Myanmar's people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centered on Pagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1937 when it became a separate self-governing colony. During the Second World War, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia. The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called "Death Railway") from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using Allied prisoners-of-war and Burmese slaves as forced labour ; they had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war. Independence from the Commonwealth under the name Union of Burma was attained in 1948.
General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she remains to this day.
Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize the economy after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism," but those efforts stalled, and some of the liberalization measures were rescinded. Most overseas development assistance ceased after the junta began to suppress the democracy movement in 1988 and subsequently refused to honor the results of the 1990 legislative elections. In response to the government's attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar - including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of gasoline, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with begging bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the center of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks, closing monasteries, and shutting down all Internet communications with the rest of the world.
Because of the brutal suppression of these protests, many countries, lead by the USA, Australia and the United Kingdom have imposed new sanctions on the Myanmar government, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders. The UN is working on the government to open talks with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and a first round of talks has already taken place.
- Chin State
- Kachin State
- Kayah State (Karenni State)
- Kayin State (Karen State)
- Mon State
- Rakhine State (Arakan State)
- Shan State
- Ayeyarwady Division (Irrawaddy)
- Bago Division (Pegu)
- Magwe Division
- Mandalay Division
- Sagaing Division
- Tanintharyi Division (Tenassarim)
- Yangon Division (Rangoon)
- Naypyidaw (formerly Pyinmana) - newly designated (Nov.2005) administrative capital, in Mandalay Division
- Yangon (formerly Rangoon) - the commercial capital, known for its pagodas and colonial architecture
- Mandalay - former capital of the Konbaung Dynasty built around the Mandalay Royal Palace
- Bagan - an archaeological zone with thousands of pagodas near the banks of the Ayeyarwady River
- Inle Lake - a large shallow lake good for beautiful boat trips, visiting floating villages inhabited by the Intha people, hiking, and also a source of excellent silk
- Kengtung - a town between Mong La (on the border with China) and Tachileik (on the border with Thailand) in the Golden Triangle, known for its tribes, Ann (black teeth people), Akha, trekking, etc
- Kyaiktiyo - a gold-gilded rock sitting atop a cliff and a major pilgrimage site
- Mount Popa - an extinct volcano regarded as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, a green oasis high above the hot plains and an easy day trip from Bagan
- Mrauk U - former capital of the Rakhine kingdom
- Ngapali - beach resort in western Rakhine State, spilling into the Bay of Bengal
- Pyay - a town on the Ayeyarwady River midway between Yangon and Bagan, known for its archological site "Sri Kittara", the ancient Pyu capital from 2 to 9 AD
- Twante - a delta town that is famous for it's pottery
To go or not to go?
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's opposition National League for Democracy, has in the past called for tourists not to visit the country, as this helps prop up the military junta and some infrastructure has been constructed using forced and child labour. On the other hand, pro-democracy advocates such as Ma Thanegi, and the vast majority of people in Myanmar, encourage tourism as a way of getting funds into local hands - despite the fact that the government will also derive some financial benefit. In addition, many feel that the presence of foreign tourists deters the government from the worst of its excesses.
In the end, the choice is yours. If you want to visit and avoid supporting the junta, then: avoid five star hotels, eat at local restaurants, and generally attempt to ensure that your money is going to locals, rather than large, partially government-owned enterprises. Remember that foreign corporations only can operate in-country as joint partners with the junta.
Visa-free entry is possible at some border crossings - however you must then exit Myanmar via the same border crossing, usually (but not always) on the same day that you enter, and fees apply (normally US$10).
Otherwise, visas must be obtained in advance by all visitors. While ASEAN and PRC nationals may have had visa-free access in the past, the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore declares that "all nationalities" must obtain visas before travel (9 April 2008). Because of the pro-democracy protests and the subsequent crackdown, there are reports that it takes longer to get visas and that prospective travelers need to prove that they are not connected with the press (proof of employment such as namecard is almost always required, any online links to your name ultimately lead to entry denial). In some cases a detailed itinerary may also be required.
Even in the aftermath of the cyclone "Nargis" (Early May 2008) Burma has not eased the entry for humanitarian aid works. Please ensure a well planned visa application and additional time due to the current rush for visas.
On top of applying for the entry visa through the Myanmar Embassy, tourists can also apply for "Visa on Arrival" which is created for individuals from countries without a Myanmar Embassy. However, this service is also applicable for individuals from countries with a Myanmar Embassy although the cost of applying for Visa on Arrival can be higher than they go to the local Myanmar Embassy.
Despite that, this process of visa application is generally recommended for all tourists as the application process is convenient. It only requires the tourist's information and scanned photo which can be submitted electronically as compared to the need to bring and submit passport with hard copies of application forms at the Myanmar Embassy. However, the cost can be relatively high as the 14 day tourist visa can range from US$70 to US$100 or even more depending on the time notice provided.
This service was operated through government-operated website in the past, but you can now apply for it through travel agencies in Myanmar such as Magado Travel (http://www.myanmarvisa.com/) which provides fast and reliable service.
The most popular place to get a flight to Myanmar is Bangkok, in neighbouring Thailand.
- Thai AirAsia  has one daily flight from Bangkok to Yangon (from 2150 baht) and one daily return flight (from 1450 baht).
- Bangkok Airways  has one daily flight from Bangkok to Yangon and one daily return flight, costing from 3500 baht.
- Thai Airways International  flies Bangkok to Yangon and back 2-3 times daily from 3500 baht one-way (tickets best bought from a Bangkok travel agency).
- Air Mandalay  flies direct both ways between Chiang Mai (in northern Thailand) and Yangon, and Chiang Mai to Mandalay (but no direct flights in the opposite direction) for about US$80.
- Air Bagan  flies the Yangon-Bangkok route.
- Indian Airlines  links Yangon with Kolkata, while Mandarin Airlines  links Yangon with Taipei.
- Silk Air  links Yangon with Singapore daily.
Hopping across the Thai border into Myanmar's border towns is easy, but crossing into or out of Myanmar proper by land varies between difficult and impossible.
- Tachileik / Mae Sai - foreigners can access this crossing from either side, and enter and/or exit either country here. As of March 2007, travel beyond Kengtung to the rest of Myanmar is not possible, even with a valid tourist visa. Travelers wishing to exit Myanmar at Tachileik can only do so with a permit from the MTT office in Yangon.
- Myawaddy / Mae Sot - foreigners can only access this crossing from the Thai side; neither onward travel into Myanmar (ie beyond the border town) nor overnight stays are possible. No visa needed; instead there's an entry stamp fee - US$10 if paid with US$ notes, more (500 baht) if paid with Thai currency.
- Three Pagodas Pass (Payathonzu / Sangkhlaburi) - foreigners can only access this crossing from the Thai side; onward travel into Myanmar (ie beyond the border town) is not possible; entry/exit stamps are NOT issued here, and foreigners passports are held at the Myanmar checkpoint, where a fee is levied - US$10 if paid with US$ notes, more (500 baht) if paid with Thai currency.
- Kawthoung / Ranong - foreigners can access this crossing from either side, and enter and/or exit either country here. If entering without a visa, maximum stay is 3 days / 2 nights, travel beyond Kawthoung is not permitted, and there's an entry stamp fee - US$10 if paid with US$ notes, more (500 baht) if paid with Thai currency. As of March 2007, the only way to continue onward from here appears to be by plane to Mergui or Yangon, although there have previously been ferries on these routes as well.
China - foreigners can enter Myanmar via Ruili (in Yunnan), although a permit (as well as a visa) and a guide are needed. Crossing in the opposite direction is more difficult to arrange and details are uncertain.
India - a land border crossing exists between India and Myanmar at Moreh/Tamu. It is uncertain whether foreigners can cross into or out of Myanmar at this crossing. At the least, a foreign (a person who is neither a citizen of India nor a citizen of Myanmar) will need to get a permit to visit the Indian state of Manipur (from India), and a permit to enter or leave Myanmar at Tamu (from Myanmar Travels and Tours. Travellers may also need a permit to travel from Tamu to Kalewa (there are unconfirmed reports that this is no longer required). While there have been confirmed reports of some travellers crossing into Myanmar from India, with their own transport as well as with permits arranged in advance, the general consensus is that obtaining all the necessary permits is very hard.
Bangladesh / Laos - it is not currently feasible to independently cross the borders between Myanmar and Bangladesh or Laos.
Myanmar's infrastructure is in poor shape. As a result of the political situation, Myanmar is subject to trade sanctions from much of the western world, and this can cause problems for unwary travellers. Travel to certain regions is prohibited; for others, special permits must be obtained, and a guide/interpreter/minder may be mandatory - although whether these "guides" accompany you to look after you, or to keep you from going to places the government doesn't want you to see, is moot.
Much of Myanmar is closed to foreign travelers, and many land routes to far-flung areas are also closed (for example, to Mrauk U, Kalewa, Putao, Kengtung). Thus, while travelers can travel freely in the Bamar majority Burmese heartland, travel tends to be restricted or circumscribed in other places. In theory, any tourist can apply for a permit to visit any restricted area or to travel on any restricted land route. In practice, it is unlikely that any such permit will be issued in a reasonable amount of time, or at all. Permit requests can be made locally in some cases (for example, requests for the land route to Kalewa can be made in Shwebo) but, in most cases, the request has to be made in Yangon. Requests to visit restricted areas must be made at the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours) office in Yangon (Number 77-91, Sule Pagoda Road, Yangon,). Applications for local permits can often be made at a local MTT office or at a police station. As of writing this, local permits are available only for the following places/routes:
- Shwebo - Kalewa. A permit is necessary if going by road. It is uncertain whether one is required if going by boat.
- Kengtung - Tachilek. This used to be straightforward but the availability is now uncertain.
- Myitkyina - Indawgyi Lake. Easily available in Myitkyina but must travel with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.
- Mrauk U Chin village tours. Easily available in Mrauk U but must visit with a guide. Your hotel or a local tour company can arrange this for you.
All other permits must be obtained in Yangon.
State-run Myanma Airways (UB) - not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International (8M) "MIA" - is known for its poor safety record. AirMandalay , Air Bagan and Yangon Airways offer good, regular services between the key tourist centers for reasonable prices - US$40-80. These tickets are easy to buy in hotels and travel agencies in all major cities in Myanmar.
Myanmar has an extensive but ancient rail network. Trains are slow, often delayed, and charge exorbitant prices from foreign travelers making buses a cheaper and faster alternative. Still, a journey on a train is a great way to see the country and meet people. The rail journey from Mandalay, up switchbacks and hairpin bends to Pwin U Lwin, and then across the mountains and the famous bridge at Gokteik, is one of the great railway journeys of the world. Trains in lower Mandalay (Yangon - Pathein and Yangon Mawlymaing) are little communities of their own with hawkers selling everything imaginable. Sleepers are available on many overnight express trains, although, in the high season, you may want to reserve a few days in advance (the Yangon-Mandalay trains now run in the daytime only, apparently because the government does not want trains passing Pyinmana at night). Food service is available on the express up and the express down between Yangon and Mandalay as well as on the Yangon - Mawlymaing run.
Except for the new bridge and rail line that connects Mawlymaing to points on the western side of the Salween River, the rail network is exactly the way it was in British times. The most used line is the 325km line from Yangon to Mandalay with several trains a day (this is also the only double line in Myanmar), and the only one that is competitive in time with buses (note that the fastest trains take 15 hours for the 385km run, an effective rate of 25km/hour!). A second line connects Yangon with Pyay (9 hours for the 175km journey!) with a branch heading off into the delta region town of Pathein. These tracks, the earliest constructed are in poor shape. With the construction of the bridge across the Salween, it is now possible to go by train from Yangon to Mawlymaing (8 hours for the 200km journey) and on to Ye (Ye is closed to foreign travelers). From Mandalay, trains continue on to Myitkyina in Kachin State (350km in 24hours) and to Lashio. There are also rail connections between Yangon-Bagan and Mandalay-Bagan, but bus or ferry are better alternatives (The 175km from Mandalay to Bagan takes 10hrs).