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How to Plan a First-time Myanmar Tour

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is one of the least known countries in Asia. If you are planning to travel in Asia, Myanmar is the most authentic place to visit, and is rich in history, culture, and tradition. Myanmar is situated in Southeast Asia and is bordered on the north and northeast by China; on the east and southeast by Laos and Thailand respectively; on the south by the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal; and on the west by Bangladesh and India.

About Myanmar Tourism

As Myanmar continues to open up to the outside world, more travelers are venturing to this fascinating country. Most guidebooks and travel websites boast about Myanmar as a once-in-a-lifetime destination, and this attracts more and more travelers thirsty for unique experiences. It is important, however, to keep in mind that Myanmar first opened up just a few decades ago and it is definitely not a luxury destination.

Allow yourself to be shocked the first time you land at an airport that is just one tenth of the size of Central Station in New York, and learn to get used to occasional power cuts in remote areas (cuts do not happen a lot in big cities). Also, flip-flops and skirt-like pants (longyi) are what local people perceive as an Armani suit, so do not feel offended to see your tour guide in such attire.

You might have been traveling a long time, but this first trip to Myanmar is bound to be a very new experience. No, it will not be exactly like the last trip to Thailand, or that spring break in Florida. It will just be Myanmar, so hopefully you can accept it just as it is. Better, just lower your expectations a little bit and try a little harder to understand and your vistas will be greatly broadened.

Weather and When To Go

Myanmar has clear distinctions between seasons. The best time to travel is between October and April, blessed with lovely weather and beautiful landscapes. From May to September, typhoons ravage the coastline and severe rainfall and heat inland makes it hard to travel. Thus the concept of high and low seasons fits neatly here.

Not only does the weather define your trip but also the destinations themselves. For example, you are more likely to gain a great sunrise view over Bagan during the low season than at other times of the year; in the low season, however, you will have no access to Ngapali Beach, for flights are cancelled due to heavy rainstorms.

Where to Go for First-timers

Certainly you will want to include as many must-go places as possible for your first trip to Myanmar. Don’t be overly ambitious, however. Consider this first trip as testing the waters; you should take it nice and slow. Only by allowing yourself more time at one destination can you learn more about the country itself. And do not forget, as diverse as China is, Myanmar also deserves a comeback trip.

Yangon

The former capital and still-important religious center, both the start and finish point for a Myanmar trip. Once known as Rangoon by the British colonials, Yangon is reaping the benefits of the economic and political liberalization of the country in a big way. Touring Yangon can be done easily by taxi or tuk-tuks, and the city is full of interesting sights to see, both old and new. If you are feeling adventurous and energetic, you can join a walking tour around the city, to get the best out of the Yangon experience.

Shwedagon Pagoda

This huge golden icon can be seen from almost every part of the city, and restaurants are known to pay higher rents or property prices if the diners have a good view of the pagoda. A symbol of pride for the Burmese people, it is a magical and breathtaking sight.

Bagan

Widely-known for its pagoda complex, offering the best sunset views and the chance of a hot-air balloon flight. It’s a must-visit place for photographers. Sunrises are the preferred sight for many at the temples of Bagan, and thousands line up every morning to catch the best shot of the sun coming up from behind the immense field of temples and pagodas that spread for miles in every direction. Maps are available, and navigating the temples is relatively easy, so exploring some of the less popular temples will make for an interesting day. With hundreds of temples to choose from, you can get away from the press of the crowds by staying away from the guided tour routes.

Mandalay

Mandalay is a great place for learning about the history of the ancient kingdom. It is also a major center for studying Buddhism, but Mandalay will never win any beauty contests. Myanmar's second city is a relatively new creation, founded at the foot of Mandalay Hill in 1857 by King Mindon as his royal capital. The hill, its slopes studded with pagodas, still looms over the city. However, Mandalay was bombed flat in WWII and the palace disappeared, along with much else.

The palace was rebuilt in the 1990s, and since then Mandalay has undergone a haphazard construction boom that was never about aesthetics. An ever-growing number of motorbikes and cars clog the roads, too, making for a sometimes-smoggy city.

U Bein Bridge

The world’s longest teak footbridge gently curves 1300yd across shallow Taungthaman Lake, creating one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites. In dry season, it feels surreally high and mostly crosses seasonal vegetable gardens. However, after the summer rains, the area becomes a big lake and water laps just below the floor planks. Just a few of the 1086 poles on which it stands have been replaced by concrete supports.

A great time to visit the bridge is just after sunrise when hundreds of villagers and monks commute back and forth across it. The light is often best around an hour before sunset, but by then there will be a lot of tourists and trinket sellers. However, while the bridge gets very busy, it rarely feels like a commercial gauntlet.

Inle Lake

A vast lake surrounded by mountains and decorated by floating villages, characterized by the unique lifestyles of 5-day markets and floating gardens. This idyllic place is one that will bring joy to the most hardened traveler, with the beauty of the landscape and the amazing sight of the leg-rowers crossing the lake in their boats. Nga Hpe Monastery, on the edge of the lake, was once renowned for its jumping cats, trained to leap through hoops for entertainment. This practice has been discontinued in the monastery, but it is worth a visit for the unique collection of ancient Buddha images the monastery contains.

If your vacation plans fall between October and April, consider Ngapali Beach for a great escape. The beach can be reached via a 1-hour flight from either Inle Lake or Yangon. Around ninety percent of the hotels are built on the beach. There are not many nightclubs or snorkeling tour selling agents, simply soft white sand, palm trees and ocean breeze. The beach has been crowned as the best beach in Myanmar, as well as one of the Top 25 in Asia.

How to Get to Cambodia

By Air

Yangon International Airport (sometimes call Yangon Mingaladon Airport) is the primary entry point for most travelers, although Mandalay International Airport offers an increasing number of connections. The capital, Naypyidaw, also offers some direct international flights. Currently, there is a limited number of international flights that connect Myanmar with destinations in Asia like: Bangkok, Chiang Mai (Thailand), Kunming (China), Dhakka (Bangladesh), Singapore, Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Hong Kong, Taipei (Taiwan), Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam).

Overland

Entering Myanmar over land can be difficult to do, but not impossible. Travelling to Myanmar overland is possible, but generally not advised for those who might be put off by long delays, sudden closures of border crossings to foreigners or changes in paperwork requirements - all of which may involve turning round and making alternative travel arrangements at the last minute. The best place to cross freely over land is between Myanmar and Thailand, as both Chinese crossings require permits. Four Thai/Myanmar border points are now officially open to foreigners for through travel, and Thailand offers visa-free travel for the citizens of many countries; the length of the stay period depends on what country you are from – varying from 14 days to 3 months.

Visa Requirements

If you have your visa ready and a valid passport with at least six months of validity from the time of entry in hand, you should have no trouble entering Myanmar by either air or land. There is no requirement for you to show an onward ticket out of the country in order to enter Myanmar, and you should note that Myanmar does not recognize dual nationalities.

You should apply for your visa at a Burmese embassy or consulate abroad before you arrive in Myanmar. In Myanmar, you will be required to show your passport with a valid visa at all airports, train stations, and hotels. Security checkpoints are common outside of tourist areas. On the basis of reciprocity, nationals of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, Thailand (by air only) and Vietnam do not require a visa to enter Myanmar for visits up to 14 days.

It is possible for citizens of 100 countries to apply online for a tourist e-visa via Myanmar’s Ministry of Immigration and Population website (evisa.moip.gov.mm). It is only possible to enter Myanmar on an e-visa at Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw international airports; and at three Thai-Myanmar land border crossings Tachileik, Myawadi and Kawthoung. Check the immigration website for the latest at the time you travel.

Currency

Myanmar is trying to encourage locals and visitors to use the local currency, the kyat (pronounced ‘chat’), rather than US dollars, which was the preferred currency until 2012. Over the last few years, ATMs that take international cards have started appearing throughout Myanmar, meaning that travelers no longer have to carry hundreds or thousands of US dollars in cash around with them.

You can find ATMs even in relatively remote destinations like Hsipaw and Mrauk U. KBZ and CB Bank have the most reliable ATMs – they accept both Visa and MasterCard, and charge a fee of 5000 kyat (around US$4) per transaction. It is also possible to receive international cash transfers via Western Union. Despite that, and the presence of ATMs, it’s still worth bringing some US dollars with you, preferably in smaller notes, as they can be useful if you’re stranded without access to an ATM. Make sure your US bills are immaculate and printed no earlier than 2006, or you may not be able to exchange them. It is also easy to change Thai baht in Yangon and Mandalay.

Blemishes of any kind – creases, marks, folds, etc. – may result in getting a far worse rate of exchange or the money may not be accepted at all. Although the Myanmar government has recently told the banks to accept more than just the most pristine of foreign currency, bills that are not perfect may still be rejected, or exchanged at a lower rate. The best places to exchange are at the airport and the banks. They offer the best rates and the security that you will get what you should be getting.

You can also exchange money at your guesthouse or local jewelry shops, though the rate will likely be lower than you would get at the bank. Do not exchange money on the streets. This is a great way to be scammed, particularly in Yangon where the shady moneychangers often hang out near Sule Pagoda or the main Bogyoke Market. Credit cards are accepted mostly only in top-end hotels. Some travel agents in Yangon and Mandalay also take them, usually charging a small fee, for purchasing flights.

Etiquette Tips

1. Myanmar is emerging from decades of isolation, and as such, it is more conservative than nearby countries. Many people still wear traditional dress – the longyi for men, the htamein for women, both of which are sarong-like garments. You rarely see anyone expose his or her knees or shoulders, and you will make everyone more comfortable if you follow suit.
2. Money is handed over and received with the right hand, while the left hand loosely supports the right arm.
3. Never use your feet to point at a person or thing.
4. A smile always goes a long way, as does knowing a few words in Burmese.

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