Myanmar or Burma? Much to my surprise, I learned that both names are derived from the same word: the name of the largest ethnic group in Myanmar, the Bamar. Burma appears to be a more colloquial pronunciation. In an effort to rid the country of her colonial past, the government decreed in the late 1980s that Myanmar should be the official term, both in the local language as well as in English. Funny enough, walking through Yangon you’ll still find many buildings and streets bearing obviously English names, such as The Strand running along the river.
While you are free to use both names, nobody I spoke to in Myanmar used the words “Burma” or “Burmese.” Instead, the country, language, and people are referred to as “Myanmar” which is used both, as noun and adjective.
Yangon is not Myanmar’s capital (anymore). Since 2006, that title belongs to Naypyidaw, a city roughly halfway between Mandalay and Yangon that most of us probably have never heard about and that was built in 2006 on a green field at the behest of the military government of Myanmar.
Myanmar’s tangible cultural heritage is comprised largely of Buddhist temples. You will find those in Mandalay as well as in Bagan and even Yangon and around Inle Lake, Buddhist temples are some of the major sights you shouldn’t miss out on. So, if you don’t appreciate (Buddhist) architecture and don’t like to walk barefoot (socks are not allowed), then Myanmar is maybe less for you.
Yangon was the capital of the British Colony Burma. Victorian buildings, tree-lined avenues, and parks still attest to that part of the city’s heritage. The most important site in the city is, however, Shwedagon Pagoda, which as folklore has it is the oldest Buddhist pagoda dating back to the first Buddha himself.
Mandalay, about 700 km north of Yangon along the Irrawaddy River, was the last Royal Capital of Myanmar and remains the country’s spiritual center. Click here to read more about Mandalay and day trips from the city.
Bagan is probably the most famous one of Myanmar’s sights. Also called the Land of Thousand Pagodas, its foundations lie in the Pagan Kingdom, Myanmar’s first dynasty. Click here to read my Bagan Itinerary.
Inle Lake is wedged between mountains at 800 m above sea level. The stilted villages, floating gardens, and unique flora and fauna make Inle Lake a tourist favorite. Click here to read about my stay in Inle Lake.
Golden Rock, in the local language known as KyiteHteeYoe Paya, is an Instagram-favourite. But we warned: the journey up the mountain from Yangon is long and strenuous and there is not much else to be found in the vicinity.
The Irrawaddy is one of the biggest (albeit not nearly the longest) rivers in Asia. A cruise along the river is a must-do. Click here to read my account of a luxe Irrawaddy River cruise from Mandalay to Bagan.
Myanmar can also do islands and beaches. The over 800 islands of Mmergui Archipelago are located all the way in the South of Myanmar.
Ngwe Saung beach is, about 6 hours from Yangon, is roughly 9 miles long and one of the longest in the country.
Myanmar has only one UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pyi Ancient Cities. Well-known Myanmar sites such as Mandalay and the old royal capitals, Bagan or Inle Lake are on the tentative list but have not yet been fully inscribed.
There are three more sites in Myanmar listed as part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, Kuthadow Pagoda in Mandalay and the Myazedi Quadrilingual Stone Inscription in Bagan as well as the inscriptions in King Bayinnaung’s Bell in Shwezigon Pagoda, also in Bagan. Also on that list is the Golden Letter of Burmese King Alaungphaya to King George II of Great Britain, but the letter is currently in a German library.
Inle Lake is recognized in another UNESCO programme, Man and the Biosphere.
Myanmar offers an eVisa service for tourists and business travelers. Check their official website at evisa.moip.gov.mm to see whether yours is one of the 100 countries/passports qualifying for an eVisa or whether you might even be exempt from visas.
The visa application cost is US-$50 to be paid by credit card. If your visa is denied you will not be reimbursed.
The visa is valid for 28 days, good for a single entry, and from the moment you receive the confirmation, you will have 90 days to enter the country.
I applied a few days before I wanted to go to Myanmar and received my visa confirmation email within 12 hours. Simply print the confirmation and show it on immigration. Note that you have to enter Myanmar via an international airport or a limited number of land borders with Thailand (the website above has the complete list of permitted entry points)
The official currency in Myanmar is the Kyat (pronounced chut). 1 US dollar pays about 1,350 Kyat.
Until a few years ago, tourists had to pay all their accommodation, transport and tours in US dollars. This is no longer the case. However, many hotels and tour companies will still quote Us dollars and prefer to be paid in that currency.
ATMs are abundant in all cities and tourist destinations and they accept foreign credit cards. Check in with your bank to find out about withdrawal charges before your travels.
If you’d rather travel with cash, you can change money at larger hotels and money changers throughout the tourist destinations.
As in many poorer countries, breaking larger bills can be a challenge in Myanmar. I recommend using supermarkets or institutions that have a lot of traffic to break larger bills so that you can pay for your street food or smaller items you might buy on the markets.
Myanmar has a fairly good infrastructure, certainly for the main tourist destinations Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake.
The easiest and relatively cheap way to move around is by bus. myanmarbusticket.com is an aggregator site selling tickets by companies like JJ Express, Min Thar, Famour Traveller, etc. Alternatively, buy your tickets for your next destination from your accommodation or – for the lowest prices – head straight to the bus station. Buses range from simple local buses to super-luxury seaters with only three seats per row.
Myanmar’s railway network is limited and the trains are notoriously slow. However, tickets are incredibly cheap (the 180-km journey from Bagan to Mandalay costs $2 in first class but takes 7 to 12 hours). Check on the train travel standard website, Seat61, for current details. Most tickets are only available at the trains station (for example, the connections to Inle Lake). Exceptions are major tourist trains between Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay. Your accommodation or travel agencies in town can sell you those (slightly more expensive) tickets, and Seat61 has links to the best websites to buy your tickets online.
Finally, to move around with an area but also within the country you can book private transfers via, car, motorbike, tuk-tuk, horse cart, buffalo cart,…
Grab is the Southeast Asian version of Uber and it works all over Myanmar. So if you’re traveling in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia,… you might have the Grab app already installed on your phone and can whip it out in Myanmar as well.
Note that in Bagan and Inle Lake, tourists are not permitted to be passengers on the back of a motorcycle (or rent motorcycles/scooters for that matter).
Great concise post with some awesome tips. Love that you link to more detailed itineraries, in case others want more info. Myanmar is one of the few Southeast Asian countries still on my bucket list. Still dreaming about visiting the temples of Bagan — hope I get a chance soon! 🙂
This is such a fantastic, robust guide. Of all the blogs I’ve read recently, this is one of the few that actually talks about Myanmar in depth – not just the things to do, but how to get around and all the practical things. Side note, I didn’t realize that the people and the country share the name name – I love learning new things like this! Definitely think I might look into Myanmar a bit more now that you’ve put it on my radar 🙂
This was a concise and to-the-point post on planning a visit to Myanmar, with all practical details that one needs to plan a trip there. I am practically next door in India, but somehow the trip never quite happened…I do hope to make it there next year.
I have always been fascinated by Yangon, and the Pyu Ancient Cities are also on my list now. Visiting UNESCO world heritage sites never disappoints and always brings me closer to a place…
Thanks for this insight into Myanmar / Burma – it’s a country I want to visit, though it seems to be difficult to find a great deal of information since it’s still so new to tourism. Despite considering myself to be pretty well over my Geography, I will actually admit to having thought that the capitol was Yangon – so that’s the something new I’ve learned today!
In terms of things to see and do, I really want to go ballooning over Bagan 🙂
Thanks for a comprehensive guide to a very off-beat location. I am very surprised to learn that Yangon is not the capital of Myanmar! I wish you had posted more pictures though.
Wait, I didn’t know Yangon isn’t the capital! Oh wow. haha I’m from the Philippines, but I’ve never been to Myanmar. I have never wanted to go there because I’d heard the internet connectivity isn’t so good (I’m a digital nomad so I need it). However, I do want to visit someday, if only to go to Bagan and inle Lake! I’m not into IG so much but I would want to see the Golden Rock, too. Great guide!
That is a well written concised post on Myanmar. Indeed; some of the facts are really new to us and we love learning them. We too love Buddhist culture; beaches; lakes so this is a perfect place for us. The Golden rock too looks quite fascinating. Going to pin this up for my future reference. Thanks for sharing
I’m surprised that Bagan hasn’t been designated as a World Heritage Site yet. Hopefully that will happen soon. I’d love to see all those gorgeous pagodas. Thanks for the helpful travel tips too – super useful information to help plan our future visit.
Good to know about the Visas. I saw Anthony Bourdain visit and it looked cool. Hopefully one day. Good information I will hold on to.
This is the first time that I have heard that Yangon is not the capital anymore! And I call myself a capital nerd! Myanmar is the remaining country in South East Asia that I have never been but been planning to go to so this will come handy for sure!