Myanmar travel guide
Once a pariah state, Myanmar – previously known as Burma – is fast becoming the must-see destination in Southeast Asia, helped by an incredible array of tourist sights: golden stupas as tall as skyscrapers, ancient ruins, fascinating hill tribes, unexplored jungles, peaceful beach resorts, legions of monks, and mesmerising cities made legendary by writers like Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
Ruled by a secretive military junta, Burma was closed for decades to the outside world. When it finally opened, travellers were initially restricted to a handful of locations: the magnificent temples of Bagan, the floating villages of Inle Lake, the monasteries of Mandalay, and Yangon, the former capital, with its colonial relics and towering pagodas.
That was then. With the end of the travel boycott called by Aung San Suu Kyi, travellers are queuing up to visit Myanmar, captivated by the idea of seeing what Asia was like before the tourists arrived. Nevertheless, the government still controls where visitors can go and what they can see, and many people have qualms that their tourist dollars help fund the military regime, which stands accused of widespread abuses.
Those who do visit discover a fascinating, and famously friendly culture on the threshold between tradition and modernity. Monasteries are the foundation of Burmese society and even in rapidly expanding Yangon life is focused on Buddhist rituals. The sense of devotion is tangible at the awe-inspiring Shwedagon Paya, which towers over Yangon like an enormous golden pillar.
As Myanmar has opened up to the outside world, travellers have pushed beyond the Bagan-Inle-Mandalay triangle, visiting peaceful outposts like Kalaw, Hsipaw and Kengtung and trekking to remote tribal villages. Smaller numbers make it to the jungles of northern Myanmar or the rain-drenched ports of the far south and west. Myanmar even has its own patch of the Himalaya, accessed from remote Putao in the far north.
Through it all, the mighty Irrawaddy River snakes like a twisting Burmese python, offering some of the most atmospheric river journeys in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, Myanmar remains a controversial destination, promising significant challenges as well as rewarding experiences.
676,578 sq km (261,227 sq miles).
54,363,426 (UN estimate 2016).
83.2 per sq km.
Nay Pyi Taw.
President Htin Kyaw since 2016.
President Htin Kyaw since 2016.
230 volts AC, 50Hz. Plugs with two round pins (European-style), three round pins (South African-style) or three square pins (British-style) are used; some hotel sockets can accept multiple types.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Burma held parliamentary elections on 8 November 2015. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won a majority of seats and formed a government in April 2016. Burma’s military retains 25% of seats in parliament as well as various other political offices.
Burma has suffered from prolonged internal conflicts, involving a number of non-state armed groups from Burma’s ethnic States. In October 2015 the government signed a National Ceasefire Agreement with 8 (roughly half) of the armed groups. Many others have bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government. There is no formal ceasefire as yet in Kachin State. In northern Shan State, Kokang Self-Administered Zone is not under ceasefire. The possibility of violent clashes remains in all ethnic States including Shan, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, and Mon.
Burma has also suffered from periodic bursts of inter-communal tension and violence. This has particularly hit Rakhine State but has also occurred in central Burman areas including Meiktila.
Censorship has been significantly eased. New legislation passed by Parliament offers greater freedoms of assembly and movement, and the right to form trade unions.
However, the political situation remains potentially unsettled. Restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, religion, and political activity remain, and foreign nationals have been arrested, imprisoned and deported in the past for criticising the government in public. Avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings. Don’t take photographs or videos of the police, any demonstrations, military installations or military personnel.
On 29 January 2017, U Ko Ni, a legal adviser to Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD), was shot and killed at Rangoon Airport, as was a taxi driver who tried to intervene. Acts like this aren’t common in Burma.
In the past, there have been acts of politically motivated violence around public holidays like Armed Forces Day (27 March) and Martyrs Day (19 July). On other anniversaries, like the 8 August 1988 uprising against the government and the September 2007 protests, you can expect to see an increase in security forces in Rangoon and elsewhere in Burma.
There are no accurate crime statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been occasional instances of violent crime against foreigners, including muggings, burglaries and petty thefts. Homes occupied by foreigners and hotels have been targeted in the past. You should take extra care of your belongings and take sensible security precautions at all times.
Local travel – Rakhine State
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Rakhine State except the southern townships (administrative areas similar to a borough or county) of Kyaukpyu, Ramree, Munaung, Toungup, Thandwe (including the tourist resort of Ngapali) and Gwa. This is due to continued tension following serious civil unrest in 2012, and a continued risk of armed conflict and the threat of land mines in the northern areas. There were outbreaks of violence in late 2013 and early 2014. Since March 2015, there have been occasional clashes between ethnic groups and the Burmese military in north Rakhine. On 9 October, 2016 there were attacks on police posts in northern Rakhine state. A local curfew is currently in place and security operations are underway.
Local travel – Kachin State
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Kachin State (except the towns of Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao) due to a continued risk of armed conflict there. If you are travelling to Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao, you should monitor local developments and keep in close contact with your tour operator in case the security situation there changes. The Burmese authorities are currently restricting travel between Myitkyina and Bhamo: travel to and between these two towns is permitted by air only.
Local travel – Shan State
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to northern Shan State (North) except:
- Lashio town centre (which includes the airport)
- Kyaukme town
- Hsipaw town
- the train line (but not the road) from Mandalay to Lashio
Rail travel is likely to be safer than the road. This is because both the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups transport men and weapons along the roads but not on the train.
Armed conflict regularly breaks out in the north of Shan State (South). Since October 2016, intense armed clashes have broken out in areas of northern Shan State between various ethnic armed groups and the Myanmar Army. Clashes have occurred in areas such as Muse, Kutkai, Namhsan, Manton and Laukkai townships. If you’re travelling in the area, monitor local media and keep in close contact with your tour operator.
Local travel – border areas
Be particularly vigilant and take extra care in border areas. There is ongoing military activity close to borders with Thailand, Laos and China especially in Shan, Karen, Mon and Kachin States. There are occasional clashes in Karen State (Myawaddy and Kawkareik)) and Mon State (Kyaik Mayaw), and you should seek advice from guides or tour operators before travelling. Land mines also pose a threat in conflict areas. The Burmese government restricts travel to most border areas.
There are a limited number of legal crossing points, but these could close without notice:
- Tachilek (Burma Shan State) – Mae Sai (northern Thailand border)
- KawThoung (Burma Tanintharyi) – Ranong-Kawthoung (southern Thailand border)
- Muse (Burma Shan State) – Ruili (China border)
- Tamu (Burma Chin State) – Morei (India border)
- Myawaddy (Burma Karen State) – Mae Sot (western Thailand border).
Burmese immigration officers may ask to hold your passport until your visit is complete. If you’re forced to leave your passport at immigration, you should contact the British Embassy in Rangoon. Don’t attempt to cross any border illegally or enter restricted areas without the appropriate permissions from the Burmese authorities. Even after getting permission, you may experience difficulties with the local authorities.
Local travel – destinations subject to limitations
The Ministry of Hotels, Tourism and Sport maintains a list of approved destinations. Tourists can visit Rangoon, Mandalay, Bago and Irrawaddy regions without restrictions. Other destinations are subject to limitations (eg access by air or train but not by road). For more information, contact the Burmese Ministry of Tourism.
The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unsafe.
In 2010 the International Civil Aviation Organisation carried out an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Burma.
A domestic flight carrying a number of tourists crashed in December 2012. You can find a list of recent incidents and accidents on the website of the Aviation Safety Network.
Airlines routinely share flight codes, meaning that airlines sometimes use aircraft from outside their own fleet. Passengers aren’t always advised in advance where this is the case.
Local flight schedules are subject to change without warning. Leave sufficient time in your travel itinerary to accommodate this.
Railway safety standards are significantly below those in the UK.
You can’t use a UK licence or an International Driving Permit to drive in Burma. You must apply for a Myanmar Driving Licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Rangoon.
Overland travel can be hazardous, particularly in the rainy season (May to October). Roads can become impassable and bridges damaged. Travel by road between many areas outside the key destinations of Rangoon, Mandalay, Bago and Irrawaddy regions is restricted. Check with your tour operator or the Ministry of Hotels, Tourism and Sport before travelling.
Road safety standards are significantly lower than in the UK. Under Burmese law, the driver of a car involved in an accident with a pedestrian is always at fault. Many vehicles, including taxis and buses, are in a poor mechanical state, and serious road traffic accidents are common. Although Burma drives on the right, the majority of cars are right hand drive.
FCO staff are advised to avoid travel where possible on the main Mandalay-Naypyitaw-Rangoon road at night, due to bad lighting and poor road surfacing.
Sea and river travel
Seek local advice about where it is safe to swim or dive in the sea. River transport may not meet internationally recognised safety standards and search and rescue facilities may be limited.
During the monsoon season (normally May to October), heavy rains can cause flooding. Check the weather before undertaking any river journey.
Mobile phones and Internet
Burma’s technological infrastructure is improving rapidly and foreign visitors and residents can expect to see significant change in the near future.
International GSM roaming is now available in Burma and all local networks offer 3G. If roaming is enabled, some UK SIM cards will work and coverage is fairly reliable in the main cities. UK mobile service providers may charge especially high prices for roaming in Burma.
Many visitors travel with a spare mobile phone and buy a SIM card when they arrive (approximately 1500 Kyat – about £1). This can then be topped up as needed.