Myanmar Facts: Know Before You Go

Formerly known as Burma, the least visited country in South-East Asia was named one of 2016’s hottest new destinations. It became the place to see “before it changed”. Myanmar is one of the most complicated, and most captivating, destinations you’ll ever visit. Travel to almost all parts of Myanmar is safe. Bagan is Myanmar’s most visited spot. Marco Polo once called it the gilded city for its surfeit of Buddhist temples and pagodas. Today, many thousands still remain; a sunrise balloon ride over them is unforgettable. In Mandalay, the last royal capital of Myanmar, catch a puppet show, enjoy Mandalay Hill’s panoramic views, and marvel at the world’s largest book at Kuthodaw Pagoda. At the Inle Lake region, explore floating villages and stay in overwater bungalows. More than 200 monasteries dot the lake.

U-Bein Bridge, near Amarapura, is one of the oldest and longest teakwood bridges in the world. Time your arrival for just before sunset and nab a prime photo-taking position on the south side of the river it spans. Golden Rock is another breathtaking sight: Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is perched atop a huge boulder, both teetering on the edge of a cliff. It’s about a five-hour drive from Yangon (also known as Rangoon), Myanmar’s former capital. While in Yangon, you can’t miss Shwedagon Pagoda. We mean it, you really can’t miss it – the 100m gilded stupa sits atop Singuttara Hill and dominates the skyline. It’s the most sacred Buddhist place in Myanmar. Legend claims it was built more than 2500 years ago. With all these amazing places waiting for you to explore, here are some facts about Myanmar before you start your journey.

  1. Myanmar has a tropical climate, with the southwest monsoon bringing rain from May to October. Roads can become impassable, particularly from July to September. The central plains, however, receive only a fraction of the rain seen on the coast and in the Ayeyarwady delta. From October onwards the rains subside; the best time to visit most of Myanmar is from November to February when temperatures are relatively manageable. From March to May, the country becomes very hot, particularly the dry zone of the central plains where Bagan and Mandalay often see temperatures in excess of 40°C.
  2. Plenty of original handicrafts for modest prices. In Bagan, the delicate technique of sand painting produces framable works of art depicting butterflies, birds, landscapes, portraits, and more. Tapestry and lacquerware are both popular in these parts, as are handcrafted wooden puppets. Colorful longyi, the wrap-around long skirts worn by men and women, are a low-cost souvenir. Some handicrafts are specific to certain towns or regions, so if you see something you love, buy it. Gorgeous rubies, jade, and pearls can be bought in Yangon and Mandalay but don’t fall for a fake glass imitation. Ask the hotel concierge or cruise director for recommendations.
  1. Don’t miss tea leaf salad, mohinga (thin rice noodles in a fishy broth), and Burmese curry. Rangoon Tea House in Yangon offers all three dishes in a tourist-friendly environment of English-speaking waiters, airconditioning, and Wi-Fi. Street food is generally good quality, with each stall specializing in one dish. Fried food is everywhere, in the form of samosas, spring rolls, fritters, and fried bread, so nibble in moderation or pack your antacid tablets.
  2. While in Myanmar you will use a combination of the local currency, the kyat (pronounced “chat”), and US dollars. International hotels, cruise lines, and airlines accept credit cards. Articles you’ll read online will advise the US dollar is preferred above the kyat, but this is outdated advice and the kyat is accepted in most places. Be aware it’s a closed currency – it’s not used anywhere else in the world – so exchange or spend leftover notes at the airport before leaving the country. Before 2013, there were virtually no ATMs in Myanmar due to economic sanctions in place. Now you’ll find more than 3000 ATMs at airports, in hotels, banks, and shopping centers. You no longer need to arrive with all the money you intend to spend. Don’t bother with traveler’s cheques.
  3. Those chalky swirls you see on the cheeks of women and children is thanaka – a cosmetic paste made from the bark of selected trees. The wearing of thanaka has been happening for at least 2,000 years; it is said to keep skin smooth and protect against sun damage.
  4. The Moken ‘sea gypsies’ are one of Myanmar’s diverse array of ethnic groups, inhabiting the spectacular Mergui Archipelago off the Andaman Coastline. They traditionally live a nomadic lifestyle, spending most of their time at sea and setting up on land only during monsoon. Their knowledge of the ocean is said to have alerted them to the 2004 tsunami, enabling them to move out of harm’s way.
(Photo by billow926 on Unsplash)
  1. Astrology is taken very seriously in Myanmar. The Burmese zodiac comprises the 12 signs of the Western zodiac, plus 27 lunar mansions and 8-weekday signs. E Thi, a blind, deaf-mute Myanmar soothsayer is one of the country’s most famous astrologers. Her high-profile clients include exiled Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra and ex-junta leader General Than Shwe.
  2. While the rule of the road in Myanmar was originally to keep to the left, the country switched sides overnight in 1970. Unfortunately, trade sanctions banned the import of cars from countries that make left-hand-drive vehicles. Thus, the mix of cars currently on the roads includes extremely vintage left-hand-drive vehicles and newer right-hand-drive cars imported from Japan. This is why we recommend a driver!
  3. Myanmar begins the Buddhist New Year (around April 14-16) with Thingyan, a multi-day celebration of prayers, offerings, traditional dance, parties, and water fights. The sprinkling of water over one’s head is a metaphoric washing away of past evils – a custom that has evolved into full-fledged water fights with cannons, pistols, and buckets.
  4. Myanmar is one of only three countries in the world not to use the metric system. The country still uses its own units of measurement, though you’ll find gas measured in gallons and distances in miles. Weight is a bit trickier, with 1 viss (peittha) equal to 1.68 kilograms (3.5 pounds).
  5. The local currency is called kyat (MMK), but you can also use US dollars when you’re traveling through Myanmar. One USD is roughly 1,360 MMK – if you want to easily pay for things in local shops you should break larger notes and keep 1,000 and 500 kyat notes handy (a bowl of noodles is around 500 kyat). Many places will only accept US currency that is nigh-perfect (uncrumpled, unfolded), so keep your bills pristine!
  6. Yangon is not the capital! Around 320 kilometers from Yangon lies Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s shiny new capital. Construction of this planned city began in 2002 in the middle of the empty countryside, and it was announced the new capital, taking the title from Yangon, in 2006. The name literally translates to ‘abode of the king’, and is used as a suffix for royal capitals.

  1. The thing everyone is chewing is betel leaf. Chewed for its stimulant properties it stains the mouth red and can lead to tooth decay and oral cancer. The practice of betel-chewing in Myanmar predates recorded history.
  2. Untreated rubies from Mogok in the Mandalay Region and Mong Hsu in Shan State are high in chromium and low in iron, giving them high fluorescence and that coveted ‘pigeon’s blood’ hue. The most famous of them all, the ‘Graff Ruby’ ring, fetched USD 8.6M at a Sotheby’s auction in 2015, setting a new world record. Lifted sanctions make them available again in the US for the first time in years.
  3. The mountains of Myanmar offer a favorable climate for grape growing, and a couple of vineyards have opened up, producing their own wines. Both Aythaya Red Wine and Red Mountain offer wine tasting, so you can sample a local drop after taking a tour of the winery.

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