Slowly (but very happily) we’re working our way through Bangkok Airways’s route map. We recently made our first trip to Myanmar, spending four fantastic days in Yangon (the former capital). With a sum total of 96 hours’ expertise (plus an obsessive-compulsive-level of reading and research prior), here’s a first timer’s Yangon travel guide – all the logistical knowledge you need for enjoying your first trip to Yangon.
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How to prepare for Myanmar?
Of Thailand’s neighbours, we had visited all but Burma (clockwise that’s Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, with honourable mentions to nearby Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia). What would Myanmar offer in the way of new sights, food and drink, and delightful people? As it turns out, plenty. Four days in Yangon offered an addictive starter. If you’re planning your first visit to Myanmar – here’s a big head-start!
1. Myanmar? Burma? Yangon? Rangoon?
First off – Myanmar? Burma? Yangon? Rangoon? What’s the right answer? Myanmar (pronounced mee-an-mar) is their own name for their country. Burma was enforced by the British but the language is called Burmese … same with Yangon / Rangoon.
Quickly learn your ‘Myanmar 101’ with a current travel guide: Lonely Planet offers easy-to-build itinerary advice, while DK Eyewitness goes a little deeper into Burmese culture and history.
2. Where to stay in Yangon?
For its great location and comfort in a known brand, we booked the Sule Shangri-La Yangon for our 4-day trip to Yangon. Initially, it was a choice between that and The Strand. The beautiful Belmond Governor’s Residence wasn’t available for our dates (it only has 48 rooms), so that saved any tough decisions.
Between our top two choices, the Shangri-La seemed closer to shops and general Yangon life, which turned out to be true. The location was perfect for general sight-seeing and exploring, and the room rates are very reasonable for such a fantastic level of service. Sule Shangri-La staff are… incredible. Book this hotel just for the staff. We fell in love. Highly recommend!
Five-star Yangon hotels
- Belmond Governor’s Residence
- Savoy Hotel Yangon
- The Strand, Yangon
- Sule Shangri-La Yangon (we loved it!)
Boutique hotels in Yangon
Best budget hotels in Yangon
3. How to get to Yangon?
If you’re plotting a Southeast Asia itinerary or have a little flexibility in travel from Bangkok, know this: BKK to RGN is just an hour’s flight. We flew with Bangkok Airways but you have various options from Bangkok, including Myanmar Airways International and Thai.
Book your flight to Myanmar: We flew with Bangkok Airways, from Bangkok (BKK / Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport) to Yangon (RGN / Yangon International Airport) – just an hour’s flight. Get the flight schedule + route map + baggage allowance.
Bangkok to Yangon?
- Flight length: 1 hour 20 minutes
- Time difference: 30 minutes behind Thailand (GMT +6.30 )
4. Get your Myanmar visa
Apply for your Myanmar visa online (a very slick, totally electronic process). We were tremendously impressed with Myanmar’s visa application process – all completed online, on an iPad, in minutes. Our subsequent arrival at immigration was equally slick, with the added benefit of having Miss Myanmar (or her prettier sister) as our immigration officer.
5. Don’t forget travel insurance
For about a thousand-million reasons, make sure you take five minutes to buy travel insurance for Myanmar before you leave home. Then, take another five minutes to check that you’re covered for any activities on your list: hot air balloon rides, riding scooters or motorbikes, zip-lining and so on.
Need a thousand-million-and-one reasons? Check any crowd-funding site for dozens of sad stories of fellow travellers stuck in Southeast Asian hospitals, unable to afford medical transport back home. Often, scooter accidents are to blame so … (1) travel insurance, (2) hellooo, helmet.
6. Learn Myanmar’s do’s and don’ts
Everything you need to know about culture and etiquette is answered in Myanmar – Culture Smart!, and (as we proved with 4 words of Burmese), a little language effort goes a long way, so pack a Burmese Phrasebook.
CNN’s 11 things to know before visiting Myanmar is worthwhile – much of the content is for travellers who are brand new to Asia, but there’s some interesting stuff about how to eat and manners that are different from Thailand. Also see Top Tips for Yangon, by a Yangon expat.
7. Discover Myanmar’s history
- Burmese Days, by George Orwell
- Finding George Orwell in Burma
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North
- The Burma Road (World War II, China-Burma-India Theater)
- The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma
- Miss Burma
Whether you’re particularly interested in the colonial era, WWII, or other points entirely – you can dive into Myanmar’s history with both fiction or non-fiction. Burmese Days is as excruciating as it is hilarious – required reading before setting foot in the Governor’s Residence. If you’re politically minded, Amazon is awash with options – many highly reviewed.
What to pack for Myanmar?
Aware, after visits to Vietnam and Laos, that dress-codes aren’t standard across Southeast Asia (Thailand’s dress code is arguably the least conservative of the bunch), we paid more attention to our packing than we would on a trip to Koh Samui.
What’s the dress code in Myanmar?
Very conservative, and quite different to Thailand. Almost everyone (all ages) wear longyis (pronounced lon-gee). The women’s are very colourful; gorgeous fabrics often worn with a matching close fitted top. They’re tied at the side and are close fitting. Men’s are dark colours in checks, stripes, plaids and are worn with dress shirts, casual shirts or T-shirts. Basically, they’re a wide tube of fabric, folded and knotted at the waist to form a distinctive knot about 3 inches across. Younger people have adopted skinny jeans, but they’re not (that we saw in our four days) as common.
Shoes to pack for Myanmar: Flip-flops weren’t adequate for walking as the road surfaces are uneven. You need good walking shoes and nice heels/dressy sandals (women) or loafers (men) for posh spots. See the best shoes for Thailand – ignoring the flip-flops! – the rest of our recommendations are ideal for very hot weather.
Women’s packing for Myanmar: She packed – Fairly modest summer dresses. It was over 30 degrees every day and dresses were just more comfortable. At other times, a pair of light cotton trousers was great to keep the sun off my legs. To visit the temple I wore a very light cotton button-down shirt with a pair of light khaki pants.
Men’s packing for Myanmar: He packed – Khakis and collared shirts (lightweight linen and cotton).
What to expect in Yangon?
1. What to expect at Yangon International Airport
It’s new, modern and airy. On landing, you see a huge gold portico that resembles a temple. It’s very distinctive – you know you’ve arrived!
Yangon airport transfer: We booked the hotel limo simply for convenience (US$50), however, we were told a taxi would cost about (US$10). After a really quick immigration process, we were greeted by two extremely helpful Shangri-La guys in red jackets. One was the driver and the other a guide to point out city highlights and provide a Myanmar introduction. The journey took 45 minutes on arrival, and 90 minutes when leaving (Yangon has traffic!).
2. Can you get by with English in Yangon?
In the hotel, everyone spoke English, but our very few words of Burmese in return were very well received. A few shop-keepers and one taxi driver spoke some English, though it wasn’t widespread. Smiles and pointing did the rest.
3. What to know about money (cash and USD)
The main piece of advice dished out in Lonely Planet Myanmar is to arrive in Myanmar with mint U.S. dollars: no folds or creases of any sort. We did as told and were surprised that pristine dollars that had merely been folded in a wallet (not creased, just lightly bent in half) weren’t accepted.
4. Finding ATMs in Yangon
We found ATMs everywhere in Yangon. For the sake of research, we tried bank cards from three countries at Yangon ATMs (including UK cards) and all were happy to give us the local currency, kyat (pronounced chat). We followed the Lonely Planet advice not to change at airports or official money changers.
5. Internet in Yangon?
There was good internet at the hotel, although there were notes asking guests not to use VPNs and refrain from using too much bandwidth.
6. How to get around Yangon?
In total contrast to Vietnam, and Thailand to a lesser extent, we didn’t see a single scooter or motorbike in Yangon. It’s all cars and minivans. We heard an explanation that it’s in response to a general being knocked down by a motorbike but couldn’t say whether this is an urban legend for tourists. A particular curiosity is that although the roads are right-hand drive, most passenger vehicles (and buses) are left-hand drive.
7. Yangon traffic
As tourists, aspects of travel in Yangon can still be a bit of an unknown adventure. From leaving the hotel, we gave ourselves three hours to our flight – and still had to run for the plane. Traffic is considerable (similar to Bangkok) and, 40 minutes after leaving the hotel, we were still on the same street.
8. Taxis in Yangon?
Taxis in Yangon are inexpensive, clean and very plentiful. As on Koh Samui, they’re not metered, so you agree on the price before the journey. No matter where we wanted to go the price was 2- or 3,000 kyat (US $2 or $3). Our most expensive taxi was US$4, probably double the going rate, but the driver spoke English and was major entertainment.
9. Walking around Yangon
At this time of year (mid-February), we found it cool enough to walk around until about 11 am, and again in late afternoon. It would depend on how acclimated you are to heat and the time of year you visit. City streets are quite uneven and curbs are high – perhaps tricky for anyone less than limber, or trying to get around with a stroller. Pollution is noticeable so it was sometimes preferable to jump in a cab.
10. Final Myanmar travel tip
One last tip for your departure from Myanmar. Mirroring the occasionally chaotic Bangkok Airways check-in at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) – our check-in experience with Bangkok Airways at Yangon International Airport (RGN) was anything but slick. It’s first-come, first-served, no matter how problematic your fellow passengers. We had the good fortune to arrive just behind:
- (A) a visiting orchestra (checking in an army’s worth of cellos), and;
- (B) two tour groups of elderly Europeans, all of whom repacked their overweight suitcases at the check-in desk itself.
Perhaps the problem lay in the Burmese staff being too polite to say what a brisk Heathrow desk agent would offer. Give yourself more than two hours for your departing flight at the airport and keep your Kindle handy! You might have a nice, long wait.
Yangon hotel review
In 2014 the building was converted to a Shangri-La from a Traders Hotel. The building is nearly 20 years old but has been extensively renovated. It’s definitely not as impressive on first look as a Singapore or Bangkok Shangri-La (much newer, custom buildings) – but the staff make this hotel what it is.
Horizon Lounge at Sule Shangri-La: During check-in, we were given the option of buying a Horizon Lounge pass, and doing so was a great decision. The lounge is on the hotel’s 21st floor, so the views are phenomenal and the staff are even more fantastic (with far fewer guests to look after, they have the time to be).
If we hadn’t signed up for the Horizon Lounge we might not have been as impressed with the hotel – the space and the staff really made our stay. If you find a good rate for your dates, you can also book a Horizon Club Room directly. The dress code is “business lounge” (which specifies no shorts, sandals or sleeveless shirts).
With Horizon Lounge access you can have breakfast in serene and quiet surroundings (and we found that the staff knew our coffee order by Day 2). Soft drinks and snacks are available all day, and a daily happy hour offers drinks and a Burmese snack buffet. At any point on a hot day, it’s a really nice, cool oasis and is again a welcome spot for a night-cap.
Room: Very comfortable, the bed especially. Linens were changed daily and the entire space was very clean. Fantastic water pressure! While not massive or exotic it’s certainly five-star standard.
Sule Shangri-La facilities: A staff member mentioned to us that the hotel was 110% booked – who knew that was possible? As such, the facilities seemed a little undersized. The swimming pool, though delightful, wasn’t really big enough. True to form, we just wanted to visit the pool bar (where the bar staff were absolutely amazing) but sun-bathers were struggling to find available pool beds. Though we didn’t use it, there’s a reasonable looking gym – again, not massive but full of good equipment.
Spa: To totally unwind, we booked a visit to the spa. The massage was brilliant, as was a 90-minute facial. The massage and beauty spaces are in separate areas on the same floor. The latter isn’t glitzy or particularly lavish – but the service is. What does décor matter when you’ve got your eyes closed?
Security: Very good. An airport-style scanner in the entrance checks both visitors and bags/parcels, so guests have total peace of mind on that front.
As you’d expect, the staff at Sule Shangri-La Yangon were superbly helpful but, city-wide, we met only smiling faces.