Dispatch, Myanmar: Bring a lot of crisp U.S. bills

By Michelle Baran
Myanmar-Mandalay-CashTipsSenior editor Michelle Baran recently returned from Myanmar with Haimark Travel. Her second dispatch follows. Click to read Michelle's first dispatch

There are several things travelers should be prepared for when heading to Myanmar. Probably the most important (and the one I failed at miserably), is the fact that there is not a single way to obtain any additional cash in the country, and very few establishments that will accept credit cards (better to not count on this service at all).

Myanmar is still predominantly an all-cash economy, and the only country I have been to in the 21st century where there is not a single ATM or bank where foreigners can access their accounts.

So, for the time being, travelers need to make sure to bring a bit more in U.S. dollars than they anticipate spending, for any surprise expenditures, and they also need to be sure that they are clean, crisp bills, preferably hundreds (though any bills from $1 to $100 are accepted, you just get a better exchange rate for hundreds), dating from no earlier than 1997.

They will not exchange torn, marked-up or otherwise mangled bills.

I didn’t fully believe it myself, even though guide books and my host Hairmark Travel warned me of this situation. ("Oh, I’m sure there are at least a couple ATM machines in Yangon if I really need some more dough," I thought.) Consequently I ran into an embarrassing cash crunch that had me grimacing every time a gratuity-inducing service was administered (think playing tug-of-war with a bell hop over who would carry my luggage).

So, repeat after me: "Bring a lot of crisp U.S. bills."

Myanmar-MichelleTempleOutfitOther practical considerations: This is Myanmar, land of temples and pagodas. Footwear is almost never permitted in holy structures. Lace-up shoes are your worst enemy here. Velcro is only so-so.

Basically, you don’t want to be bending over constantly, so flip-flops with good arch support and cushioning are your best friend. Flip-flops that you don’t mind getting quite dusty are even better.

Also, it’s hot — a reality further complicated by the fact that many temples require bottoms that drop below the knees, and don’t allow what they refer to as “spaghetti strap” tops, so no skimpy tank tops, basically.

The men and women here all wear long skirts, or "longyi." I tried this out and ultimately found super light pants to be the best option for satisfying the heat-to-temple dress-code balancing act.

Another fix was bringing along leggings to throw on under an above-the-knee skirt. (Sorry guys, you’re kind of stuck with pants, or long Euro-style cropped pants, or longyi!)

You’re going to sweat, so just own it. That’s what air-conditioning and post-pagoda swimming pool sessions are for.

Interestingly, I had no problem rocking a hat everywhere, including inside the holiest of sites — I guess that’s more of a Christian cathedral issue. To each God his own.

People in Myanmar bring umbrellas everywhere, both for sporadic rains and to block out the powerful sun. I never thought myself to be much of a parasol gal, but on Inle Lake, where you spend your days zipping around in an open-air motorboat, a hat is often not enough.

I also highly recommend good sunglasses. That sun is something fierce, and whether it’s the lake waters or shiny pagodas, there seems to be a lot of objects brightly reflecting it into your eyes.

Tap water is a no-no (an obvious one in the developing world), but there is bottled water everywhere (which unfortunately is causing a big problem with plastic waste. Sigh.).

Food is amazingly plentiful and diverse (hints of India and Southeast Asia, but Burmese cooking really is its own thing), and delicious with varying spice levels available for non-natives. There are ample vegetarian options, as tofu is a big part of Burmese cuisine.

Accommodations meet Western standards. The service, while clearly still in its infancy, is adorable, earnest and well-meaning enough to make up for the on-the-fly training the entire hospitality industry is enduring with a surge of tourism coming quicker than the country can keep up with.

All of which is to say, if you are prepared, Myanmar will love you and you will love Myanmar back. Heed this advice, and that loving kindness Buddha preaches will bring you that much closer to tourist nirvana.

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