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Myanmar , or Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar , is a country in Southeast Asia. It lies on the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea coast with Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east.
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Like most of Southeast Asia's countries, Myanmar's people and history is a glorious mishmash of settlers and invaders from all fronts. The Mon and the Pyu are thought to have come from India, while the now dominant Bamar (Burmese) migrated through Tibet and, by 849, had founded a powerful kingdom centred on Bagan. For the next millennium, the Burmese empire grew through conquests of Thailand (Ayutthaya) and India (Manipur), and shrank under attacks from China and internal rebellions.
Eventually, Britain conquered Burma over a period of 62 years (1824-1886) and incorporated it into its Indian Empire. It was administered as a province of India until 1947 when it became a separate self-governing colony. During the Second World War, Burma was a major battleground as the Allies fought the Japanese for dominance over Asia. The Burma Road was built to get supplies to China. The Thailand-Burma railroad (the so-called "Death Railway") from Kanchanaburi in Thailand over the River Kwai to Burma was built by the Japanese using forced labour — Allied prisoners-of-war, indentured Thai labourers, and Burmese people. They had to work in appalling conditions and a great number of them died (estimated at 80,000) during construction of the railway. Large parts of Western Burma, particularly the hilly areas bordering India and the city of Mandalay were severely damaged during the war.
While the Burmese independence fighters led by Aung San initially cooperated with the Japanese to oust the British, with the Japanese promising to grant independence to Burma in exchange, it soon became apparent that the Japanese promises of independence were empty. The Japanese occupation was more brutal than the British colonisation, and many Burmese were killed, such as in the Kalagong massacre. Aung San subsequently switched alliegance and helped the British win Burma back from the Japanese. Aung San subsequently led negotiations with the British for Burmese independence after the end of World War II, and the British agreed in 1947 to grant independence to Burma the following year, though Aung San himself was assassinated later in the year and never lived to see his dream come true. Independence from the British under the name Union of Burma was finally attained in 1948, and till this day, Aung San is regarded by most Burmese people to be the father of independence.
The new union brought together various states defined by ethnic identity, many of whom had centuries-long histories of autonomy from and struggles against each other. In the interest of securing their collective independence from Britain, the tribes reached an agreement to submit to collective governance—with power sharing among the ethnicities and states—for ten years, after which each tribe would be afforded the right to secede from the union. The terms of this "Panglong Agreement" were enshrined in the 1947/1948 constitution of the new Union of Burma. The new central government of the nation quickly worked to consolidate its power, marginalizing and angering tribal leaders and setting off more than a decade of armed conflict. In 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from the Shan people, Kachin people, Red Karen, Karen people, Chin peoples, Mon people and Rakhine people met with ethnic Bamar (Burmese) central government authorities to draft a new form of government which would ensure the tribes both autonomy and self-determination within a federal system.
The new government was never formed. Military leader General Ne Win led a coup d'état which ousted the democratically elected government in 1962, and subsequently installed himself as leader. General Ne Win dominated the government from 1962 to 1988, first as military ruler, then as self-appointed president, and later as political kingpin. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 were violently crushed, with general Saw Maung taking over in a coup and installing the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) to rule the country, now renamed Myanmar.
Multiparty legislative elections were held in 1990, with the main opposition party - the National League for Democracy (NLD) - winning a landslide victory (392 of 489 seats). But SLORC refused to hand over power, instead placing NLD leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of national hero Aung San) under house arrest, which she has endured for 14 of the last 20 years.
Today Myanmar, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. What was once one of the richest and most developed countries in Asia has since slumped into poverty due to widespread corruption. The junta took steps in the early 1990s to liberalize price controls after decades of failure under the "Burmese Way to Socialism," but had to reinstate subsidized prices on staples in the face of food riots, upon which the democracy movement grafted its agenda. The government called out troops and the rioters were defiant until the monks intervened: standing between both sides, they told everyone to go home and they did. The riots caused overseas development assistance to cease and the government subsequently nullified the results of the 1990 legislative elections.
In response to the government's attack in May 2003 on Aung San Suu Kyi and her convoy, the USA imposed new economic sanctions against Myanmar, including bans on imports of products from Myanmar and on provision of financial services by US citizens.
The summer of 2007 was marked by demonstrations against the military government which were again brutally suppressed. The demonstrations started in August, apparently in an uncoordinated manner, as a protest against a stiff hike in the price of petrol, but morphed into a more serious challenge to the government after three monks were beaten at a protest march in the town of Pakokku. The monks demanded an apology but none was forthcoming and soon processions of monks with begging bowls held upside down filled many cities (including Sittwe, Mandalay, and Yangon). Yangon, particularly the area around Sule Pagoda in the downtown area, became the centre of these protests. While the monks marched, and many ordinary citizens came out in support of the monks, the world watched as pictures, videos, and blogs flooded the Internet. However, the government soon suppressed the protests by firing on crowds, arresting monks and closing monasteries, and temporarily shut down Internet communications with the rest of the world. This led the USA, Australia, Canada and the European Union to impose additional sanctions, some targeting the families and finances of the military leaders.
Following elections in 2010, Burma began a process of liberalization that has lead to a reduction or removal of sanctions by many nations including the United States. In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the Burmese parliament and allowed to travel to Europe and North America. Censorship of foreign and local news has also been suspended.
Myanmar is considered to have 3 seasons. The hot season is usually from Mar–Apr. Temperatures then cool off during the rainy season from May–Oct. The peak tourism season is the cool season from Nov–Feb. Temperatures can climb as high as 36°C in Yangon in the hot season while in the cool season, noontime temperatures are usually a more bearable 32°C, with night temperatures falling to around 19°C. Mandalay is slightly cooler in the cool season, with temperatures falling as low as 13°C, while temperatures in the hot season can go as high as 37°C. Generally, Lower Myanmar, the area around Yangon, receives more rainfall than the drier Upper Myanmar (around Mandalay).
In the highlands such as Inle Lake and Pyin U Lwin, winter temperatures can fall below 10°C at night, while daytime temperatures tend to be very pleasant. Even in the summer, temperatures rarely climb above 32°C. Near the Indian border in Kachin State, there are permanently snow capped mountains.
Myanmar is an excellent country for trekking. Kalaw is a centre for trekking, and has miles and miles of trails through mountains and hill tribe villages. Kengtung is also known for its hiking paths to hill tribe villages, while Hsipaw has some great treks to waterfalls. Birdwatching can be done around Inle Lake.
Burmese food is influenced by that of India and China, yet has its own uniqueness. Apart from Burmese food, other ethnic traditional foods such as Shan food, Rakhine food, and Myeik food are also distinct. Rice is at the core of Burmese food, and good vegetarian food is widely available. Burmese food is often extremely pungent. Similar to neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, fish sauce (ငံပြာရည် ngan bya yay) is a very popular condiment in Myanmar, and is widely used to flavour many dishes. Food is inexpensive at most restaurants (costing from 500-3,000 kyat per item at most local restaurants, but can go as high as 8,000 kyat at posh restaurants). There are many up-scale restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay.
The majority of low-to-middle class restaurants use a cheap blend of palm oil for cooking. This oil may be unhealthy, and common roadside restaurants should be avoided if you are at the slightest risk for hypertension, heart disease, or other fat- or cholesterol-related conditions. Higher class restaurants may use peanut oil instead.
What to eat
- Curry. Burmese people have a very different definition of curry than other countries. It is very spicy compared to Indian and Thai options, and although you may find it served at room temperature in cheaper restaurants, in a typical Burmese home all curry dishes are served hot. Burmese curry does not contain coconut milk, unlike its SE Asian counterparts, and has a large quantity of onion or tomato depending on region and cook's preference. Myanmar is the highest per-capita consumer of onions in the world. Quite often Burmese curries are cooked with lots of oil, possibly due to a widely-regarded notion that being able to afford cooking oil (along with rice and salt) is considered a sign of wealth.
- Laphet thote (Pronounced la-peh THOU). A salad of fermented tea leaves and a variety of nuts. It is commonly mixed with sliced lettuce, and is eaten with rice. The dish originally comes from Shan State.
- Mohinga (Pronounced mo-HIN-ga). A dish of rice vermicelli with fish gravy (orange in colour), usually accompanied by coriander and chilli powder. Its taste can range from sweet to spicy, and is usually eaten at breakfast. It is considered by many to be the national dish, and is widely available throughout the country, albeit in different styles in different regions.
- Nan Gyi Thoke (Pronounced nan gyi thou). A special dish of rice noodle salad with chicken sauce. It is mostly eaten in mid-Myanmar.
- Onnokauswe (Pronounced oun-NO-kao-sui). A dish of thicker noodles in a thick soup of coconut milk with chicken. It is served with a variety of condiments accompanying it, ranging from fried fruit fritters to solidified duck blood. "Khao soi"("noodle" in Burmese), often found on the streets of Chiang Mai, is derived from this Burmese counterpart. It is also comparable to the more spicier Laksa often found in peninsular SE countries like Malaysia and Singapore.
- Shan food. The Shan are an ethnic group who inhabit Shan State around Inle lake, near the Thai border. Their food is marvellous. It can be found in Yangon easily.
Tap water in Myanmar is not safe to drink, likewise ice may be contaminated. Bottled water is readily available at many tourist sites.
Similar to Chinese Tea, Yenwejan is usually provided free at restaurant tables. While not flavourful, it is boiled water, and so safe to drink (do not drink plain water - even in restaurants - unless it is bottled water). Dried tea leaves similar to Laphet thote's tea leaves (except these are wet) are added to the boiled water to give Yenwejan Be sure to order it with Laphet thote (Customary/Good combination).
Alcohol is frowned upon by conservative Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims, but consumed widely, mostly among men. Myanmar Beer is most popular in the country. Other variants, including Mandalay Beer exist. However, many of such companies are government-owned and/or have links to the drug trade. Toddy juice (ta-YEI) is popular in central Myanmar, and is made from fermented palm sugar. An alcoholic drink popular in the Shan State is Shwe le maw, and is reportedly very strong. It is also possible to buy full strength Beer Chang imported from Thailand; exports to most countries are not nearly as strong.
Beware of alcoholic drinks served in the far northern states. The locals refer to it as alcohol which does not burn when lit, and it is widely suspected to be an opiate concoction rather than a fermented beverage.
There are a lot of nightclubs, including those attached to the five star hotels (e.g. Grand Plaza), and also local entertainment centres (e.g. JJs, Asia plaza).
Myanmar's currency is the kyat (abbreviated K), pronounced "chut/chat". Pya are coins, and are rarely seen. Foreigners are required to pay in US dollars for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel and sometimes for bus tickets as well, and are required to pay in kyat for most other transactions (trishaws, pickups, tips, food, etc.). According to the law, it is illegal for a Myanmar citizen to accept (or hold) US dollars without a licence but this law is mostly ignored and US dollars are generally accepted. Never insist though because it may be dangerous for the receiver. FECs are still legal tender but are rarely seen and are worth very little.
Kyat officially cannot be exchanged abroad, though money changers in places with large overseas Burmese populations such as Singapore will often exchange anyway. Bring very clean, unfolded US dollars (or they will not be accepted by hotels, restaurants and money changers), and dispose of remaining kyat before leaving.
Due to the low dollar (Sep 2010), an increasing preference for paying in kyat is noticeable, especially when paying for food, private transport (car/taxi), and tours/activities.
In an effort to combat counterfeiting some places, especially currency exchange companies, will seemingly arbitrarily reject US dollar notes, usually big notes such as the USD100 and the USD50. This is usually due to them looking too new or having a certain serial number however not all places will do this.
Visitors do not need to bring cash anymore when landing in Yangon, as there is currently one ATM accepting MasterCard and Visa card . To be on the safe side, in case the airport ATM is broken, it is best to bring the necessary cash. There is, however, another ATM in town, so ask your taxi driver in case of emergency. Also, some hotels in Yangon will do a cash advance on a credit card through Singapore. People have reported that hotels charge a commission ranging from 7% up to 30% and may need to sight your passport to process the transaction. For US Citizens, it is also possible to receive funds from friends or relatives in an emergencies through the US Embassy.
Especially on holidays and Sundays, all your necessary money should be changed at the airport as banks in town are closed. Money changer offer a significant less rate (5-10% lower) for changing your dollars. In any way it is the most hassle free option to change all your necessary money at the airport as you can also change it back for an almost negliciable fee. Look around at the different banks for the best exchange rate.
The foreign currency of choice in Myanmar is the US dollar nationwide, though you can readily also exchange Euros and Singapore dollars in Yangon and Mandalay but perhaps not beyond. Other options are the Chinese Yuan and Thai baht. The best rates are in Yangon and Mandalay.
Be sure to bring a mix of USD denominations when visiting Myanmar because money changers will not give change and 20/10/5/1-dollar notes are useful for some entry fees and transportation.
Official and black market rates
Currency controls have been relaxed in recent times, and banks no longer exchange foreign currencies at the ridiculous rate they used to. These days, exchange rates at the banks are usually better than the black market rates. Most banks accept US dollars, Euros and Chinese yuan. Singapore dollars and Thai baht can also be changed at some of the larger banks.
Ensure that your dollars are the following:
- No marks, stamps, anti-counterfeit pen, ink or any other mark on them at all. Pencil can be removed with a good eraser, but any permanent marks will greatly decrease a note's value and ability to be exchanged.
- Fresh, crisp and as close to brand new as possible. Moneychangers have been known to reject notes just for being creased and/or lightly worn.
- Undamaged. No tears, missing bits, holes, repairs or anything of that sort.
- Preferably, the new designs, with the larger portrait, and the multiple-colour prints. Although, old-style USD1 are still commonly traded.
- For USD100 bills, have no serial numbers starting "CB". This is because they are associated with a counterfeit "superbill" which was in circulation some time ago.
USD100 and USD50 bills give you the best exchange rate at the banks. Changing USD50 or USD20 notes gives you a slightly lower rate (10-20 kyat/dollar less)
The notes of 50, 100, 200, and 500 kyat are most of the time in a horrible condition, but are generally accepted when making small purchases. The 1,000 kyat notes are slightly better, and when exchanging dollars into kyat, check that the banknotes you receive are in a general good condition.
There are a number of tricks and scams running around Myanmar trapping tourists who are carrying US Dollars. Sometimes, guesthouses or traders will try and pass you damaged or nonexchangeable bills in change. Always inspect all notes when making a purchase and request that the vendor swap any notes you think you will have trouble using down the track (this is perfectly acceptable behaviour for both vendors and customers, so don't be shy).
Some moneychangers will also attempt sleight of hand tricks to either swap your good banknotes for damaged, or lower denomination notes. Other reports suggest that the kyats may be counted and then somehow, some disappear from the table during the transaction. For example, after going through an elaborate counting process for piles of ten 1000 kyat notes, some money changers will pull some notes out as they count the piles of ten.
When changing money, be sure that, after any money is counted, it is not touched by anyone until the deal is sealed. Also do not allow your dollars to be removed from your sight until all is agreed; in fact, it is not even necessary to pull out your US dollars until your are paying for the kyats you received. It sounds extreme, but ending up in a country where you cannot access whatever savings you have, and having a good portion of your budget rendered useless (until you get to more relaxed changers in Bangkok) can really put a dampener on your plans.
Outside of Myanmar, your kyat is almost worthless but do make nice souvenirs. Make sure to exchange your kyat back to US dollars before you leave the country
Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs)
Visitors to Myanmar were previously required to change USD200 into FECs upon arrival, but this was abolished in August 2003. FECs are still valid tender but should be avoided at all costs as they are no longer worth their face value (although a one FEC note has good souvenir potential).
Credit cards and ATMs
The CB Bank has around 30 ATMs accepting international Visa and MasterCard (The Visa card withdrawal is new, so you may find signboards writing only MasterCard is accepted, which is wrong.) Due to former EU and US sanctions, credit cards are still rarely accepted in Myanmar. As of May 2013 in Yangon more than 50 ATMs are available, however not all are working. It may take a while until you find a working one. Usual withdrawal limit is 300,000 kyat, processing fee of 5,000 kyat. Beside the ATMs, there are places where cash can be obtained with a credit card, but the rates are extremely uncompetitive (with premiums certainly no lower than around 7%, and with quotes of 30% and more frequently reported). An exceptionally small minority of upmarket hotels accept credit card payments (and will surcharge accordingly). In case you run out of money, ask your taxi driver to drive you to the CB Bank ATM.
Travellers cheques are not accepted in Myanmar. The only exception might be some especially shady money changer, but be prepared to pay an astronomical commission (30% is not uncommon).
It's not possible to be comfortable on less than USD25/day (May 2013). Foreigners will likely be charged fees, including video camera, camera, entrance, parking and zone fees. Most managed tourist site charge for carrying cameras of any sort into the area. Double rooms with private bathroom are nearly always more than USD20, in Yangon a double room without bathroom costs USD20. While you cannot save on accommodation, you can save on food. Street food can get as low as USD0.30 for 2 small curries with 2 Indian breads, USD1for a normal (vegetarian) dish. Even in touristy places like Bagan dishes cost under USD1 (vegetarian) and USD2 (meat). A draught Myanmar beer (5%) is around 600 kyat, a bottle of Myanmar beer (650 ml) is around 1,700 kyat, a bottle of Mandalay beer (6.5%, 650ml) around 1,200 kyat.
What to buy
- Antiques. Myanmar is probably the last unspoiled market for antiques and, with a good eye, it is easy to pick up bargains there. Old Raj coins are the most popular (and have little value except as souvenirs), but everything ranging from Ming porcelain to Portuguese furniture (in Moulmein) can be found. Unfortunately, Burmese antique sellers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and, increasingly, the bargains were probably made the day before in the shop-owners backyard. It is against the law to export religious antiques (manuscripts, Buddhas, etc.)
- Gemstones. Myanmar is a significant source of jade, rubies, and sapphire (the granting of a licence to the French over the ruby mines in Mogok was one of the causes leading to the Third Burmese War) and these can be obtained at a fraction of what it would cost in the West. Be warned, however, that there are a lot of fakes for sale amid the genuine stuff and, unless you know your gems, buy from an official government store or risk being cheated. Bogoyoke Aung San Market in Yangon has many licensed shops and is generally a safe place for the purchase of these stones.
- Lacquer ware. A popular purchase, which is made into bowls, cups, vases, tables and various items, and is available almost anywhere. The traditional centre of lacquer ware production is Bagan in central Myanmar. Beware of fraudulent lacquer ware, though, which is poorly made, but looks authentic. (As a general rule, the stiffer the lacquer, the poorer the quality; the more you can bend and twist it, the finer the quality.)
- Tapestries. Known as kalaga, or shwe chi doe. There is a long tradition of weaving tapestries in Burma. These are decorated with gold and silver thread and sequins and usually depict tales from the Buddhist scriptures (the jatakas) or other non-secular objects from Burmese Buddhism (mythical animals, the hintha, and the kalong are also popular subjects). The tapestry tradition is dying out but many are made for tourists and are available in Mandalay and Yangon. Burmese tapestries don't last long, so be warned if someone tries to sell you an antique shwe chi doe!
- Textiles. Textiles in Myanmar are stunning. Each region and each ethnic group has its own style. Chin fabrics are particularly stunning. They are handwoven in intricate geometric patterns, often in deep reds and mossy greens and white. They can be quite pricey, perhaps USD20 for the cloth to make a longyi (sarong).
This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Myanmar on Wikivoyage.
States in Myanmar
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Points of Interest in Myanmar
Myanmar has not been on the hit list of many travellers through Southeast Asia, and it's difficult to understand why. The country is a true, unspoiled treasure trove, and should capture the imagination of anyone interested in culture and history. Walking around Yangon brings you back to the time of 19th century British colonial rule. Sparkling-clean parks and temples stand side by side decayed colonial-style buildings and deep potholes. Its cultural and religious attractions, like the Shwedagon Pagoda, add to the city's feel of exoticism, as do the smiles of the locals. Every street corner brings something new—and a short ferry over the river even gives you a glimpse of rural life in the country. Cities of cultural and historical interest close to Yangon are Bago with its Buddhist sights, the delta town of Twante known for its pottery, and the pilgrimage site of Kyaiktiyo with its gold-gilded rock balancing precariously over a cliff.
It's definitely worth it to further explore the Bamar heartland—unfortunately the outer fringes of the country are off-limits to foreigners. The former city of Bagan is a true gem, and gives a glimpse of what life in the 11th and 12th centuries here must have been like. Marco Polo described it as the "gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". It is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world. Mrauk U is another one of those mysterious places—a sleepy village today, its crumbling pagodas and temples remind of the early modern period, when it was the capital city of an empire involved in extensive maritime trade with Portuguese, Dutch, French and Arab traders. Within daytripping distance from Mandalay is Inwa, another former capital where ruins remain to remind visitors of its former glory. Also don't miss Pyin U Lwin, a former British hill station with somewhat cooler temperatures.
The country has its fair share of natural attractions. Inle Lake is where the backpacker community resides, and it is one of the few places that is starting to feel like a tourist trap. Still, a trip to Myanmar is not complete without a boat trip on the lake. It has a unique vibe with tribes living in stilt houses and paddling their traditional wooden boats with one leg. The country's long southwestern coastline also has a few beaches, such as Chaung Tha and Ngapali. If you visit outside of the traditional holiday season, you might just have a beautiful white sand beach for yourself.
Shwedagon Pagoda - Yangon
Ananda Temple - Nyaung-U
Mingun Paya - Mandalay
Shwethalyaung Buddha - Bago
Htukkanthein Temple - Sittwe
Pra Kaew Temple - Kengtung
Ngapali Beach - Thandwe
Mount Popa - Kyaukpadaung
Kyaukpandaung - Kyauktaw
Indawgyi Lake - Myitkyina
Alaungdak Kathapa - Gangaw
Natma Taung - Pauk
Yangon City Hall - Yangon
Sule Pagoda - Yangon
Bogyoke Market - Yangon
Maha Bandula Park - Yangon
U Bein\'s Bridge - Mandalay
St. Mary\'s Cathedral - Yangon
Dhammayangyi Temple - Nyaung-U
Thatbyinnyu Temple - Nyaung-U