Having only officially re-opened its doors to tourism in 2010, Burma is one of the most untouched countries in Asia today. Whether you are venturing there as a teacher, volunteer, or backpacker, this country will both charm and challenge you while providing some of the most unforgettable experiences you’ve ever had while traveling.
Understandably, there is a distinct way you will learn to live as a foreigner in a country relatively new to tourism like Burma. Difficulties include a pretty enormous language barrier, slow and long travel times, poor infrastructure, and inaccessibility to some “creature comforts” you find more readily in Burma’s more developed neighbors.
This country will both charm and challenge you while providing some of the most unforgettable experiences you’ve ever had.
Not to mention the difficulty you experience once you learn about the country’s infamously complicated and painful history and reconcile those facts with the faces of some of the kindest and most gentle people in the world.
The good news, the politics are changing and Burma and its people are hopeful for what the future holds. If you’re headed to Burma to volunteer and travel, here’s a basic rundown of what you need to know.
1. Know What’s in a Name: Myanmar vs. Burma
The names Burma and Myanmar seem to be used interchangeably and you’ll hear different people say different things. Basically, it’s up to you and your beliefs, as well as the situation you’re in that may dictate what’s better to use.
In 1989, the military government renamed the country Myanmar and it’s still the official name of the country, recognized as such by the United Nations and the international diplomatic community at large. Burma was the name the British gave the country when they colonized it.
Most locals will say Burma since they didn’t have any say in the name change under their brutally oppressive government that was not democratically elected. Locals that say Myanmar usually say it because they want to honor their independence from Britain.
In day-to-day conversation, most people use Burma, but it’s best to use Myanmar if you’re meeting government officials or having formal business meetings. In this article, the BBC explains why they still officially use Burma for their reporting on the country.
2. Brush Up on Buddhism
Buddhism is essential to life in Burma and even influences the part of the population that practices Christianity, Islam, and other ancient belief systems. Burma practices the Theravada branch of Buddhism, and understanding its differences from Mahayana is a good starting place.
Knowing the basics will make trips to famous religious monuments even more enjoyable and it will also enrich your ability to respect local customs and ideas that may be rooted in the Buddhist tradition.
3. Expect Travel Restrictions
You've probably never visited a country with more restrictions on foreigners, everything from what bus company you're able to use to what regions you can legally access without permits (which take 1-4 weeks to obtain, if they are available at all). However, these limitations are keeping you -- and the local people -- safe and comfortable, so please respect them and find easier alternatives to get off the beaten path.
4. Adapt to the Food
Burmese food is not generally a crowd-pleaser among foreigners, since it can be very oily, salty, and lacks the diversity and sweet spice of Thailand or India. Do the best you can and try everything once.
A good bet is to have one of the noodle dishes for breakfast at the ubiquitous teahouses and eat a big lunch when the food tends to be freshest.
5. Learn a Little Burmese
Few foreigners learn anything more than "hello" and "thank you" in the local language, so set yourself apart by learning a couple additional phrases -- especially if you're there for an extended period of time (note: some study abroad providers will incorporate Burmese lessons into the program).
Burma boasts an incredible level of safety.
While they may prove tongue-twisting, the beaming reactions you'll get from the surprised locals will melt your heart and keep you learning more.
6. Find Opportunities to Volunteer or Participate in a Work Exchange
Opportunities to volunteer, teach, or work in Burma may be more limited than in other countries in the region, but there are still plenty of choices.
For example, a pretty comprehensive listing of non-profit organizations that offer volunteer opportunities can be found on NGO in Myanmar.
You can also browse the Go Overseas section dedicated to volunteering in Burma to see what programs we’ve discovered and reviewed.
Another increasingly popular option is to use Workaway, a site with several options, both short and long term, to work in exchange for free room and board with your host organization or family. Opportunities range from teaching English to volunteering in a monastery.
7. Be Gentle
If we can use just one word to describe the majority of the people you'll encounter as a visitor in Burma, it would be: gentle. Respond likewise and smile more, use open body language, negotiate with kindness, and practice patience when things take time.
8. Disconnect a Little Bit
Wifi is satisfactorily abundant in the major cities and tourist towns, but it's going to be slooooow. Do yourself a favor and disconnect more than you would if you were traveling elsewhere.
Consider visiting an internet cafe to knock out important to-do items if you must, and try using the internet late at night or early in the morning when other travelers aren't yet on the connection at your hotel or guesthouse.
9. Don’t Worry about Money
You may have heard that Burma is expensive or that ATMs are hard to come by, but rest assured, there are plenty of ATMs these days and it is not expensive. You can safely live on $40/day if you are visiting touristy areas, and $20-25 in the big cities (if you eat local food that is).
Still, keep emergency cash on hand (fresh US dollars) and look for opportunities that will provide your accommodation, which is still undoubtedly the majority of a foreigner's budget in Burma.
10. Read about the History
Although you’ll be sheltered from the ethnic and religious tensions that remain high across Burma, it greatly enriches your experience of the country to have a well-informed understanding of the history and politics that have affected, and still affect, more than 130 ethnic groups that reside within the borders of Burma.
11. Dress Appropriately
Dressing conservatively is important for both men and women. When in doubt, look at the locals to see what they are wearing and follow suit.
For ladies, that means covering your shoulders and knees, but the same is appreciated from the gents. Burmese men and women usually wear a longyi, so consider picking one up when you arrive and sporting the local fashion.
12. Get Used to Feeling Very Safe
Burma boasts an incredible level of safety. The Buddhist traditions that frown upon lying, cheating, and stealing make even petty theft a rarity in this country. Locals know that penalties of stealing from a foreigner are very high and might avoid even being in situations where they could be mistakenly accused of stealing something.
Regardless of the reason you choose to visit Burma, you must go knowing that you’re playing an important role in the future of tourism and international relations.
Because most Burmese people are still just getting used to the rise of foreign visitors, they also are not accustomed to ripping you off like in certain neighboring countries.
13. Take, and Know How to Survive, the Transport
There are so many delightful forms of transport in Burma: pickup truck, taxi, plane, bus, boat, motorcycle, and hitchhiking, just to name the obvious ones.
Try everything, dress in layers (the air-con is colder than you'd expect), bring a blanket and pillow, always wear a helmet whether driving or riding on a motorcycle, check to see if you have an assigned seat number before boarding anything, bring snacks from a major city, and get used to tight quarters.
14. Learn How to Talk Politics
Most likely, you've been told to be careful what you say about the government, but it's probably more open than you're expecting. The key is to wait for the Burmese person to initiate and lead the conversation and to use common sense when offering an opinion.
The usual safe topics include general ideas about change, recent elections, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, tourism, and economic development. If you sense resistance to discussing something, don't press that person and kindly change the topic.
15. Watch what the Locals Do
There's a hundred little subtleties in a culture as rich as this one. Any smart foreigner can tell you some of the basics:
- Don't point your feet at someone
- Don't touch people on the head
- Take off your shoes when entering a home or a temple
- Always pass money or objects with your right hand
But the best thing to do is to simply watch what everyone else does and do the same. If you're not sure if you can take a photo in a certain pagoda, watch what local visitors do (and err on the side of cautious respect); if you're not sure if you can turn right on your moped at a red light, follow the local traffic (and err on the side of international safety norms).
Monkey-see-monkey-do is the surest way to prevent an embarrassing or offensive cultural mishap, as well as a good way to show the Burmese people your willingness to honor their way of doing things while you're a guest in their country.
Most of All, Travel Responsibly
Burma’s one of the most recent countries in the world to re-open its borders to foreigners. Regardless of the reason you choose to visit Burma, you must go knowing that you’re playing an important role in the future of tourism and international relations in this fast-developing nation.
How you treat each local person you interact with shapes their ever-evolving view of foreigners; how you respect Burmese culture and customs affects their longevity and integrity; how you travel and speak about politics affects the safety of the people you meet; how and where you spend your money affects the local and national economy and government. Take this responsibility and your contribution seriously, and help to build a better Burma in your own small way.
Browse projects for volunteering in Burma.Photo Credits: Elaina Giolando