My mission to travel to every country in the world means visiting countries commonly perceived to be dangerous. First off I want to make it clear that I do not want to downplay the safety risks of any country, but rather make clear what exactly the risks are and how you can remain safe. Embarrassingly, I am not very knowledgeable about most places in the world until I start doing my last minute research just before a trip. So when I started planning my trip to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), you can imagine my surprise when the most common question that came up was is travel to Myanmar safe? Digging a little deeper, I found out more about the political situation in this Southeast Asian country.
To sum up a very complex situation, there is currently armed conflict in many areas of the country as Myanmar is in the midst of a civil war caused by a military coup. For the average traveler, this marks Myanmar as obviously unsafe. However, more adventurous travelers may still be interested as it is one of the cheapest countries to visit in Southeast Asia and therefore want more information before ultimately deciding whether or not travel to Myanmar is safe for you.
Understanding the Safety Situation in Myanmar
It's always important to consider the safety situation before getting started on any adventure. If you've made it here, you're probably wondering, is it safe to visit Myanmar? Well, I recently visited (February 2023) and took mental notes so that I could write this and help you make an informed decision.
According to the U.S. Department of State's Travel Advisory, Myanmar is at a level 4, aka do not travel. However, China was also at a level 4 for the majority of 2020 and 2021 and I still lived there for 5 years, so I tend to take these travel advisories with a grain of salt...
Recent political shifts, marked by a military coup in 2021, have significantly impacted the country's stability, leading to widespread civil unrest and protests. Myanmar's political landscape directly influences the overall safety for both local residents and international visitors. Armed groups are in conflict with each other in various areas which change regularly, but the popular tourist areas are largely unaffected. That being said, the most important way to gauge the current safety situation is to reach out to locals (especially local guides) who can give detailed advice about which areas are safe and which should be avoided at all costs.
I stayed in Mandalay, which was not an area with armed conflict and I felt completely safe walking around in the daytime. The locals are extremely friendly and more than willing to help out foreign tourists. Even though it feels safe, I cannot stress enough how you should still be using common sense and taking all the normal necessary precautions you would take when visiting foreign countries that are new to you.
I spent my entire trip with a local guide who helped navigate all the military checkpoints and keep me informed of updated areas to avoid. This is the best option to explore with peace of mind. To find a local guide, you can reach out on social media. I checked instagram hashtags as well as various facebook groups to get connected with locals to ask questions and get connected with my guide Mya who made my experience in Myanmar incredible!
The Current Political and Social Climate in Myanmar
Let's dive into the current political and social climate in Myanmar. There is ongoing conflict in the country, with the most recent being the coup staged by the military regime in 2021. In February the Myanmar military seized control, detaining elected leaders, including the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and declaring a state of emergency. This led to widespread protests within Myanmar, with citizens demanding the restoration of democratic governance.
It is forbidden to discuss the coup, so if you do visit be mindful of talking about it with locals as you might wind up getting them in trouble. I did find that many were still very eager to discuss the political situation and often brought it up, but they did so subtly and very carefully.
Myanmar is no stranger to internal conflicts - the ongoing Rohingya crisis involves the persecution of the Rohingya ethnic minority, a Muslim group, by the Myanmar military. The crisis escalated in 2017 when a military crackdown led to widespread violence, mass killings, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people. The Rohingya people are largely from the Rakhine state in Myanmar and this region as well as the border areas are still in active conflict and unsafe to visit.
As a result of these developments, travel restrictions have been imposed in certain areas of Myanmar for safety reasons. It is important for travelers to stay informed about the latest updates and advisories before planning any trips to the country. The political and social landscape in Myanmar evolves daily, making it essential to keep a close eye on news sources for accurate information and updates regarding this situation.
Tourist Destinations and Areas Considered Safe for Travelers
Luckily, despite the current political climate, there are plenty of tourist destinations and parts of the country that are considered safe for travelers to explore.
When it comes to the safest places to visit in Myanmar, some popular attractions stand out. Bagan, with its stunning ancient temples and pagodas, is a must-visit destination that is generally considered safe for tourists. Mandalay, where I spent my time, is known for its rich cultural heritage and vibrant markets and is also a safe area for travelers.
As a rule of thumb, urban areas like Yangon (the largest city in Myanmar) and Mandalay generally remain stable. Yangon offers a mix of modernity and tradition while still being relatively safe for tourists. The Inle Lake region is another popular choice with its picturesque landscapes and floating villages.
Of course, it's always a good idea to exercise caution no matter where you travel. Again, it is advisable to stay informed about current events and follow any travel advisories local guides and reputable travel sources. Pay attention to local news outlets if you are able to access them!
At the time of my visit, I was advised against driving between cities and told that the best way to get between cities was to fly. I only had a short visit planned, so opted stay in Mandalay for the duration of my trip. I have seen recent reports after my visit, however, of foreign travelers visiting and taking buses or even Grab cars between cities. This further proves how rapidly the situation changes and why you should do your research ahead of time before visiting!
Local Customs and Cultural Etiquette: Enhancing Your Safety Experience
Respecting local customs and cultural etiquette is not only a matter of courtesy but also a way to create a safer and more enriching travel experience in Myanmar. Understanding and embracing local customs can foster positive interactions with the local population.
Respecting Religious Sites
Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country, and religious sites hold significant cultural value. When visiting temples and pagodas, dress modestly, remove your shoes before entering, and observe quiet contemplation to show respect. You will notice Burmese military officials walking around in many of the popular religious sites, especially in major cities. If they catch you not observing the local customs, you can get into serious trouble. If you don't have the appropriate clothing, you can usually purchase a scarf to cover up your shoulders and knees at the entrance to most temples and pagodas.
Avoiding Sensitive Topics
Myanmar has a complex political history, and as mentioned earlier, since the military rule began discussions on certain topics may get you or locals in trouble with local authorities. Avoid engaging in conversations that could potentially lead to misunderstandings or discomfort, especially when discussing politics or the military. It's a good idea to follow the lead of locals when engaging in discussions about sensitive topics.
Safety Tips and Precautions for Traveling to Myanmar
If you've gotten this far and you're still determined to travel to Myanmar (you won't regret it - it's insanely beautiful!), I've got some additional tips to ensure that you have a secure and enjoyable trip to Myanmar. Visiting Myanmar requires a proactive approach and adherence to essential safety measures. By incorporating these precautions into your travel plans, you can enhance your safety and make the most of your time exploring Myanmar. Each tip contributes to a more informed and secure travel experience, allowing you to enjoy the country's beauty while minimizing potential risks.
Here are some additional ways you can stay safe:
Utilize a Local Guide
I previously mentioned that I used a local guide to get around Mandalay. I firmly believe that local guides are the key to ensuring that you have the best time as well as keeping you away from areas that are dangerous. They can also help you get through military checkpoints smoothly, and there are a lot of checkpoints. The younger military officials are really just teens and are excited to see foreign travelers, but the older ones are quite intimidating and I felt relieved to have my guide dealing with them for me.
Abide by the Local Laws
Whether it be avoiding political discussions or making sure that you wear a helmet while on a motorbike - keep yourself aware of the local laws and follow them at all times! Especially since the military rule, local authorities have gotten incredibly strict and I'm sure the last thing you want to do is wind up in prison in a foreign country.
One important thing to note is that it is required to have medical insurance to enter Myanmar. Supposedly you can use your own insurance but it wasn't clear on how to submit it. The Myanmar government has their own medical insurance that you can purchase for $50 usd prior to entering the country and it seems like this is the one they want you to have.
Stay Indoors at Night
I was told by locals to be indoors by sunset. It wasn't exactly clear to me why this was - whether crime picks up at night if it was coming from the military, but I tried my best to follow this general rule. I was told that even if I secured a taxi that promised to pick me up at a certain time, sometimes they got spooked and would drive away leaving you stranded. I have no idea what they were scared of, but definitely didn't want to find out.
I accidentally stayed out past sunset one day (long story) and realized that the street lights were not functioning. It was pitch black out and stray dogs were roaming the streets in packs. Definitely would not recommend wandering alone at night here!
This is the best way to keep safe in Myanmar! Keep up with the latest news, security alerts, and travel advisories You can reach out to locals, keep an eye out on the news, and regularly check official government sources to receive real-time updates on the security situation in Myanmar. Do not rely on outdated info - even this blog post might be outdated by the time you see it! Make sure that you have more than one source of information before visiting.
Making an Informed Decision About Traveling to Beautiful & Enigmatic Myanmar
Deciding whether to travel to Myanmar is not a decision to be made lightly as it involves a thorough assessment of the current situation, personal comfort levels, and a commitment to safety-conscious exploration. I can only offer you travel advice, but ultimately it is up to you to make the final decision on whether it is safe to travel to Myanmar.
Should you choose to book your trip to this incredible country, just know that you'll be in for a real treat!