11 Tips for Myanmar Cruises

by Kristen Boatright

11 Tips for Myanmar Cruises

by Kristen Boatright

With a complicated and interesting history, this Southeast Asian country is beautiful and still largely undiscovered. Since opening its borders in 2011, Myanmar — formerly Burma — has been welcoming a steady stream of visitors. The 1,348 mile Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River runs north to south through Myanmar and more than a dozen luxury ships, including AmaPura and Avalon Myanmar, now carry passengers along this route. Here are some tips and takeaways from our 14-day cruise in Myanmar.

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Hot air balloons over Bagan temples / Kristen Boatright
Life along the Irrawaddy River
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1. Wake up early.

Get up early to catch the start of the new day from your balcony or the sun deck. Sunrises along the river are incredible, whether over river-side Buddhist temples and shrines or the rice paddies and agriculture fields of the delta region.

If you're in Bagan, on the eastern banks of the river, more than a dozen hot air balloons leave at dawn each day (when in season) to give visitors a bird's-eye view of the ancient city's 2,000 majestic temples. 

Get up early to catch the start of the new day from your balcony or the sun deck. Sunrises along the river are incredible, whether over river-side Buddhist temples and shrines or the rice paddies and agriculture fields of the delta region.

If you're in Bagan, on the eastern banks of the river, more than a dozen hot air balloons leave at dawn each day (when in season) to give visitors a bird's-eye view of the ancient city's 2,000 majestic temples. 

AmaWaterways guide at market in Myanmar
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2. Go with a guide.

Tourism may be on the rise in Myanmar, but the country is still slowly developing and can be difficult to get around. Whether traveling via land or river, stick with licensed guides — they’re trained and knowledgeable, and speak the language. An added bonus is that they're also eager to share personal anecdotes and experiences. Remember: A valid passport and entry visa are required for travel to Myanmar.

Tourism may be on the rise in Myanmar, but the country is still slowly developing and can be difficult to get around. Whether traveling via land or river, stick with licensed guides — they’re trained and knowledgeable, and speak the language. An added bonus is that they're also eager to share personal anecdotes and experiences. Remember: A valid passport and entry visa are required for travel to Myanmar.

Market in Minhla, Myanmar
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3. Exchange for local currency when you arrive.

Cash is king in Myanmar, as credit cards were introduced only a few years ago and are not widely accepted outside of major cities. You’ll want to come prepared to shop in the local markets and to have small bills to tip guides and drivers, so bring crisp, newly printed U.S. bills and exchange them for Burmese kyats at the airport or as soon as you arrive in Yangon or Mandalay. Exchange counters do not charge commission and most banks and exchanges have about the same exchange rate.

Cash is king in Myanmar, as credit cards were introduced only a few years ago and are not widely accepted outside of major cities. You’ll want to come prepared to shop in the local markets and to have small bills to tip guides and drivers, so bring crisp, newly printed U.S. bills and exchange them for Burmese kyats at the airport or as soon as you arrive in Yangon or Mandalay. Exchange counters do not charge commission and most banks and exchanges have about the same exchange rate.

Buddhists pray in Bagan, Myanmar
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4. Pack appropriately.

Often called "The Land of Golden Pagodas," Myanmar is devoutly Buddhist, with more than 80 percent of the population practicing some form of the religion. So, it should come as no surprise that religious sites are likely to fill the itineraries of any trip to Myanmar. Modest clothing is a must. When visiting temples and pagodas, both men and women must cover their knees and shoulders. Also be prepared to remove your shoes and socks.

Often called "The Land of Golden Pagodas," Myanmar is devoutly Buddhist, with more than 80 percent of the population practicing some form of the religion. So, it should come as no surprise that religious sites are likely to fill the itineraries of any trip to Myanmar. Modest clothing is a must. When visiting temples and pagodas, both men and women must cover their knees and shoulders. Also be prepared to remove your shoes and socks.

Buddhist novitiation ceremony at Myathalon Pagoda
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5. You may get "templed out."

If religious sites aren't your cup of tea, this destination may not be for you. Visitors may come to feel that all of the temples are running together, but it's important to remember that these sites are a significant part of Myanmar society. They are also a gathering place for families and offer a glimpse into the country's culture and customs. If you're lucky, you may catch a special occasion like a Buddhist novitiation ceremony — a rite of passage for boys in the religion — or even a wedding.

If religious sites aren't your cup of tea, this destination may not be for you. Visitors may come to feel that all of the temples are running together, but it's important to remember that these sites are a significant part of Myanmar society. They are also a gathering place for families and offer a glimpse into the country's culture and customs. If you're lucky, you may catch a special occasion like a Buddhist novitiation ceremony — a rite of passage for boys in the religion — or even a wedding.

Inwa, Myanmar
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6. It can be very hot.

Myanmar has three main seasons: cool and dry, hot and dry, and rainy. Most river cruises skip the rainy season, which is generally from May to October. During the cooler dry season of November through January, temperatures average 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while the mercury climbs to 110 F or higher during the hot and dry months of February through April. The sun can also be particularly strong in the central plain.

Locals wear lightweight long sleeves and pants or traditional longyis to stay cool. To protect their skin from the sun, women and children slather their faces with “thanaka,” a distinctive yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark. Sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen are a must for travelers. Pack a light sweater for mornings and evenings in the cooler months. 

Myanmar has three main seasons: cool and dry, hot and dry, and rainy. Most river cruises skip the rainy season, which is generally from May to October. During the cooler dry season of November through January, temperatures average 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while the mercury climbs to 110 F or higher during the hot and dry months of February through April. The sun can also be particularly strong in the central plain.

Locals wear lightweight long sleeves and pants or traditional longyis to stay cool. To protect their skin from the sun, women and children slather their faces with “thanaka,” a distinctive yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark. Sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen are a must for travelers. Pack a light sweater for mornings and evenings in the cooler months. 

Clay pot production in Yandabo, Myanmar
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7. Save suitcase room for shopping.

Buying directly from the locals helps support towns and villages by pumping money into their local economies. Along the river you can pick up beautiful handmade pottery made from river clay, and textiles like the longyis sported by men and women throughout the country. The tradition of lacquerware in Myanmar can be traced back to 12th- and 13th-century Bagan and the surrounding architectural area. This intricate process, which involves stripping bamboo, drawing by hand, and layering bamboo objects with the sap of the lacquer tree, is on display at workshops throughout Bagan, and the resulting goods are sold at accompanying shops. 

Buying directly from the locals helps support towns and villages by pumping money into their local economies. Along the river you can pick up beautiful handmade pottery made from river clay, and textiles like the longyis sported by men and women throughout the country. The tradition of lacquerware in Myanmar can be traced back to 12th- and 13th-century Bagan and the surrounding architectural area. This intricate process, which involves stripping bamboo, drawing by hand, and layering bamboo objects with the sap of the lacquer tree, is on display at workshops throughout Bagan, and the resulting goods are sold at accompanying shops. 

Street food in Myanmar
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8. Eat like a local.

More than 135 different ethnic groups, each with its own history and culture, call Myanmar home, and this diversity is evident in the country's cuisine. Traditional foods include a variety of salads (like “lahpet thoke,” made with fermented tea leaves) and “mohinga,” a rice noodle fish soup that is a common breakfast dish. Rice grows in abundance in the Irrawaddy delta and is a component in most meals. Some dishes draw from Myanmar's Indian and Chinese neighbors and are flavored with curries, fish sauces, chilies, and other spices.

Tea shops, which can be found in every town, are a good place to sample local cuisine. And, like other Southeast Asian destinations, street food is also very popular.

More than 135 different ethnic groups, each with its own history and culture, call Myanmar home, and this diversity is evident in the country's cuisine. Traditional foods include a variety of salads (like “lahpet thoke,” made with fermented tea leaves) and “mohinga,” a rice noodle fish soup that is a common breakfast dish. Rice grows in abundance in the Irrawaddy delta and is a component in most meals. Some dishes draw from Myanmar's Indian and Chinese neighbors and are flavored with curries, fish sauces, chilies, and other spices.

Tea shops, which can be found in every town, are a good place to sample local cuisine. And, like other Southeast Asian destinations, street food is also very popular.

Ox-drawn taxis in Mingun, Myanmar
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9. It's still a developing country.

It’s not all glitter and gold — Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Though it continues to transition, endemic poverty remains, especially in rural areas, and this can be difficult to see. However, the people are very welcoming and it can be a perspective-building experience.

It’s not all glitter and gold — Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Though it continues to transition, endemic poverty remains, especially in rural areas, and this can be difficult to see. However, the people are very welcoming and it can be a perspective-building experience.

Sunset at the U Bein Bridge in Myanmar
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10. Don't forget your camera ...

... and spare batteries and memory cards. The scenery is stunning and Myanmar has no shortage of photo ops, but you won't find a CVS or Duane Reade on every corner, so come prepared. Also, if you're hoping to Instagram your entire trip, be warned: Connectivity is limited.

... and spare batteries and memory cards. The scenery is stunning and Myanmar has no shortage of photo ops, but you won't find a CVS or Duane Reade on every corner, so come prepared. Also, if you're hoping to Instagram your entire trip, be warned: Connectivity is limited.

Young nun in Mandalay
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11. Be ready for friendly faces.

The people of Myanmar are some of the most genuinely kind and friendly people you'll meet. After decades of oppression, they're eager for visitors to experience their country. While one of the world's longest running civil wars continues between the government and minority groups near some border regions, the areas that tourists will travel in are safe with very little crime. Locals are welcoming and quick with a smile. Learn a few words and say hello — or “mingalarbar!”

The people of Myanmar are some of the most genuinely kind and friendly people you'll meet. After decades of oppression, they're eager for visitors to experience their country. While one of the world's longest running civil wars continues between the government and minority groups near some border regions, the areas that tourists will travel in are safe with very little crime. Locals are welcoming and quick with a smile. Learn a few words and say hello — or “mingalarbar!”

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