How to not get scammed in Myanmar

Myanmar is a beautiful country with a majestic history and colorful cultures. The Burmese are some of the simplest people I’ve met – they’re very friendly and, though they have a difficulty speaking and understanding English, they always try their best to accommodate questions and favors from tourists.

A visa exemption stamp from Mandalay International Airport.
A visa exemption stamp from Mandalay International Airport.

But like most countries where tourism is in a boom, there are locals who are learning – and succeeding – in scamming tourists. Although it’s not as rampant as in tourism hubs like Thailand and Vietnam, you should still be careful when traveling across Myanmar.

In my 9 days around the country, I fell victim to some scams, in some cases unknowingly. I really didn’t mind giving a few more USDs to the locals – since they might need it more than I do – but  other travelers might not have the same sentiment, especially when they’re on a budget. I thought it might be helpful to write something about my experiences so others can be aware of the scams they might face.

This is a simple list of tips on how to determine whether you’re being scammed in Myanmar – and how to avoid going through it.

1) Learn to say no.

This is actually the most helpful tip to not get scammed anywhere. If you’re a “yes people” like myself, you’d know how difficult this would be, especially when locals become really insistent or when they start using drama to sway you.

Vendors in Myanmar have mastered the art of persuasion. They have their techniques to make sure tourists buy their products. When entering the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, for example, vendors will say they’ll take care of your shoes or slippers when you enter – since these are not allowed inside. When you come back, they’ll take you to their shop and require you to buy a product, saying it’s for looking after your footwear. I experienced this in Bagan and I ended up spending some kyats buying useless trinkets or giving some hundred kyats so the vendors will walk away.

Some souvenir shops in Mandalay's Mahamuni Paya Buddha Temple
Some souvenir shops in Mandalay’s Mahamuni Paya Buddha Temple

The best thing to do is to just say no and walk past through the persuasive vendors. Nothing will really happen if you leave your shoes in the open – and the vendors don’t really look after them. Plus, Buddhists won’t try to steal in front of their temples. Carrying your footwear inside the temple, if you don’t mind, would is also a good solution.

The vendors were a small problem compared to what I experienced in Mandalay. (READ: 5 must-see places in majestic Mandalay)

I was eating in a restaurant near my hotel when the manager found out I was a Filipino because of my accent. He was very friendly and he offered to take me around Mandalay the next day. I initially said no since I’ve been to almost all the tourist spots in Mandalay already and I didn’t have an extra budget for a tour guide.

He was insistent and said he’d do it for free, “for friendship.” I wasn’t able to reject his offer so I took him for his word. The next day, he took me around Mandalay and even brought me to Sagaing and Amarapura after he found out that I’ve been to all the places he planned to take me to in Mandalay. He was in a rush throughout the “tour” and took me to some expensive shops where he obviously got a commission. When he took me back to my hotel, he asked for money to pay for the gas and for his services. I would have given him some tip but he set the price at 30,000 kyats – “for friendship.”

I was so angry. I overspent my third day in Mandalay so I had to tighten up in Bagan and Yangon. I could’ve spent that money on shopping for souvenirs. This wouldn’t have happened if I had been more insistent in saying no.

If you are traveling in Myanmar on a budget, mastering the art of saying no is a big help. You just have to learn to veer away from the locals trying to get their hands on your USDs.

2) Haggle and agree on a price before hand.

This is another important tip in practically everywhere in Southeast Asia. Whether you’re shopping or trying to get a cab, you need to learn how to haggle – and make sure you agree on a price beforehand.

Almost all shops in Bagan, Mandalay, and Yangon will sell their products – unless it has a tag – for twice the price to foreigners. I found it very difficult to buy souvenirs since the vendors were setting very high prices.

Remember also that it’s okay to haggle when getting transportation since cabs don’t have meters. From my hotel in downtown Yangon to Shwedagon Pagoda, a cab usually asks for MMK 3,000. When I was looking for cabs from Sule Pagoda, which is much nearer, the drivers were asking for MMK 5,000. I had to bargain for the fare and I ended up paying MMK 4,000. (READ: Yangon in the time of monsoons)

Yeye, my horsecart driver in Bagan
Yeye, my horsecart driver in Bagan

In Bagan, when renting a horse cart, the standard price should be MMK 10,000 for half a day and MMK 20,000 for the whole day. I paid MMK 20,000 for a half day tour in Old Bagan because I didn’t know this – and because I was swayed to compassion for my driver. I found out later that he asked too much from me when I told a waitress in the restaurant beside my guesthouse.

Thankfully, I was able to get a discount from my guesthouse – yes, you can haggle for guesthouses in Bagan, too – so I had a few Kyats to spare. (READ: Temple run in Bagan, the land of a thousand temples)

3) Ask help from locals.

I found this more helpful in Myanmar than in any other Southeast Asian country, mainly because the Burmese have a difficult time understanding English.

Got a taste of Burmese public transportation because of my friend. It's cheap but far from convenient!
Got a taste of Burmese public transportation because of my friend. It’s cheap but far from convenient!

Since I found it hard to haggle and shop for souvenirs, I asked some of my Burmese friends to accompany me in shopping. I made them do all the talking so the vendors didn’t inflate the prices of their products. One of my friends also took me to where they buy their longyis and jade so I was really able to save some money.

If you don’t have Burmese friends, ask help from your hotel, especially when booking taxis. They’ll be sure to get you an honest taxi driver. It helps if you know how much drivers ask from locals so ask the hotel concierge.

The Burmese would be ashamed to scam their countrymen so I highly recommend shopping with a  local.

4) Carry only enough money with you.

As I said in number 1, vendors in Mandalay and Bagan can get on your nerves. In some temples, there are kids who sell postcards and other trinkets for some hundred Kyats. Some of these kids are actually pretty helpful and nice “guides” so you might be swayed to buy some of their products. Carrying smaller bills with you will be very helpful since some of them would say they don’t have change and would just ask you to get more souvenirs.

Traditional Burmese puppets are some of the most popular trinkets sold to tourists.
Traditional Burmese puppets are some of the most popular trinkets sold to tourists.

If you’re feeling generous, carry small bills from your own currency with you. There are kids in Bagan who’d show you their money collection from other tourists then ask you for some of your own. I don’t see anything wrong with this if it’s for their personal collection. Besides, they can’t really change most of the currencies they get into Kyats.

Carrying only your budget for the day would also help you manage your finances in Myanmar. You won’t easily be swayed to buy souvenirs if you know you’re spending your budget for dinner and drinks, right?

In Yangon, like in any other major city in the world, pickpockets and bag snatchers are rampant. It would do you good to bring only enough for your expenses for the day. As a rule, I never put all my money in one bag and never carry all my budget at once when traveling. This is so I’ll have a backup in case I get robbed.

5) Eat in restaurants with a menu

This is a problem I only encountered in Myanmar. When I ate in some restaurants, I was asked to pay more than the price originally stated by the waiter/ waitress. I only ordered fried rice in most restaurants without menus but I had to pay different prices.

A typical Burmese food.
A typical Burmese food.

I don’t know if the additional payment was for service charge – frankly, I didn’t see that much service – but it would be better to eat in restaurants with English menus and fixed prices. Such restaurants also issue receipts so you’ll know what you are paying for.

Tip: Don’t walk out at night

I like walking around different cities I visit at night. I found it perfectly safe in most countries. I’ve never been pick-pocketed or mugged anywhere.

But I do not suggest walking at night in Myanmar, not because of the crime rate but because of the dogs. There are so many dogs let lose at night in Myanmar that they practically block off some streets. Not even those in motorcycles are safe.

I’m pretty sure most of these dogs have no vaccination. So don’t go wandering around Myanmar at night if you don’t wanna risk getting bitten by one of them!

Burmese, I found out, are generally nicer to other Southeast Asians. I think they’re well educated about the ASEAN. I don’t know about the experiences of other Western tourists but I think I was able to avoid some bigger scams simply because I looked Burmese and they didn’t see me as a walking wallet.

Have you ever been scammed in Myanmar or any other country while traveling? Let me know in the comments section!

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