Finding the Myanmar language & getting around difficult? This travel guide is here to help!

Myanmar is an enormous country and you may need a handy Myanmar Language & Getting Around travel guide to help you out. Myanmar measures a solid 261,227 miles squared (676,578 km²) and is home to about 135 ethnic groups. With all that size and diversity coupled with hard-to-pass mountainous and jungle terrain (not to mention a lagging and/or nonexistent infrastructure in some places), it’s easy to see why there are so many unique cultures and varieties in language. In fact, there are about 100 different languages spoken in Southeast Asia’s second-largest country alone!

myanmar language
Spreading the gospel of Canon cameras, Meilamu Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 2015

Not too worry though, as two-thirds of the population speaks the common and official tongue of the country, Burmese. Commonly known nowadays as Myanmar langauge, the Sino-Tibetan tonal language originated from the Bamar people from which it gains its name. Myanmar is spoken by 32 million people as a first language and serves as a second language to another 10 million or so people, particularly the ethnic minorities and those ethnic groups that dot the scarcely-populated border regions between Myanmar and its neighbors.

English has been institutionalized as a second language, however you will still find the language barrier difficult to deal with on a day-to-day basis outside of your hotel/service staff. Here is a list of common words that you will find helpful in day-to-day situations in Myanmar:

General Conversation with Locals:

Good Morning/Afternoon/Evening: Min-ga-la-ba

How are you?: Nay-kaun-la?

Nice to meet you: Twei-ya-da-wan-tha-ba-de

Do you speak (English/Burmese)?: thin-(ingalait/bamar)-sagar-pyaw-ba-tha-lar

A little bit: ne-ne-ba-be

I don’t understand: kyun-note-nar-ma-le-bu

I don’t know: kyun-note-ma-thi-bu

Thank you: je-zu-tin-ba-de

It’s all right: ya-ba-de

Please excuse me: sei-ma-shi-ba-ne

Yes/OK: ho-de

No: Hin-in

No, it isn’t: ma-hou-bu

Sorry: taung-ban-ba-de

Sound Like a Local – Try These:

Brother (as in “Hey bro”): Aggo le

Sister (as in “Hey sister”): Ne-mah le

Directions for the Taxi Driver:

Go straight ahead: Te-te-twah-de

Right: Ne-yah

Left: Beh

Turn right: Ne-yah-kweh-ba

Turn left: Beh-kweh-ba

East: a-shei

West: a-nau

North: myau

South: taun

Important Words in Case of an Emergency:

Are you okay?: thin-thet-thar-ye-lar?

I need a doctor: kyun-note-sa-yar-wun-ta-yaut-lo-ba-de

Help: a-ku a-nyi

Call the ambulance: a-yay baw-car-khaw ba

Call the police: ye-that khaw-ba

I am sick: kyun-note ne-ma kaung bu


Bird: Hnge

Cat: Gyaun

Dog: Khwei

Elephant: Sin

Horse: Myin

Lion: Chin Thei

Tiger: Kya

myanmar language
Myanmar youth hanging around the Kabar Aye Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 2015

Social Conventions

As a general rule, smile and shake hands but never touch a monk unless he initiates the greeting. If you speak to a local in Myanmar language, they will most likely laugh and smile.  The people of Myanmar love it when a local tries to speak their language and it is a peculiar thing about them that they think it’s incredible you would ever bother to learn their language, even the basics. Embrace it and you’ll do just fine.

Another interesting note in Myanmar is that they use their full names when addressing each other, usually three words long, and put “U” in front of men’s names and “Daw” in front of female names. This shows respect to another person, such as U Thein Senn or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

When speaking to a foreigner, most Myanmar people introduce themselves with an English name. Most names are written like this: Aung Min Myat @ Sam. The “@” denotes “or,” so Myanmar people would call him “Aung Min Myat” but he would go by “Sam” to foreigners.

One last note on Myanmar names – family names do not exist in Myanmar. This is a trend that is slowly changing, but it is still not uncommon for a family of five to have completely different names and no ‘surnames’ or ‘last names.’

myanmar language
Father and daughter with Tanaka, Koehtatgyi Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar, 2015

What’s in a Name?

Myanmar’s past is as turbulent as its county is beautiful. A history of colonization by the British, serving as a theater of war during World War II and the subsequent invasion and occupation by the Japanese until 1945 was difficult enough. Having been under the strict rule of a military junta ever since, it’s incredible that the country is remaining in the shape it is today.

Burma, as it was known then, gained it independence in 1948 and in an effort to throw off the stigma of having been a conquered country, name changes were in order.  The British had previously named landmarks, markets, streets and more after themselves, their military heroes and their royalty.

In the then-capital city of what was called Rangoon, lakes such as Victoria and Royal were strolled along, Scott’s Market was where everyone who was anyone did their shopping and if you wished to lay for a bit in nature, you could enjoy the Cantonment Gardens. Nowadays in Myanmar’s second-largest city, Yangon is listed as the former capital (replaced by Nay Pyi Taw), Inya and Kandawgyi lakes make for a fun day on the water, Bogyoke Aung San Market delights tourists and locals alike and for a bit of nature, People’s Park is the place to be.

Some of these changes haven’t come without their controversy, however, as the Tatmadaw Military Government made a few forced changes without the say of the people and international recognition of these moves haven’t been adopted. Perhaps the biggest controversy of all was renaming Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and moving the capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw. Locals may not approve of the moves, but with few exceptions aside, they’ve taken to the new nomenclature and its use in day-to-day conversation.

Many cities and towns in Myanmar were renamed in 1989 by the State Law and Order Restoration Council following a seizure of power by Senior General Saw Maung. Some places were renamed to their traditional, pre-colonial names, others were simply a bid to make their spellings better reflect their true Burmese pronunciation.

Old Name New Name Notes
Akha Kaw
Akyab Sittwe
Arakan Rakhine
Ava Inwa
Bassein Pathein
Bre Kayaw
Burma Myanmar
Burman Bama
Burmese Bamar
Chin Zomi
Chindwin Chindwinn
Hmong Meo
Irrawaddy Ayeyarwady
Karen Kayin Both the state and ethnic group
Karenni Kayah Both the state and ethnic group
Magwe Magway Division
Maymyo Pyin U Lwin/Pyin Oo Lwin
Mergui Myeik District
Moulmein Mawlamyine
Pagan Bagan
Pa-O Taungthu
Pegu Bago
Prome Pyay
Rangoon Yangon
Salween Thanlwin
Shan Tai
Ta-ang Palaung
Tavoy Dawei
Tenasserim Tanintharyi

Street name changes in the former capital city of Yangon (Rangoon):

Former Name New Name
Barr Street Maha Bandula Garden Street
Campbell Road Ngadatgyi Pagoda Road
Canal Street Anawrahta Road
Creek Street Bo Myat Tun Street
Commissioner’s Road Bogyoke Aung San Road
Dalhousie Road Maha Bandula Road
Dufferin Road Sandaku Road
Edward Street Konzedan Street
Fraser Road Anawratha Road
Godwin Road Lanmadaw Street
Halpin Road Pyidaungzu Yeiktha Street
Kokine Road Kaba Aye Pagoda Road
Lancaster Road Nawaday Road
Lewis Street Seikkantha Street
Lower Kemmendine Road Lower Kyimyindaing Road
Masjid Road Thamein Bayan Road
Maung Htaw Lay Street Bo Sun Pet Street
Maung Khaing Street Bo Ywe Street
Merchant Road Konthe Road
Mission Road Ahlon Road
Mogul Road Shwe Bontha Road
Montgomery Road Bogyoke Aung San Road
Pagoda Road Shwedagon Pagoda Road
Phayre Street Pansodan Street
Prome Road Pyay Road
Sparks Road Bo Aung Kyaw Road
Stevenson Road Hledan Road
Stockade Road and Judah Ezekiel Road Theinbyu Road
Thompson Road Botataung Pagoda Road
Upper Phayre Road Upper Pansodan Road
Voyle Road U Wisara Road
Windermere Road Thanlwin Road
Windsor Road Shin Sawpu Road
York Street Yaw Mingyi Street

Place name changes in the former capital city of Yangon (Rangoon):

Former Name New Name
Cantonment Downtown
Cantonment Gardens People’s Square and Park
Dalhousie Park Bogyoke Aung San Park
Fytche Square Maha Bandula Park
Lake Victoria Inya Lake
Royal Lake Kandawgyi Lake
Signal Pagoda Alan Pya Pagoda
Scott’s Market Bogyoke Aung San Market
Victoria Park Yangon Zoological Gardens
myanmar language
Child gawking at a weird cameraman, Yangon, Myanmar, 2015