Myanmar is the newest addition to the Southeast Asian backpacker trail. Previously the country and its military government have been heavily boycotted by foreign nations and the government itself has restricted access to the country, but over the past few years embargos have been lifted and Myanmar has started to welcome more and more tourists in. Now is the best time to go; the crowds are keenly finding their way in, and after the tidal wave of tourism really sweeps over the country, it will never be the same.
I travelled through the most established backpacker trail in the country for almost two weeks and loved it: the genuinely amiable people, the delicious food, the golden pagodas and floating villages. While there is a lot of information about Myanmar up on the internet, I naturally wanted to meddle in and share some of my tips on how to make the best out of your stay in Myanmar.
A few basics:
Money – Myanmar’s own currency is called kyat (pronounced as chat), and currently 1 euro is roughly equivalent to 1300 kyats. A few years ago tourists were advised to bring in crisp US dollar bills, but now the government is trying hard to fight the devaluation of the country’s own currency and the use of kyats is hugely encouraged. I got by without any dollars at all. Exchange your kyats before leaving the country because you won’t be able to do it elsewhere.
As Myanmar is just establishing itself on the tourist trail, it is best to do all you can to support it’s economy. This means paying in kyat, buying local products from different places (in order to spread your money) and supporting local businesses rather than, say, eating in a restaurant with a foreign owner.
I read it in many places that Myanmar would be more expensive than other places in Southeast Asia, but so far that hasn’t been my experience. I’d say I spent approximately 30-40 euros per day. Hostels were in general 10-15 euros a night and busses between cities ranged from 7-20 euros.
Language – The official language is Burmese, and while it is hard to learn, I’d definitely recommend you learn some basic phrases like thank you, hello and very good. English is quite widely spoken but not very well, and a lot of people don’t know a word of it – perhaps they can tell you the price in English, but that is all. In Burmese numbers are also written differently so even though you do in general see the Western spelling of numbers as well, it might come in handy to learn the Burmese numbers.
Accommodation – Hostels in Myanmar are in general fantastic. I was actually surprised to see how good they were since there are very few of them and the backpacking scene is just starting to develop. In fact, most destinations have pretty much one main backpakcer hostel that most other like-minded travellers tend to flock to. In Bagan it’s Ostello Bello, in Yangoon Little Yangon Hostel, in Inle Lake Song of Travel. There are cheaper options available as well, but I had an amazing time in all these hostels and I would definitely recommend them to anyone who’s out to make new friends.
Transportation – The easiest and the best way to get from place to place is to take night buses. The distances are quite big, so prepare to sit on it for as long as 15 hours! Usually you can choose between two options: the normal bus or the VIP bus. If I were you, I’d either go for the cheaper option or the one whose timing is the most convenient for you and not worry about the VIP labels that much. Éven if a bus calls itself VIP, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna be any better than a normal bus. The night buses can really crank up the AC, so do bring something warm to wear! The byus company also provides the passengers with blankets and neck pillows, as well as a bottle of water and even a snack if you’re lucky.
The roads in some places are pretty bad and some of the buses old, so leave yourself enough time for screw-ups! My bus from Inle Lake to Yangoon broke down 50 km before the final destination which delayed the trip by three hours. I didn’t take any trains but I’ve heard them to be quite slow. You can also take a boat between some destinations, but they run quite infrequently during the rainy season. There are also international airports in Yangoon and Mandalay. Please note that when you’re flying out of the Yangoon Airport, you’re required to pay a 6000 kyat or 5 dollar airport fee, so don’t exchange all your money away!
Transportation methods within cities range from place to place. In Yangoon you’re better off walking within the downtown area which is notorious for its traffic jams; elsewhere, take a cab but leave enough time. Because of the traffic, the 15 km drive to the bus station (oh yeah, it’s not located in the city centre) can take up to 2 and half hours. In Mandalay it’s all motorbike taxis or flatbed trucks; in Bagan, it’s best to rent your own e-bike and drive it around the temple sites.
Food – Food in Myanmar is underappreciated! Try mohingar, a spicy noodle soup, or the spicy salads. Yangoon is famous for its excellent street food.
People of Myanmar
I am not even exaggerating when I say that the people in Myanmar are the most genuinely friendly people I have ever met. They are quite happy to have a chat with you, let you take their picture (but ask first!) and smile at you as you make eye contact. There aren’t really any big scams to worry about like in many other Asian countries, and as you feel you can actually trust the people, you end up forming more meaningful connections with them.
One thing you’ll notice is people making kissing noises at you. Don’t feel offended; it is just to get your attention and locals smack their mouths at each other as well, there’s nothing sexual or weird about that. There is also no word in Burmese for excuse me so a lot of people will say hello in it’s place. It might sound rude to an English speaking person, but in truth it’s not.
When you chat with locals, let them lead the conversations. I know ya’ll are interested in hearing about the political situation in Myanmar, but even though the country now has a democrat president, locals can still get into a lot of trouble for talking politics. It might be that they want to discuss politics; but unless they do, don’t push it.
Remember to dress appropriately. Myanmar is still a lot more conservative than other Southeast Asian countries, and most local women cover up extensively. In theory, you’re supposed to cover your knees and shoulders, but most women wear ankle-length dresses so you’ll blend in better if you cover up all the way. Men in Myanmar wear long trousers or longyi, a kind of a skirt for men.
Part of the reason why Myanmar is so conservative is because its main religion is buddhism. Show your respect to monks by dressing appropriately and respecting their habits. For example, women are not supposed to touch monks or sit next to them.
Safety in Myanmar
Good news guys – Myanmar is an extremely safe country to travel! I never felt unsafe walking around alone, day or night. Like I’ve already said, the people will in most part look out for you. I was coming back to my hostel in Bagan after dark and was a bit lost, so I flagged down a pair of local girls on a motorcycle and asked directions. Instead of just telling me, they turned their bike around and told me to follow them, then lead me to my street. (Of course, do take normal precautions. Even though crimes against tourists are rare, every country has got its bad people.)
– Wherever you go, you will find and most likely visit pagodas.sun protection at pagodas. reflective surfaces + light skin = not good…
What’s more likely to get you is the traffic. Cross roads with locals and watch your step! In Yangoon, the sidewalks usually have two sides; the bad side can be patchy and if you’re not careful, you’ll step right into a deep, open sewer.
Myanmar is extremely hot even in the middle of the rainy season, so take care of sun protection! I burned so badly visiting Shwedagon pagoda because even on a mostly overcast day, the golden and the glittering buildings reflect sunlight very, very well…
Faculties in Myanmar
Sorry to tell you this… But wifi in Myanmar is really bad, especially in Yangoon. If your accommodation says they’ve got good wifi, they probably don’t. There are cafes where you might get a signal; for example, in Nyaung Shwe there are two Western-style restaurants that have wifi, but go to Chillax Bistro; while I was out there, the one at the French Touch didn’t work.
Laundry also seems to suck pretty badly in the country. In Bagan, every single person who had their laundry done lost one item or another (and usually gained some… thanks for replacing my two nice pairs of socks with one hole-filled pair of size 40 men’s socks…). In Inle, the service returned my laundry dirty and damp.
Monsoon season extra round
Monsoon season in Myanmar runs throughout the summer months,m reaching its peak in July and August and it is no joke. I got lucky and didn’t get rained on too much, but do heed warnings about the rain. I trekked from Kalaw to Inle Lake for three days. I had read that it’s not recommended to do the trek during the rainy season because of muddy conditions, and my Olympus-hiking, Himalaya-climbing smart ass just thought: Mud? I’m not afraid of a little mud! It rained all throughout the second day and as the group slipped and stumbled through the slicky, wet mud, all everyone could think of was a cold beer and a hot shower. If you do decide to do the trek (which you should – the views are amazing), make sure your shoes have got good grip. I wore Goretex sneakers which were basically waterproof and had an amazing grip.
Monsoon season in Myanmar is also different from the regular monsoons. It doesn’t just pour down rain for half an hour for it to stop abruptly; the rain continues throughout the day, drizzling a bit here and there, sometimes chucking it down. Because of the clouds, many of Myanmar’s famous sunsets and sunrises are also relatively lame compared to the best of pictures. In addition, you won’t see the famous balloons over Bagan; they only fly between November and March.
However, low season has never stopped me from travelling anywhere, and it definitely shouldn’t stop you.
Hopefully you’ll find these tips useful! Have you been to Myanmar or are you planning to go?