Myanmar is hot on the Southeast Asia travel trail right now, but as a country which has only recently opened its doors to tourism, travelling here means facing many challenges that you do not necessarily encounter on the same scale as other countries in the region.
Infrastructure is only just beginning to spring into life and the art of the tourist trade is still in the developing process, yet every second of the long journey times, the energy expended in the daily frustrations and the patience and sign language needed to cross the language barrier is worth it for the rewarding experience you will have in this beautiful and still very much untouched country.
Be prepared for the different way of travelling you will encounter in Myanmar, and don’t believe the scaremongering about the ridiculous expense and immense difficulties that are putting many people off travelling here.
The beauty of being here is in not knowing what will happen and in the understanding that both you as a traveller, alongside the local people are helping to bring about a new beginning (providing tourism does not eventually ruin the country which is a current concern).
Here’s my list of handy things you should know before you jump head first into a place which Kipling described as “unlike any land you know about”…
1. Money, Exchange and ATM’s
Brand new dollar bills
The need to have crisp, un-creased, unmarked, brand new dollar bills still remains. Since the vast majority of people fly into Myanmar from Bangkok, this seems to be a popular place to get hold of the bills. I changed my money at a currency exchanger called SuperRich in Silom and the whole process took around an hour. If you have time, withdraw all your money in Thai Baht, as using your card means having to pay a 2.5% commission/ fee on top, compared with the 150 baht (approximately £3) standard ATM withdrawal fee. When exchanging in hard cash, there is a small fee for every $10, but this still works out cheaper than the card fee.
Exchanging dollars to kyats
You can exchange your dollars into Myanmar Kyat when you get to your hotel or guesthouse, in a local bank or at the airport – the latter not always being not as good a rate as the others. Refrain from using the money exchangers on the street who try to lure you with higher rates – it is said they cleverly short change you and unless you are willing to count your money three times, then it’s not worth the hassle.
The stories are true – Myanmar is now equipped with a sporadic scattering of ATM machines. Dishing out kyat, there are machines at the airports and I found many in Yangon (including at the most famous spot in town – the Shwedagon Paya) and Mandalay city centres, as well as in Nyaung U in Bagan. You might find ATM’s in the smaller towns, but don’t leave it this late to stock up on cash, just in case.
When to use dollars and when to use kyats
Typically, dollars are used for paying for your accommodation and some forms of transport, such as internal flights. Everything else from food, street snacks, tuk tuks and guides are paid for in kyat. However, should you find yourself low on dollars, most locals are happy to except kyat instead, but you will be paying more – while the current exchange rate is approximately 870-900 kyat to the dollar, many will simply round your dollar up to 1,000 kyat. So if your room for the night is $25, they will typically ask for 25,000 kyat, rather than work to an official exchange rate.
2. It’s Not Expensive
On average I have spent between $30-$40 a day, including the cost of my accommodation and transport. It’s only expensive if you choose to travel that way, stay in top-end places and eat at expensive establishments. Being aware of your money and how much you are spending will ensure that you spend the same amount here as you would in any other part of Southeast Asia.
3. When to Travel
Cool weather, lots of tourists
The popular, high season is November to February when the weather is warm but not stifling, and attracts the greatest number of visitors. This, in turn, makes the limited accommodation options tricky to secure and will mean trying to book ahead or face paying out for the more expensive options left over.
Stifling hot, limited numbers of tourists
I choose to travel in May before the monsoon season would arrive in June, and there really was a limited number of tourists, meaning I could walk into guesthouse and get a room without any problems. The only downside to this time of the year is that it is incredibly hot and I mean disgustingly, sweaty hot.
4. Choosing Accommodation
More or less every single traveller carries a Myanmar Lonely Planet, and whether you are a fan or not, this book has been thoroughly researched and is the only time I have fully relied on it as a bible rather than a reference point. However, given the regular increase in tourism which local businesses have capitalised on, prices have risen from what is printed. All accommodation and eatery options have been researched in order to provide travellers with a comprehensive list of places that are not government-owned (see number 4).
In the more remote regions where I travelled, which were not listed anywhere, I relied on the knowledge of locals or the tuk tuk driver who ended up taking us to the only place in town which held a ‘foreigner license’.
If you can, try to pair up with another traveller in order to cut costs – many guesthouses have double rooms, triples and dorms.
5. Travelling Responsibly in Myanmar
If you are a luxury traveller wanting to stay in and dine at the top end, government-owned hotels then you will not be travelling responsibly here. Each to their own, but if you travel irresponsibly here then you probably should not be coming at all.
In this time of great change and with locals given more rights to trade privately, it’s important that we support them rather than line the pockets of the corrupt and controlling system. While your guesthouse will not always be the cleanest or most comfortable, or your food the most delectable, remember one thing – local support is the greatest thing you can give during this exciting stage of development in Myanmar. For many, it will be time to embrace a new way of travelling.
I choose to eat and drink at local establishments and bought items from local markets and street vendors. Not only did I feel I was giving something to those who deserved it most, it was also the ideal opportunity to meet and get to know the local people, which in itself forms one of the greatest memories of travelling here.
6. Getting Off The Beaten Track
The far northern, mountainous area, the western Chin State and the far reaches of the southern Mon State and Tenasserim region are generally off-limits to tourists unless you have applied for a government visa in advance.
However, myself and a few other travellers managed to get all the way south to Dawei and Myeik in the far south without a permit as we heard while in Mawlamyine that it had been open for a couple of months. It took days of long, arduous travel to get from place to place but it was a true adventure to hit area that were untouched and which had hardly ever seen tourists. The only downside was that restrictions were still enforced in each area where we were faced with a 7pm curfew in Dwaei and couldn’t go out on a boat in Myeik (which is known for its archipelago of islands).
The restrictions mostly come down to the issue of safety for tourists, which locals have expressed is an absolute concern (for example, there is little in the way of insurance for the boats), although our gut instinct was that we were also being watched a little.
7. Bus Journeys
Buses are EVERYWHERE and will be the main form of transport you take to get you to almost any part of the country (where tourists are permitted). Your guesthouse can help you book your ticket in advance (with a decent company) or can tell you what time to turn up at the local station in order to buy your ticket there.
The journeys are long, sometimes averaging 10-12 hours. Night buses (which bring you to your destination around 3 or 4am) are not sleeper buses and some still play their funky Myanmar CD’s and cheesy music videos until the early hours of the morning. Pack your iPod, invest in some heavy duty extreme ear plugs or kindly ask for what was once amusing entertainment now noise pollution to be turned off.
Never ask a driver about the time of arrival. Due to superstitions based on a belief system of nats (spirits) that existed before Buddhism came to the fore, asking when you will arrive at a destination conjures up bad spirits and is taken seriously. The result? You won’t get an answer.
8. Negotiation, Haggling and Bartering
In Southeast Asia, bartering is a given; a game that is often expected and enjoyed. In Myanmar, it is almost unheard of. It’s rare that you can negotiate your room rate (i.e. discount for more than one person) and I’ve had several looks of utter bewilderment in markets when I have lowered the price in order to start bartering. Unless the price is ridiculous, take it for what it is – you are helping out a local after all.
9. Learning the Language
I always stand by my word that whether you are great at picking up languages or not, the two most important words you should always learn are hello and thank you. Anything else is a bonus.
Not only is it polite but it is well received. Be prepared for most locals to giggle in response – they are not mocking you; they are just not expecting it.
10. The Internet is VERY Limited
In Myanmar, internet is either non-existent or a sign proclaiming ‘wifi’ or ‘internet café’ is like stumbling upon the gold pot at the end of the rainbow and finding it empty. It will either not work or be terribly slow. I obviously found this more difficult, as a writer, but if you can, try and suck up the loss of fast, reliable and consistent communication with the outside world.
11. Learning to Mime
While English is common, mainly in the big cities, there will be endless amounts of situations where you will find that it’s not spoken at all. Now is your chance to bring out your hidden miming skills. My best one, after failing to find a toilet by flashing a piece of toilet paper, was to act out a squatting motion. Embarrassing as it was, it did the trick as well an inciting a few giggles from the locals. I also find wordless picture books handy in these situations too!
12. Discussing Politics
You may read that it’s important not to start political discussions, unless they are introduced into conversation first. While this is true, the name ‘Aung San Suu Kyi’ passes the lips of a local before you know it and in public too. Politics is no longer limited to extremely private discussions (maybe the more heated ones are). A local friend privately told me that it is ok to speak out against a situation or a person if you can back up your story. I am not sure how true this is or she is just a little rebel!
I’ve been told of stories from Chinese and Indians who, although born in Myanmar, are unable to visit the land where their grand-fathers and great-grand fathers are from as the government has made it difficult and expensive to obtain and visa/permit and a passport. I’ve heard terms of ‘stupid’ and ‘greedy’ used in relation to the government and all without me asking.
Locals are keen to know what you think and how much you know and will point ‘The Lady’ and her father out on posters, book and newspapers. My limited conversation has always been along the lines of:
“Aung San Suu Kyi. You know?”
“Yes. You love Aung San Suu Kyi. We love Aung San Suu Kyi.”
The Burmese are eagerly awaiting greater changes; share with them what you and your country thinks.
13. Be Prepared to Smile – ALL the Time
Burmese people are the most genuine, friendly, warm-hearted and amazingly beautiful people I have ever met. Not one will turn you away when you need help and hardly anyone will try to short change you or be cheeky in a transaction. They are so fascinated by the presence of outsiders, that you can see the sheer excitement on their faces. Smile and say hello, shake hands, hug, exchange e-mail addresses and revel in the wonderful reaction you get back.
14. Don’t be Offended When Locals Make a Kissing Noise
This is in no way a derogatory sound aimed at you*, but the Myanmar way of calling attention. It’s actually rather fascinating and you realise, when trying to practice yourself (yes, I did), that you can’t quite do it as loudly and precisely as them.
*Ok, some young lads have tried it in a more cheeky form but it just sent me into a fit of giggles.
15. Dodge the Red Spit!
The majority of locals chew on leaves containing a mixture of tobacco and betel nut which turns their mouth and teeth red. However, a part of this snacking process involves the regular need to spit out the juices – anywhere and everywhere – so dodge the red spit showers and don’t scour in disgust. This is how it is. While pavements and walls are stained with it, you don’t want to be.
16. Make the Most of Your Visa
While a month of travelling is not possible for everyone, if you can make the most of your 28 day visa, do. This is not a country that be seen in a few days or a week, much like you can do the key highlights in the more easily navigable Cambodia and Vietnam. This is a huge country and travel times are long, plus it takes times to really get to grips with how things work here and understanding the people, the culture and the political climate. Spend at least two weeks here if you can – skimming this incredible landscape is an absolute waste. I’m already trying to plan spending another month here.
17. Be Prepared to be ‘Templed Out’
Yup, the Southeast Asia fatigue strikes again. In Myanmar, a temple is going to greet you on every corner, or more specifically here, a golden stupa/pagoda/pyre. While beautiful, it can be lethargic stumbling upon too many as they look similar bar slight differences in height and decoration. If limiting your pagoda hopping (locals tend to love showing off the pagodas in their towns if showing you around), be sure not to miss out on the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and the incredible temples complexes of Bagan, which really are unique.