Myanmar surprised me a lot.
I didn’t expect a lot from this trip. I was happy to go there but more for a checkmark in my ‘Southeast Asia travelling bucket list’. Not only did Myanmar turn that around but also convinced me to come back again, which I am looking forward to.
how and why we chose this country
Our friends have just opened a travel agency that works exclusively on trips to Myanmar – TripBuilder. They needed to test it to see if everything was of the highest level. Now it works seamlessly, but at that time we were chosen to be guinea pigs, so to say, not that we minded.
I haven’t travelled on a pre-planned trip since I was 10 when my parents planned a family trip to Turkey. That was their first and last fully pre-arranged trip. My father is not the most patient person. He likes his comforts (as all men his age, I assume) and thus likes everything to be done according to the Riddick rule* – “We move with one speed: mine”. So when we had to wait for the entire group on every stop starting from the airport & hotel down to every park & attraction we visited, he forswore to always plan trips himself and not to depend on anyone. Since then he has travelled a lot with my mother and they were both immensely satisfied with this arrangement. Good to note that after the next trip they have decided on the second important travelling rule – not to travel with kids. So while they continued to travel, I was left behind at home to study.
You may ask yourself what I wanted to say with this side story. I had my doubts about this trip, but the odds were in my favour: I was to travel with my friends instead of strangers and in a more secluded group (just 5 of us, not 15 or 30 people).
I did some research on what are the top attractions after we got the first itinerary and asked to make certain alterations so that we don’t miss out on anything important. However, Myanmar can still be called a newly-opened country, so there’s not much to be found on the topic, which was the second reason I was happy to go with the pre-arranged tour & exactly why I decided to write this article.
* From the movie “The Chronicles of Riddick“.
How did Myanmar exceed my expectations
First of all, Myanmar is stunning.
We’ve been to Bagan, Inle lake, Mandalay & Yangon. I was mesmerised & would love to come back to those places as well as see the new. There’s still the whole world of unexplored opportunities, including secluded beach areas and mountain ranges in the North.
Secondly, Myanmar is very clean.
Little local tea shops, streets, food markets in and between small villages were rather impeccable. Even intercity bus stops were clean & welcoming. I wouldn’t be afraid to buy and eat anything. Not that I would eat fruits right on the street without washing…
Thirdly – food. It is sooo good!
I didn’t eat that much curry even in Thailand (and I ate curry every day in Thailand!). We ate so many different types on the daily basis that we were sick of it by the end of the trip and everyone was begging for salads, western food & started to plan for detox programmes.
Fourth thing that was very pleasant – people.
Not that I expected them to be rude, but I didn’t know anything about people or their culture. People in Myanmar are very friendly, welcoming, smiling & helpful. Everybody speaks at least a bit of English, so communication was not a problem.
Last, but not the least – Myanmar is a very safe country.
At the moment it is under the military ruling regime. I was worried it wouldn’t be the safest place to travel alone for a woman (another reason I was glad to travel in a group). However, despite – or maybe thanks to – the strict governing of Myanmar, the crime rate is very low and mostly bound to petty theft against locals. All in all, two girls walking alone on a street after dark didn’t bring cause for worries or any discomfort.
Please do exercise usual vigilance anyway! As they say in Singapore – “low crime doesn’t mean no crime”.
Final thoughts or
“10 tips for conquering Myanmar like a pro”.
- Less is more
We spent 8 days in Myanmar (2 days in each place) and that was nearly not enough. Initially we wanted to see as much as possible based on the premises that we wouldn’t come back to this wonderful country, so we asked to pack our trip to the fullest. We were to move around in a minivan, so a lot of walking was not going to be an issue.
For our trip I wouldn’t want to add an additional day to each destination, but if you’re planning to go there on your own, maybe avoid putting all places in one trip. You will fall in love with this country, so consider coming back. I suggest doing 2 places at a time, 3 places tops (for instance, include Yangon in your first trip but spend less time there). On my next visit I will skip Yangon altogether – it’s a lovely place, but that’s not what you visit Myanmar for. It is still worth visiting, being capital and residence of Aung San Suu Kyi, but from my perspective once was enough.
- Try local food.
Wouldn’t comment on that much – as mentioned, food is very good, absolutely tasty & was always freshly made.
A little note here on a great help from our guide – we were a bit late for our dinner one day, and thus for our bus later on, so our guide called restaurant & asked them to start cooking while we were still on the way & then called bus terminal and mentioned that we will arrive right before the departure and not half an hour in advance as we should have. The food in the restaurant started to arrive as soon as we came in; we ate quickly and were not even a minute late for our bus.
- If you are a souvenir person – buy them as you go.
I have a habit of buying everything at the end of the trip, as all the souvenirs are the same & by the end of the trip I usually know “the best price” so can bargain. Besides, I don’t have to carry it with me everywhere & worry that I break something accidentally (not that it has ever happened). In any case, this strategy didn’t work in Myanmar. Firstly, because our last stop was Yangon & everything is three times more expensive in Yangon than in all the other places combined (It is still cheap, compared to Singapore, but you know what I mean); and secondly, most souvenirs were “place-based”.
The cheapest souvenirs were at Inle lake in the morning floating market. They have the widest selection as well.
I still regret not buying postcards from Bagan, those were the best. I always send postcards to my loved ones, so I was already making plans for them but had to go with whatever I found on the streets of Yangon. Don’t misunderstand me, they were still very pretty, but when your mind is set on something it is hard to just let go.
- Pack smart.
Think your wardrobe through. Plan to be able to dress like an onion – in layers and so that you can mix & match outfits. I guess this tip is more for the ladies, but that was the most useful thing I did for myself on this trip.
Myanmar can be quite chilly during the night & early mornings (depending on the season & place), but it gets hot during the day. If you’re planning on taking buses – airconed rides can be cold and there might be nothing you’ll be able to do with it – adjusting airflow direction or power is not always possible.
Furthermore, with the amount of temples you are going to see you’ll have to dress modestly with respect to local religion (Buddhism). They are not extremely strict, but that doesn’t mean one should show a lack of culture. As an example – I wore leggings underneath floor length skirt, t-shirt & buttoned cardigan with warm pashmina scarf on top, so in the afternoon I removed everything but a skirt and a t-shirt.
We had a luxury of the minivan following us around, so I didn’t have to carry clothes around all day.
And no heels in Myanmar! Bring flip flops though (I’ll come back to that later).
- Hand sanitizer & wet wipes.
Pack a lot. Not because Myanmar is dirty, but because you’re going to spend a lot of time barefooted and if you’re not used to it, you would want to wash your feet often. And doing it thoroughly requires a lot of wet wipes. A lot! And hand sanitizer afterwards. A lot of hand sanitizer (also handy on the bus rides). Out of this tip another one closely related —>
- Bring flip flops or be ready to soil your shoes.
You will need to be barefooted when you enter the territory of a temple, climb pagoda or walk into the premises of a Buddhist shrine, so flip flops make it easier & faster to take off and put on shoes time after time. And they are also so much easier to clean.
I didn’t. I cannot wear flip flops – they just hurt my feet. Everywhere. Even where they do not touch my skin. I did find a way out though – I wore my normal leather summer footwear (no hills in Myanmar!). Myanmar is clean, nobody spits on the streets, there are no rocks as well, just sand, so I’d just leave my sandals in the car and walk from temple to temple barefoot. After the temple related part of the day I would wash my feet in the basin near the bathroom (a lot of souvenir stores have those with soap & foot towel) or wipe them with wet wipes and then put shoes back on. Easy.
- Be prepared for a lot of temples, pagodas and Buddhist shrines.
Some people in our group were not ready for that. Being bored on your own vacation is disappointing to say the least, so my advice here – do some research beforehand. I’m fine with all kind of holidays – beach, active, cultural, spiritual, etc, but if you’re very much into active holiday & sports or prefer to stay on the beach & work on your suntan, there won’t be much for you to do in Myanmar.
- Get ready to leave tips.
It won’t cost you a lot, but if you do it as often as we did (and you probably will) it might seem that way.
We left tips for anyone we met – guides, drivers who were always with us and watched our things, tradesmen who were posing and showing off their skills, like local “Myanmarese fishermen” (ye, ye, those pictures are staged), lotus weaving specialists, other local craftsmen and locals who we wanted to make pictures with. They did not follow us around, begging for money, but some did ask for it. Not all though, some people refused to take money, just smiled and nodded.
Near some tourist attractions local kids told us they collect money from all over the world. Quite funny actually: our group was very multinational – Indian, Russian, Swedish, but we were all from Singapore, so one of the boys showed us he had Euro, Ruble and Rupee, but didn’t have Singapore dollar. I can vouch that half of tourists in Myanmar are from Singapore and for sure one or two had passed through the same place within the same day, so I’m curious whether it was a sleight of hand (but when he had time?), or he indeed didn’t have SG dollars (at least not yet for this specific day). They do have very extensive collections, much bigger than mine definitely and they are so cute, it’s hard not to share a dollar or two.
A side note here – money in Myanmar is really pretty. I usually only save one or two notes from each destination, but from Myanmar I have the whole collection from 50 to 5000 kyat.
It’s worth noting that both local currency & USD are equally accepted across the country – in local tea shops, stores, restaurants and as tips.
- And final advice – don’t take buses!
It’s not worth it. Take flights, they are not that much more expensive.
If you really want to try the bus – take one, just to get the feel of it. Inle Lake – Mandalay was by far the best: comfortable wide seats placed 3 in a row instead of 4 with TV & extensive movie collection, blanket rolls & pillows, as well as a meal & disposable toothbrush on the stop. The worst was Bagan – Inle Lake. It was just a bus, usual bus, like the one that moves inside the city. I have chills each time I recall this night – sitting 14 hours without a possibility for a reclining position or ability to walk around & with aircon straight into your face. Not a night to remember.
After the trip, we were joking that we could print “I survived 5 night buses in 1 week” T-shirts & start selling them in Myanmar. Would have made a fortune! NB: if somebody’s actually going to execute this idea, please include us in the cash back. ; -)
- As I don’t have the 10th tip, I’ll just share with you my favourite quote of Lady Aung San Suu Kyi.
She’s a great political figure of Myanmar, the winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize for Peace & symbol of Burmese fight for democracy & independence from the military oppression:
“It’s not power that corrupts but fear”