Some Advice for Myanmar Travlers
- Myanmar is fairly conservative in its demeanour and its dress: as a woman, I made sure to cover up my shoulders by wearing a t-shirt (except while climbing mountains), and wearing shorts or skirts below the knee. I also picked up a traditional, sarong-like Burmese longyi, which was well appreciated by the locals, especially in more remote areas. The amount of women who stared at my skirt and then up and my face and said, in surprise, “longyi?!” when I’d wear it made it completely worthwhile, and it is an excellent way to cover up when there’s a shared bath at a hotel.
- Blackouts are common and electricity sporadic at best. Do yourself a favour and bring a headlamp with you. You can find replacement batteries in most cities, but keep in mind they will not last as long as the ones you bring from home.
- If you want to donate supplies to children and/or schools buy supplies in Myanmar instead of bringing them from home. Many people who brought pens or paper from home only watched them gather dust as the recipient put them in a case to show to friends and family. It is far more useful to go to a village’s school or to an orphanage and ask what they need, purchasing the supplies locally.
- Get used to the idea of being watched. Undercover police are everywhere, and people are afraid of them for good reason. Though I was hardpressed to find examples of tourists being incarcerated and/or deported, such a hands-off approach is not applied to the local population. Be sensitive about what you say in public, and where you go: oftentimes the townships (local areas with no commercial shops) are off limits. I was escorted out of the Bagan township local police.
- Budget your transportation time wisely. I will touch on transportation later on in my Myanmar posts, but suffice it to say it (1) takes longer than you think to get somewhere and (2) you might just need a day to recover. Night buses are freezing cold; the route is peppered with stops at all hours of the night and the television pop music or movies without a care in the world. Of course, the Burmese people on the bus sleep soundly. But you won’t.
- Get used to waking up at dawn. The country rises with the sun, and often sets with it too. By the end of my time in Myanmar, I was heading to bed at 10 pm and getting up at 5. I am not a morning person by any means, but when my days were spent climbing sacred mountains or running around a new town, it was not far-fetched to turn in early — and rising late was just not an option!
- Get used to the ‘kissing’ sounds that people make when trying to get a waiter’s attention. Though unquestionably disrespectful in Western society, you will be hard pressed to order at a restaurant in Myanmar without it. It took me weeks of frantic waving and/or excuses me’s until I finally decided to take the plunge; definitely something I did not get used to by the end of my trip.
- Get used to the red stains on everyone’s teeth. The irony of a country like Myanmar, where everyone gives you their brightest, heartbreaking smile is that their teeth are usually stained burgundy and decayed. These are both due to prolonged (and frequent) betel nut use, a mild intoxicant found throughout the country.