TIPS, TRICKS & WISE ADVISE (read before you go)
This is the trickiest part of my blog: with the passage of time I believe a retrospective of our month in Myanmar could be a source of practical information, certainly for travellers without any/little knowledge of Myanmar. That said: these are my reflections and my opinion and everybody is different, so what I hated, might be great fun for someone else or vice verse. So don’t judge me for this. I just wrote down how I experienced things, to help you. It was a hell of job to write this blog. I have put an incredible amount of energy, love and care in it. If you don’t agree with me, I totally understand this, but please keep it to yourself and just pretend you never read it
This was my second time in Myanmar. In 2004 I explored the country on my own, for only ten days. This time I travelled for a whole month (tourist visa is only valid for 28 days) with my boyfriend Klaas. He’s 35 and into architecture and I am 42 and freelancer in PR, Marketing & Communication. We live together in an apartment in Amsterdam. We have no kids, because we like to travel instead of rising crying little monsters.
We are pretty experience travellers. I’ve travelled (solo) in Asia over the past 12 years. This trip was Klaas his 4th time in Asia. Before Asia, he travelled in South America. We like to explore countries independently and we are allergic to group tours, especially the one’s with retired elderly, type: white socks, big belly, silly colonial hat or baseball cap, talking loud in their own language, often show no or little interest in the local population as long as their beer is cold and the hotel looks like they have at home. Same same goes for the Japanese and Chinese groups. This sounds very judgemental, I know, but truly the way I feel about group tours (and all the individual travellers I met shared my opinion heavily. I believe even Aung San SuuKyi is worried about the ‘group tour tourism’ that seems to have ‘taken over’ her country).
Before we arrived in Myanmar, I did a lot of research online. I used TripAdvisor as my main source and Thorn tree as my second. The Lonely Planet also, but his royal highness is totally outdated (although only one year old). The prices quoted in there have to be multiplied by at least 3 or 4 times (Myanmar is rapidly changing). If I couldn’t find what I was looking for, I googled until I found what I was looking for. There is so much information online.
I also read several novels about Myanmar.
WHAT DOES THE MYANMAR VIBE FEEL LIKE?
Myanmar is a beautiful country, but what does that mean? There are so many beautiful countries in the world. Well, Myanmar is special because it hasn’t dealt with tourism on a massive scale yet. That makes it special (but also difficult). But Myanmar offers also many breathtaking temples, pagoda’s and (golden) rocks, beaches, small villages, statues, vibrant cities and so on!
The landscape differs from region to region: sea, lake, mountains, palm woods and rural areas; Myanmar offers it all. The people are in general very shy and traditional, but overall lovely and kind (although not many speak English and that’s why they are very reserved). Men practically all wear longies and like the women use tanaka (white powder) make up on their face, which is very special to see. Sexuality is totally hidden, which I found very refreshing in the beginning and easy going (I live in a neighborhood with too many Moroccan guys who whistle all the time) but after three weeks I was wondering if the Myanmar people ever have sex
At Ngapali beach I wear shorts and shoulder less tops, which I tried to avoid in all the other places in Myanmar. Please make sure to wear at least a shirt that covers your shoulders and please do wear anything that covers your knees at temples and other religious places. THIS ADVISE IS ALSO FOR MEN! I’ve seen many stupid tourists with singlets and tiny short jeans, just covering the butt, walking around the Shwedagon. Really? Yes really!
The food they serve is tasteful. Not like Thai or Vietnamese food at all. It has it’s own special flavor. The Myanmar people mainly eat rice with meat (curry) and vegetables. At Inlelake and the beach, avocado salad is very much in vogue and of course fish. So mjumie! There are no bars, no nightlife, but there are tea houses (only men). At 9pm streets are empty.
Alcohol is available, beer very easy (Myanmar beer often comes free…see my blog chapter Ngapali beach), as well as Myanmar rum and whiskey (dirt cheap, 2$ a bottle). Wine is also available, but more difficult and only in the big villages or at the beach. They have their own vineyards and this wine taste pretty okay. See my chapter of Inle Lake.
Pretty much all the Myanmar men have red teeth. They constantly chew beetle nut which makes their teeth horribly ugly, rotten and red. They spit the left over beetle nut and their lumps of spit on the streets, so these are all red. This aspect of Myanmar I didn’t like too much. It seems that everybody chews this light speedy drug and it looks very unattractive.
Four weeks is enough time to get to know the country well.
All the hotels we slept in, I ‘booked’ online. Sometimes I e-mailed a hotel four to six times (!) before I got an answer back. A month before our departure, I reconfirmed all the hotels by e-mail. I mailed them till I got a reconfirmation back. From the whole e-mail correspondence I made a PDF and copied that on my iPad. When we arrived we encountered with three hotels (out of nine) problems: our reservation was NOT known or known but according to them not properly reconfirmed (they make up all kinds of stories). This is the most difficult part of travelling independently in Myanmar.
Here is what you need to do: try to book all your hotels weeks (better months) in advance. Don’t take any risks by not booking ahead. We’ve seen several times travellers walking around in the streets, tears in their eyes, totally stressed because there was NOT ONE SINGLE ROOM AVAILABLE. Certainly the better ones are sold out quickly. Reconfirm at least a week and three days before showing up and do this by telephone through a staff member of the hotel you stay in. I am not kidding you, this is how it works these days in Myanmar. There is a gigantic lack of rooms and most hotel owners don’t have any service attitude (anymore) because they fill up anyway. So yes they are rapidly becoming arrogant and unfriendly. This was the biggest change I saw compared to eight years ago. A total shame, but what can I do about it? Once I tried something, I confronted one of the hotel owners with his behavior and lack of service (PYI1 @Inle Lake) and a very unpleasant situation occurred.
Because it’s not possible to pay for the hotel online, many travellers make reservations for a few hotels in the same town. They check out the competition and take the room they like the most. The other rooms are left over. That’s why hotel owners basically take the whole ‘reservation system’ for granted/not seriously. So in a way it’s our own fault!
Hotels are very expensive in Myanmar (for a poor Asian country). Mid range hotels are between 45-100$ a night. Certainly Yangon is horrible. Shit holes for 60$ are very common. Mid range is often still pretty basic, do not level the rooms with European or Thailand standards. When I visited Myanmar eight years ago I paid for the same room 10$ instead of 55$. This shows how crazy things are getting in Myanmar. There is basically little to no service in the hotel, what you see is what you get. If they can take your Kyatt, they will. Service is something that they just have no experience with (the way we expect it when paying 75$ for a room). You can pay for the rooms in Dollars or in Kyatt. Euro’s basically NOT!
Flying in Myanmar is between 80-135$ per flight (see exact prices further in this post). Flying is not dirt cheap, but it goes fast and we thought it was very reliable. KBZ is the most expensive one (but has the most air plains and according to my travel agent the most reliable one). According to a few bloggers as of February there is a new company offering budget flights. See post on Tripadvisor.
Food is very affordable and it seems that the price for meals and drinks didn’t change that much over the years. But I think the variety of dishes and what they offer changed very positively. As well as the hygiene of the food preparation (although I still suffer from stomach problems and needed antibiotics).
So except for accommodation, the prices in Myanmar are okay.
During my online research, I’ve read over a hundred times how nice and warm the Myanmar people are. I agree, to a certain level. Often we felt an attraction when we walked down the streets. People taking pictures of us, waving, yelling ‘Mingalabar!!!’ or just smiled at us. We liked that a lot. We brought from our home country small presents and tried to interact with the locals as much as possible. But language is a problem. We really tried hard to learn a few Burmese sentences but gave up after 2 weeks.
Many Burmese don’t speak any English, French or Spanish so conversations are difficult, which I found in the end a bit frustrating. Always the same question and the same answers. The people who speak a tiny little bit English is the hotel / restaurant staff and I didn’t particular fell in love with their kindness or hospitality. Walking an extra mile for a guest: no way, this is just not in their system. They obey to the strict regulations and rules of the owner. Everything goes precisely as they are told to do. Nothing happens without any good reason. I often felt that the staff was cheap labour just for handing over the key and collecting the dollars. I was very intrigued by all this but couldn’t find any answers to all the questions I had.
I really missed talking chit chat style with the staff. I am curious how they live, what their interests are etc. This was most of the time not possible. The only big exception was at Ngapali Beach at the Bayview resort, but that is a German owned international hotel (and unfortunately so not Myanmar). The staff here is very well trained and more open to conversation then any other hotel staff I met. They also truly seem to enjoy hanging out with us, talking, making jokes etc.
Every place we visited was totally different. The southern part is more rural, undeveloped and the people were far less friendly and hygienic, with Kinpun (base camp for Golden Rock) as the most unfriendly and dirty town we visited.
Moulmeinis a funny special little town. A great place to unwind with a lot of nature and beautiful monasteries and pagodas. It’s only reachable by train (nightmare) and bus. Easy transportation in and around town with your own scooter for example.
We liked the spirit in Bagan(NyaungShwe area). It was so relaxed driving around and exploring the town on our bikes. We also liked the way they made their restaurants cosy with lampoons and candles. Inle Lake was also chill. Basically what we found out: everywhere bikes can be hired; there is a nice vibe in town.
Although Mandalaysounds exotic and laid-back, it was by far the dirtiest and most polluted city. Because of our great guide Lamyou (highly recommended) we had a fantastic time, but be well prepared if you go there and spent some extra $ on good accommodation, you will definitely like a little extra here.
Ngapalibeach is beautiful, but nothing like the Thai beach life. You want to drink and party: avoid this place. You will only see older people, big posh resorts and no action, -except for laying cards- what so ever. A few travellers told me that the place looks like KoSamui 30 years ago (with Swiss prices anno 2013). It’s quiet, there are many great restaurants, a beautiful white beach and a clear blue sea.
I you are in for reading a book, eating grilled fishes and drink an occasional cocktail at one of the resorts, this might be just the perfect place for you.
We were not really on a budget. We took plenty of pristine dollars with us to avoid running into cash problems (we saw many people with cash flow problems). Pristine unused notes are still the only way to get Kyatts. So pre-book them in your country.
If we would have known that euros were also exchangeable in Myanmar -really!-, we would have brought those and only a few dollars in small notes. Would have saved us about 100€ commission fee (! ridiculous) back in Holland.
It is really bizarre that they still want pristine notes, but it’s like it is…
Our € notes don’t interest them at all, so you can bring filthy, used notes to the country without any problems. The reason is very easy: Just compare the bills. With a good photocopy printer you can reproduce the just two-coloured Dollar bills easily, and if you then just “age” them a bit with dust and folds, it is difficult to see that these are forged. Now try this with a Euro bill with all the extremely refined security marks, holograms, metal band, watermarks etc. Hard job to forge those and you can see that even if they are used.
You basically cannot use your credit card in Myanmar. Not in hotels (only a few in Yangon). There are now several ATM’s in Inle Lake, Yangon and Mandalay (as I remember correctly) where you can withdraw cash from (expensive). Visa seems to be more in favour/practical then MasterCard.
At the airport they offer a good exchange rate (same as all the banks in Myanmar). It was hilarious to see all these tourist at the airport exchange booth changing only 25$ because they read in the bible that the airport rates are the worst in Myanmar. This made me really think…the majority of the travellers obvious haven’t done any real (last minute) research…They just bought a Lonely Planet and thought: off we go?
On average the two us together spent daily 55$ without accommodation but with souvenirs/clothes/medicines.
For guesthouses and hotels we paid another 35-65$ per night. See all the details in my blog.
NOT in our daily budget:
- We splurged at Ngapali Beach with a 113€ per night room (it was worth every euro cent but we felt terribly spoilt). But food here is dirt cheap. So our daily budget at Ngapali beach was 25$ a day.
- We paid once for a private taxi ride Yangon-Golden Rock: 90$
- We paid average 90$ per domestic flight (we took 5 flights)
Short: avoid buses and trains, take plains. Why? Read my blog.
No seriously, we are not that good with buses. The ones we’ve been on were so full with people and leg space was so little, that we didn’t enjoy it (understatement).
This is what I’ve heard several times:
The night buss stops every 3 hours. Lights go on and everybody will be swept out. They also play music throughout the whole night. So that’s kind of tricky for for a good night sleep. I’ve heard there are now several itineraries with great buses were you can totally lay down/stretch. This information must be available online.
The train: do it and you will never do it again, I am almost certain of that. It’s bumpy, goes slow, it’s dirty, very noisy, busy and not really cheap.
Flights in Myanmar:
We decided to use a travel agent to book flight tickets with. This is not possible online, you need someone in Myanmar. I e-mailed quit a bit back and forth to my contact in Yangon because it’s not easy getting things done (quickly) in Myanmar. I’ve repeated my question sometimes several times and occasionally I had my doubts if they really understood what I meant. So be patient and always, stay polite! There are loads of recommendations for travel agents to be found online. Mine is clearly described in my blog.
SHOULD I GO NOW?
I honestly don’t know. What happens right now in Myanmar is totally incomparable with any other country. I talked to several people who worked for years in the tourist industry and they all start trembling at the thought what will happen if this situation goes on. Me too. I have serious doubts if the Myanmar government is doing the right thing at this moment. I hope they will hire the right advisers from abroad to guide them through this difficult process. If things will go on like they are now and did in the past 8 or 9 months, then Myanmar will soon become a no go area. If I had anything to say, I would close the borders now (or at least decrease the total amount of tourist visa by half) for a while, and start reflecting on what happened and how to go on in a fair and much better structured way.
If you don’t mind paying ridiculous amounts of money for simple accommodation, yes go!
If you can handle the stress of being refused because the hotel/guesthouse is full (although you have written proof of your reservation): yes go!
If you don’t mind to get some stomach issues: yes go (you will get them how careful you are.)
If you insist on being the first to discover (authentic) Myanmar: NO, don’t go. You are certainly not one of the first, and the country has already changed totally. The ‘real authenticity’ is already gone. Wait a few years till the country is used to tourism.
If you are afraid of travelling on your own and you want to go by a group tour: NO, don’t go.
At this point in time Myanmar is better off without tourist groups (I know there are some real cool travel agents like Shoestring that organises local orientated group tours…these are probably very okay, but still I don’t think the country benefits from these kind of tourists & tourism).
ALSO INTERESTING FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
A fun blog to read for Spanish travelers:
Written By: EllesPaijens
Original Post: http://travellingthroughmyanmar.blogspot.com/