Myanmar was the place that drew us back to Southeast Asia after a ten year absence. This is supposed to be a cheap trip centred on settling in in the sun somewhere but we probably would have gone to another part of the world – somewhere new – had Myanmar not sounded so enticing.
Myanmar? The name’s familiar. Aren’t they part of the Axis of Evil?
No, that’s Iran, Iraq and North Korea. With less strategic importance Myanmar never made it as a Big Bad, having to settle instead for sanctions and the title of an ‘outpost of tyranny’ rather than the threat of US invasion. Since the delusional military junta ignored the election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in 1990 the West has increasingly frowned in Burma’s direction and with some of the tourist infrastructure put in place by forced labour visiting the country presented an ethical dilemma.
Yet you broke ranks and went there anyway? Bad Working Traveller, bad!
Things began to change when ‘deeply flawed’ elections in 2010 saw military rule watered down to a military backed civilian government and the release of political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi. The former opposition’s request that tourists stay away has been lifted and in November 2012 President Obama visited Burma.
I’m confused. What’s Burma got to do with this?
Burma is the old name for Myanmar. In 1989 the military government did away with Burma and a load of other colonial era names, including changing Rangoon to Yangon, but while the UN recognises Myanmar as the official name for the country, political groups inside Myanmar, the UK and the US continue to refer to the place as Burma.
It must be a bit oppressive travelling in Myanmar and a good idea to be careful what you say about the military?
Though the violent suppression of the 1988 pro-democracy movement and the 2007 monk led Saffron Revolution suggest otherwise, to us the military seemed very hands off (at least at this moment in time). We saw no uniforms and it can take little prodding for the Burmese to talk politics and condemn the corruption of the generals. The population of Yangon were particularly delighted when the military moved away to their new ghost town capital and left them to get on with their lives in peace.
Comments by Head of State, Thein Sein, a former military commander, that the minority Rohingya ethnic group – living in Burma for hundreds of years – be resettled abroad suggest that it isn’t time to start skipping gaily through the daisy field of democracy just yet, while fighting that started after independence in 1948 still continues with other minorities in parts of the country.
Despite this, progress is being made. In April, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD Party won 43 out of 45 seats (though still only a fraction of seats were up for a vote) in elections regarded as mostly free and fair and US and EU sanctions have been eased. Restrictions on gatherings of more than five people were recently lifted and privately owned newspapers will soon be allowed for the first time in 50 years.
It sounds like things are changing fast?
Very fast. Though to us the country still seems delightfully traditional, with western dress uncommon and the roads clogged with hand carts and trishaws, old hands of the country tell of rapid change in the past three or four months alone. New cars, once incredibly expensive, and mobile phones are starting to appear as prices fall and restrictions are relaxed.
There is still a long way to go before Myanmar matches neighbouring Thailand in tourist numbers but Obama’s visit has put the country on the map and pushed tourist numbers to the boundary of its limited accommodation capacity, a situation not helped by hotels needing a license to accept foreign visitors.
Yet, for now, tourists remain a novelty. Westerners are routinely stared, waved and smiled at, particularly by children, and by turning off the main thoroughfares in Yangon or Mandalay it is possible to reduce an entire street to silence as you walk by.
You bought a t-shirt, I presume?
Yep, clothing with opposition slogans and the face of Aung San Suu Kyi make great souvenirs and are sold openly.
How much does it cost to visit Myanmar?
A 28 day visa for Burma costs from £16 to £25, depending on how quickly you want it. Once in country accept that even the most recent guidebook will be hopelessly out of date for accommodation rates, which will be the most persistent drain on those pristine dollars you bought with you.
A combination of rapidly rising tourist numbers and government bureaucracy requiring hoteliers to apply for an expensive licence mean room rates have doubled in the past couple of months without any rise in quality. Almost all of the hotels and guest houses we stayed with were typically Burmese in their friendliness and helpfulness.
All had hot water and each had its own unique selling point such as a pleasant garden/rooftop area, thoughtful design, a great communal vibe, going that extra mile or a better than usual breakfast. These welcome features also tended to be combined with faults we would be a little less tolerant of elsewhere at the same price. These ranged from very thin walls, fixtures and fittings that broke all too easily, a dirty or leaking bathroom, a leaking toilet, a light we couldn’t turn off all night, a free cockroach and a lack of external light.
Accept everywhere will be overpriced and nowhere will be perfect and Burmese accommodation and you will get along fine. For an example of how prices have risen the latest Lonely Planet Southeast Asia quotes the following rates for a double room with bathroom:
May Guest House (Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake) – $12 (we paid $22)
Silver Star Hotel (Mandalay) – $25 (we were quoted $50)
Winner Guest House (Nyaung U, Bagan) – $7 to $10 (quoted as $35 on the internet)
Despite this, hotels are full to capacity. We visited in February and March and most travellers were glad for a room at all. In Nyaungshwe, the main town for visiting Inle Lake, we were turned away numerous times and after searching for several hours only got a bed by pure chance by buying the deposit off a Chinese girl that had doubled booked. Two timely cancellations ensured we were able to move to another hotel for four nights to acquire a private bathroom, before we had to move on again for our last two days in town.
The first night is the main problem, especially if your choice of transport gets you in after everyone else. Once in town it is much easier to find an alternative place to stay the next morning. If you do find yourself without a place to stay try the nearest monastery. In Nyaungshwe the monks charge $12 for a private room or $5 for a dorm style bed.
After paying $60 to a guesthouse on his first night in Nyaungshwe, Nate Trager declined a dorm bed and took a room in the monastery. When we asked him about his choice he said “one wall of the room only goes about three meters high, above which it is open to the next room. The overhead windows are open and there were a lot of mosquitoes in the room. Aside from a better bathroom situation, I think someone would be just as well staying in one of the main sleeping halls of the monastery.”
Myanmar has a wide variety of ways to get around, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. We took the following journeys:
Yangon to Thazi (train) – $27 for a bunk in a 4 berth sleeper.
Thazi to Shwenyaung (train) – $7 for a first class seat.
Nyaungshwe to Bagan (bus) – 10,000kt
Bagan to Mandalay (boat) – $35
Food and drink
Myanmar Beer – 2000kt
Water (1ltr) – 300kt
Soft drink – 300kt for local small bottle of local brand, 500kt for a can of western brand
Shan Noodles – 1-1500kt
Curry (with 6-7 side dishes) – 2500kt
Small bag of samosas and similar fried stuff bought on the street – 500kt
A compulsory government fee is paid to enter the Inle Lake area ($5) and Bagan ($10) while $10 buys a ticket to enter various sights in Mandalay. Other costs include:
Lake trip in Inle Lake – 15-18,000 (depending on length of trip) per boat
Renting a bike in Inle Lake or Bagan – 1-1500kt
Shewegadodon Pagoda – $5 (4500kyt)
Sula Paya – $2
* Explore different ways to get around. Taking a boat or a train may be slower than the bus (for example, our train journey from Thazi to Inle Lake took nearly 12 hours but on the bus, going the other way, we passed through Thazi within around three hours) but are a wonderful way to explore the country and each should be explored at least once. We found The Man in Seat 61 a great resource for planning train journeys in Myanamar.
* The Burmese are truly awful travellers. That wonderful moment when the bus empties and you can move to two free seats is less pleasant when presented with the sick bags left behind by the previous occupants.
* Get used to early mornings and early nights. Aside from most forms of transport leaving at stupid o’clock nightlife is minimal to non-existent and it isn’t uncommon to see the Burmese putting on their pyjamas at 7pm.
* The streets are dark at night. Few streets have lights and neither do many vehicles. Don’t be surprised when renting a bicycle that it has no headlights and to be presented with numerous other bikes and scooters coming at you down the wrong side of the road with no headlights either.
* Internet connections are beginning to appear but it is very slow. The best wifi we encountered was in Yangon and Mandalay, but Bagan was pitiful.
* If your guest house doesn’t have wifi ask around for rooms in other guest houses, even if you have no intention to stay there. Often passwords are pinned up in reception.
* Don’t log in to PayPal (we didn’t use our online banking either, just in case).
* ATMs are starting to appear but after getting burned using PayPal we didn’t touch them, so can’t say whether they can be used by foreigners or not. They seem to accept Visa but we were told (by another traveller) they do not accept foreign cards, but as stated above we cannot verify this.
* Bring enough US dollars to last your entire trip and make sure they are in pristine condition. We cannot stress this enough: make sure they are in pristine condition. We met an Australian who showed us a hundred dollar bill. Close examination revealed the millimetre sized ink stain that caused its rejection by the bank. We kept our dollars in a waterproof plastic folder kept in our laptop bag and placed them within the covers of a book whenever we carried them around. This strategy worked for us and we had no rejections.
* Book your first night’s accommodation where possible, particularly for the first day in the country when some guest houses provide free pick up from the airport.
* While the Burmese are a lovely, friendly people, don’t expect western standard service. In one place with pretensions to be a bit trendy the waiter cleared his mouth by gobbing over the side of the building before taking our order.
* Don’t touch any dogs. Man, they are scabby.
The exchange rate was around £1 to 1300kt ($1 = 880kt) during our visit in February 2013.