Myanmar (pronounced me-ann-mar) has become a traveler’s hot spot in recent years, and will get even more popular now that they’ve held democratic elections. Their new found political freedom shined the spotlight, and brought a surge of people into the once isolated country. Hotel and infrastructure are being built to support the rapid growth as the country moves towards becoming the next must-visit Asian destination. Things are changing fast and information on the web gets quickly outdated. Here are a list of things we learned from our trip (taken at the end of Nov, 2015) that will hopefully make your planning easier:
1. When to Go – To avoid the monsoon season and the extreme temperatures, the best times to go are between mid-November and mid-February. We were there in November and December, and even though it got pretty hot during the day, it was bearable.
2. People – The people here are friendly and keen to help. They always have a big smile on their face and eager for conversation. A few things to know about the people of Myanmar:
The Burmese men and women all wear a yellow paste on their face called thanaka cream. It was used as sunscreen for thousands of years to protect their face from the harsh sun. The cream is made from a tree bark that has been ground and mixed with water, creating a natural cosmetic. Some people are quite creative with the cream, creating designs on their face instead of just slathering it on.
Most Burmese people prefer to chew betel leaves rather than smoke cigarettes. This is another source of highly addictive nicotine. The leaves are usually prepared and sold by street vendors who coat it with a white paste that turns bright red after it’s been chewed. The bitterness of the flavor makes the mouth salivate, creating an urge to spit. The people are quite indiscriminant about where they spit, hence all the red patches on the ground.
3. Language – Burmese is the official language in Myanmar. Even though there are definitely more visitors in recent years, translations of signs into other languages are rare, and aside from the small number of people who can speak a few words of English in the tourist frequented towns, there is definitely a language barrier. Our predominant method of communication was hand gestures. However, we did learn a few Burmese words:
- Mingalar par (pronounced min-ga-la-bar) – Hello, may prosperity be with you
- kyei zu ba (pronounced jay-zu-bah) – Thank you
- Naykaungglarr (pronounced ni-cow-la) – How are you?
Tip: Always carry a hotel business card with you to show to the taxi driver. Ask the front desk to write out the address or directions to where you want to go in Burmese in case you get lost.
4. Money – The currency used in Myanmar is the Kyat (pronounced jett), with an exchange rate of approximately 1 USD to 1220 MMK on March 2016. Before we traveled to Myanmar we had a lot of questions about money. We read that you NEEDED to bring pristine 100 dollar bills for exchange. However, we found out upon arrival that there are a lot of ATM machines around (except Ngapali) and we were able to use our Charles Schwab card that doesn’t charge foreign fees. Credit cards are not prevalent here; some hotels do accept credit cards but they charge you a processing fee. So it’s more convenient to take money out of the machine as you need it.
5. Negotiating – When traveling in Asia, it’s usually the custom to aggressively negotiate for any items you wish to buy. It’s not unusual to see the price inflated to 2-3 times what it should be. Things are slightly different in Myanmar where asking prices are actually reasonable. There is not as much of a difference between ‘tourist’ prices and ‘local’ prices. So even though negotiation still happens, the discount will not be as steep.
6. Hotels – Even though the country’s tourism has increased exponentially in the past few years, the infrastructure has not been able to keep up to accommodate the influx of visitors. The shortage in hotels leads to increased prices during the peak season. Some of the larger hotel chains like Starwood and Hilton are starting to enter the country, but currently the demand outweighs the supply. Based on our experience, comparable accommodation in Myanmar, especially in Inle Lake and Bagan, costs a lot more than other Southeast Asian countries.
7. Road – If you drive in Myanmar, you’ll notice that they have British cars, which mean the driver is on the right, BUT, their roads are Americanized, which means you drive on the right side of the road. It’s an odd system resulting in the passengers having to exit the cars or buses onto oncoming traffic.
8. Transportation– There are many different ways to get around, depending on how adventurous you want to be. Going from city to city you can either take a plane which costs about $100 dollars for a one way ticket or an overnight bus, which costs much less. For about $14 USD, we traveled from Inle Lake to Myanmar on a luxury overnight bus. The fare included dinner, a blanket, a bottle of water and comfortable recliner seats with individual touchscreen monitors so you can watch movies. Even though our bus was 2 hours late, the overall experience was quite enjoyable. Just remember to bring extra layers, the AC on the bus is on full blast and it can get really cold. Trains are notoriously unreliable and slow compared to busses.
While in the city, there are many transportation options, depending on where you are. You can hire a taxi driver to drive you around for a day or you can take a motorcycle taxi which is cheaper and easier to get around traffic. While in Inle Lake and Bagan, you can rent a bike or take a horse drawn carriage to go sightseeing. In Ngapali beach, the easiest way to travel is to take the side car tuk tuk. We had tried most methods of transportation and our favorite was driving ourselves on an e-bike. It gave us more freedom and flexibility to go where we wanted and allowed us to feel like we were part of the place.
9. Airport – The domestic airport/flying experience is unique to this country and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The check-in process usually takes about 5 minutes and involves you going to a makeshift counter where the attendant checks your name on a clipboard. Passports and identification is not needed. Once they have verified that your name is on the list, you are given a sticker and a piece of paper as your boarding pass. Luggage is weighed on old fashion scales to make sure it’s within the weight limit. We passed through a scanner for our security checks and ended up in a room, waiting to board.
Most domestic airports have one room and one gate that’s used by ALL the airlines. There are no information bulletin boards, so you have to listen for the boarding call, which is usually in Burmese. In order to not miss your flight, you have to keep a sharp eye out for people with similar stickers and make sure you board when they do. Once most people are on board, the attendants do a quick count and walk around the room to spot the stragglers. On the planes, there is no assigned seating, so you can sit wherever you want. The plane usually makes multiple stops, flying from city to city, picking up and dropping off people, so you have to pay attention to not miss your stop. Each time we took off, the attendant passed around a lunch box and drinks even though it was a short flight. Flying in Myanmar feels like you’re traveling on a bus.
10. Power – There were power source and reliable electricity in all the places we visited. Even better is that most hotels are equipped with universal outlets removing the need for a converter. Before arriving in the country, we heard about the many power outages that happen randomly, but during our whole visit it only happened once while we were in Inle Lake. We were walking back to our hotel from town, when all of a sudden the road got pitch black; the power had gone out. We tried to use our cellphone flashlight, but it was not sustainable so we used the moonlight to guide us home. It was nice, but somewhat of a scary experience. We were trying hard to not accidentally fall into a ditch. Thankfully our hotel had a backup generator.
11. Internet – We’d read many horror stories about the dial-up speed internet in Myanmar and how it supposedly take up to 90 minutes to send an email. Fully expecting to be disconnected from the world, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the wifi in our hotels were decent. I was able check email, update my instagram, and even do a short video call home without any issues. Inle Lake probably had the worst internet out of all the tourist-frequented places we visited.
12. Weather – Even though we were there during the cooler season, the weather was consistently hot and humid except when we were at Inle Lake and Bagan where it was colder in the morning and at night. The average temperature during the day can get as high as 33ºC / 91ºF. To combat the smothering heat, we crushed up some ice and put it in an empty spray bottle to keep ourselves cool.
13. Clothing – Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country with a more conservative dress code. Most Burmese still wear a traditional longyi, a wraparound skirt worn by both men and women. Men tie theirs in the front, and women fold the cloth over and secure it at the side. A longyi worn on a hot day is surprisingly light and breezy, much more comfortable than jeans.
It’s better to bring lots of light layers when you travel to Myanmar. The lightweight clothing is ideal to help protect you from the sun and mosquitoes. Stay away from overly revealing and inappropriate clothing like tank tops and short shorts. Take your cue from the locals, and make sure to dress respectfully – especially when visiting temples where you’re required to wear clothing that covers your knees and shoulders. An extra scarf can be used to cover up if you’re in a pinch.
14. Footwear – People who have been to Thailand will know that you have to take off your shoes when you enter a religious place. It’s the same idea in Myanmar, but even stricter. Here you are required to take off your shoes immediately as you enter the complex. Which means that most of the time you’re walking barefoot (socks are also not allowed) across hot pavement with plenty of sharp rocks.
You can either pack your shoes into your bag or leave them at the entrance. Some places have shoe check stations, but it’s not too common. One time in Mandalay, I left my brand new Havaianas that I had bought in Rio at the door, and came back to find them gone. The local people at the temple noticed that my footwear was missing and joined in to help me find them, but alas, it was too late – who ever took my flip flops was long gone. So without shoes, I had no choice but to buy a new pair of flip flops from a nearby stall. The sad part is, most of shoes are way too small for my size 7.5 feet, so after digging through a pile of blinged-out velvet flip flops, I was only able to find a pair that barely fit. The lesson here is to not wear your brand new shoes to the temple, and if you must, don’t leave them lying around conspicuously.
15. Eating out – Like other South Asian countries, food here is delicious and cheap. Dinning options are casual, with the best meals usually found on the streets. While eating out in Myanmar, an interesting kissing sound might reach your ear. This loud air sound is not someone hitting on you, but rather, the method people use to flag down a waiter. So next time you’re there, get in the local spirit and pucker up your lips, it works better than the wave.