Myanmar – An Intriguing Country Steeped in Stupas Dipped in Gold
Myanmar (formerly Burma) seems to be the new trendy travel destination on the well-trodden trail of Southeast Asia. A common misconception is that Myanmar was all together closed to tourism up until a few years ago but this simply isn’t true. I personally know people who traveled to Myanmar in the 1980’s and 1990’s albeit with very limited access and lots of restrictions within the country.
Myanmar’s recent troubled history is one of extreme oppression fueled by a dictatorship that was ruled by military junta for nearly 50 years. What this meant was that freedom of speech and free press (especially in regards to the government) were fiercely monitored (or rather non-existent) and select literature and music were closely regulated or oftentimes banned. Simply voicing one’s opinion on certain taboo subjects such as politics could incur imprisonment without trial. In short, people were stripped of their basic human rights. The whole country was under watch and lived in fear. Censorship was enforced and democracy was abolished entirely.
Following a general election in 2010, a wave of hope spread across the country. By 2011, the military junta was dethroned and was replaced by a nominally civilian government resulting in the first democratic election in 2016 due in part to Aung San Suu Kyi – a democratic politician who fought relentlessly for the liberation of her country from the chains of its oppressive government. Her unedited outspokenness against the junta meant she was under house arrest for 15 years until she was released in 2010. Her liberal party now occupies the head of the Burmese government promising more freedom in Myanmar. And thus, most restrictions have been removed for traveling within the country (some regions are still off-limits or need a permit) and tourists now flock to this intriguing country steeped in stupas dipped in gold.
TRAVELING IN MYANMAR
Transportation between the more popular cities such as Bagan, Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake), Mandalay and Yangon are made easy with modern, fully air-conditioned voyager buses or mini-buses at very reasonable fares. Within the cities or for shorter distances, taxis are inexpensive or, better yet, use the more common local transportation in the form of modified pick-up trucks. In areas of Southern Myanmar, transportation is still rudimentary meaning buses or mini-vans are old and rundown with broken windows being the only type of ventilation.
There are several airports in Myanmar but we didn’t take any inner-flights so I can’t comment on the price of tickets or flight availability. Myanmar does have a railroad system but trains are generally very slow and can be uncomfortable (there are sleeper options). We did take a short train ride of about 4 hours from Nyaunghshwe to Kalaw but, overall, we preferred taking the road instead of the track.
Most nationals need a visa prior to traveling to Myanmar (no visas on arrival are issued). We applied for our visas at the Burmese embassy in Bangkok but e-visas are now available – see official website. Visas are valid for a period of 28 days but each additional day after expiry (with no repercussions) will only cost $3 USD/day to be paid at your departure point (airport or land border).
ACCOMMODATION & EATING
Many hotels will ask to be paid in U.S. dollars but we found that it was better to pay in kyats (the national currency) especially since the exchange rate for Canadian/U.S. dollars wasn’t to our (Canadians) advantage when we went in 2016.
There are numerous hotels and guest houses available in Myanmar – from budget to luxury – but accommodation is still on the higher end of the spectrum especially compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. The average price we paid for a double room was between 30,000-35,000 kyats/night including air conditioning and breakfast. (Breakfasts in Myanmar were possibly the worst I ever had: soggy, under-cooked eggs, dry white bread, a few slices of unripened fruit and artificial orange juice).
Which leads us to food in Myanmar. The food we had was delicious for the most part (except for the breakfasts) and was really inexpensive! We rarely paid more than 5000 kyats for a meal for two (note that we don’t eat meat) including a big bottle of water or beverages. The traditional way of eating in Myanmar consists of ordering a main dish accompanied by a variety of dipping curries (usually complimentary) and rice. My favorite dish was khayan thee hnut, a delicious, soft-melted eggplant curry, yummy!
Thankfully, there’s a refreshing lack of famous fast food restaurant chains in Myanmar (I did see a PFK in Yangon and it made me roll my eyes) but a variety of food is available – from Indian to Chinese to Italian – in case you crave a taste of home. And, of course, like any self-respecting Asian country, street food is popular (mostly in Yangon) but certainly not as prevalent as Thailand or other (more developed) countries in SEA.
WHAT SHOULD WOMEN WEAR?
Some of the younger Burmese generation have adopted a more Westernized wardrobe with girls (in bigger cities) wearing jeans (or pyjamas?) instead of the traditional longyi but Myanmar continues to retain its conservative side. For women travelers, it’s best to dress more modestly so as not to stand out awkwardly. A general rule when visiting sacred sites for both men and women (locals and foreigners alike) is to cover knees and shoulders.
Safety isn’t really an issue in Myanmar. We walked around late at night in every town (including Yangon) without any problems and without having to dodge touts. We found most people to be very honest and eager to help without being overbearing or asking for money. But scamming is an inevitable by-product of tourism (especially in the more popular tourist areas like Bagan) so best to be on alert.
MONEY & CREDIT CARDS
The national currency is called kyats. There are plenty of ATM’s and banks/exchange offices in most of Myanmar except for remote hilltown villages. When exchanging or using U.S. dollars, bills have to be new and crisp (no creases or tears) or else they’ll be irrefutably refused – this is also the norm in hotels and restaurants.
As for credit cards, they’re widely accepted in more established hotels/guest houses and restaurants.
INTERNET & SOCIAL MEDIA
Internet is still relatively new in Myanmar but it is available in most cities. As for social media, the government ban was lifted a few years ago so all channels are accessible (you’ll see a lot of locals surfing on their cell phones!). Don’t expect high-speed or an uninterrupted connection (making it challenging for those who need to work online) but for the most part we managed to have a connection in most of our rooms, as patchy as it was. We chose not to purchase SIM cards but they are available through three companies for just a few kyats (read more).
- Because Myanmar was a British colony, vehicles have right-hand steering but driving is done in the right hand lane. To add to this confusion, more recent vehicles have left-hand steering. Just be careful when crossing the road!
- Thanaka is a common facial paste used as sun protection but also as a cosmetic. Thanaka is made by grounding tree bark to then be applied to the face (sometimes in stylish patterns) and sometimes to the arms. Regardless of age, men, women and children wear thanaka liberally.
- Motorbikes are banned in the hectic city of Yangon.
- Many people (mostly men) chew kwun-ya (or more commonly known as paan in other parts of the world) – an addictive, stimulating concoction of betel vine leaf, areca nut, slaked lime, spices for aroma and sometimes tobacco. Regularly chewing kwun-ya leaves (rotten) teeth, lips and tongue permanently stained a reddish black. Betel nut chewers do just that, chew their dose of kwun-ya and then spit out the excess saliva on the street leaving unsightly red stains – better watch where you step!
- The Burmese love to read; the literacy rate in Myanmar is about 93% which is astonishing for a developing country.
- Some of the most expensive gemstones (mostly rubies) in the world come from mines located in the valleys of Mogok.
- Both men and women of all ages wear traditional longyis – a tubular skirt tied at the waist – but the styles vary. While women’s longyis are more elaborate and colorful, men’s longyis are usually checkered.
- A lot of Burmese men wear traditional sandals known as hnyat-phanat. These sandals/flip-flops are peculiar in that they have a small clunky heel and are made of velvet (usually burgundy or black). I noticed that officials also wore hnyat-phanat with their uniforms – I wonder how that works out if they need to run after someone?
- The Burmese Buddhist calendar counts 8 days of the week with Wednesday split in two – namely a.m. and p.m.
- Myanmar is home to the biggest reclining Buddha image in the world.
- Kiss-calling (for lack of a better word) and finger-snapping is common when trying to get someone’s attention (a waiter for example); this isn’t considered rude or inappropriate – it’s just part of the local culture.
MY OVERALL IMPRESSION OF MYANMAR
First of all, it’s relevant to say that we traveled right before the monsoon season (in March/April) which meant that temperatures soared to the mid-40’s Celsius rendering site-seeing quite unpleasant/unbearable; my enthusiasm had dwindled a little . And I was sick for 5 days straight in Mandalay forcing me to stay in bed. Taking into consideration the sweltering heat and being sick, I admit that I didn’t enjoy my time in Myanmar as much as I could/should have. Which isn’t to say I didn’t like Myanmar but, rather, that I didn’t feel like I got the chance to immerse myself enough in what it had to offer.
That being said, a cliché comes to mind namely that the people (locals) we meet along the way are truly what make traveling unforgettable. This couldn’t be more true than in Myanmar. The Burmese were the friendliest, most welcoming and warmest people of all the countries we visited (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) during our 4 months of traveling and possibly during all of our travels ever. Myanmar still hasn’t been hit by the negative impact of tourism and, therefore, its people (in general) are genuinely interested in engaging with foreigners.
That is Myanmar.
Myanmar Travel Tales
With Thousands of Buddha Eyes Watching Over Hpa-An
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Stepping Inside the Biggest Reclining Buddha Image in the World
That’s a pretty ambitious claim but at a length of nearly 600 feet / 180 meters, this reclining Buddha is truly deserving of its unofficial world-record holding title!
How to Make the Most of Your Time in Yangon
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A Close Encounter With Yangon’s Most Dangerous Street Gang
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The Cost of Achieving Gilded Perfection in Mandalay
One thing that stands out while traveling in Myanmar is how many sacred Buddha images and pagodas are gilded in shiny gold leaves – and, yes, it’s real gold!
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