No doubt Myanmar is an easy country to travel but since it is still opening up to the International community after years of military rule, relying on one source of information is not sufficient. The standard of business practices is not consistent hence any extra info is helpful and can save you big bucks. These tips will also let you know what to expect in Myanmar so that you can plan accordingly. Here are some Travel Tips to Myanmar from my personal experience in this country.
Hotel Booking – budget/mid-range vs. a luxury hotel?
To be honest, hotel standards in Myanmar are mediocre. The country is still alien to the concept of luxury stay, but the mid-range hotels under US$20-30 would do everything to make your stay comfortable.
Let me give you my personal account – I booked an average hotel in Mandalay for around US$20 per night; it was called Iceland, which was a decent hotel with breakfast, WiFi, hot water, tea & coffee facility, tour desk, cheerful staff and convenient location. On the other hand, I was looking for a grander time in Bagan amidst the pagodas and so booked a pricier hotel – Kumudara for US$57 a night (this is expensive in Myanmar context). The location of the hotel was good, but otherwise, it was a rundown property with indifferent staff, poor internet connection, and average breakfast. The worst was when I found stains on the bedsheet. For the whole time, I was cursing myself for spending so much for nothing.
However, we liked Bagan, so much that we decided to extend our time here by one night, but chose to stay at the Hotel Crown Prince for US$30 which again was a great hotel in every aspect than Kumudara.
Lesson learnt was when in Myanmar, opt for hotels that cost no more than US$30 a night. Wait for a few years to indulge in the luxury in this country.
Local Food – is it hygienic?
Now, I don’t like when people ask if they wash vegetables before cooking! I don’t care as long as it is tasty and doesn’t leave my stomach upset.
I loved the local food in Myanmar. From the outside, it may fail to tempt as people use ungloved hands and sell along the dusty roads, but what did you expect in Myanmar. You signed up for it. Be brave and try different kinds of salad on the streets here. They use local ingredients and trust me it is not bad at all. It is better to ask for recommendations for local food than scouting on your own.
Photo Credits: Aditi Mittal
One place that I highly recommend for a local meal in Bagan is Ma Mae Naing on the main road. A typical Myanmar meal will come with a curry, 4-5 plates of assorted vegetables and a portion of rice – all this in less than US$7. Vegetarian options are available too.
I often had local food on my trip and do not remember getting an upset stomach on any occasion.
Photo Credits: Aditi Mittal
Currency Exchange – where to get good rates?
Don’t even think about changing currency in your country. You can convert just $50 for immediate use upon reaching but nothing more than that. Exchange rates are far better in Myanmar. Use local currency – Kyat for expenses.
I highly recommend taking US dollars. Like other developing countries, people here love US$ bills. We had both Singapore and US dollars, but we got a better rate on the latter. High denomination notes are even better. The funny thing is that the exchange rate varies drastically in the whole country. You will not find competitive rates at the banks. It is also common for the hotels to provide the foreign exchange.
After the full day trip outside Mandalay, I was short of local currency. On my way back, I asked the driver to stop at some currency exchange office and he, in broken English, said “One place, very good rate.” And I said why not! He took us to a hotel run by a Chinese family and believe me or not they had an office full of foreign cash. It wasn’t difficult to guess that their business was booming. I got the best rate here in my whole trip. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the hotel. But the point is to inquire from the taxi drivers or hotel staffs about the best place in town for currency exchange. Deceit and touting have not reached this country yet.
Public Transport – Leave it or Take it?
If you are thinking of hiring a car with the driver because you don’t have confidence in the transport here, then wait till you read this.
The public transport in Myanmar is clearly distinctive for both tourists and locals. The domestic flights, bus and ferry services commonly used by tourists, which are still public, are of above average quality.
I took an Air Mandalay flight from Yangon to Mandalay which was not at all a bad experience. Minus some exceptions! The scene of the airport completely changes once you switch to the domestic terminal. I could see no conveyor belts or the regular check-in process. There was just one person who was holding all the bags for check-in and giving tokens for it; it made me wary, I kept turning my head to check my bag. It was chaotic, but nothing awful happened.
The buses are the best way to travel in Myanmar. I remember the overnight bus that I took from Nyaung Shwe to Yangon; it was the most comfortable bus ride ever. The bus was air-conditioned, with fully reclining seat, blanket & pillow, personal LCD screen, headphones, coffee & tea facility, dinner on board, they seemed to have WiFi too but not sure if it was working. These buses are not uncommon on long routes and cost around US$10-20 depending on the bus service provider. It takes 10 hours or more which is standard in Myanmar. You can reserve the seats online, or through a local agent, it is advisable to book early in advance as this is the most preferred option by tourists and is often fully booked.
Same with the ferry. You can either take Bagan to Mandalay or vice versa; again, it takes almost 10 hours to reach. From my experience, the seats under the shade should be your first choice, but it fills fast. You will be baking in the sun on the open deck. There are 2-3 ferry operators, I have heard there is not much difference in the quality you can go with any one of them. There is food on board. However, I advise you to get some food packed from your hotel, not because the food is bad, but it was too less. The ferry cost is US$41 from Mandalay to Bagan and US$30 the other way. This option, however, is purely for tourists.
Another alternative is to take a slow boat which is used by locals and is cheaper, but it is only advisable if you have ample of time.
Train – I have saved this for my next trip.
Two words will sum this up – hot and dusty.
Well, it’s a tropical country, so the temperature does soar during the day (it’s been four months since my trip, and I still haven’t recovered from the tan.) I travelled in late October which is a decent month to be in Myanmar but still couldn’t escape the wrath of the sun.
Don’t let the heat spoil your pagoda experience. A good schedule is to venture out early in the morning (as soon as 6 am) to witness the sunrise and hot air balloons taking flight over the pagoda peaks. It starts getting blistering hot by 10 a.m. so, we made the rule of coming back to our hotel by then, eat breakfast and sleep before we set out again at 3-3.30 pm. I enjoyed the evenings here. With light shower, the fields come to life with lush green colour and pagodas in their crimson brick colour.
Most of the country is rural, so you can’t evade the dust. It is not dirty; just has free-flowing dust everywhere especially Bagan. One advice, take a face scrub along. I remember returning with few pimples 🙁
People & Religion – things to mind
Myanmar is among the few countries which I’d like to visit again. One of the reasons is its people. The fact that tourism in this country is relatively new and the sight of white skinned doesn’t stir up curiosity. Locals were nonchalant about the presence of the tourists. Yes, you will be targeted to buy souvenirs, but it is not a stressful experience unlike Bangkok, Hong Kong and even India where shopkeepers had pestered me to the point that I ended up hating the shopping experience.
Well, I did not observe such kind of compulsive selling in this country.
Photo Credits: Aditi Mittal
People here are predominantly Buddhist and practice Theravada doctrine which is a more conservative form of Buddhism. You will get used to of seeing monks asking for alms in the public places. Locals have immense respect for the old pagodas even now. It is mandatory to remove shoes and socks before entering the temples. Also, cover legs and shoulders unless you are on the beach. As tourists, it is also our responsibility to maintain the sanctity of the place.
Photo Credits: Aditi Mittal
Did I miss something? If you have been to this country and have an important tip to share, please do so.