What’s it like to go backpacking in Myanmar? The country (formerly known as Burma, and still referred to as that in the west) has been pretty much untouched by tourism since a military coup 20 years ago, but visits have been picking up since a new government was elected in 2010 and visa restrictions relaxed in 2011.
1. What challenges do you face as a traveller in Myanmar? How have you overcome them?
Currently, there are no ATMs that take foreign cards in Myanmar. This means that you need to bring all of your money into the country, in cash. Fresh, crisp USD is best, though SGD and EURO are also becoming more accepted here for payment and exchange.
The biggest challenge people face here is a lack of planning. Through most of SE Asia, the supply of hostels and guesthouses far exceeds demand, so flexible schedules and just ‘showing up’ is the norm. This is just not possible in the same way here. Supply of guesthouses for foreigners is quickly becoming far less than necessary. Booking in advance is typically done by phone, from your guesthouse, or by purchasing your own SIM card (there is currently no roaming for out of country SIM cards). See Dustin’s post on technology available in Myanmar for more mobile, internet and power information.
2. How easy has travel around the country and getting in been?
The vast majority of travellers to Myanmar will fly in to Yangon or Mandalay, often via Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, though many airlines are adding flights into the country for 2013. See hostels in Yangon (starting from €9.70 @ Ocean Pearl Inn)
Inside the country, travel by bus and train can be quite tiresome. Roads are poor, and the trains are slow and bouncy (think of a 10hr roller coaster). Buses and trains work at odd hours, so be sure to ask. It is not unusual to arrive at your destination at 4am.
The most comfortable (and fastest) way to travel around is by airplane, but keep in mind that you will likely need to buy those flights while in country (not online).
Travel should be booked at least a day or two in advance.
3. What impact has the political situation made on your travels, if any?
Until relatively recently, it was off limits to talk about the political situation here, and I would still recommend travellers exercise caution. You wouldn’t want to put someone in a situation where they may get into trouble. If you are interested in talking politics, take your time and let a local bring it up.
The political situation here means that many areas of the country are off limits to tourism. This is due to a few reasons, but mostly due to a lack of infrastructure for tourism in those parts. There are also on-going clashes in the country, and certain areas (often the border regions) are off limits do to this.
Issues like this mean that you will have to fly in and fly out of the country. Crossing a border into the country by land (into the middle of the country) is not possible without first obtaining permission.
4. Do locals call it Burma or Myanmar?
The vast majority of locals refer to the country as Myanmar. The name change happened about 20 years ago, so many people don’t know any different. They also refer to the language as “Myanmar language” and not Burmese as we in the west often do.
5. What’s been your experience of locals’ reactions to tourists?
Since tourism has been quite limited until recently, tourists have been few and far between, are often a welcome part of life here in Myanmar. It’s not unusual to be invited in for tea, or if you’re really fortunate, a meal to share.
That said, in the hopes of keeping it that way, be sure to treat the Myanmar people with respect as you travel around their land. In doing so, hopefully they won’t be tainted by bad experience with rude tourists.
6. Where have you stayed in Myanmar so far, and what have the places been like?
I have been to the South (Mawlamyine, Hpa-An), West (Sittwe, Mrauk-U), East (Lasio, Hsipaw, Pyin Oo Lwin, Kalaw, Nyuangshwe, Tachileik), and the former capital, Yangon.
Expect to pay more than other neighbouring countries in SE Asia, and for lower quality accommodation. I highly recommend you book in advance. The rush of foreigners has left the limited infrastructure struggling to keep up. Even in the quieter rainy and ‘hot’ seasons, it is becoming difficult to find a place to stay, and local officials have had to stick foreigners into local monasteries to sleep when accommodation hasn’t been available.
7. What have been your favourite things to see and do so far?
My favourite thing to do here is not plan. When you don’t plan too much for the day, you invite all of the awesome things that this country has to come to you. Don’t stuff your days with a to-do list, but go with the flow and see what opportunities present themselves. More so than any other country, you’ll have a much richer and more memorable experience this way.
Besides that hunk of advice for travel in Myanmar, trekking to hill-tribe villages in the Shan foothills has been one of my highlights, as well as the exciting fish market in Sittwe. Read about Dustin’s adventures in Dala.
8. What things about Myanmar have surprised you most?
Myanmar is a special place, and one that is changing rapidly. Strange government rules and stiff sanctions from the rest of the world have meant that it seems like an entirely different world from nearby Thailand. Many locations off the main tourist track can be enjoyed nearly devoid of other tourists.
What people should come here for are the people. Relatively untouched by tourism, the people are absolutely genuine. Many places you travel, it would be hard to know that they have lived separated from much of the rest of the world these past few years.
9. What benefits are there to travelling in Myanmar?
Travelling to Myanmar now means you have a chance to savour it all before the mounds of tourists come in. Years of sanctions by the west, and a tourism boycott led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, had left the country relatively untouched by foreigners. With a shift in government policy, tourism is quickly picking up, and now is your chance to get in before the crowds arrive
Thanks for speaking with us, Dustin!