Thanks to the new political course, Burma has become an increasingly popular destination. Many – included me – consider that this is the time to visit as the country is rapidly changing. However, there are
7 tips to prepare your trip to Burma.
1. Myanmar is expensive
Not in absolute terms, of course. But compared to other Southeast Asia countries, expect to find higher prices and, often, not exactly what I’d call ‘value for money’ options. There are a few reasons to that.
First of all, at least for the time being you can’t access Burma from the land, meaning that you must anyway flight to Yangon from either Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Singapore or China. Second, while there are many internal flights to reach the main cities, airline carriers are expensive (usually just below USD 100 per flight). No low-cost carriers. As a third point, I would mention hotels/guesthouses. Most of them are rather old and pricey for what they offer, but as infrastructure for hospitality is still limited, you don’t have much choice (although this is likely to change over time). There are a few luxury, high-end hotels, and resorts, but you should be aware that they are hugely expensive and in most cases strongly bound with the Government. Last but not least, as internal flights are so expensive even buses come at a rather high price, considering that most times you’ll be traveling on old vehicles and that you’ll need to pay for a taxi to reach the bus terminals, which are always very far. Plus, the bus rides are usually very long.
2. In the cities, expect a lot of noise and terrible pollution
Cars everywhere horns blasting all the time and the air thick and smelly. Cars and motorbikes bikes are very old, as are engines, and petrol is of very poor quality, thus air pollution is huge.
Sometimes – and I’m a smoker – I had to cover my mouth because I couldn’t stand anymore the smell and the rasping in my throat. I felt like that the air was close to unbreathable only in Mexico city and Kathmandu, many years ago.
3. Be ready to feel overwhelmed by people’s kindness and wonderful smiles
People are by far (at least in my opinion) the best part of Burma . Everywhere I felt welcomed by wonderful smiles and a kindness that comes from the heart. Burmese are so spontaneously sweet.
Everywhere, kids and adults were waving hello, asking my name, offering help if they thought I was lost. It was funny as well to see how they are attracted by cameras, asking for a picture, proudly posing and then looking at their image as if it were the most beautiful thing, somehow a little magical. I wish I had the opportunity to print the photos for them so that they may keep them as a memory.
4. It’s hard to go off the beaten track
Burma is only partly open and besides the classical itinerary (usually Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake) many areas are still closed or accessible only after requesting special permits. This means that one has to plan a trip long in advance, and often the only way to get access to these areas is by private tours, clearly under government control and usually very expensive (plus, it’s not even easy to know if it’s worth the time and cost).
Even if you are and independent traveler like me, you’ll eventually follow the beaten tracks and visit the classic places and attractions. That’s a bit of a limit for those who, like me, like to discover as much as possible off-beaten areas of a country. Of course, this is likely to change in the short (or longer?) term. But as of today, do not expect many opportunities to explore unusual places.
5. Money is an issue and you’ll have to take out your wallet very often
Yes, you got it right. First of all, be aware that to travel Burma you’ll have to bring with you a lot of cash. Moreover, USD must be perfect, since if they have only a little stain, mark or wrinkle they won’t accept the bills for change. Traveling with loads of cash is not an option but a must, since you won’t be able to pay by credit card or to withdraw money from ATM.
This means also that you need to plan carefully your budget to avoid getting short of money. When you travel solo, like me, for an extensive period, this is rather annoying. I usually try to keep with me as little cash as possible, to withdraw when necessary and pay by credit card.
Besides that, be ready to pay for almost everything. The entrance to the pagodas in Yangon will cost you 5 USD each, they often ask you for a fee to keep your shoes, in some places I’ve been asked to pay for taking photos and the list goes on. We’re never talking about big sums, but in the evening, you’ll discover that you got to spend a fair amount of money. Things get better in Bagan and Inle Lake, where you’ll pay a one-off entrance fee to visit the area, valid for one week.
Apart from the costs, what’s annoying is that it’s not clear where (maybe I should say whom) the money goes to, and that made me sometimes feel uncomfortable.
6. If possible, stay at a hotel with a swimming pool
Even during the rainy season, the heat is overwhelming and you’ll soon find out that getting around during the hottest hours of the day is too much of a suffering. Around noon, when jumping in the pool for a refreshing bath you’ll bless yourself for such a wise and smart choice (I owe this tremendous piece of advice to a good friend and awesome photographer, who’s been to Myanmar last year.
I stayed in a lovely guesthouse with a swimming-pool in Bagan and I can tell you that having a place to find relief from the heat it makes a big difference.
7. Go soon, because Burma has already been partly spoiled and is likely to change very quickly
Even in Bagan, the awesome land of thousands of temples, newly built stupas have been erected between the old historical ones, after the city was strongly affected by the 1975 earthquake. The Sule and Shwedagon pagodas in Yangon have very little left of their original structure. Most of what we see today has been rebuilt and repainted and while the overall effect of the glittering golden domes remains impressive, it’s hard to imagine how it originally was.
At a first glance, it seems that the country is keen to develop and modernize itself, but I’m afraid that it won’t be a sustainable development and that many will get caught in the illusion of a gold rush.
As for the prices, people I met on the road who had been in Myanmar in the past years told me that it used to be much cheaper. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the costs in Burma further increase.
Have you been to Burma? Do you plan to go soon? Don’t be shy and share your experience and views 🙂
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