and a couple of things your Lonely Planet doesn’t tell you...
Myanmar was a massive highlight for us on the trip, and much of the reading we were doing before we arrived had us thinking we’d be pretty much as off the beaten track as we were in the North Eastern states of India. Off the beaten track Myanmar is no more, in a few short years, tourism here has exploded, and if you stick to the main sights (which are fantastic and totally worth it), you’ll be there with plenty of others….which is a good reason to get there sooner rather than later.
Even though the tourism industry might be thriving, you are still going to meet some of the most genuine, friendly people, with the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen. Catch someones eye and they will instantly open up into a huge friendly grin. Thailand’s the land is smiles? No way, its Myanmar by a long shot.
If you’re on your way there, you’ve probably read a few things in the Lonely Planet such as being loaded up on pristine new US dollars, or the pre-planning needed to get buses around between main destinations. We found Myanmar to be one of the easiest countries we’d travelled through yet (although we were yet to arrive in Thailand), and its pretty obvious the country has come a long way in the tourism market since they opened their doors fully to tourists in 2010.
It's not Lonely Planets fault that their latest edition has been superseded so quickly with the big changes in the country, but as we found travel blogs and fellow travellers the most up-to-date source of info, we thought we’d add to the bunch with our tips and a few corrections to the Lonely Planet myths.
Do I need to bring a stash of pristine US Dollar bills with me?
Nope. We had one single US 20 note with us, left over from some other visa exchange, and as we were coming from countries such as India, Nepal and China previously, it was pretty inconvenient to have to change a whole bunch of cash.
We found ATM’s pretty much all over the place, and just withdrew the maximum amount of Kyat each time, and paid for everything in cash. None of our hotels or guesthouses ever had a problem with this, although they willingly accepted USD also.
The only time we encountered any slight difficulties was when we crossed the border from India, and for some reason, being a Sunday in the tiny town of Tamu, none of the ATM’s were working. Luckily we had just enough Indian Rupees on us that we were able to exchange at a local guesthouse to get us to Mandalay.
On that note, if you’re crossing out of Myanmar into Thailand (and we presume other countries), it’s quite difficult to exchange Burmese Kyat, so best to spend everything before you leave!
Can I cross the border into India?
Yes, we did! Read all about it here.
The Lonely Planet is pretty out of date on this point, as the border has only been open to foreigners for about a year. The situation changes all the time however, so be sure to check on the permits you need.
We only needed a Myanmar permit to cross, however a guy we met who crossed about a week later only scraped through as a new government in Manipur (India) brought in a new ruling stating foreigners also need a permit to travel in Manipur.
How easy is it to travel to smaller towns?
We stuck mainly to the Big Four (Mandalay, Bagan, Inlay & Yangon) for the most part of our trip, but we met loads of people who were doing a bit more intrepid travel, and they had no problems find accommodation along the way (without booking in advance).
One Dutch couple we met were cycling around the country, and would usually just turn up to a village and have no problems with accommodation, so as long as its not off limits due to tensions in the country, its pretty easy to get around anywhere.
Everything gets quite a bit cheaper away from the main sights also, so if you’re on a budget might be a good idea to spend more time in smaller villages.
Is Myanmar more expensive than other South East Asian Countries?
Yes and no…but in the end, no.
You’ve probably read that accommodation here is a lot more expensive than, say, India. This is true, but our standards rose drastically as soon as we crossed the border. All of a sudden we had air conditioning, breakfast included, kettles, fridges and *gasp* the occasional hair dryer! (a long term dream for a girl travelling with a fringe).
Our average price for a double room was GBP11 per night, with our most expensive being in Bagan GBP 23 for the cheapest hotel we could find) to our cheapest and probably favourite in Hpa-an at Than Lwan O Guesthouse where you can’t book, but get there early to get the biggest room with attached bathroom for the same price as the other shoeboxes for GBP6.80.
To offset this though, food very affordable if you eat at the local restaurants. We would regularly fill ourselves up for around MMK4 500 (GBP2.40) for two of us, and our average daily spending on food together was GBP8.20 per day.
It's super easy eat well at local restaurants, just look for any place that looks like a tin shed with a whole bunch of tables with plastic chairs and plastic table cloths. If they don’t have a menu, they’ll usually ask you if you want chicken, pork or fish, and before you know it your table will be full of a variety of dishes, including the local curry of your choice, rice, vegetables, salad and always a soup with varying levels of sourness. Its filling, delicious, healthy, and will set you back around £1.
Transport for overnight journeys can cost a bit more, but we had some of the best ‘VIP’ busses for our entire trip, with huge comfy seats and only 3 to a row making them extra wide! An overnight from Inlay to Yangon is around MMK15 000 (GBP7.50), but then you’re saving on accommodation anyway.
Overall, as a couple our daily average spending was GBP34.30, which was comparable to what we spend in the North East States of India.
So the food is good, any recommendations?
We tried to eat locally as much as possible. At so many places we would sit down at, they would say ‘Only Myanmar food here’, to which we would reply, ‘We Love Myanmar food!!’
Tea leaf salad is a local favourite, a mush of fermented or pickled tea leaves, crunchy peanuts and beans, fried garlic and a bit of dried shrimp to top it off. It may sound precarious, but its totally delicious and definitely worth trying. We had it and came back for more at Khit Thit in Hpa-An (opposite Lucky's), which also has a pretty good reputation for food there, with amazingly big servings and plenty of variety.
Also, if you’re trying to get the waiters attention with no success, try making a kissing noise….its how the locals do it :)
Is it easy to travel by bus between cities?
Probably the easiest of any country we’ve been in yet. For a couple of weeks, we had no idea where any of the main bus stations are, which is pretty unusual for us!
There are frequent buses travelling the main routs between the Big Four and all you need to do is book with your guest house. A driver will come and pick you up from there, and you’ll even be dropped at your next guesthouse…how nice is that? You don’t really need to plan ahead much either, letting them know the day before is usually fine.
What’s the easiest was to get around to see the sights?
In Mandalay we hired a scooter for the four days we were there for the bargain price of MMK8000 (GBP4) per day, and spent every day riding out to see the main sights which are all mostly our of the city centre. One one day we made the mistake of catching a pick-up truck out to U-Bein bridge, and vowed never to again after sitting jam-packed in the back, moving 5 meters at a time then waiting 40 mins to pick up more passengers into our already overloaded truck.
In Bagan, your options for getting around the temples are electric scooter, bicycle, horse & cart, or walking. We’d definitely recommend the scooter which we booked for the whole 5 days we were there, and had loads of freedom getting around early in the morning for sunrises, or staying out late to do a bit of night time photography amongst the ruins. Its also pretty hot, so we spend plenty of time shaking our heads in wonder at the tourists who chose to cycle their way around the sweltering desert landscape.
No scooters are allowed to be used by foreigners in Inle Lake, so bicycles are pretty useful there, cycling around the lake makes a pretty nice day trip. The best way to experience the lake though is to go out on a long-boat for the day. We just wandered down to the main pier in Nyaungshwe, where its super easy to find someone to take you out for the day, and it was much cheaper than booking through our hotel, which most people do. We paid MMK18000 (GBP9.60) for just the two of us in a boat for the whole day, checking out the amazing fisherman, villages built on stilts above the water, monasteries, and many of the workshops like lotus-silk weaving, silversmiths, parasol workshops and boat making. They are all set up for the tourists, but make for some pretty photogenic moments and we had absolutely no pressure from our guide to buy anything (or perhaps we just didn’t notice it after travelling through India)
Yangon also has a scooter free policy, but this time it’s for everyone…not just the tourists. Cabs here are super cheap though, and you won’t have to wait long before one comes along, charging you around MMK2000 (GBP1) to get to most sights in the city.
How long did you stay in each place?
With only 27 days to fit everything in, we decided to focus on the main sights and spend a little longer at each than we normally would. We spent 4 nights in Mandalay, 5 nights in Bagan, 5 nights at Inle Lake, 3 nights in Yangon, 2 nights in Mawlamyine, and 4 nights in Hpa-an, before crossing the border to Thailand at Mae Sot.
Hpa-an was one of the few places we felt we were off the main tourist trail, and made us wish we had a bit more time to explore a few other smaller villages. A few other recommendations we were wishing we had more time to visit were :
Dawei: This strip of coast is meant to be pristine, and virtually devoid of tourists. A couple of days exploring the beaches around here is meant to be absolute bliss.
Mindat, Chin State: We met a guy travelling around on a motorbike, and he was raving about this hill tribe village, full of locals with amazing traditional tattoos on their faces. Its quite easy to get buses there from Bagan.
What souvenirs should I fill my pack with?
If you like jade, Mandalay is the place to buy, with some amazing markets where you can watch the fascinating process of how rough pieces of stone are made in to jewellery, and buy for pretty bargain prices. Even if jade isn't your thing, wandering around watching the guys shine lights through the stones to test the quality and haggle over tiny pieces is very interesting.
Bagan is the place to buy lacquerware, as there are plenty of family run workshops around, but you will see it all over the country for cheaper (and lesser quality) if you don't want to spend a fortune.
Pete succumbed to Emma’s nagging to see him waltzing around in a longyi, and it ended up being a well-loved purchase by the locals. Try wearing one around and you’ll instantly have a few fans.
EMMA & PETE
We're just two Aussie's who met in London, married in Prague and travelled overland back to Australia.