When I traveled to Albania over the summer, the country seemed like a big puzzle before entering, but having left, I felt like I understood it. You can’t grasp a full culture solely by reading about it online or in textbooks. The same was the case for Myanmar, a country that I previously knew nothing of before this trip. Upon meeting another traveler by chance who was heading there after Thailand, I decided to join and discover to me, what was unknown. What I uncovered was that Thailand’s far lesser visited neighbor had just as much to boast if not more.
Prior to entering the country, I had a difficult time finding accurate information on it. Online forums had posts that were years outdated and I’d constantly find myself reading conflicting information about the country’s lack of ATMs, near non-existent wifi, expensive accommodations, strict authorities, and more. Weighing the pros and cons, traveling to Myanmar seemed like too great of an opportunity to pass up, so I increased my daily budget and prepped to visit a country back in time.
Now, every few weeks I stumble upon a new guide to traveling in Myanmar. With the country so recently opened to foreigners, it’s in its prime for visiting to see the local culture before it’s quickly adapted to mass tourism as many of its neighbors already have been. Below you’ll find the route I took in the country as well as several brief bits of info I struggled to find before beginning my journey but wish I would had known:
Originally my plan was to travel in Myanmar for two weeks but luckily I entered the country without my flight booked out and I couldn’t have been more glad that I did. In the end, I spent three weeks there and still believe it would be easy to max out a full 28 day visa. Below is the route I took:
Instead of booking a flight into Yangon, I crossed the border from Thailand, booking a night bus from Bangkok to Mae Sot and crossing the border into Myawaddy. If you’re also interested in crossing into Myanmar by land, prior research is essential and I highly recommend crossing here as it was easy, inexpensive, and fast.
Due to ongoing conflicts in the country, not every crossing is as easy to get into the country from. For example, I had friends who I highly recommended visiting the country to but the problem was that they crossed at the Tachileik / Mae Sai border. Unfortunately from here, continued travel into the country by land was illegal for foreigners (at the time) so the only way to see more of the country without leaving and losing the single entry visa was to fly in to another city.
A pre-arranged visa is also required for land crossing. A visa on arrival can be arranged if and only if you are arriving by flight.
Getting around is actually quite easy and usually pretty exciting. Depending on how adventurous you are, you many find yourself in a bus, private taxi, train, back of a pickup truck, or even on a motorbike. The easiest, most economical, and safest way to get around is by booking buses from one town to the next but beware that if you don’t do this independently at the town’s bus depot, you will very likely be charged a higher price from your accommodation.
You will love it (and so will your wallet). I’m tempted to only write that, but I must expand. Myanmar food is a fusion of many Asian cuisines but mainly neighboring Chinese and Indian foods. Luckily for me, this meant that I was able to get my fix of samosas, roti, currys, and purees that I had grown accustomed to in India but of course, they were slightly different with a delicious Myanmar twist tough to put into words.
The largest avocados you’ve ever seen are readily available on the street for around 50¢ each. But what you must really try is Shan Noodle, the country’s “national dish” which is inexpensive, delicious, and beyond satisfying. I’m no food blogger so be sure to have a look at these “20 Scrumptious Burmese Foods” for other recommendations of what to try when you visit.
Everywhere you go has purified water jugs that never seem to run out. Whether it’s on the street or in your accommodation, water always is available, you’ll just need a bottle to continue filling up.
As with most places I travel, I try to pick up some simple vocabulary in the local language but in Myanmar, locals are easily excited by the simple words you know. At least learn hello: minglaba! Also according to the local people we spoke with, the language is simply called Myanmar language, not Burmese.
Order Beer Like a Local
Any establishment you see with a Myanmar Beer sign out front will likely have beer on tap, the best way to drink out. When you sit down, tell the waiter or waitress, “See beer one!” which directly translates to “Give me one glass of draught beer.” Although it may seem rude to be so direct, this is just a cultural difference and is similar to how a local would order. One glass usually costs 700 kyat (50 cents). Enjoy your fresh, chilled brew!
Internet (or lack of)
Unfortunately much of what I had read online prior to traveling to Myanmar in regards to the internet was confirmed. It was extremely difficult to find wifi, let alone wifi that worked decently. I’d highly suggest doing all necessary internet tasks prior to entering the country as finding stable internet is always a challenge. One hour you may have wifi somewhat working but the next, not at all.
ATMs & Currency
The national currency kyat is pronounced chat. Crisp US dollars are still accepted everywhere but kyats often get you a better rate and are accepted no matter the condition. ATMs are available everywhere although some towns may only have one or two that may or may not be working. I only experienced difficulties withdrawing cash once but resolved the issue simply by trying another ATM. Some other friends experienced more difficulties than I but it mostly comes down to if the machine will accept your card. In larger towns with many ATMs available, this shouldn’t be an issue but it’d be smart to always carry more than necessary when traveling to smaller towns solo.
Included Breakfast Isn’t As Great As It Sounds
Don’t specifically book a place to stay over another because one has included breakfast. Breakfast hours are typically from 7:30am to 9am and if you’ve stayed up late or enjoy your sleep, these hours aren’t ideal. I found myself often waking up to grab breakfast then heading back to bed for an hour before starting the day.
Strict tourist fees are enforced when entering into Inle Lake ($10) or Bagan ($20). Both can be paid for in the kyat equivalent which during my stay was a better rate. Getting around these fees is difficult but not impossible and since the money is being funneled directly into the government’s pocket I don’t think it’s wrong to try to avoid them. Up-to-date guides can likely be found elsewhere online but a failproof method would be to grab the paper passes you receive when you pay from travelers you meet heading the opposite direction. Inle Lake passes are valid for 10 days and Bagan for 5. If your pass is even one day expired, you’ll be required to purchase a new one.
Myanmar is a great country for hitchhiking. Most people will stop for you, interested by a foreigner but forget sticking up your thumb. Instead, you do anything to grab a driver’s attention to get them to stop. Usually exaggerated waving and smiling works best. Most rides are in trucks, the back of pickups, or if you’re after a rush, motorbike. If you try for a motorbike, the driver probably won’t have a helmet for himself or you so if you want to be safe, bring your own. Helmets aren’t required on the road here as they are in nearby countries like Vietnam.
Reading online about this could easily scare you as many sites will tell you that accommodation is the most expensive part of the country. But… prices have come way down as more and more accommodation pop up as the tourism industry gains its grounds. If you’re traveling with a friend, even better, splitting the cost for accommodation often saves more money and gets you a nicer, usually private, room. I would highly, highly recommend saving an offline copy of WikiTravel pages, linked above in the Itinerary section, specifically the where to sleep section. With little access to the internet, having accommodation names, numbers, reviews, and prices saved offline was invaluable during my time in the country.
Well, there ya have it! A quick guide to backpacking in Myanmar in 2016 and I couldn’t recommend traveling in the country enough. For me, it’s a must see for anyone traveling in the region, especially now as the country is quickly adapting to the influx of tourists enticed by incredible sights like the land of a thousand temples, Bagan, or Yangon, the country’s largest and most hectic city.
Whatever you do, try and make it to Myanmar as quickly as possible, before the authentic culture and heritage fades completely.