I first visited Myanmar in December 2010 shortly after the elections took place, an event that received mixed reactions internationally and signalled that a potential change was on the horizon.
The release of Aung San Suu Kyi from decades of house arrest became a key catalyst for the international community lifting the informal travel boycott that has kept many travellers away from the country in recent times. Myanmar has appeared in every ‘top travel destination’ list online and in published articles this year, as travel companies begin creating new itineraries for group tours and more independent travellers add the country to their round-the-world plans.
Myanmar deserves its place as a ‘top travel destination’. I’ve visited nearly 50 countries and 6 continents and Myanmar remains one of my favourite places.
Visiting Myanmar feels like opening a door into a charming world where time has been standing still. You will share the roads with horse and ox carts, motorbikes, bicycles, trishaws, pedestrians and an increased presence of cars in larger towns. You will witness a strong Buddhist faith where monks interact with civilians on a comfortable and regular basis. You will visit temples that rival those of Angkor in Cambodia and explore a beautiful and diverse landscape of lakes, rivers, mountains, temples and caves. You will be invited into the basic but comfortable homes of friendly locals and will be served tea everywhere you go. You will interact with people living a traditional and basic life in the countryside and will also meet those embracing change, education, modern technology and the future.
You will be welcomed into the country by people who are proud of a culture they are keen to share with you, who are equally curious about your lifestyle and country.
But before you book your flight, take a moment to remember that tourism has the ability to both enhance and destroy a culture.
To ensure you get the most out of a visit to this fascinating country, whilst also remembering you are part of a generation who has the opportunity to shape the impact increased tourism has on Myanmar, consider the following:
1. Enjoy the change of pace. From the moment you step off the plane and join the immigration queue at Yangon airport, you will feel that life has decreased a pace or two. Don’t become that tourist who complains about a bus delay, gets frustrated when a flight is cancelled, sighs during a lengthy hotel check-in or moans about having to wait to board a boat that you can see sitting ready in the water. Instead, enjoy the extra time you have to take in your surroundings, engage with the locals, be patient and most of all keep smiling.
2. Learn to say min-ga-laba (hello) and jeh-za-beh (thank you). Not only is it good ‘traveller etiquette’ to learn a few local words wherever you visit, but in Myanmar this small gesture creates opportunities for some memorable and entertaining conversations. If you can’t remember the local word for hello don’t worry – it will be called out to you so often you will start to learn it by heart.
3. Myanmar has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last few decades and it’s difficult not to form pre-conceived opinions and judgements. Leave them at home. The best experience you can have in Myanmar is your OWN experience. Decide if the locals’ reputation for being some of the friendliest people in the world is true by interacting with them and making up your own mind. Assess whether the Bagan temples rival that of Angkor in Cambodia by seeing them yourself. Critique the local cuisine by enjoying local food cooked and served by local people. Educating yourself with the combination of factually correct news and personal experiences is the best way to form opinions.
4. Don’t be afraid to turn left when everyone else turns right. Many of my best experiences were riding a bicycle with no clear destination in mind, coming across a little village or stopping to talk to a farmer on his way back from the market. But if someone tells you to turn right because you are not allowed to turn left, do not let curiosity get the better of you and respect their wishes.
5. The Burmese have a local saying “why use ten words when you can use ten thousand”. They like to talk and engaging with locals is a highlight of any visit to Myanmar. But let them lead the conversation. They won’t mind questions about their family or occupation but if they want to talk about politics or the government, they will bring it up. If they appear uncomfortable with a particular conversation, respect this and don’t pursue it.
6. Leave your cynicism at home. If someone approaches you on the street, don’t assume they are about to try to scam you or sell you something. I found that most locals simply enjoy interacting with foreigners and are genuinely interested in learning about you and your country. I never felt the need to be rude or aggressive or walk away from someone and every conversation I had in Myanmar left me with a smile on my face and a warm heart.
7. If you want to party, stay over the border in Thailand. If you want to observe life in Myanmar, get up early with the locals. Burmese people are most active earlier in the day as fishing boats head out on Inle Lake, vendors set up their stalls in local markets and horse and carts head to the Bagan temples to beat the crowds. One of my best days in Myanmar involved a cold 4am start as I watched the hive of activity by the water in Nyaungshwe before boarding a small wooden boat to glide through the misty sunrise alongside fisherman and locals heading to the markets.
8. Don’t instantly dismiss the offer of a ‘local tour’ if someone approaches you on the street. Outside of the ‘main four’ (Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay) you are unlikely to see travel agents or local tours advertised in your hotel or guest house. If you want to explore the local area, you will need local transport and some of my most memorable days were shared with a local guide who approached me to suggest something I may find interesting. One of the most entertaining conversations I had was with a trishaw driver who didn’t speak English, as we tried to agree a time to meet.
9. Bring your camera. Burmese people LOVE getting their photo taken and showing them an image of themselves on your digital camera is a great way to break the ice and entertain young children. I lost count of the number of people who approached me and asked me to take their photo, including a novice monk in Yangon, almost every child I met and a woman in Monywa who actually chased me down the street before I realised what she wanted!
10. Be careful of drinking local water like you would in any developing country, but don’t be afraid of street food. Some of my best experiences were sitting on a small stool on the side of the road, chatting with the local
vendor who had just whipped me up a quick meal for less than a dollar.
11. Don’t visit Myanmar if you don’t like attention. Foreigners are still a novelty in many parts of the country and almost all locals you meet will greet you with a smile or simply stare at you with wide eyes. On my first day in Mandalay I was sitting in the back of a trishaw returning waves and even having conversations in moving traffic with locals who were passing me by on motorbikes and bicycles. Whilst the constant attention may become tiring, you are unlikely to feel hassled like you may in other countries. If you need a break from the constant attention take a nap behind a closed door rather than be rude to someone who only has friendly intentions! If you have chosen to join a group tour in Myanmar, don’t become a ‘tourist on a group tour’! Don’t mistake curious and friendly attention with being hassled.
12. Don’t plan a fixed itinerary. It’s ok to have a general plan, especially if you have limited time but leave enough flexibility to stay longer at places you like or to cope with that inevitable bus cancellation or broken down vehicle. I chose to stay an extra day in Monywa and I was forced to stay an extra day in Inle Lake when all the buses were full. Adapt to changes in your schedule without getting stressed by them.
13. Bring enough money! There are no cashpoint machines in Myanmar and USD is the easiest currency to change. But don’t think reports of notes needing to be in pristine condition are exaggerated – they are not! I had a $50 note that had a curled corner and had difficulty changing it. Carry your foreign notes somewhere where they will not crease, fold, tear or curl – inside the pages of a thick book for example. Also bring more than you think you need, as there is nothing worse than missing out on something you want to do because the money you need is sitting safely in a bank account that you can’t access.
14. Recognise the existence of poverty without ignoring or contributing to it. The existence of poverty in our world is a difficult reality to accept, especially when you have a full stomach, warm clothes and a comfortable room to return to at the end of the day. As difficult as it is, don’t encourage children to ask foreigners for money by giving it to them. Avoid hand-outs and don’t take advantage of someone who is trying to make a living, by haggling to a price you know is below what a service or product is worth. I also like to spread my travel wealth by using different drivers, guides and vendors.
15. Keep your wits about you. It’s extremely rare to hear negative stories about crime or attacks on foreigners but don’t be too naïve about the friendliness of locals, you just never know. Last but not least, never forget the phrase “your shadow stays with you in Myanmar even when the sun goes down”
The phrase ‘you get out what you put in’ is particularly applicable to a visit to Myanmar. Taking the time to engage with the locals, endure local over-ground transport and explore the countryside will reward you with an energising, thought-provoking and inspirational experience.