Backpackers say that Myanmar is what Thailand looked like 10-20 years ago and from my personal experience I have to say that this country was probably the only country in SE Asia which kept surprising me over and over again. It wasn’t an easy journey, so if you are planning to go to Myanmar, read this.
Be prepared for a daily 2 minutes of fame
If you are Caucasian and/or tall girl like me (5’10 or 177cm) be prepared for your daily 2 minutes of fame. Myanmar has very recently reopened their borders and contrary to Thailand, where locals are bored or even angry with tourists, here, locals find you intriguing. I promise you, they will stare at you and they will ask to take pictures of you.
However, what I found the most endearing was that people are actually very shy. I will never forget the afternoon in one of the temples in Inle Lake where two little girls were sitting a few meters away from us and quietly practising how to say ‘Could I have a picture with you?’ in English. We were the only tourists in the whole temple, so we knew they are about to talk to us. You should’ve seen the smiles on their faces when we approached them first! They hugged us like we were long lost friends and asked their parents to take pictures. Our hearts have completely melted…
Where to go?
I started my trip in Yangon and even though I was two months into my travels, I will have to admit I experienced such as major culture shock that I wanted to leave immediately. To me, Yangon seemed very filthy and there wasn’t much to do or see. Even wandering around the streets seemed pointless as the majority of the buildings seemed on the verge of collapsing. I hated it so much that I was thinking of not even bothering with the rest of the country and just going back to Thailand. Thank God, I didn’t. Because Inle Lake and Bagan were probably the most stunning place I’ve seen over 4 months of my travels. Don’t be fooled and maybe try to avoid the cities or try not to spend too much time there!
Where to stay?
Don’t trust the advertising on Hostelworld, Agoda or Booking.com. Majority of hostels (especially in Yangon) looked amazing in pictures whilst in reality were ridden with bed bugs and smelled of mildew. Believe me, we were literally going from one hostel to another until we gave up and ended booking a room in a 4 star hotel.
The tourism industry seems to be focused more on the older generation rather than backpackers which means there are plenty of good ‘western’ style hotels. Surprisingly or not, they actually don’t cost more than hostels either. As far as I remember we got a twin room and paid maximum £40 a night altogether.
However, if you are travelling alone and want to meet fellow travellers but still stay in a good quality hostel (and get a decent breakfast which is not just a peanut butter toastie), I could not recommend Ostello Bello more. This Italian chain has hostels in Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay.
What to wear?
It’s a Buddhist country so, of course, you should respect the locals and wear conservative clothes covering your knees and shoulders (especially if you are going to temples or pagodas). I know I know, you say you want to tan, however, I highly recommend not wearing any shorts or revealing clothes because… first of all, as a white tall female tourist I personally was already getting too much unnecessary attention and second of all, if you visit Myanmar during its hot season (it can get up to +40C) then wearing tank tops and shorts mean that you will get sunburnt in seconds. So yeah, there’s no need for mini skirts or revealing dresses.
Pro tip: Longyi is a traditional Burmese clothing (basically a thick scarf wrapped around your waist) which is worn in everyday life and on special occasions, by both men and women. So if you really want to impress Burmese people, get yourself a longyi! It also means you will be able to go to all the temples without a worry! Killing two birds with one stone, eh.
What to eat?
I personally would recommend staying away from street food. Even though I ate street food in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, for some reason I didn’t trust street food in Myanmar. The streets themselves were too dirty and it was too hot for the food to be edible.
Though that doesn’t mean that you will spend a crazy amount of money on food if you eat in cafes or restaurants. Myanmar is definitely cheaper than Thailand or Malaysia, so even eating at a local restaurant won’t cost you a fortune and you can be (almost) safe that you won’t get food poisoning. (Well, I did get a gastrointestinal infection but that’s a totally different story and might’ve been the result of bad water or I might’ve picked it up in Thailand).
Pro tip: Try all the salads, especially the tea leaf salad, ginger salad and papaya salad. They all have an amazing peanut sauce so it’s heaven on earth for peanut butter addicts! Also food is not as spicy as in Thailand and very vegetarian friendly!
How to travel?
Before going to Myanmar I was very adamant about getting an overnight bus. I am too tall for this and I am a very light sleeper. We were pressed for time so my travel buddy somehow convinced me to take night buses pretty much everywhere and it actually wasn’t too bad. You save a day of travelling and also a night’s worth of accommodation. Though if you do choose to travel with night buses make sure you opt for VIP options (I know, sounds so fancy). They are not that much more expensive than ‘normal’ night buses however these ones have TV’s, water and blankets on board. Some even provide you free snacks!
Pro tip: If you are travelling to Inle Lake and Bagan, please bear in mind that by entering both of these towns you will have to pay a tourist entrance fee. 12,500K for Inle Lake (approx £6.50) and (approx £14). A bit of a joke if you ask me, considering that a typical Burmese earns £50 a MONTH.
To sum up I will just say what every backpacker told me in SE Asia ‘Visit Myanmar before it gets ruined by tourists’.