We have to confess we weren’t sure about visiting Myanmar to start with especially with the ongoing Rohingya crisis, which the international press has just recently decided to report on. Travelling with any ethics is difficult and not visiting a country due to its government would exclude at least half of the world. We struggled to understand the de facto dictatorship in Cambodia and were shocked by the capitalism and its deep poverty in Vietnam and when we think further we probably shouldn’t visit the UK after Theresa May paid the DUP a ridiculous amount of money for their votes. Corruption and suffering are everywhere if you look for it, but as tourists we do have a chance to help some people by travelling responsibly. So with a little apprehension we booked our flights and decided we would try to eat, travel and stay as local as possible. Hopefully some of these tips help.
Over 15 days we spent £700 including our flights in and out of Yangon. Of that sum we spent 16% on accommodation, 46% on transport, 15% on food, 13% on activities and 11% on miscellaneous.
Myanmar has the most expensive visa in South East Asia but the visa system is very easy. A 5 minute form online and $50 later we received our visas (actually within an hour). All you have to do is print them and show them to the officials when you enter Myanmar.
Myanmar now uses Kyat (pronounced chat) (American Dollars are a thing of the past). We found it easy to get up to 300,000 kyat from the ATMs although the 5000 kyat fee is a little irritating. Actually it does not matter which bank you use; this limit seems to be universal. We found only one ATM that allowed us to withdraw 400,000. When we visited the exchange rate was 1850 kyat to £1. It’s possible to exchange other currencies all over, but we have heard that the newer and crisper the notes, the better the exchange rate. Hotels frequently offered us to pay in USD, but we always opted for the local currency. Some seemed to set their rates in Dollar and then convert it which meant we paid a bit more as they never used the official bank rate.
People in Myanmar seem to have better legs than the rest of South East Asians and you will see people walking along the pavement, especially in Yangon. Since scooters are banned in central Yangon people walk, take a bus or a taxi. We found walking fairly easy as the streets are all numbered and the centre is fairly compact. It’s easy to find a taxi anywhere (in fact they will probably find you) on the street and the price from the centre to the airport is around 10-12000 kyat depending on time of day.
For intercity transport we used buses and trains. The buses are modern and air conditioned and generally much faster than the trains. Most people recommend JJ express but after our experience with them it might be worth giving another company a try. Night buses cost around 16,000 kyat. The trains are cheap and scenic, but they are not air conditioned and as far as we could find out the only sleeper option available is between Yangon and Mandalay. We took the sleeper train once from Mandalay to Yangon and found it bumpy and grubby but passable. It costs just 12,750 kyat one way and takes around 15.5 hours. Getting the train certainly gave us a slightly better insight into the slums that many burmese people still live in behind the golden temples. We also slept better on the train than the bus since you can actually lie down and the beds were pretty well cushioned.
If you take anything from this post then please make it this: avoid the government hotels. If you are on a budget this is fairly easy as the government hotels are pricey luxury hotels. Contrary to what we read, we found that budget accommodation was available everywhere if you look hard enough (even Bagan). We stayed in small guest houses, hostels and hotels and we were impressed by the good standard. The accommodation may be more pricey than in neighbouring Thailand, but it is good and we have had some very good breakfasts included. On average we spent 22,000 kyat per night including breakfast, but we also saved money by taking night buses and trains.
Myanmar has a reputation for oily food lacking in flavour and a high risk of food poisoning. While we noticed hygiene standards were poor in some places, but if you chose carefully and have a little luck you will be ok. We saw fresh fruit being chopped into dirty water or sprinkled with water from a grubby cloth, so it might be worth avoiding the fruit stalls at least until your guts have adjusted. We actually had some really good meals by following recommendations from our hostels. We recommend trying to find a good curry, eating at a teahouse (simple food and limited choice but cheap) and choosing shan noodle soup over dry noodles (dry actually means smothered in oil and fat). Food is dirt cheap in Myanmar with dishes costing as little as 1000 kyat, in a more expensive restaurant you might pay around 6000 kyat per dish. Often the single dish you order comes with a few side dishes making it even better value. We found that a lot of places provide free tea for their customers (especially the tea houses) so if you are happy with fresh tea you can save even more money.
We found the cost of entrance to many of Myanmar’s attractions annoying. Each tourist zone has a price tag of either $10 or $20 and without a ticket you can’t enter or see anything. This means our 4 stop tour cost us more than we would have liked as we had to pay 4 of these fees. This is probably the one area where it is unavoidable to contribute some money towards the government. On the plus side once you have paid the fees you can spend up to five days visiting Inle, Bagan or Mandalay.
We also found that gomyanmar was the best source for up tobdate information on how to get between places and things to do in an area. Many of the travel blogs and guides (lonely planet) aren’t up to date and things in Myanmar are changing fast.
Burmese for absolute beginners:
Hello – Mingalarbar
Thank you – Jezuba
Bye – Tata
Was is worth it? Overall yes. We enjoyed Yangon, Bagan and Inle a lot, but we really disliked Mandalay. We found Mandalay to be the dirtiest city we have visited to date and honestly it isn’t very tourist friendly. If we could have improved our trip we would have spent minimal time there and maybe gone up to Hsipaw instead. The main reason we didn’t was that we had booked all our accommodation before entering the country due to oir short stay. We found the Burmese people were helpful and friendly and we were never far from the next smiling face. In our opinion the days of undiscovered Myanmar are numbered, as it is becoming a popular destination. We enjoyed low tourist numbers in the hot season, but found that there were many Burmese tourists instead, making it feel more authentic. The country was easy to travel (especially along the tourist paths and the level of English was way better than expected. If you have always dreamed of visiting Myanmar go now! Don’t leave it until it becomes another too rapidly developed nation.