If there’s one thing I hear again and again about Myanmar, it’s that the country is changing – and it’s changing fast. ‘Go, and go there now’, people used to tell me, ‘before it’s ruined’. Having spent almost a month in Myanmar in October 2015 and swapped stories with friends who have also travelled there recently, it is my belief that things are indeed changing rather quickly – from the perspective of foreign tourists, at least. As we left Yangon on the eve of the country’s first ‘true’ general election, anticipation of a different kind of change was in the air, too.
Tourism in Myanmar
Myanmar’s tourism industry in its current form first came into being in 2011 when Aung San Suu Kyi gave her blessing for responsible tourism in the country. Before that, many people chose to boycott Myanmar as a destination because of the political situation there. Despite recent social issues, particularly to do with the population of Rohingya Muslims who call Myanmar’s western regions home, tourists now flock to the country in their low millions – a big turn around from just 25 years ago.
With last year’s announcement of an e-visa scheme and the opening of land crossings along the Thai border, tourism is becoming easier, cheaper, and more popular among foreigners, particularly backpackers, than ever. The frantic speed of such change is, of course, in direct contrast with Myanmar itself – a laid-back, easy going Southeast Asian country where life moves at its own pace. As a result of this juxtaposition – rapidly changing tourist environment, slow in-country pace – misinformation and rumors about travelling in Myanmar now seem to abound.
We heard all manner of curious whispers about what it’s like for a foreigner to travel in Myanmar before we left for our trip, mainly based on twisted anecdotes and out-of-date information. One friend even asked us if it was true that foreign women can’t drink alcohol in public (no, that’s false). Here are seven popular myths about travelling in Myanmar and the alternative truths I discovered whilst journeying from Mandalay to Yangon.
1 – You must go on a group tour
Maybe this was true once, but it’s certainly not the case now. Independent travel in Myanmar is safe and easy, and if you’re at all interested in escaping the tourist track (which is particularly well-beaten here), it’s your best option. We booked most of our trip in advance from the comfort of home, including air tickets, hotels (mainly via Agoda), guesthouses, and some activities. We fired off emails inquiring about different treks and always got a timely response directly from the business owner. At no point during our travels did we think, ‘Hm, this would have been easier if we had a guide’. Even if we had tried to get lost in Myanmar, it would have been impossible – local people were far too friendly, and helpful.
Travelling independently has important implications for responsible travel, too. By booking local guesthouses, shopping in small stores and eating at a diverse range of restaurants, you can spread your tourism dollar further and support local businesses in the process. When travelling in a developing country, the last thing I want is for my money to go straight into a multinational company’s coffers.
There is another guide travellers tend to rely on these days, and I don’t this you need this kind either. No where have I seen more dogeared copies of Lonely Planet than on the streets of Myanmar. Here more than anywhere, travellers seem to cling to their travel bibles like they need this book to get anywhere – and that’s just not true. As a local in Yangon told us, the information included in Lonely Planet Myanmar is inevitably out of date by the time it gets off the printer. We found our copy riddled with errors, and sometimes these were obvious shortfalls in the research process. By the end of the trip, we all but gave up on using it.
2 – You should avoid the trains
I didn’t take any local trains because I heard horror stories about them… Like my buddy Rodrigo, who told me that his train compartment was separated off the tracks, and he landed in the middle of the forest by himself with nobody around. – The Hungry Partier.
I was a little apprehensive about using public transport to cover long distances in Myanmar, particularly after reading a few stories that echoed the general sentiment of the one printed above. Make no mistake, the country’s train system is old, rickety, and incredibly slow – but what people often fail to appreciate is that this is exactly the kind of rail system that suits overland travel in Myanmar. Seat 61 seems to agree, and after reading his write up, we jumped into train travel without hesitation.
Given the luxury of time, I would choose a 10-hour trip in the world’s bounciest, most turbulent, possibly slowest ever train over a four-hour minibus journey any day. The trains in Myanmar are incredibly cheap, and it’s the way locals travel. Our first train was a breeze; our second train broke down and we sat in the middle of a field for five hours while it was repaired. But it was still awesome.
The prospect of taking overnight buses, on the other hand, left me feeling way more anxious. But the overnight bus from Bagan to Yangon, travelling with JJ Buses, was honestly one of the most comfortable overland journeys I’ve ever taken. I didn’t get any photos, but you really have to see the plushness of this leather bus to believe it.
3 – It’s hard to find ATMs
Definitely not. ATMs were plentiful in every city and town we visited, and we never had an issue using our Visa cards. On the subject of money, you don’t really need US dollars, either. I can’t believe how many people still report otherwise! After our US bills were rejected numerous times by restaurants and cafes (even the slightest crease and you’re ruined), we couldn’t wait to get them off our hands, and unloaded them all at once when settling the bill at a hotel. Stick to the preferred local currency, Kyat, which is dispensed from ATMs in conveniently small denominations.
4 – It’s cheap to travel in Myanmar
Unfortunately, this isn’t true either. During the rainy season and shoulder season, accommodation prices are almost certainly lower than peak season, but there are far less travellers. While this is usually a good thing, we also experienced the (financial) downside. Without people to join our trek, we had to pay for the equivalent of four people, even though we were only a pair. Whilst it was amazing having our guide to ourselves, this jacked up the cost of our trek considerably. Food and drink are cheap, but still expensive by northern Thai standards. As demand and competition increases over the next few years, prices will inevitably come down.
5 – You will get food poisoning
Eating our way across Myanmar was one of the highlights of our trip. Indian, Nepalese, traditional Shan – I’ll take it all. Lahpet thoke is a local delicacy and you shouldn’t let hygiene paranoia stop you from sampling as much of this salad – made with fresh tomatoes, pickled tea leaves and a host of other delicious ingredients – as humanly possible. We ate fruit, we drank bottled water with ice, and we never had a problem.
That’s not to say food poisoning doesn’t happen. Myanmar is no Thailand – where street food in Chiang Mai or Bangkok is typically cooked to order in a flaming, germ-incinerating wok, we found many of the dishes in Myanmar, especially curries, sitting in barely warm clay pots on a bench, just waiting to be ladled onto plates. Needless to say, we avoided those places in favour of local-to-mid-range cafes and restaurants. Tea shops are grungy but they generally have good hygiene practices going on behind the scenes.
6 – There’s no WIFI in Myanmar
Myanmar, the perfect opportunity for that digital sabbatical you’ve been planning – not. I was so prepared for a WIFI-free holiday in Myanmar, I even left my laptop at home. But we found good connections in every hotel and a lot of cafes. The speed was even good enough to downloaded a few movies in Bagan! If you’re not in the habit of booking accommodation ahead of time, if you have a laptop or mobile, it’s possible to so while you’re in the country.
7 – You shouldn’t talk to strangers
Myanmar’s socio-political climate is complex – far too complex to get into here – but as a result of long-time oppression and political unrest, people will often tell you not to approach Myanmar people. But not only are people approachable and excited to talk with a tourist, they oftentimes approached us first. People were generally too polite to stare, but photographs – they have no shame! At many of the popular temples in Mandalay and Yangon, we were walking targets for selfies. Myanmar tourists, locals, – even monks and nuns – all wanted their photo taken with us, two particularly pallid Europeans. We sometimes stood for 15 minutes while grandma and grandpa, mum, daughter, baby, uncle and cousin all did the rounds. We weren’t bothered by this – we actually found it quite endearing, and we loved the opportunity to talk with local people. Cue the ultimate ‘awkward family portrait’.
If you do talk to people – and I recommend you do, at every opportunity – what you talk about is another matter. Myanmar people are humble and kind, but they are also proud of their country. As one author put it, they want to know that people outside Myanmar are thinking about them – that they haven’t been forgotten – and that foreigners are interested in their lives. Just ahead of the November 2015 elections, we found many people eager to discuss politics with us and give us their views. We never pressed the subject, but it was always local people who initiated these conversations.
Myanmar was my travel highlight of 2015. I didn’t let anything I read put me off travelling to the country, and for that, I’m truly grateful. Did you dispel any travel myths while you were in Myanmar?