Myanmar is not for the ordinary tourist. It smells, it’s filthy, people are impoverished, it’s a military dictatorship, minorities get mugged, and all males send bursts of red saliva splashing on the pavement right in front of you. So I say to all foreign masses: Stay away.
To all the rest of you: What a wonderful destination.
Enjoy what I enjoyed and add even more to your visit. Your help in developing this country will be highly appreciated by the people of Myanmar. Being so friendly, their appreciation will also be noticeable.
This last chapter in my series from Myanmar (Burma) sums up some of my impressions. I will try not to repeat what I’ve already said in the previous 11 articles and 7 videos.
The map below shows my approximate route. Click in and out as you like
People and land
This is what I wrote in my introduction: “In later years Burma, now Myanmar, has been boycotted by the world community. This is now changing: Sanctions have been lifted, foreign investment is rapidly increasing and from 2011 to 2012 the number of visitors went up 23 % to more than a million. It’s time to go, and this is my plan.”
At the time of writing this article, in early 2014, I can add that 2013 actually saw the number of visitors passing 2 million, twice the number the previous year. In 2014 expectations are running at 3 million. Sure: These are all types of visitors, including the huge number of Chinese truck drivers, and tourists make up perhaps half the visitors.
There is a quiet “revolution” going on, promising a huge impact on just about everything in Myanmar.
I went there, in August 2013, for two weeks. I visited the Golden Four: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. There were tourists everywhere, but not oppressively many. The resorts were fortunately tucked away from my sight, and the large tour groups were few and far between. On the other hand many visitors were part of small groups or had local facilitating guides with them.
I might add that August is off season, but many locals would say that the number of tourists in the low season now would rival any previous high season.
It is obvious that the infrastructure of Myanmar is struggling to handle the rapid development. There is a shortage of accommodation (hence a rather poor price/standard ratio), local transportation is on a basic stage but there is clearly something going on. For the better.
Even the English language is gradually becoming more useful here – language courses are popping up all over the country and many more locals are getting used to English speaking tourists. There are also lots of French speaking visitors, and surprisingly many locals seem to master that language.
Fortunately people are very friendly, begging is not part of the culture, prostitution is not open, (and as a tip to safety-anxious Americans) the crime rate is low.
As seen on all my pictures, videos and in the text, the scenery is amazing, absolutely stunning. The pagodas and other religious buildings are world-class destinations – and they’re not museums! No matter how many tourists come to Myanmar, the religiously very active people of Myanmar will remain the largest group inside any religious compound. I loved all the markets, in particular the open air markets at Inle Lake, Bagan and Yangon. Watch the video for an introduction.
The cool mountains, the damp lowlands, and the heterogeneous people groups of this fragile union all add to the exotic flavour we find in Myanmar.
Video from Myanmar markets
Finances, transportation and getting around
You’re likely to get more value for your dollar in other southeast Asian countries. Myanmar is overpriced when it comes to accommodation. Single rooms with a decent standard cost me 40-75 US dollars.
So, you say Myanmar is one of the world’s most under-developed countries?
– It must be cheap then!
– Not quite.
You will have no problem finding places to eat on the cheap, and even get away with it (in terms of belly problems). The domestic buses, trains, and planes did not seem expensive to me. A full day bus from Bagan to Kalaw cost me $20, a full day train cost me $7 and two domestic flights cost me $60-105.
Local transportation is comparatively more expensive, especially in Bagan and Yangon where you will have to rely on taxis – unless you’re really young, poor and adventurous. In Mandalay and possibly elsewhere you could get a motorcyclist to drive you. That is, if you don’t want to rent a bicycle like I did in Bagan and Nyangshwe (at Inle Lake).
Feet, bicycle, motorcycle, tuk-tuk, longboat, private car, bus, train and airplane. In Myanmar I tested just about any means of transportation there is. And it worked!
Two weeks in Myanmar cost me 1,900 dollars. Getting there comes on top, and so do visa expenses and the like.
I travelled alone, with no guide or tour company fixing things for me. I had booked and paid some flights and accommodation on the web before arriving, like I described in the introductory article. The rest of the nights and some more transportation were booked in Yangon, in a travel agency. It all worked fine.
Travelling in Myanmar is no hassle. There are buses, quite comfortable, running between all major towns. There are fascinating trains, but I suppose that roads will have a higher priority with the authorities in the next 5-10 years. Domestic flights in this large country are quite safe and well regulated.
Money: There is no black market and the local kyat is what you’ll need. Bring euros or dollars in cash, and don’t expect to use your credit card everywhere. There are ATMs in the big cities. Finding them can be quite difficult. This kind of information is however bound to be outdated, because tourism is a booming industry.
In short: Airports, train stations, and bus stations work just like home or anywhere else in the world. Money too. There is no problem getting around in Myanmar. This was actually my biggest surprise.
Video showing Myanmar handicrafts from around the country
My visit to Myanmar is presented in ten chapters and a planning document. This article has summed up my impressions from a country included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
(1) Introduction (plan): In 1985 I was sitting on the front porch of my little bungalow on the Thai side of the Mae Sai River looking over to Burma. The country was available to the chosen few on a 7-day visa. But I was broke. In later years Burma, now Myanmar, has been boycotted by the world community. This is now changing: Sanctions have been lifted, foreign investment is rapidly increasing and from 2011 to 2012 the number of visitors went up 23 % to more than a million. It’s time to go, and this is my plan.
(2) The Amazing Shwedagon Pagoda: “Shwedagon Pagoda”, I had told the taxi driver when I stepped out of the Strand Hotel, the best preserved remnant of the British colonial era in Yangon. The sun was setting behind a thick layer of clouds, and when the driver let me off at the west gate it had already become dark.
(3) Central Yangon: Yangon is same-same but different from other large Southeast Asian cities in several ways. Traditions are heavy in architecture and clothing, transportation has its peculiarities and Myanmar food is a bit tricky to order.
(4) The Night Train to Mandalay: Kipling’s one-liner that it will “be quite unlike any land you know about” does come in handy in a description of Myanmar train journeys. As the survivor of three, I had my share of them. The night train to Mandalay was the first.
(5) The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct: I was introduced to Myanmar trains on the bumpy Yangon to Mandalay night train. I grew up on one of the world’s most epic train journeys, the train across the Gokteik Viaduct. Third, I became a seasoned traveller on the scenic ride from Kalaw to Shwenyaung.
(6) The Train from Kalaw to Shwenyaung:Myanmar is a great country for train rides. They are not for comfort, but for the scenery outside, life on the stations and life on board. I was heading for Inle Lake and this was to be my third train journey.
(8) Mandalay: Fans of Mandalay might object to this, but my reception’s advice to limit my city sightseeing to a half day proved satisfactory.
(9) The Temples of Bagan: A mirage to your eyes and a true world wonder. I only hope the rest of the world does not discover the magic temples on the plains of Bagan.
(10) What else to see in Bagan: Not so interested in temples, or curious about what more you can discover in Bagan? This article offers hints and practical advice on other sights in and around Bagan.
(11) Inle Lake: This is no surprise: Inle Lake is one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. It is also a threatened destination, sagging under the weight of an increasing population and an exploding number of foreign visitors.
(12) Impressions: Myanmar is not for the ordinary tourist. It smells, it’s filthy, people are impoverished, it’s a military dictatorship, minorities get mugged, and all males send bursts of red saliva splashing on the pavement right in front of you. So I say to all foreign masses: Stay away.
The above linked travelogue from Myanmar includes images and videos. The videos are also presented in individual entries on this blog, and all pictures are included in a separate post.