Myanmar – Worth the Hype? An Update on Traveling to Burma in 2016.

After efforts towards democratization and more tourism since 2011, Myanmar has been hyped as must-see destination and a very special place. And in fact tourist numbers are exploding. Before having traveled to Burma I have done some research and after comparing with my experience I found that some of the things described are not or no more true. And I have to rant a little as I found many descriptions rather exaggerating. So here is the update on the situation for the backpacking traveler in 2016.

IMG_2928
Pagodas in Bagan

Visa

You can get your visa at the Myanmar embassy at your home country. Processing usually takes time, sometimes several weeks. It is often cheaper and quicker if you go to the embassies (Bangkok) or respective agencies (Kuala Lumpur) of Myanmar in other South East Asian countries.

I used the electronic visa for 50 US-Dollar. It was issued within one day and worked without complications. When applying for e-visa, they want to know where your first accommodation is, so technically you need to have it booked before. Having a flight booked already is not necessary for your e-visa. It is valid for 28 days in a period of 90 days starting from the day of the application. Even during immigration we were not asked for an onward or return ticket. However at check-in the airline checked both the visa and the onward flight ticket.

Flights and getting around

Most travelers fly to Yangon via Bangkok (click to see timetables and prices), often with cheap airlines like AirAsia. We started in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Airlines to Yangon which was actually cheaper and more convenient considering the departure times than the AirAsia flight on the same date. To avoid backtracking and losing a day we opted for the Mandalay-Bangkok flight by Thai AirAsia for flying out of Myanmar. Although this route is more pricey than others, a domestic flight from Mandalay back to Yangon would often be even more expensive.

Generally domestic flights are expensive, as foreigners have to pay more than Burmese. Think of 100 Dollars upwards for a normal one-way flight between all major destinations. However those flights are convenient and save a lot of time and nerve-energy as the roads are not always in a good condition and bus or train travel cannot keep up with the standard in neighboring countries. The train is even slower than the bus and shakier than anywhere else, but the upper class has spacious seats, I found the train more pleasant than the “VIP” bus.

IMG_2923
Railway station in Hsipaw

Accommodation

Other than I have read before, accommodation is not in every case significantly more expensive or worse than in other South East Asian countries. It was generally okay, similar to Malaysia, however not always as cheap or good as in Thailand or Indonesia. No one would say Myanmar is extremely expensive, however the value you get for your Kyats or Dollars is a bit lower than elsewhere.

Due to the increasing popularity it might be a good idea to book ahead, at least in some places. While finding a room on-spot in Bagan or Hsipaw was no problem, even on holidays, there is obviously some shortage in budget accommodation in Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) and Pyin Oo Lwin. We had major problems finding a room there and paid a lot more than initially intended.

Internet

Every accommodation where we stayed offered free Wifi. The quality was differing. In Yangon, Mandalay, or Pyin Oo Lwin for instance it worked very well, in Inle Lake or Hsipaw we needed many tries to load a site, but it is improving quickly.

Money

Every travel guide or blog mentioned the importance of bringing the pristine and “crisp” 100 Dollar bills which were maybe essential in the past. I have not spent a single Dollar, but paid everything in the local currency Kyat (pronounced  “tchya”). In every major tourist destinations you will find ATMs. Often hotels or ticket booths initially asked for dollars, but it was never a problem to pay with Kyat.

Paying in Kyat was economically almost always equal to or cheaper than using Dollars as they used a fair or an even more favorable exchange rate than banks. I would have lost if I had changed my Euros into Dollars before. Unless the Dollar is your country’s currency, I would not make an effort to obtain Dollars in advance. Better take a credit card – or two, just in case one is not working in Myanmar.

There are entrance fees for whole cities, like 20 Dollar in Bagan or 10 Dollar in Inle Lake. Of course this only applies to foreigners. The same foreigner-only pricing takes place in several pagodas in Yangon, Mandalay, and other sights. Flight tickets are differently priced for foreigners and locals as well.

IMG_2536
Donations in the Buddhist temple

Food

Guides rave about Burmese curries and the food in the Shan region. To be honest: You do find something to eat, and often it is somehow acceptable in matters of taste and price, however it is not too special. Whether Burmese or Shan or Thai or Chinese-style noodles or rice – they often taste all the same. At least it was never a problem to get some vegetarian rice or noodles. Despite being surrounded by culinary giants, the Burmese kitchen cannot keep up with Indian, Thai or Indonesian food by any means.

Also be prepared that the menus often look good as if there were a huge choice of meals, but many of the choices are “not available” or they pretend it was “no season”. “Fried potato? Sorry, no available.” “Papaya juice? Sorry, no season, only oran juice.” Often you end up with fried rice or noodles as always.

I would be careful where you buy food and what it looks like. The quality of food is often not good. I was served raw potatoes and the Indian food I had in Myanmar was the worst ever. And I gave it more tries than necessary.

In all my travel experience I have hardly become seriously sick from food, neither from street food in India nor from ice-cream bought in a Bolivian bus. Myanmar was a completely different story, more than once I could see myself or others suffering from food-related illnesses like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. It may have been bad luck, of course.

IMG_2970

Local people

What have I read about the great people of Burma, authentic, friendly, and unspoiled by Western civilization … Well, this is only partly true. Men and women alike usually wear a long skirt called longyi which is quite unique and not seen in the Western world. And women often use Thanaka, a white skin lotion in their faces made from bark and used for both beauty and sun-protection. The staff in hotels or restaurants is generally friendly and polite. Often in simpler restaurants the service is a bit unprofessional and slow. Kids in villages will sometimes wave hands and say Mingalabar or Hello which is cute.

Other than that I often felt a bit estranged from the locals, they often seem to find foreigners strange or funny. Probably the decade-long isolation and the former xenophobe policy of the country has left its mark. However you also find some people who are curious and friendly. Many locals are very noisily chatting, shouting a lot, often busy with their mobile phones.

The most annoying habit is the loud and disgusting sound the locals make when they try to remove mucus from their throats and nose. This is so common and heard everywhere, probably due to the fact that many Burmese are heavy smokers, the air is often dusty, and they chew betel nuts. When walking on the streets people use to spit out their red betel juice.

The wealthier people will not do the noisy mucus removal, but instead often display rude behavior similar to newly rich people of other emerging nations, like shouting in restaurants, annoying foreigners by non-genuine-interest questions and behaving like they have the money to rule the world.

The touting and tourist molesting factor is nowadays similar to other countries. There are all kinds of scams and psychological tricks to get tourist money. Just don’t feel obliged to donate or give when you receive a “gift” or service you did not ask for and especially when you see that locals are not asked for the same. That said, there is some begging, yet not nearly as bad as in touristed places as for instance in India.

IMG_3079
Monks and tourists

Other travelers

Keep in mind that you will not be the first one and you will not be alone. Most major routes are well-traveled by foreign tourists nowadays. The good news is: You will not see many extremely young drunken party backpackers like in Thailand or Bali. Actually many other travelers are culturally interested elderly and often more wealthy people from European countries as well as their spoiled offspring. It is a good place to start hating families.

And also we were stolen shoes from other backpackers, maybe that and the constant noise from continuous self-praising loud chatter in hostels or trains are the reasons why I did not like many of my co-travelers too much. Some places seemed to have a majority of people from a certain nationality. Bagan was Danish-dominated, Inle Lake full of Dutch, Hsipaw packed with Israelis, Pyin Oo Lwin was visited mostly by domestic visitors. Maybe this was just a coincidence.

Destinations

There is one place which I found so amazing that it should be central to a stay in Myanmar: Bagan. The wide plain with the thousands of pagodas is unique and has a special atmosphere that you hardly won’t find anywhere else in the world. Exploring the site with a bicycle is a great activity for several days. The sunsets are magic. Also you have a good selection of accommodation and many Asian as well as Western restaurants. Don’t fall for the half-day trip to Mount Popa, it is underwhelming, explore some rarer pagodas in Bagan instead. Rating for Bagan 10/10.

Yangon is certainly not a nice place. In its outskirts it is boring, the center is polluted and crowded, and not in a nice way. There are few capitals in South East Asia that are less pleasant, Jakarta is actually the only one I can think of. However one should not miss Yangon as the huge golden Shwedagon Pagoda is a great sight on its own and there a few other minor pagodas worth visiting. Rating Shwedagon and other pagodas 8/10, rest of Yangon 1/10.

Mandalay is not a historical magical nice town, but a widespread “modern” grid-city that lacks a real urban core. There is nothing much nice about the city itself, at least you will not get lost. At the foot of Mandalay Hill there are however a lot of interesting pagodas and monasteries. The real treasures are the smaller former royal cities outside of Mandalay that feature an impressive array of pagodas and monasteries. Rating for the religious sites 8/10, rest of the city 2/10.

I felt the Inle lake was overrated. The landscape is nice, but not too breath-taking. The lake with its villages built on stilts could be interesting, but it is really annoying that is has been converted into a huge tourist souvenir shopping paradise. You can rent a bicycle to explore the surroundings, but you do not need more than one day for it. If you have seen Venice or the Titicaca Lake, you probably find Inle Lake pretty disappointing. Rating 6/10.

Hsipaw is another overrated backpacker destination. The hills look a bit like northern Thailand. Not bad, but nothing too spectacular. Okay for a few days. You can have some walks through the villages or the rice paddies. Some little pagodas, the town itself is rather unpleasant. Just do not expect anything special. The most interesting thing is the scenic train ride to Hsipaw from Pyin Oo Lwin via the impressive Gokteik viaduct. Rating 5/10.

Pyin Oo Lwin is a “hill station” close to Mandalay. Besides very few historic buildings there is nothing much of interest here. The only reason why you would want to stay here is to observe the noisy behaviour of the Burmese upper-class. If you end up here nevertheless, you can go to the Kandawgyi Gardens to keep you entertained for a few hours by walking in the nicely maintained area and visiting the butterfly collection and a walk-in aviary.  Only this park lifts the rating up to 3/10.

IMG_2430
Chinatown in Yangon

Suggested itinerary for a 4-week-stay in Myanmar

Fly to Yangon. Spend 1 day visiting the Shwedagon and other pagodas. Go to Bagan, spend 4 to 7 days exploring the plains with the pagodas. Allow 2 or 3 days to visit the pagodas and monasteries in Mandalay and the royal cities outside of Mandalay. Take a flight back to Bangkok (direct) or Kuala Lumpur (via Yangon) and better spend the rest of your holidays in Malaysia or Thailand. Seriously. Otherwise you will probably be disappointed unless this is really your first holiday in Asia at all.

IMG_3146
U Bein Bridge in Amarapura near Mandalay

Resume

It all depends on your expectations and your travel experience. Don’t expect anything like Thailand or Indonesia in terms of nature, friendliness, comfort or food. The pagodas and monasteries are the real highlights of Myanmar. I am glad to have experienced Bagan, it was magic. Otherwise I did not find that many reasons to visit Myanmar more than once.

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “Myanmar – Worth the Hype? An Update on Traveling to Burma in 2016.”

  1. Ist es abends eigentlich immer noch so richtig dunkel in Yangon ? Damals gab es kaum Strassenlichter, leuchtende Werbung sowieso nicht also war es richtig pitch black und das in einer Haupststadt.
    Und man musste immer aufpassen, dass man nicht durch den kaputten Bürgersteig in die Kanalisation fällt ! Myanmar war schon eine Reise in eine andere – vergessene – Welt. Das schlimmste an Myanmar war für mich damals meine Reisebegleitung 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Es ist bestimmt heller als damals und ab und zu gibt es auch Werbung, aber prinzipiell fand ich es in Yangon und Mandalay abends arschdunkel. Richtige Bürgersteige waren immer mit Läden belegt so dass wir uns zusammen mit den Autos auf der Straße bewegt haben. Jetzt in Bangkok hab ich das Gefühl mich wieder 2 Jahrhunderte vorwärts bewegt zu haben.

      Like

  2. I live in northern Thailand and it’s hard to beat but still looking to visit Burma. Wondering what is worth seeing and in particular whether Mandalay was worth the travel time. I really appreciate your very succinct description of the various regions within the country. I’ll skip Mandalay. Guess you did not get over to the west coast.

    Like

    1. Hey Steve. You could fly from Chiang Mai to Mandalay and spend a weekend in Mandalay and surroundings, I heard this flight is expensive though. The pagodas and royal cities are quite nice, and they compensate a bit for the city itself. The landscape in this region of Myanmar is not that different from Northern Thailand in my view.

      I haven’t been to the west coast in Myanmar but other travellers I met assured me other regions in Myanmar are nicer than the well-travelled ones. They recommended Mrauk U, Ngapali and Mawlamyaing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, thank you for the honesty of your post. Often these travel blogs sound more like someone is trying to convince themselves that they had the greatest, most special time ever rather than sharing honest experiences and impressions. The part about the new money show offs had me thinking of all of the Chinese and Russian tourists I’ve been unable to avoid in my travels!

    Pardon the length of my response. My gf and I are flying into BKK and onward to Mandalay in February. I have travelled a fair amount (SE Asia in particular) and she has not. This will be my first time in Myanmar. The more I read and researched traveling to Myanmar, the more I got a sense that it would be a bit…underwhelming…considering the other options in the region. I’ve whittled the Myanmar piece of our trip down to about two weeks in favor of spending some extra time elsewhere.

    Wondering if you have any thoughts on our itinerary:
    Fly into Mandalay and on to Pyin Oo Lwin for two nights. We will have one full afternoon here and I’d like to eat at The Taj Indian restaurant (perhaps we could skip the second night. It sounds like a full day here isn’t necessary).

    Three days/two nights trekking in Kyaukme, then back to Mandalay for a couple nights. (What were highlights of Mandalay? Is a couple full days enough)

    Boat downriver to Bagan, three or four nights for Bagan.

    Travel to Yangon…any reason to spend more than a full day or two here before traveling onward? Was considering heading south to Mawlymeine and Hpa An, but once again I had the feeling that it should be skipped in favor of some really awe-inspiring stuff that my gf hasn’t experienced.

    Like

    1. Hello Brandon. Thank you for your comment! As you have seen other places in South East Asia I think 2 weeks is enough for a sneak into Myanmar and there will still be enough time to be amazed by the plains of Bagan.

      Your itinerary sounds good. I’d cut the stay in Pyin Oo Lwin down to one night, as there is not that much to see or do there. Mandalay is not too bad as a base for exploring the sights close to Mandalay hill (1 day) and another day for a tour to 3 or 4 of the former royal cities which were quite interesting, so 2 to 3 days in Mandalay should be fine. I’d say one day in Yangon is enough for the Shwedagon which should not be missed – and some other pagodas like the Sule.

      You could try Mawlamyaing or Hpa An, I heard these places should be nicer than the overrated tourist places like Hsipaw, Pyin Oo Lwin or Inle Lake, however I’d definitely keep Bagan and the royal cities of Mandalay in my itinerary as those pagodas are the real highlights of the country.

      Good luck and have a nice trip!

      Like

  4. Thank you for the brutally honest assessment! I’m scheduled to visit Myanmar next week and I’m feeling so underwhelmed by the lack of real enthusiasm I may just fly up to Chiang Mei from Bangkok instead!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m a bit surprised reading this article, though I met a few other travelers being disappointed of Myanmar. Experiences seem to vary a lot with where you go and what kind of people you meet. I’m just back from 3,5 weeks Myanmar and 2 weeks of South Thailand – haven’t seen other Asian Countries so no comparison but travelled before – and am reading a bit to learn even more about the country.
    The friendliness of the people hasn’t been as rare as you put it, at least not in my experience. I met so many friendly, selfless and helping people and especially as a solo traveling woman I felt very safe and comforted in this country. Yes, there were people looking at you a bit strange – as a white tourist you’re still rarely seen in some places. But putting them in a noisy, unpolite and disgusting picture is very close minded and not true either. Yes some chew betel nuts and spit on the streets, yes it’s not the cleanliest (even though I’m wondering if it’s any cleaner in the surrounding countries), yes locals sometimes communicate loudly but not that it’d would be any abnormal! There are very many being polite, humble and considerate, caring about you even they don’t know you. It’s a different culture and a very western point of view saying that all of these habits you listed would be unpolite. I do see the overly hyped picture critical myself, but the friendliness of so many people I met was still overwhelming. Being invited to ceremonies, into family places and was giving rides to make sure you get home safely without wanting any money were just a few things happening to me when I was traveling there.
    One (!) person was trying to get money after showing around was the only trick I’ve seen. With a natural logical conciousness and a feeling for fair prices you can avoid any trap and overpriced touristy prices (of course you don’t buy all the nice souvenirs in front of that touristy pagoda). They are always willing to negotiate, way more than I experienced it in Southern Thailand. It’s supposed to be different in the North but in the South of Thailand I met so many unfriendly and actually rude Thai people not speaking of bad service and the highly overpriced restaurants, that I didn’t understand the disappointed travelers arriving from Thailand in Myanmar.
    Maybe it’s always about luck – for all of us. But I’m really sorry that you experienced the country in such a disappointed way as it really is beautiful, generous and non westernly. I would recommend this country, with the hint of not being too influenced by the travel hype but actually read and get into it.

    To be honest I’ve been a little bit disappointed by Bagan, as the sunrise and sunset aren’t as spectacular as everbody is telling you. It is a beautiful place, though highly overpriced and -hyped compared to other places in Myanmar.
    Ngapali Beach I would highly recommend – if you go to the right beaches you can be the only one on a paradise beach with white sand, warm wavy turquoise water and palm tree forrests in your back. Also the sunsets are simply amazing!

    Like

    1. Hi Karo. Thank you for commenting. I’m glad you had such an awesome time in Myanmar and I honestly appreciate your perspective. As you said, people and experiences are different. I guess I would have had a better time if I had visited Ngapali or Mawlamyine instead of the Inle-Hsipaw-Pyin OO Lwin stretch. At least other people told me that they enjoyed it there.

      I’d still say this post is balanced in a way that it mentions good and bad things but to others it might come off too critical, especially if you compare it with other blogs or posts that are always praising. Of course you are right about a Western bias. Betel nut chewing and spitting or shouting loudly is probably not considered rude in Myanmar, just normal acceptable behavior, but I still don’t like it. I’ve also met nice and honest people in Myanmar, but that does not make me forget all the strange or negative experiences. I’m not quick to make generalized judgements but there have been so many negative experiences with people that I started to doubt all the positive descriptions from the guidebooks and blogs. So this post just offers a different view.

      Like

  6. We visited Myanmar in October 2016 and I’d say you were spot on. People are desperate to hype up a new destination, which to be honest leads to disappointment when reality hits. Myanmar has some great attractions no doubt, but from the way other people spoke you’d think it’s completely untouched from tourism and western influence. Maybe 5-10 years ago, but there are phones, ATMs, large numbers of European tourists etc. Other specific observations we had:

    -As you say, food is dreadful given it’s next to India, China, Thailand. Tasteless watery curries, no thanks
    -We travelled by coach and found it was ok. Modern Scania buses which were comfortable, though the roads are a little unnerving
    -Yangon- totally agree, we hated it. Dirty, crowded city with one redeeming feature
    -We exchanged some USD in Chiang Mai and crossed the border at Mae Sot/Myawaddy. IMPORTANT TO NOTE that Thai exchangers make a little stamp on their USD before they give it to you. Burmese people refuse to exchange this money, making it worthless in Myanmar. When we crossed the border their was no power, ATMs didn’t work and we had no Kyat. Fortunately we had enough Thai Baht for a shared taxi, but this was pure luck.

    I’m glad we went to Myanmar as it was certainly distinct from the rest of SE Asia. However it’s annoying there aren’t more balanced reviews like yours! It’s surely much better to go with your eyes open rather than with false expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s