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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.