Are you interested in coming to Myanmar for a visit? If so you have come to the right place. In this blog entry I have pulled together what I believe to be useful information for anyone planning to come here, gathered over the long weeks I have spent living in Yangon and Mandalay. I have attempted to be as truthful as possible in my analysis of the country and what it can offer, so read on to find out about the good and bad aspects of a trip to Myanmar.
The Burmese do not seem to operate in the same way as other countries when it comes to making noise and considering what effects it has on others. As such, you should be aware that this is an extremely noisy place (the cities especially) where your R&R time will almost certainly be disturbed. Myanmar is a country that rises and retires early, and the locals will think absolutely nothing of disturbing you with banging and construction work often starting as early as 6am in the morning.
Prior to moving to our apartment, we were placed in two different hotels by work and both of them were subject to ongoing construction work on their higher floors. Banging from 6am to 6pm is not conducive of a relaxing atmosphere and my workmates and I were baffled that the owners thought it okay to do this kind of thing when they have paying guests. I am sat writing this blog post in my apartment right now and there is banging going on above us here as well. The sound travels through the walls and straight into our apartment and it is extremely trying. This has been a solid fixture for us since we moved to Myanmar over three months ago regardless of our location and has frayed our nerves massively.
The noise doesn’t stop with construction work, either. There are wild dogs galore around the big cities and they will bark and howl and fight all through the night. If you stay on the west side of the moat in Mandalay, be prepared to be disturbed by the local Muslim prayer calls throughout the day. If you’re staying near a Buddhist temple, expect to be woken early (depending on the time of the year) by celebrations being piped through loudspeakers. Drivers think nothing of honking their horns for prolonged periods during the early hours of the morning.
The big cities of Myanmar are not places to come if you appreciate peace and quiet. Bring earplugs in order to block out some of the racket, but be warned that building regulations are so flimsy here that the walls and windows of your accommodation will do pretty much nothing to prevent the multitude of noises that occur here.
Myanmar is cheap and foreign money will go a long way here. A hearty meal, for example, can be found from anywhere between 2,000 to 8,000 kyats (£1 to £4). If you hunt around, you can get reasonably priced lacquerware even in the production epicentre that is Bagan. Be aware, however, that if you wish to exchange foreign currency, the notes have to be in pristine condition otherwise they will be rejected. I have had dollar bills turned down by exchange places for the slightest imperfection, such as a slight tear or a smudge of dirt along the edge of the note. If you are bringing money to exchange, be sure to ask for unused notes where possible and make sure not to bend or fold them too much in transit to the country.
Credit card use is becoming more popular in Myanmar, but there are no guarantees that a restaurant, hotel, or handicraft shop will accept cards. Be sure to ask beforehand. As for ATM withdrawals, although there are a lot of machines dotted around the country, be aware that many of them still don’t accept or won’t properly process foreign cards.
From my personal experience, your safest bet when it comes to money in Myanmar is to bring crisp, unused notes to avoid unnecessary woe and frustration.
During our work induction, Dr Olivier (also known as the Harbinger of Doom), a medical professional who has been living in Myanmar for ten years or so, came in and gave us a terrifying talk. He explained that the position and climate of the country make for the perfect hotspot in which disease can thrive and, as such, you can catch pretty much anything here (although he did reassure us that malaria is far less prevalent than in surrounding countries). He went on to tell us that the critters that live here (snakes and aggressive red centipedes especially) are extremely dangerous and can strike without warning with devastating effects. He warned us that there are exposed live wires everywhere and that we should watch out for them keenly. Basically, he made Myanmar sound like the most dangerous country on the face of the Earth. My colleagues and I looked at each other in amazement and wondered what we had let ourselves in for by coming here.
Thankfully, most of Dr Olivier’s claims seem to have been exaggerated somewhat, possibly in an attempt to stop us from spuriously claiming on our health insurance. There are, however, three main things to be aware of on a day to day basis: food hygiene; mosquitoes; and potholes/broken paving slabs.
Even if you are exceptionally careful of where you eat you will almost certainly suffer from stomach issues if you stay in Myanmar for long enough. I’ve been here for roughly three months now and, despite being extremely careful of what I eat, have suffered from two bouts of diarrhoea that were serious enough for me to have to nuke my stomach with ciprofloxacin on both occasions. Food hygiene in Myanmar is generally very poor. As such, eating from street vendors here is an absolute lottery, one that I would highly recommend you avoid, no matter what your Lonely Planet guidebook says on the matter. If you are unfortunate enough to fall victim to a nasty bug, drugs can be picked up from pharmacies for next to nothing, so if you do need to reboot your gastric system, it shouldn’t break the bank. We were told by Dr Olivier to check the expiry dates on all drugs before purchasing and to plump for German branded stuff when possible (although Indian products would suffice at a push) and to avoid Chinese offerings as often they are counterfeit and can apparently do more harm than good.
Unsurprisingly, mosquitoes flourish in Myanmar. There are a great many pools of stagnant water about the country which attract the pests in their droves. I have never had a major problem with mosquitoes in other countries, but have found the ones in Myanmar to be particularly aggressive and to have taken a shine to my sweet blood. As such, I have taken to covering myself fastidiously at night time when they are at their most active. Great care should be taken to protect the ankles as this is the part of the body they seem to favour the most over here. Slap on the DEET or wear long pants. Do not neglect their presence during the day, either, as Dengue is rife and I have spoken to three people who have caught it in and around Mandalay/Bagan regions. One person described it as ‘feeling like I was dying’ so be careful to avoid having a similar tale of woe to tell.
The most dangerous things to look out for, in my opinion, are loose and broken paving stones. They are everywhere and I’ve had one of two close calls myself. I have resorted to walking on the road nowadays as I honestly feel safer facing down a car than walking on a pavement that might not be able to support me. Be particularly wary of holes at night as streets are often poorly lit and these hazards become much harder to spot. Open sewers are common in Myanmar and this is what awaits you if you become an unsuspecting victim to a gaping chasm.
Now, even if you are lucky enough not to snap your leg when falling into one of these stinking pits, you’re almost certainly going to break the skin and those open wounds will then be exposed to the filthy sludge than lurks underfoot. Not a good combination. Keep an eye on your feet when possible and make sure you don’t have to make a detour to one of Myanmar’s many subpar hospitals. If you do cut or graze yourself while visiting the country, I’d recommend cleaning the wound as soon as you can. Our helpful medical man recommended that any open wound be treated immediately with betadine as there is a very high possibility that open wounds in Myanmar will get infected.
Transport and Locations
Points of interest and restaurants in Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon are spread out over great distances. This means that, unless you like to cover vast stretches of asphalt by foot, you will have to utilise local modes of transportation.
Myanmar has its own versions of Uber in the form of companies like Grab, Oway, and Get. These, for me, are the best way to get around in Myanmar. I personally prefer Grab, as they almost constantly have discount offers on the go that can bring the cost of your ride down to as little as 500 kyat if you use the GrabThoneBane tuk tuk service. Download the app to your phone, select your destination, and off you go. Grab offers its service in English as well, so you don’t need to worry about translation or reading Burmese. Just a heads up: drivers will often call you on their way which can be confusing. Simply say ‘Ingalee?’ to ask if they speak English, which a lot of them do to some extent. If not, simply state your current location in English until they hang up. I’m not exactly sure why they call, but even if they don’t understand you, they will always manage to find you somehow. Grab now operate in Bagan at fairly competitive rates for a full day’s hire (25,000 kyat).
Regular taxi drivers will rip you off if you are obviously foreign – they will automatically assume you are a tourist and that you don’t know better. A ride they will offer for 7,000 kyat will cost less than half that via Grab and even less if you keep abreast of the many discount offers they advertise in their app. Hotel taxis, while still cheap when compared with the UK or US, are extortionately priced by Myanmar standards. If you have to flag down transport, tuk tuk men are your best bet. The tuk tuk is a fairly recent arrival in Myanmar and the majority of vehicles are new and in good condition. Drivers, however, are a different story. Some that work outside of registered companies may not have an official driver’s licence and it is not uncommon for some of them to stop off at bars and drink quite heavily in between customers. Tuk tuks are much cheaper than taxis unless you stop an unscrupulous driver.
If you do use a tuk tuk man and are happy with his services, don’t be afraid to ask him if you can hire him for an entire day of sightseeing. A day hire in Mandalay should set you back about 45,000/50,000 kyats. There might be some wiggle room to negotiate down prices depending on where you would like to go and what you would like to see.
Local buses are available in Mandalay. They are simple, converted trucks with some horrifically uncomfortable benches welded to the beds at the back. They are cheap as chips, but don’t really run to a schedule as they wait for the back of the trucks to completely fill before setting off, often with livestock or vast quantities of fruit and veg and other cumbersome loads included. Beginning and end locations are not obvious at all and the buses are numbered in Burmese characters. I have used this service once and it was an uncomfortable experience even though I had managed to find a seat. Maybe ride one once to claim you’ve done it, but I wouldn’t frequent them all the time unless you are desperate to conserve funds.
If you are moving between Mandalay, Yangon, and Bagan, then many long-distance bus companies are available. The quality of the ride varies from company to company. I used OK to travel from Mandalay to Bagan (roughly 5 hours travel time). They use minibuses with tortuously little leg room and the journey set me back 9,000 kyat. On the return journey, I used Hello (9,500 kyat). This company uses actual coaches, but will stop regularly to pick up unscheduled locals in huge numbers making for a cramped experience. In addition, they drop you off on the very outskirts of town meaning an uncomfortable drive in one of the local ‘buses’ I mentioned earlier and getting dropped off last after all the locals have been delivered no matter how inconvenient or convoluted the route. Neither company have a website, and I don’t think many bus companies in Myanmar offer online services. Tickets usually have to be bought from company offices/stands in person or via a booking made over the phone by your hotel or hostel.
People and Language
The people of Myanmar are, for the most part, extremely friendly. Don’t be surprised to find the locals stopping you in the street to ask you for a photograph together or to hear a procession of cheerful hellos called after you as you walk. If you try and speak to the locals in their native tongue they will usually laugh at you openly. Don’t feel embarrassed by your efforts, however, as we have been told by our office staff that this mirth is a sign of the person’s appreciation of your efforts at speaking their language with them.
People, despite often being very poor, will sometimes attempt to share their food with you or offer you ‘presents’ if you buy from them at their market stalls. My roommate and I have been given free fruit and veg on a number of occasions at Zeygo market in Mandalay. Gives you a bit of a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. When you are in shops, you will generally be followed around by a staff member or two. This isn’t because they are suspicious of you, but a custom in the country so staff are always nearby to offer assistance.
Below I have listed a few everyday phrases that might come in handy if you wish to speak to the locals in Burmese.
Mingalaba – Hello
Ney kowng lah? – How are you?
Beh lau lay? – How much is it?
Chey zoo tim bah day – Thank you (formal)
Chey zoo bah – Thank you (informal)
Dima seh meh/yai bee – Stop here (when in a taxi)
Pyar meh an bar ney – Keep the change
Nah mah lay bah boo – I don’t understand
Beeya de kwa bey bah – One beer please (the de can be changed to ne for two, ton for three, lay for four, nyar for five, and so on)
Mynamar is generally safe. However, it is not recommended to walk around late at night as a lone female. Try and stick to groups where you can, or avoid going out too late if you are a single female traveller.
Muggings are rare, but do occur. I know of two people who have been relieved of their belongings, but both of them were blind drunk when these events occurred. Use common sense: avoid isolated or dodgy-looking places and don’t be too silly with the booze. If you’re sensible, you should be fine.
There are a number of military areas around Myanmar that are restricted to foreigners. Show extreme caution around these spots. If you step into an area that you aren’t meant to be in, you will be dealt with harshly.
As already mentioned, watch your step! The most dangerous thing you’ll probably encounter in Myanmar are the wonky paving stones and gaping holes that litter the pavements.
Burmese food is quite unique and you’ll either love it or hate it. Unfortunately, I hate it. If you have an olfactory system you will likely find the smell of some of the foods here rather repulsive – I’m not kidding when I say that some of the dishes in Myanmar smell like faeces. Generally, when you order local food, you will get a small serving of whatever dish you asked for, a huge slab of rice, and a wide selection of smaller accompanying plates. Food here is usually swimming in oil and, if you order meat, expect to receive more bone than flesh. Fish and some meat dishes are served after weeks of drying and I personally find the texture and taste of these offerings to be fairly grim. Living here has almost made a vegetarian of me.
Many restaurants are open fronted and serve buffet style food which forces you to consider a number of things: how long have the servings been sat there and how many flies have crawled all over them? Eating from street vendors is akin to taking your life into your own hands and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it. A quick glance at the cleanliness of the chefs, pots and pans, and serving utensils used to cook by the roadside should be enough to confirm my warning.
Thankfully, there are plenty of restaurants around the big cities that cater for people who do not appreciate the local tastes. Indian and Thai places are quite popular and, with the rise of Myanmar as a tourist destination, there are more and more Western restaurants surfacing.
One positive thing I will say about Burmese food is that the leafy vegetables here are absolutely delicious. If you see anywhere serving Burmese watercress or kailan, for example, I’d highly recommend you give them a try. There are a number of other green dishes that I have tried and enjoyed, too, but unfortunately I haven’t managed to translate them into English yet. In summary, if in doubt when in a Burmese restaurant, order the leafy veg!