Surreal at 21st Century
Myanmar. It is a country where everything is so different. If you've read my Myanmar series, you probably already got an idea. Myanmar has the longest running military dictatorship in the world. We all know that it was (or still is) a tormented country. It has gone through too many political unrest and some even ended in violence and inhumane practices. These happenings led to economic sanctions and big countries (like US and EU) pulling out their aid and support. The Lady (Aung San Suu Kyi) also called for tourism boycott which put Myanmar off the tourist radar for over a decade. It is a huge factor on why it is still the same as it was before.
After the 2010 elections, the government considered some serious reforms towards democracy (hidden motives still unfounded). In November 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released after 21 years of house arrest (I respect and admire her a lot!). The world took it as a good sign and it slowly re-earned their trust. Sanctions have been lifted and tourists got encouraged to visit Burma again. Things are looking good for Myanmar, as they've been approved to bid for a position in the ASEAN chair next year. The most exciting time to visit the country is NOW.
From Manila, you can fly to Bangkok (DMK) or Kuala Lumpur (KUL) first. Air Asia has two daily flights to Yangon (RGN) from these two hubs. There's also a direct flight to Mandalay from DMK (once daily), should you wish to visit the last royal capital of Burma first.
Here's another thing you need to prepare for before heading to Burma. Their currency of choice is US Dollars (USD). Hotels and tourist attractions require USD for payment. Make sure you bring more than enough money. Although there'd already been ATMs since the start of this year, I would still recommend to just bring cash. USD 100 bill gets the best exchange rate compared to the lower denominations.
Please note that your dollar condition should be:
- New, fresh and crisp
- Has no folds and creases
- Has no stamps, pen ink or just any mark on them
- No tears, holes or any slight damage
They inspect each and every dollar meticulously. Not meeting these requirements could result into exchange refusal. Some say they're now more lax about it after the sanctions were lifted, but better be safe than sorry. :)
|MMK aka Myanmar Kyats|
Unlike in other countries where you'll prefer to change your money at the black market because of the poor exchange rate at the airport, here in Myanmar I felt safer changing my dollars at the banks there. The rate does not differ much from that of the black market. I followed the advise of fellow Couchsurfers who recently went there and did it at the airport too. It is also guaranteed that you'll get new and crisps Kyats (pronounced as "chats") in exchange. You can also be sure that it is hundred percent scam-free. It'll be easier for you too to change your Kyats back into USD before you leave the country. Just show them your previous receipt and they'll gladly accept your Kyats. You can't exchange them anywhere else, so make sure to exchange them again before departing Myanmar.
If you love vegetables (like I do), you will love it here. Burmese are devout Buddhists so their food is primarily vegetarian. You'll see a few chicken dishes in the menu but beef and pork? Very rare. Maybe not the case in expensive hotels. Anyway, they serve fresh veggies and I'm happy with it. My average meal costs was 2000-3000 Kyats or 2-3 USD. Servings are generous. I was always so full after every meal. That amount already includes a liter of bottled water. It was for both Yangon and Bagan. I just ate in restaurants. I didn't feel like eating street food in Yangon (for sanitary reasons). A bottle of water normally costs 300 Kyats.
|my yummy stir-fried shrimp and veggies|
Tip: Near Sule Paya, look for this doughnut shop called Tokyo Donut. You can have a doughnut and iced coffee for 1200 Kyats. What's cool about it is, they have free wifi! And it's pretty fast for Myanmar standards hehe. That's the only place in Myanmar where I got connected to the internet. :)
The only viable means of transportation in Yangon are buses and taxis. For travelers, it is better to stick with the cabs. I barely saw buses in the streets of Yangon. They are very infrequent and they only pass by a few specific route. As for the taxis, they are everywhere. Don't be surprised though. They are old-model cars with no air condition. You have to bear with the heat and its worse when you're caught in a traffic. The minimum fare I paid for a taxi ride in Yangon was 2000 Kyats.
Bagan is another story. The ancient city is... well, still ancient in so many ways. You have the option to hire a horse cart or a bike if you want to go around. I chose the former. Minimum rate for example, Bus Station to Guest House is 1500-2000 Kyats. On the other hand, renting a bike for the whole day is just 1500 Kyats.
Don't worry about the intercity buses. The journey may be long but it is comfortable. You may read about my story here.
|the lovely Yangon airport mural|
Yes, you heard (or maybe read) it right. Hostel rates in this country is very steep. Set aside a bigger portion of your travel budget for this. Average hostel cost per night both in Yangon and Bagan is a whopping USD 25. The quality is not even worth its rate. It's a pain in the ass for solo travelers like me because there's no one to split the cost with. That's why finding that USD 5 per night place in Yangon was like finding a treasure for me.
|not bad for $5, yeah?|
Your foreign sim cards are of no use when in Myanmar. There is no international roaming services available. Unlike other countries where you can just buy local sim card and use it while you're there, that's almost impossible too. Aside from the hassles you have to go through, it is very expensive at USD 20! The only one mobile telephone network is being managed by the government. Maybe that explains it.
How about the internet? You can find places that offers internet access. The thing is, it is sooo slow. And I hate slow connection so I didn't try until my fifth day. I just tried it once in Yangon (suggested by a CSer friend), as mentioned above in the "Food" section. :) Probably the high end hotels offer wifi at a decent speed.
|my last Myanmar sunset|
- Men also wear "skirts". Actually it is not called a skirt but a longyi. It is the traditional wrap-around dress worn by both Burmese men and women. Note that it is being wrapped differently depending on your gender.They still dress very traditionally. It is so swell to buy your own to blend in with the locals. :)
- They put too much make up. No they don't. What you see on their faces is called thanaka. It is a yellowish-white foundation-like cosmetic made up of ground bark. They say it protects you from sunburn and it also makes your skin smooth. It is indeed the beauty secret of the Myanmar ladies. It smells like sandalwood and feels cool to the skin. I actually loved it! :)
|a shy lovely Burmese girl :)|
- Red Teeth. It is the only place I've been where people are sporting red teeth and where red spits are everywhere! They are so fond of chewing betel nuts. Candy is not a thing here. This results to their reddish-brown stained teeth, so don't be grossed out.
- Temple Overload. You have to be ready for this. There are more than 2000 pagodas scattered in the plains of Bagan alone. I dig old temples and ancient structures, so I enjoyed this a lot. I heard of other people who don't appreciate this kind of place and see nothing but stones and ruins in them. I hope you're not one of those bunch.
- Go Bare and Get Dirty. Get used to roaming around barefoot. 90% of the significant places you'll visit in Burma are temples (pagodas) and you shouldn't walk in them in any kind of footwear. It doesn't matter if it's abandoned, very old or if the floor is too hot. Just take your shoes/slippers off and show some respect. They are all considered sacred.
|barefoot is the way to go|
- It's Better to Give Than to Receive. You will normally see monks asking for alms in the temples. Go ahead and share your blessings. In Buddhism, it shows humbleness and respect. It is also your chance to make a merit. Your accumulation of good deeds will be carried over throughout your life and succeeding incarnations. I'm a Christian but I believe in it. I believe in everything kindness. :)
The Amazing People
Don't be put off by the military junta governing the country or by the violence against Muslims in Northern Myanmar (that part is off-limits for the tourists anyway). The rest of Myanmar is filled with gentle and friendly people, ever so eager to know about "our" world and also willing to show us a peek on their simple yet now getting more optimistic life.
- Kind and Passionate. They love interacting with the foreigners. I loved talking to them. I can feel how happy they were that people from other countries are visiting them again. They will ask you about a few words they want to learn in your language, about how things are back in your country and literally just about everything. They suffered so long from repression and I feel for them. So I answer everything they asked of me tirelessly. I was actually happy that I was also able to learn a lot of things from them. I cherish every conversation I had with the hostel staff, the vendors, the taxi drivers, the horsecart driver, all of them.
- No Language Barrier. You don't have to worry about communicating with them. They speak good English compared to their other neighboring countries. I found out from one of the drivers I talked to, that English subject is also included in their school curriculum beginning primary school.
|meet Phyu-Phyu, PTB's welcoming party in Bagan ;)|
- Earnest Buddhists. Among the Buddhist countries I've been to, I can say that Myanmar is the most devout. That is based on my observation. They start instilling it at a very young age. They are very religious people. Because of this, you will not feel threatened as a tourist. You can bring wads of Kyats not fearing that somebody might rob you. They strongly believe in karma.
- Inquisitive in a Good Way. They are the type of people of who are very fervently curious. They give you suggestions but not in a pushy manner. When they want to know something, they'll approach you right off. I experienced this twice or thrice in the restaurants. The moment they saw me had my first bite of their dish, they immediately appeared at my side asking me how was it or how did it taste. I mean I literally just had my first bite. It doesn't matter if you're still chewing it or if your mouth is still full. They won't leave not until you answer them haha. I actually found it a little weird because they could have asked when I'm done eating. But then, it's Myanmar hehe.
Those were just some of the things I won't forget about my trip. You now have a glimpse of how Myanmar is different from the rest of the world. Things are slowly changing day by day as the country progresses towards democracy. Somehow, I am hoping they will remain extraordinary.
I never felt bad ditching my ticket to Laos for this country. I don't know. It might sound strange but after this trip, I felt more connected to the universe. Its been more of a spiritual journey for me. I came back with a different set of "eyes".
***Note: This post was written based on Myanmar's situation when I went there March of 2013. Any information re updates or improvements that future travelers should know about are welcome in the Comments section. :)
“Not I – not anyone else, can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself.” – Walt Whitman
This ends my Myanmar travel series.