Memories of Myanmar the ‘golden land’ of contrasts and complexities

Myanmar in a Nutshell:
’Mingalabar’……………… You’ll hear it wherever you go, anytime, day or night.
The people of Myanmar (Burma) are generally a friendly bunch so you’ll memorise this word fairly quickly. It’s a kind of catch all greeting and serves as ‘hello’, ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’ and ‘good evening’. This individual all encompassing greeting makes it simple for tourists to pick up, which is just as well really as it is about the only thing which is easy about the Burmese language.
I was initially unsure as to whether I wanted to visit Myanmar or not. Well intentioned people warned that I should boycott it at all costs, out of protest due to Government control, human rights abuses and political unrest. However, never being good at heeding cautionary advice, my curiosity got the better of me and I went anyway.
I’m SO glad I did!
A land of beguiling beauty and unsightly situations, of ostentatious displays of wealth to the shameless humility of abject poverty, of overt corruption and selfishness to covert acts of kindness and generosity, Myanmar is an intriguing country of complexities and contrasts.
It is at times, affronting, extremely confronting and will definitely make you question things ………………………………. right down to your very core beliefs.
And as you sit in your discomfort, the ‘Golden Land’ will smile unapologetically, and, unbeknownst to you now, in the end, you will ultimately be thanking her for it and for the lessons she’s been teaching you.

GOOD TO KNOW

Practical Tips, Quick Facts, Social Etiquette and Burmese Practices:
Public displays of excessive emotion including anger or affection are frowned upon.
Myanmar is predominantly a Buddhist country.  Invest in a pair of flip flops or slip on shoes. You will need to take your shoes off when entering any religious site (and believe me, there are A LOT) and if visiting a local’s home.
Learn a few words of Burmese. ‘Hello’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Please’ are a good start and your effort will be greatly appreciated.
You will notice a white paste painted on the faces of the women, small children and some men. This paste is known as ‘Thanaka’. It cools the skin, serves as sun protection and is viewed as aesthetically pleasing.
The head is the most esteemed part of the body and to touch somebody on it, including a child, would be viewed as a sign of aggression.
Whilst giving or receiving items, use your right hand whilst touching your left to your forearm. This demonstrates great courtesy and respect.
Put on your ‘Happy Face’ and smile, smile, smile. This will be warmly met with reciprocal smiles, and if you’re lucky, some interaction.
By all means bargain, but keep it reasonable and at it’s value.
Tip at your discretion but stay mindful of the original cost of the service or item and tip in proportion.
Wherever you go, you will notice red staining on the ground. This is from the spit or sludge produced from Men chewing betel quid. They buy the betel leaf and a whole host of other ingredients, including, both raw and cured tobacco, areca nut and slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and then chew it. Unfortunately, it is a deadly addiction as the ingredients are all cancer causing agents. It is deeply rooted in Myanmar culture and has been assumed as the country’s national habit for centuries.
Myanmar has a population of roughly 51.5 million people.

Responsible travel:

Hire local and buy local wherever possible. This goes for modes of Transport, Tour Guides, Travel Agents, Restaurants, Cafes, Foods, Clothes and Hotels and Guest Houses.
Be respectful when visiting Temples, Stupas, Pagodas and Shrines and ask permission before accessing local areas of archeological, cultural or spiritual importance. You should be modestly dressed with shoulders and knees covered.
Always, Always, ask before taking any photos of any religious sites or people, particularly children.
Be aware that Myanmar is a developing country and don’t expect standards to be the same as in the West. You may experience power outages and service in Restaurants and Hotels may not be at the level to which you are accustomed. Do like the locals do and be all Buddhist about it and take it in your stride. If you don’t, you are the one who suffers.
Don’t contribute to the world’s plastic problem! Carry a refillable water bottle with you at all times. An easily foldable shopping bag is also an excellent item to pack and bring to market with you.
For your own safety, stay up to date with the latest political news and no-go zones.
If you want to make a financial difference, contribute to communities and organisations and not individuals. Children are particularly vulnerable and by giving to them you are actually encouraging them to skip school and locking them into the poverty cycle.
(Primary Education in Myanmar is compulsory, but like a lot of things in Myanmar, it is complicated, severely underfunded and problematic. In spite of these challenges this is often these kids’ only hope at a brighter future. Please don’t play any part in denying them that chance.)

How to get there:

Depending on where you are flying from you may or may not be able to fly to Myanmar directly, for example there were no direct flights from the U.K, Europe, USA or Australia at the time of writing. The biggest airlines flying directly into Myanmar are Emirates Air, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
If travelling from Australia, it may be best to fly firstly into Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hanoi or HCMC and then take a connection from there. This is what I personally did, I flew out of Hanoi return, on a ticket which I bought very cheaply whilst in Vietnam on one of their low cost airlines, Vietjet. https://www.vietjetair.com/Sites/Web/vi-VN/Home
If travelling from Europe or the U.K you have two options. You can fly either via the Middle East (for example via Doha) or via East or South East Asia in cities such as Hong Kong, Bangkok or Hanoi. If flying from London specifically, your best bet is probably to fly into Bangkok if you want the shortest, most time effective route.
Flying from the USA or Canada is trickier, but again you have the two options of going via Asia or the Middle East.  If you can score a direct flight from your city to the hubs of Bangkok, Hanoi, HCMC, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong, you’re golden and you’ll only have one short connection in order to get to Myanmar. If, however your flight goes via Mainland China, Taiwan or the Middle East, your connection time will be longer due to a lower number of flights per day. If you cannot fly into any of the cities mentioned above, then unfortunately, you are looking at least at two connections.
If arriving by Air, you will very probably be flying into Yangon. Mandalay also has an International Airport but is not very busy and has limited flights.
There are border crossings from neighbouring countries to arrive overland, but not all of these regions are safe or even accessible for foreigners. Do your own research and make up your own mind as things change quickly and constantly.

On Arrival:

First things first, you will need a visa to enter Myanmar. The Government has made it very easy for tourists to enter by offering an e-visa to eligible countries (including Australian, NZ, UK, US, some Central and South American, some African, most European and most Asian countries)  https://evisa.moip.gov.mm
This visa is relatively expensive; a 28 day visa is $50 USD and if you opt for a visa on arrival, it costs $50 USD for 30 days. Certain Asian Countries are visa exempt for a stay of 30 days or less, until the end of September 2020.

How to get around:

I strongly suggest you download the ‘Grab’ app. Grab took over Uber in South East Asia so if you are travelling to other Southeast Asian countries you’ll be able to use it there too.
Unfortunately it’s not available in all cities and destinations but this will hopefully improve when infrastructure improves (could be a while). It is available in Mandalay and Yangon and taxis or motos are available everywhere else.
Getting around cities is relatively easy. Getting from place to place is a little trickier given the developing nature of the tourism industry, infrastructure and road conditions.
I think here that it’s worth mentioning that it’s a good idea to think about your priorities at this point and weigh up the time you have and your budget. For example if you are relatively short on time, taking internal flights is highly recommended. This is also of course the most expensive option. Bus travel is going to be a lot cheaper but it can be extremely time consuming, unreliable and sometimes involves some ‘hair raising’ driving. It’s the old time v’s money debate. Only you can decide what will work for you.
Private Car:
It seemed to me whilst I was there, that every Tom, Dick and Harry was a driver and had a private car and I had many offers of ‘tours’ which I could design myself and in which the driver would accompany me from place to place. They made it clear that the client (me) was not responsible for the costs of their accommodations and meals and if you are okay with these terms, then it may be a valid option for you, providing you can find one you trust.
I personally didn’t choose to go down this route. I had some reservations as I was travelling alone and didn’t know any of the drivers who offered me these trips, from a bar of soap. I also didn’t feel comfortable not paying for their meals or accommodations because I could just picture them sleeping in the car and going hungry or just eating rice to save some money (maybe I just have a very over-active imagination).
Do your due diligence obviously and ask fellow travellers for referrals or recommendations. If you have time up your sleeve, setting a driver up in Myanmar is going to be infinitely cheaper than doing it from abroad. You can also be sure this way that your money stays in the country and goes to the right people.
If you are travelling as a Family or in a group, this option might make more economic sense, as you pay for the car and driver and not per person.

Flights:

Due to time restraints (2 weeks) and the fact that I was travelling alone, I decided to do all my internal travelling via air. This was generally a positive experience and I tried different domestic airlines, such as KBZ, Golden Myanmar Airlines and Myanmar National Airlines. All were professional and I only experienced 1 delay (4.5 hours stuck at Heho Airport in an empty room……..not fun!). I flew Yangon to Mandalay, Mandalay to Heho (for Inle), Heho to Nyaung-U (for Bagan) and then Nyaung-U back to Yangon. The average price for each leg was about $100 USD.

Buses

Quicker than trains and the most cost effective option, bus travel is a budget traveller’s dream. The condition of the buses varies a lot, ranging from luxurious air-conditioned coaches to crowded (understatement) busses without aircon.
There are also overnight busses, saving the budget savvy traveller a night of accommodation costs. If you decide to go the overnight route, come prepared. Bring snacks and drinks, something warm (temperatures drop considerably overnight) and if possible an eye mask and ear plugs (blaring T.V!). Don’t forget toilet paper and hand sanitizer for bathroom breaks either.
Do keep in mind that only about 50% of roads in Myanmar are paved, so depending on where you are going, a luxurious bus may not guarantee a comfortable ride. It’s also worth mentioning that if you keep a ‘flexible’ mindset about the concept of time, you will save yourself a lot of frustration.

Trains

Trains can be a lot more comfortable than the busses (depending on the class you travel) but they are slower and generally more expensive. Recently though, the Government has made fares the same price for locals and foreigners alike, so do your due diligence here and price the route you are interested in across different modes of transport.
If you enjoy trains and don’t mind taking your time, then you can catch some beautiful scenery in relative comfort travelling this way. There are also sleeper trains, complete with bed, simple bathrooms and dining carriages. Keeping an open mind about the fluidity of time is again recommended.

Boats

There are different types of boat travel around Myanmar. There are the large and old Government ferries, private boats of all shapes and sizes and luxurious River Cruisers which carries a hefty price tag. There are some popular scenic routes covered by private boats such as between Mandalay and Bagan which may be worth looking into, provided you can allow the time (2-3 days).

Money:

The official currency of Myanmar is the Kyat (pronounced Chat).
The exchange rate at the time of writing was about MMK1,000 to $1 AUD, MMK1,000 to 69c USD and MMK1,000 to 63c €
Warning: Never change money in the street in Myanmar. ALWAYS use a Bank or an official Money Changer
Credit/debit cards are not widely accepted in all but the most exclusive of Restaurants or Hotels or those frequented by Group Tours or Business Travellers. They are also accepted by the internal airlines. Please be aware that there will likely be a surcharge applied if using cards as merchant fees are incredibly high in Myanmar (up to 5%).
ATMs are readily available in the towns and cities in major tourist areas, but it should be noted that they only dispense Kyats.
US dollars are widely accepted and the preferred currency in some of the tourism sector. Dollars are the currency of choice for Guides, Travel Agents, Airlines, some entrance fees and top Hotels.
Please be aware that notes must be in pristine condition, i.e, crisp, clean and not folded, marked, tatty or torn in anyway. It is best to keep them flat (PRO TIP, find an iron!) and note that $100 and $50 bills will get the best exchange rate if converting currencies. Use the lower denominations for paying in restaurants which tourists frequent, hotels or guides.
Kyats will be used everywhere else, such as markets, local restaurants, coffee shops, local attractions, paying grab or taxi drivers, temple and monastery donations and all other small things.

Budget:

Myanmar is not nearly as inexpensive as I had anticipated. Prices of food, accommodation and services are all higher than neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The price of goods and services, accommodation, food and utilities are extremely high compared to the local wage. Obviously your own personal choices are going to greatly affect the numbers below, but for simplicity, I hope you find this rough guide helpful.
  • Budget  (Under $50 USD)
  • Staying in a hostel or simple guesthouse $10 – $40
  • Street food meal $2 – $6
  • Push)Bike hire $1 – $2
  • Midrange (Between $50 and $200 USD)
  • Double or twin room in a 3 star Hotel $40 – $130
  • 2 Course meal in Mid range Tourist Restaurant $5 – $15
  • Visiting Bagan archeological region $25
  • Boat to Bagan $42
  • Luxury (More than $200 USD per day)
  • Double room in top-end Hotel  $130 – $500
  • Dinner in a top-end Restaurant $25 – $50
  • Driver and guide hire $80 – $120
Obviously if you are travelling in a group it’s going to be more cost effective as you can share the cost of meals, Hotels, Drivers and Guides.

Tipping:

Like a lot of things in Myanmar, the concept of tipping is not as straightforward as one might hope. It brings layers of complexities and even far reaching societal consequences; for example when a driver can earn more in tourism than a Dr. or Lecturer can in a day, causing said Dr. or Lecturer to take up driving too, it leaves a shortage of professional health care workers or Educators, causing resentment and impacting entire communities.
Ultimately, it is a very personal decision whether to tip or not, and if so, how much to tip  will depend on your own culture and values. Just be aware that nowadays within the tourism sector it is more or less ‘expected’ or appreciated that people tip, but that in areas off the beaten track or unused to tourism, it may cause embarrassment as it is not the Burmese norm and your ‘contribution’ may be way out of line with a days earnings.
The current minimum salary in Myanmar is MMK 4,800, or about USD $3.60 per day!
To give a bit of perspective, in 2020 the average monthly wage of a:
  • High School Teacher is  MMK 472,000, AUD $487, USD $325, €297
  • Dentist is  MMK1,290,000, AUD $1,333, USD $889, €812
  • G.P (General Dr.) is MMK 977,000, AUD $1,009, USD $673, €615
  • Nurse is MMK 414,000, AUD $427, USD $285, €260
  • Cleaner in Hotel is MMK 232,000, AUD $239, USD $160, €146
  • Domestic Housekeeper is MMK 207,000, AUD $213, USD $142, €130
When a guide can earn over MMK 145,000, AUD $150, USD $100, €91 a day and a driver MMK 75,000, AUD $77, USD $51, €47 and then receive a generous tip on top of that, then it’s easy to see why people trained in other areas may be leaving their sector for tourism. It’s really difficult to decide what the right thing is to do as you can see that just this little interlude into something as ‘simple’ as tipping can raise all sorts of moral questions. Only you can decide what feels right for you.
Having said that, whilst interacting in the tourist industry, the following guideline may be helpful, should you decide to tip.
Restaurants and bar: round the bill up to max MMK 1,000.
Housekeeping in a nice Hotel: $1 per room per night.
Hotel porter in nice Hotel: MMK1000 or $1 on luggage delivery and departure.
Driver per day: Use your discretion based on service and number of people in the car and keep it in proportion to what you are paying for the car for the day(s).
Please note here that it is not expected, nor required to tip taxi drivers
Private Guide per day: Again use your discretion based on service and the number of people in your group, keeping in mind the amount you are paying for their services in total for the day.
For what it’s worth, I personally really wrestled with tipping in Myanmar and rather than feel like I was contributing to greater social problems, I showed my appreciation to my guides and drivers who provided excellent service by buying them lunch when we stopped for a break and kept my tip at 10%. As I said earlier, this really is a personal decision and your mileage may vary.

Where and when to go:

High Season (Dec–Feb)
This is the busiest season and with good reason. The rainy season is over and temperatures are generally pleasant. Be prepared for crowds and higher prices and book your accommodation and transport well ahead.
Shoulder (Oct – Nov & Mar- Apr)
This can be a good time to go depending on where you are travelling to. The hill towns of Shan state are still pleasant,  but Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon are all uncomfortably hot. In April, during the major buddhist festival of Thingyan, things are booked solid.
Low Season (May–Sep)
This is when I went and I was very lucky with the weather. However, the Southwest Monsoon starts in mid May and peaks from July to September. I went the last 2 weeks of August and wasn’t affected by bad weather at all so I  think it is just the luck of the draw. On the plus side,  there are fewer crowds and generally lower prices if  you travel at this time.
My itinerary was the most common tourist route and I feel it gave  me a good overview of the highlights of Myanmar, although by no means was it enough time to see and do everything. Whilst talking to other travellers I picked up the recommendations of Sittwe, Mrauk and Thandwe, for visiting Ngapali Beach. It sounds to me like that might be a good reason to go back 🙂

MY ITINERARY

Nights
  1. Yangon
  2. Yangon
  3. Mandalay
  4. Mandalay
  5. Mandalay
  6. Inle
  7. Inle
  8. Inle
  9. Inle
  10. Bagan
  11. Bagan
  12. Bagan
  13. Bagan
  14. Yangon

Myanmar in Detail:

Her People
Myanmar is surprisingly ethnically diverse. 68% of the total population are Barmar, or Burmese, after whom the country was originally named. (In a controversial move by the ruling military junta the country was renamed Myanmar in 1989.)
Other major ethnicities include the Shan who total 9% of the population and have arguably some of the best cuisine in Myanmar, the Kayin 7% and the Rakhine 3.5%. The Chinese total  2.5% of the population, the Mon (who also have a delicious and distinct cuisine) 2%, the Kachin 1.5%, the Indians 1.5% and  the Kayah 0.75%. There are also small minorities such as the Wa, Naga, Lahu, Lisu and Palaung peoples, collectively forming 4.5% of the population.
To add another layer of complexity, each of these ethnicities has a subgroup of ethnicities, with a staggering 135 distinct ethnic groups officially recognised by the Myanmar Government.
It should be noted however, that although there are many recognised ethnic groups in Myanmar, there are also many unrecognised ethnic groups who live and ‘exist’ here. Examples of these peoples include the Burmese Chinese, the Panthay (a Chinese Muslim ethnicity), Burmese Indians, Anglo-Burmese, the Gurkha (the majority of whom migrated from Nepal when Burma was under British rule.)
Then we have the Tibetan people, the Burmese Pakistani and I think the plight of the Rohingya is now fairly common knowledge.

Language

It isn’t just Burmese which is spoken in Myanmar, there are roughly 83 different languages and dialects in this diverse country, however Burmese is the only official language of Myanmar.
The language evolved organically and modern day Burmese takes its majestic circular script from the materials used to write it with in the 17th Century. A stylus making straight lines would have ripped the palm leaves, bamboo or parabaik (type of paper made from thick sheets of blackened paper, glued and folded together) used to write on and hence the once square shaped script was modified to become circular. The Burmese alphabet is dated to about 984 AD. It is a Brahmic script, originating in Southern India and more recently an adaptation of old Mon or Pyu script.
A local explained to me that at School, in order to learn to write the script that the children must firstly practice drawing perfect circles. The script is just beautiful to look at. In fact, it captivated me so much that I became fascinated with learning it’s history and took myself off  to museums to study it in more detail.
Myanmar is a country of extremes. It is not an easy place to visit but is richly rewarding and will definitely challenge you. Despite her obvious drawbacks and downfalls, Myanmar has a way of creeping under your skin and holding you tightly against her bosom. At first you may resist, uncomfortable, but, she is adamant she holds you there and she won’t let go. It may not be an easy embrace, but one thing is certain, Myanmar has left an impression on you. It is in our discomfort that we grow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *