After traveling in Myanmar for almost three weeks, I learned so much about a country I knew almost nothing about. In fact, I wasn’t even planning on going when I first established my itinerary. Not long after I arrived, however, Myanmar captured my heart with its vibrant culture, its lifestyle, and its people.
The culture shock was huge when I first arrived from the United States, and thus the learning curve was steep. Since Myanmar is still developing its tourism scene, a lot of the logistics of travel are a bit more difficult to navigate. If you’re planning on traveling in Myanmar, be sure to keep these things in mind:
1) Don’t expect a great internet connection (if any, at all).
I learned this the hard way – good internet in Myanmar is tough to come by. It has something to do with the country’s telecommunications infrastructure. When I was there, entire cities were on an Internet blackout, and even in Yangon my hostel’s Internet didn’t work. If Internet is something you need for school/work/talking to your parents/bragging to your friends then I’d invest in a SIM card with a 3G connection: Telenor seems to work quite nicely. Or, if you want the real Myanmar experience, disconnect for a couple of days and see the world with a pair of brand new, screen-free eyes.
2) Everyone wears skirts (including men).
Well, almost. They’re technically called longyis, but men, women, and children all wear them. Occasionally you’ll see tourists wearing them too. They look like maxi skirts but are really just long pieces of fabric tied together at the hip. It’s actually a great thing to invest in for temple touring and overnight bus rides – a skirt/coverup/blanket combo for around $3 USD sounds good to me!
3) Accommodation is on the expensive end for Southeast Asia…
You might pay $25 a night for a moldy, unkempt private room with a shared bathroom. Or you might pay $15 for a decent ensuite guesthouse. Accommodation options in Myanmar are a mixed bag, and a lot of the guesthouses don’t have any kind of online booking mechanisms so you mainly have to wing it when you arrive in a city. Another option is to have your current guest house call in a reservation for you at the next place (this seemed to work the best for me). For the most part, I didn’t see any accommodation at all for less than around $8, and on average I paid about $15-20 per night. What the budget stays lack in amenities and cleanliness they make up for in friendly, generous staff members. And that’s really all you can ask for and expect when traveling the world on a dime.
4) …but the food is some of the cheapest.
You can get a delicious, traditional Myanmar dish for as cheap as 600 kyat (60 cents in USD). Sixty cents! You basically can’t buy anything in the US for that amount of money. For cheap options, street food is a good bet and some of the cheapest dishes are noodle-based. Many home-owned (read: hole-in-the-wall) restaurants serve meals for low prices, too. Some of my personal favorites were the mohinga, Shan noodle soup, and the Indian-inspired dosai. The curries are fairly delicious too, but be warned, most places charge extra for steamed rice.
5) The white “face paint” that people wear is actually a type of sunscreen.
You might think that these children with white designs painted onto their faces are cute, and I can assure you, they are. But those designs aren’t just for aesthetic pleasure, they are made from thanaka.
Thanaka is a clay-like material that many Burmese people use as a sunscreen on their faces. It is usually a white or yellowish-white color and is very pronounced on the darker skin tones of Burmese people. At first, it can come as a bit of a surprise, but I think that the thanaka designs are quite endearing, actually.
6) Get ready for spit. Lots of it.
And I’m not talking about clear, normal-looking spit.
Many Burmese people chew on a tobacco leaf narcotic called paan, or betelnut, which causes their mouths and spit to turn a blackish-red color. You might see this in the smiles of friendly locals, their teeth covered in red slime. After a few minutes of chewing, they spit the blood red remains of the leaf onto the ground. If you walk through the streets, you’ll notice what looks like red paint splatters everywhere – that’s the result of the paan chewing. Usually you’ll know when someone’s spitting because it is customary for many people to make the loudest, most pronounced spitting noise possible before flinging their red spit wad onto the ground.
The worst part is that sometimes people don’t look when they spit. I got spit on full-force as I was walking to dinner from inside of a moving vehicle. Another friend I met was spit on by her own tuk tuk driver and the red liquid landed on her lip! GROSS. I spent entire bus rides listening to my seatmate make awful spitting noises and dispose of her red slime into a flimsy plastic bag hung on the window. So, for your own protection and sanity, get used to and watch out for spitting people.
7) Be prepared for transportation that scares the crap out of you.
From being dropped off in a new city at 3 AM to motor bikes coming within centimeters of killing you, there’s really no accurate way to describe the traffic situation in Myanmar. There are always motorbikes darting between crowds of people, street stalls, and cars. When in bigger cities like Yangon, be extremely careful when crossing the street – cars don’t stop for anyone and they won’t stop for you. I’d suggest following cues from locals for when to cross the street; after all, they know better than we do.
Also, the intercity transportation situation was very hit or miss. I traveled on rickety trains, small boats, cramped buses and cheap flights while in the city, and they were certainly thrilling, to say the least. I have heard horror stories of trains derailing on one of the same routes I took, and if you don’t plan carefully you could arrive in a city from an overnight bus at 4 AM and have nowhere to stay. Even worse, since Myanmar has fewer tourists than most other countries in Southeast Asia, there will be times when you’re the only English speaker around. Needless to say, as a solo traveler I felt totally overwhelmed at first – it just takes a little bit of faith, some courage, and solid planning to get over this fear.
8) Unless you can speak or read Burmese, communication is a challenge.
There are many countries where the majority of people can’t speak English. But in Myanmar, the bigger problem is that hardly anyone can communicate with foreigners and basically no restaurant signs or public notices are written in Roman script. This makes navigation a little tricky, especially in the smaller towns, but it’s a fun challenge most of the time. Guess it’s time to learn some Burmese!
The communication barrier caused a lot of funny mishaps throughout my travels in Myanmar, but you’ll have to wait to read up on those later.
9) You’ll be constantly surrounded by Buddhas, shrines and temples.
No matter where you go, from traffic circles to caves to mountaintops to lakesides, you will find Buddha statues. They are everywhere. In one day I was graced with the presence of over 1,000 Buddhas… beautiful but certainly repetitive.I’m not going to lie, after visiting Myanmar I felt a little “templed out.”
Always be respectful when visiting any kind of shrine by wearing conservative clothing (see below) and taking off your shoes and socks. And, if you’re with friends, refrain from talking loudly or disturbing monks or locals who are praying.
10) Dress modestly or you’ll stick out.
This is a no-brainer. In this deeply Buddhist country, short shorts and tank tops are very disrespectful when visiting any sort of shrine or temple (which you’ll probably do almost every day), and are rarely worn by locals. Keep your shoulders and knees covered as a general rule, and don’t worry about the tan lines – you can get rid of them once you cross the border into Thailand.
11) The people are some of the friendliest in the world.
From chasing me down a street because I dropped 500 kyat (50 cents in USD) to driving me around for 2 hours looking for mangosteen in the local markets, Burmese people have outdone themselves in their friendliness and generosity. Humble and giving, they get extremely excited at the sight of foreigners, especially the children. I’m hoping this sheer enthusiasm for learning about others doesn’t go away as tourism continues to grow here.
I never once felt scared or in danger as a solo traveler in this peaceful country. More than once, groups of locals would “adopt” me for a few hours at a time so that I’d have companions to explore with. I played bumper cars in Mawlamyine with shy 17-year olds. I took a boat ride in Inle Lake with a red-toothed tour guide who barely spoke English. I ate sticky rice on the full moon with partying locals and spent the night giggling on a train with a recent university graduate. And, even though the language barriers prevented most of the verbal conversation, I felt like I truly connected with the people I met. Their kindness will never ever be forgotten.
Are you planning on visiting Myanmar sometime soon? Have you visited in the past? Share your story with me!