Myanmar was not only one of the most under-developed countries in our trip so far, but also one of the most unknown and undiscovered. With locked land borders until recently, Myanmar’s nascent tourism industry has only picked up in the past few years. Even now, some areas of the country require special permits to enter. We had the privilege of visiting before the word about Myanmar has truly spread and it becomes a popular tourist destination. This meant we faced some unique challenges, but it also meant we have never gotten a more authentic experience. We haven’t been to any other country quite like it.
His Final Thoughts
Since Myanmar has only opened its doors to foreigner not long ago, local people were not used to seeing tourists walking around their country. A tall white guy like me stood out like a sore thumb everywhere. From kids to adults, I constantly had people staring and smiling at me, waving and talking to me. I was practically a celebrity in Myanmar. It was a nice feeling, but could be annoying at times. Most people were genuinely sweet in their curiosity.
I can’t mention enough how kind, friendly, respectful, honest and trustworthy people in Myanmar were. Everyone treated us like their esteemed guests. It was as if they haven’t learned how to be greedy when it comes to tourists. Their innocence was certainly different than what we’ve seen elsewhere. We never felt like people were trying to scam or take advantage of us in Myanmar – cab drivers told us the right price, hotels shared all the information they knew, and we had items we left behind at random places returned to us (several times). Having been on the road for a while now, we always have our guards up and almost assume that people are trying to get more money out of us. In Myanmar, we learned to relax a little bit and give people the benefit of the doubt.
Just like the people, transportation in Myanmar also surprised me – I was expecting bus trips to be much, much worse. I had read ridiculous stories of crammed bus rides on awful roads for days. Thankfully, recent improvements have changed things for the better. Roads were paved, smooth and not so windy as the ones we drove on in Laos. Most of the bus rides we took were at night and even though they were 8-12 hour rides, I barely remember any of them as I actually fell asleep.
If transportation surprised me in a positive way, the lack of infrastructure in other aspects such as electricity and internet connection let me down. Myanmar suffers from supplying dependable electricity – most devices had their individual tension/current regulator. Most of the time the red lights were on, meaning that the tension or current were too high or too low to power up the appliance (i.e. AC or refrigerator). Blackouts also happened regularly. Since electricity wasn’t dependable, telecommunication was even worse. Internet and mobile signal were terribly unstable, though we came in with the appropriate expectations. However, things in Myanmar are changing every day, every second, and by the time I’m writing this, my opinions are already based on outdated data.
Myanmar was probably the most religious country that we’ve been to on this trip. Other countries had their temples, monasteries, pagodas, churches, etc, but I’ve never seen so many pilgrims as I did in Myanmar. The journey up to the Golden Rock was the greatest example. People came from everywhere in the country for an arduous journey uphills. Religion was a big part of daily life. In fact, the reason why there was little to no crime in Myanmar can be attributed in part to the devout Buddhist background of the population. We felt really safe traveling throughout the country. It was interesting to see how religion can really shape the behavior of people for the better and I felt like I got to experience that in Myanmar.
Her Final Thoughts
One of the most interesting aspects of Myanmar for me was that it was a country in transition. Everywhere else we’ve visited so far has been on the SE Asia backpacker trail for many, many years. We have been walking down well-trodden paths, visiting developed tourist-oriented towns and cities. Myanmar, in contrast, was unfamiliar and exotic. This was both good and bad. It was great because it was never overcrowded with tourists, scams were practically non-existent, and so many hidden gems are still waiting to be found. The downside was that there wasn’t much choice when it came to accommodations, food, transportation… the “infrastructure” for tourists was only just starting. Most people didn’t speak any English and budget options were limited. Maybe that’s why I saw a large percentage of older travelers whereas I usually see tons of young people.
That being said, Myanmar is a rapidly-developing country. Things are changing very quickly. We found most of the information online to be outdated, because even a few months made a huge difference, let alone a year or two. Many guides online said one thing and then proceeded to contradict itself with updated information. Even locals were not sure of the latest status of things. As a result, we had no idea what to expect and we were constantly surprised. This threw us off a bit in the beginning because we have been so used to being prepared and thoroughly researching a place beforehand. Over time, we learned to roll with the punches and follow our travelers’ instincts in a way that technology often prevents nowadays. It was exciting and more rewarding than we could have ever imagined.
I also found the people to be so refreshingly kind, warm and generous. Everyone was unfailingly respectful, especially in the small gestures – from the way they handed things to us (left hand on the right elbow and extending the right hand) to the way they went out of their way to welcome us and make us feel comfortable. Myanmar people were true to their customs and traditions in the way they treated guests as much as they were in the way they dressed. Men wore longyis – long fabric wrapped around the waist. It was so strange in the beginning to see men in long skirts, but by the end of our stay, it was strange to see men in pants. Women, girls and young boys wore thanaka – a paste on their faces for sun protection and cosmetic purposes.
I’m proud to say that we ate a ton of local Myanmar food in three weeks. The highlight was definitely the feast that was Myanmar curry along with other classic dishes like tea leaf salad. Anything European or international was very expensive, so it definitely helped to stay in budget by eating like a local. Alcohol was not prevalent, though we gave Myanmar beer and local beer stations a try.
We made sure to visit the “Big Four” in Myanmar – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake – but we squeezed in a few other places as well. Instead of one favourite place, I had favourite moments at each location. Seeing Shwedagon Pagoda lit up at night was the ultimate national symbol experience, while the Inle Lake boat tour showed me a community that was one-of-a-kind. The panoramic view of thousands of temples at Bagan during sunset was absolutely stunning, though laughing with our local guide during our day trek in Kalaw was equally unforgettable. We talked about visiting the untouched beaches in Myanmar such as Ngwe Saung, Dawei, or even Mergui, and we almost did, but the travel barriers were too high and costly. Hopefully we can come back in the future when these new area are more developed but not yet highly commercialized.
We had a great time in Myanmar and highly recommend it for anyone looking for an unconventional yet remarkable travel destination. Considering the pace at which development is taking place in Myanmar, we’re sure our thoughts and observations will be outdated very soon. Myanmar has such an exciting future ahead as the country showcases more and more of itself to the rest of the world. We can’t wait to see how it all turns out and compare it to the special experience we had during our stay.