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Expectations are a funny thing. They can completely shape the experience that you have in a country. Generally speaking, the higher your expectations are, the more inclined you are to be disappointed. We had extremely high expectations for Burma and in many ways it didn’t rise to the occasion.
Why is that?
Firstly, it’s important to note where our expectations were coming from. For us, Burma is perhaps the Asian country on our itinerary that is the least exploited by tourism. At the moment, we don’t have plans to go to places like Tibet, Bhutan, or Bangladesh. Burma, we thought, would be relatively fresh. Moreover, we had plans to get outside of the big 4 (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Lake Inle) and we thought this would reveal an entirely different side of Burma that few aside from locals have seen.
Yet after a month in the country, while we were enjoying our time, we couldn’t help but feel that Burma fell short of our lofty expectations. Justified or not, here are a few of the disappointments.
Finding actual Burmese food in Burma is slightly more difficult than one would expect. More often than not, you’re going to find a restaurant offering Indian, Chinese, or Thai cuisine. In such cases it is usually done worse than in the respective native countries. Traditional Burmese food, in some respects, has to be actively sought out.
When we did, I wasn’t that impressed.
It was generally very simple – a rice dish with an array of meat and vegetable options for toppings. I wouldn’t call it particularly tasty, though it was OK at times – just nothing to write home about.
The one exception to the food is the tea leaf salad, which is quite delicious.
Outside of Bagan we weren’t particularly blown away by many of the attractions. Some of the temples were nice, but most of what we found readily available was a slew of things which were nice to do once but nothing I’d ever desire to do again. Take the tour of Lake Inle.
It’s nice to tour around on a boat and go to different shops to see how the locals work, but when all is said and done, it’s nothing I’d ever be dying to do again. In fact, seeing as the only thing to do in Lake Inle is this tour, there’s almost no reason to even head back there at all.
The fact that many of the cities offered a few attractions worth going to once and nothing else was more of the rule than the exception. Take Yangon and Mandalay as examples as well. The attractions were nice, but once you were done with them, the cities themselves had very little to offer. They weren’t even particularly pleasant to walk around or explore after the culture shock wore off.
While one might argue that this is true for many places/attractions, I can cite numerous cities we’ve been to on our journey, Seoul, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, for example, where it would be a pleasure to go back and spend additional time. Not the same for cities in Burma.
We managed to do a few hikes in Burma, most notably a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle and a hike up a mountain in Hpa-an. These were nice enough, but nothing spectacular. Perhaps this is in part to it being the dry season but we found the Burmese landscape to be dramatically less lush than its neighbors in the East. In fact, one Westerner in our trekking group remarked how easily he could have been in Spain or Italy based on views. They were faded and worn out, too much brown, not enough green, and a surprisingly little amount of vegetation.
While South East Asia is notorious for illogicalities particularly concerning transportation, Burma, in our experience, beats them all. Night buses are awful. Several times the bus would pull into a stop around midnight, just after you’ve fallen asleep, and force everyone to vacate the bus and stand outside for 30 minutes while they did who knows what. Furthermore, without fail, we would arrive at some godforsaken hour like 3AM and be expected to make our way to the hotel (which luckily, we had reserved) and hope they would let us in 9 hours before check in time. Sometimes they did, and sometimes they didn’t.
Numerous times I witnessed foreigners, who had not reserved ahead of time, making the rounds from hotel to hotel trying to see if a room was available in the middle of the night. These hotels were often significantly overpriced for what they offered ($25 for a standard private room, not always having AC/Wifi/or private bathroom).
Despite the fact that tourists, relative to the Burmese, are quite few, let’s not pretend for a second that this place is untouched by tourism. There’s no shortage of people trying to sell you, plenty of Western apparel and styles, just about everything outside of a 711.
All and all we still enjoyed Burma, but of all the countries we’ve been to, it’s perhaps the one I’d be least inclined to go back to in the next 5 years. If there was a reason to go back, it’s more about seeing the change.