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Why Burma Didn’t Meet Our Expectations

Moulmein

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.

The Food

burmese lunch

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.

tea leaf salad

The one exception to the food is the tea leaf salad, which is quite delicious.

The Attractions

temples in Bagan

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.

Sunrise at 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.

Harsh? Maybe.

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.

The Nature

kalaw to inle trek views

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.

The Inconvenience

dungeon resembling hostel in yangon

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).

Tourism

hoards of tourists_

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.

Conclusion

Sule Pagoda

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.

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13 Responses to Why Burma Didn’t Meet Our Expectations

  1. Hi Dave & Vicky,

    Sorry to hear that Burma/Myanmar didn’t meet your expectations. But I think things are still in the positive, right? You saw a new country, met new local people, saw new sights, and took lots of photos, and gained lots of memories! 🙂 I agree that transportation in SEA can be erratic, especially in the countryside. Then in some areas, it’s not safe to venture out in the dark. (I know that as a female traveler). I haven’t been to Burma, and it’s great to see it via a first-timer’s eyes. I’ve been to some of the countries that you’ve visited, and seeing the sights again made me feel nostalgic. Now I’m counting the weeks for my holidays and for my trip this year! 😉 If you’re still in Asia by April or May, be ready for the hellishly hot & humid days. It can sometimes reach 37 to 40 degrees Celsius on summer days. Good luck and happy safe travels!

    Katie March 24, 2013 at 10:43 PM Reply
    • Agree with all the points you mention, so yes, it was still positive, just perhaps not as amazing as we were hoping. We’ll be in Lao and Cambodia in April and May so we’re ready for the heat lol.

      Dave and Vicky March 24, 2013 at 11:56 PM Reply
  2. I’m sorry you guys weren’t blown away by Burma. It’s one of the country’s that I’m busting to get back and see more of. I loved my time there. I was there about five years ago but I didn’t travel around much, just flew between Yangon and Bagan. I had a great local experience while I was there which I’m sure helped colour my impression of the country. It’s also the first country I’d visited as a meat eater after 12 years of vegetarianism so I really got into trying all the different foods on offer.

    Bethaney - Flashpacker Family March 24, 2013 at 10:52 PM Reply
    • The local experiences are what really make the difference. We didn’t have that in Burma and I wouldn’t say had it in Thailand either and it does make the experience suffer a bit.

      Dave and Vicky March 24, 2013 at 11:57 PM Reply
  3. Sorry to hear your experiences there weren’t memorable guys. I plan on hitting there at some stage later on in the year.

    Burmese food is something that I’ve always wanted to sample from the country itself.

    I totally agree though, if you don’t have any local cultural experiences then any visit will suffer.

    Carlo March 26, 2013 at 8:34 PM Reply
    • If you have any questions let us know, we should have our wrap up, up by then

      Dave and Vicky March 27, 2013 at 6:24 AM Reply
  4. Bummed about Burma! We are hoping to hit it right at the end of the wet season, so maybe that will help with the ‘lushness’ factor that you felt was missing while there.

    I completely agree that having worthwhile interactions with locals can really change your perspective on a country—we had none in China, and it has been our least favorite destination to date… I’m sure those two things are correlated! It can definitely be hard work to have genuine interactions, especially when there is a language barrier, or when you feel your interactions get limited to the “service” level of things.

    Oh, and from what I’ve read, apparently it really is hard to find Burmese food at restaurants because when Burmese people head out to eat, they don’t want to eat what they can (and do!) make at home. Definitely frustrating for foodie travelers!

    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) March 26, 2013 at 11:34 PM Reply
    • We were lucky to do some volunteering in China, otherwise we also would have had a similar barrier to the one we felt in Burma. Strangely enough, Thailand had some similarities as well – even though the culture feels a lot more open by comparison. we’re on to Laos now and determined to meet some locals!

      Dave and Vicky March 27, 2013 at 6:37 AM Reply
  5. I stumbled upon your site when trying to find the names of those birds in Pyin Oo Lwin…but I found the name of this post and TOTALLY agreed with it…we spent a month in Burma and felt so similar to what you wrote. Don’t get me wrong, we had some killer moments that will last with us forever BUT it is definitely not going to be ‘we must hurry back’, though it may be to have some more of that tea leaf salad…

    Nofixedaddresshunnymmoon July 15, 2013 at 3:38 PM Reply
    • Wow this is the first time anyone’s ever agreed with us on this – everyone else was like head over heels in love with it!

      Dave and Vicky July 15, 2013 at 4:25 PM Reply
  6. This was such an interesting read.

    My husband and I are planning on moving to Burma this fall for medical missions. I have never been to Burma. My husband has and we have friends who live there. Our friend there is American and she married a Burmese man. They run a school there and we are going to open a medical clinic near / in the school to help the families in the area.

    I’m honestly a bit surprised that people visit Burma just for ‘tourism’. I think it is good to visit but when you research Burma it is one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in that area. Personally, we aren’t going for the ‘fun’ aspect but more for the people aspect.

    I don’t think it will be an ‘easy’ year or move but I’m hoping to still enjoy the things there and from this post even though not all of it was good I can tell you had a good time there.

    Beka July 24, 2014 at 12:57 AM Reply
    • I would love to hear about how your stay in Burma is going!

      Vicky March 12, 2015 at 12:31 PM Reply

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