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We spent 27 days in Burma. Here is a collection of our impressions, travel tips, and the cost break down.
What an interesting country!
Vicky was particularly excited about Burma and in many ways it delivered. It is completely different from its South East Asian counterparts and you really feel the Chinese/Indian/Thai influence; in the food, in architecture, even in the faces of the people.
Burma is a country that is changing incredibly fast, particularly in recent months as it has opened up its doors to more and more tourists. I remember waiting several hours in line at the embassy in Bangkok to get our visas – it was clear that we weren’t the only people thinking that we had to get to Burma before…we all got to Burma. Luckily when we did get there it didn’t feel overwhelmed with tourists BUT it was clear by how difficult it was to book guest houses that they were there in large droves.
All the same, it didn’t stop us from getting a fantastic glimpse into traditional Burmese culture, largely aided by getting out of the big four (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Lake Inle) and exploring a few smaller towns like Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin. The Burmese are quite friendly and not very used to foreigners, which results in a lot of photographs being take. I can only imagine how many Facebook profile pictures we made our way into.
Don’t let the politics deter you from witnessing this intriguing country head on. The people, although not openly talking about the politics, are clearly very hopefully about their future and Aung San Suu Kyi delivering democracy. Pictures of her are everywhere – often multiple per room (usually in the form of a calendar).
Best food: We had a lot of average meals in Myanmar but one dish that never failed to impress was the tea leaf salad. This is a traditional Burmese dish made with fermented tea leaves, tomatoes, garlic, nuts, and fried beans. Both slightly bitter and crunchy this is a must try. Usually hovering in around $1-2 we ordered this every chance we got.
Worst food: When we arrived after a trek in Lake Inle I was feeling pretty sick (either a stomach bug or some food poisoning) so all I wanted to eat was some familiar Western food. There were Western options on the menu but they were all pretty terrible. A hot cheese sandwich (which I imagined would resemble a grilled cheese) was nothing more than 2 cold stale pieces of toast with a meager slice of cheese wedged in between. It was not at all what I was looking for and set us back $4. Do not go looking for Western food at Lake Inle!
Best experience: We had a great trekking group from Kalaw to Lake Inle. While the trekking guides themselves were not incredibly informative the other travelers we met more than made up for this. There was one incredibly touching moment that I shared with our trekking guide – Toe Toe, when a few of the other girls and myself had her to ourselves. She had mentioned that her husband had died four months earlier and though she did not love him at the time of their marriage she now missed him and finally loved him. From this she shared with us the story of her childhood, how she lost her father when she was young and her mother was the sole person raising her and the other siblings. When she was still a teenager and being courted by a boy in a different village, whom she had fallen in love with, a man saw her and instantly became interested in her. Though she did not want to marry him as she had already given her heart away her mother encouraged the union, reminding Toe-Toe that their family was poor and pointing out that he was a good man, with money to take care of them. Reluctantly she agreed and ended up crying tears of sadness all through her wedding. After she was already pregnant with her first child she returned to the village where the other boy lived, to visit family, and without knowing her fate he came to see her to tell her that he had saved up enough money to marry her and be with her. Instead what he found was that she was already married and with child. Toe Toe recalls that at this point he was ready to kill her and needed to be held back by the other villagers. Since then she has not seen the boy, now a fully grown man. Toe Toe herself has two children, a 17 year old girl, and a 15 year old boy and while she has not made contact with her former love, she knows that he is now a pilot in Yangon. It truly was a touching moment to hear Toe-Toe’s life story and understand the sacrifices that she made. At that point she spoke with sadness in her voice, sadness for a life that could have been, but at the same time, gratitude for her two children, who she is now determined to fill her life with.
Best deal: Fried vegetarian samosas are available everywhere from street side vendors. Each one only costs 50 kyat – the equivalent of 6 cents. They’re delicious too!
Worst rip off: Accommodation overall in Myanmar is nowhere near as nice as in the other South East Asian countries, given the price. A standard double room with a privet bathroom and fan hovered around $25 (usually without wifi) with the room not being in great condition.
Because cities are quite small there isn’t much of a need for local buses. We took one in Yangon almost for the hell of it. It was very cheap (10 cents?) and jam packed with people. Fun for the experience.
We only did one train from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin. They had two classes, first and second, and the difference was only $3 so we went with first, which was comfortable though the journey is rocky. The cost of the train was only $6, so very cheap and had a great view!
We very rarely took cabs as most cities are small enough that they are walkable. We only took a cab once or twice in Yangon. You have to haggle for the price – no meter, but they tend to be reasonable.
Most of the locals buses we did were night buses between cities because cities themselves tend to be quite walkable. The night buses can be very frustrating. They leave in the early evening around 8PM and will often arrive at 3AM. They may blast AC, loud music, or make seemingly pointless stops in the middle of the night and force you to exit the bus for 30 minutes. Still, we found it to be a very cost effective way to travel since it did give us accommodation for the night, and when we arrived early at the hotels they often let us check in to a spare room, not charging us extra.
Fairly useless in most cases.
We never really had an issue with a lack of public facilities, most restaurants seem to have them available.
Burma is known to be a very safe country. While at times parts of Yangon felt a bit scary at night, there really seemed to be nothing to worry about. Frankly, there isn’t an awful lot to do at night anyways, so must activities are during the day.
I can’t say we were overly enthused about Burmese food, but it was OK. They also have a wide variety of dishes on account of the Indian/Chinese/Thai influence.
This is a cash country.
US Dollars or Myanmar Kyatt? ATMs?
There was a big question between Vicky and I about how much US dollars we would need and what condition they needed to be in. Our understanding was that people demand pristine US dollars and that most places don’t accept kyatt. While in the past this may have been true, it seems the Burmese have lightened up a bit. It’s true that most of the guest houses we stayed at wanted dollars, so be prepared to have some supply ready. Moreover, we recommend you get some without any noticeable rips or markings, though they don’t need to be PERFECT, just nice. We never had any problems with people turning us down for our money.
Nowadays kyat is accepted most everywhere, and by that I mean restaurants, transportation, tourist attractions, etc. Often they accept both, and the rate on kyatt is much better. For example, while the typical exchange rate is around 800 kyat to a dollar, most tourist attractions charge 1000 kyatt to the dollar – so best to pay in kyatt when you can. There are ATMs in the major cities, notably Yangon, Mandalay, and Kalaw, to name a few. There are also money exchange places (official ones) that provide a fair rate, including at the Yangon airport.
Internet in Burma is awful. There are not really any wifi spots, and hostels rarely have decent internet. We prepared most of our blogging in advance while in Thailand to help us out. At times we found some internet cafes that are relatively cheap ($1-$2/hr) and had OK internet, enough to skype with. Internet cafes were relatively common in Yangon, Mandalay, and Pyin Oo Lwin from what I remember.
In the dry season the Burmese country side tends to be rather washed out. I would not recommend trekking in Burma if you have other options. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good. I think there are better options in Laos or Thailand, for example.
Accommodations in Burma are notoriously overpriced when compared to the rest of SEA. The demand is very high and the supply is very low and it helps to make reservations ahead of time and then to call to confirm the day before. That said, it isn’t impossible to do walk ins, but you might end up with something you don’t want, or paying more than you would like, or simply being turned away several times. We always made reservations to save ourselves the trouble.
Yangon – White House Hostel: This place is always buzzing with backpackers and the guys running it are friendly. $30 gets you a double room with private bathroom and A/C (breakfast is included). Wifi is available in the lobby (though it is slow).
Mandalay – Sabai Phyu Hotel: $30 for a double room, private bathroom, fan, breakfast included. Rooms are not in great condition but were clean. Shared bathrooms looked a bit scary though.
Hsipaw – Nam Khae Mae Guest House: There are two locations – we stayed in the newly built guest house with colorful simply rooms. $20 for double room, shared bathroom, fan, wifi, breakfast included.
Pyin Oo Lwin – Cherry May Hotel: $37 for a double room, private bathroom, A/C, TV, breakfast included and wifi in the reception area. This was a place we booked ahead through Agoda and was not worth it, because it was very far from the town center (a 30 minute pick-up ride).
Bagan – Nyaung U: May Khalar Guest House. $25 double room, private bathroom, fan, wifi, breakfast included. Wifi was incredibly slow and black-outs occurred several times each day so most of the time wifi was not working. In Bagan there is old Bagan, new Bagan and Nyaung U. Nyang U is where the cheapest and most backpacker friendly accommodation is. Within biking distance of all the major temples (most of which are located in Old Bagan)
Kalaw – Golden Kalaw Inn: $12 for a small double room, private bathroom, fan, breakfast included. No frills but was fine for the one night we were in town.
Lake Inle – Mingalar Inn: $25 for double room with private bathroom, fan, breakfast included, slow and inconsistent wifi.
Mawlamyine – Cinderella Hotel: Hands down the best place we stayed in in all of Myanmar. The staff was incredible and the room was great. $30 for a double room, private bathroom, A/C, wifi, TV, breakfast included.
Hpa-an – Soe Brothers Guest House: We stayed in a double room with fan, shared bathroom for $12. The place was a dump and the room was incredibly hot. Unfortunately there are not many options in Hpa-an (and maybe the more expensive rooms are significantly nicer).
Hosting foreigners is illegal in Burma so couchsurfing is not an option. Though, perhaps in Yangon you might be able to find an expat who could help you out.
We were counting on Burma to be expensive on account of lodging and it ended up being much less expensive than we thought. We kept track of every cost we had down to the purchase level and categorized it into 5 groupings:
So where did we end up?
$29 per person, per day. (NOTE: This does include our visas but it does not include flights in and out).
Would we go back to Burma? YES!