Author: Guido Helbling, Avosound - published on November 29th, 2017
A trip through Myanmar gives fascinating insight into the lives of the Burmese people. On our visit to Myanmar in March 2016 we found the country to be divided: on the one hand you have the rural parts of Burma where the land is still tilled by hand or with the help of oxen and ploughs (I only ever saw tractors at the airport). On the other hand, they are busy building high-rises in the cities (e.g. Yangon), forever changing the skylines. A visit to the Ngapali beaches was equally impressive: not a single hotel is higher than the palm trees -- but for how much longer? Will the beaches soon be surrounded by architectural atrocities?
In any case, a journey through Burma offers all sorts of insights into the at times primitive existence of the Burmese people. If you occasionally consult a tour guide, you will also get a lot of fascinating, first-hand information about the country and its people (given that your guide speaks English -- or that you understand Burmese).
Travel visas for Myanmar can only be obtained for a duration of four weeks (this information is correct as of 2017; please let us know if this has changed in the meantime). This basically means that you can't travel through the country for more than four consecutive weeks. If you would like to stay longer than four weeks, you will have to leave and then re-enter the country. Technically, you should also be able to extend the visa while you're in country. The traditional travel routes in Myanmar begin in the capital city of Yangon or in Mandalay and lead through Bagan to the Inle lake. It is good advice to take the ferry boat on the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan (which usually takes about a day). If you wish to travel by land, you can enter the country from Thailand or from China on the Old Burma Road.
From Mandalay you can take the train or the Old Burma Road to the Shan State via Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw and to Lashio. As Lashio also has a national airport, you could technically fly from Lashio to the Inle lake. If you take the night bus, you'll arrive at the Inle lake the next day.
If you want to avoid the crowds of tourists, you need a lot more time to get around the country. There are also limits to the tourism infrastructure (e.g. there are simply no guest houses in remote areas).
For trips into the north of the country you need special permissions in some cases, which can quickly become very expensive. It is also advisable to keep up to date on the safety of the region, because in some parts of Burma ethnic tensions are still a problem and armed conflicts can erupt quite suddenly.
As there is just too much to see in Mandalay, it is wise to book a tour guide to make the most of your trip. The cost of a guide is easily recouped after only three or four rides on a scooter -- because it's a lot cheaper than racing through Mandalay in a cab.
Ask for Myint Shin aka Mr Take it Easy. You can ride along on his scooter and enjoy the breeze as you zoom through Mandalay and its surrounding areas.
Myint has lots of stories to tell and knows all the right places where you can cool down and clear your head (e.g. palaces, guest houses by the lake and breezy monasteries).
Standing in front of the monuments in Bagan and looking at the sunset is one of the most sublime moments on our trip. But going up in a hot air balloon at sunrise and floating over the palaces will be the most unforgettable one. Although it is comparatively expensive in relation to other activities in Burma, it is worth every penny.
How to book a hot air balloon ride: it's best to ask at your hotel. Make sure to book a place, just to be on the safe side. The price is at least USD $220.00 per person. The trip usually lasts about an hour -- although some pilots do cut the trip short by 30 minutes, so be aware. We got lucky and managed to stay up for a full hour. More about Bagan
The Shwedagon pagoda is Burma's national sanctum and is located in the centre of the capital city of Yangon. The admission ticket is valid all day, so you can return to the Shwedagon pagoda in the evening and enjoy the sunset and the amazing night atmosphere. When the air has cooled down a bit, you can meander bare-footed through the complex and take in the tranquil atmosphere of many Burmese people lighting candles, visiting their saints and celebrate peacefully.
Buddhists believe in holy sites and places of spiritual power. When you're looking up at the mighty 90-metre-high golden stupa, you begin to understand why...and you inevitably begin to share the buddhist beliefs. Read more about Yangon...
A hike through the Burmese jungle is invigorating for the mind and the body alike -- and a welcome change of pace for your journey. Say goodbye to stinky travel buses and rocking trains and instead take a trip into the Burmese jungle without even a single tourist in sight.
In their place you will see gigantic trees that have even more trees growing on them...or spend the night in a village shop with local people (as we did). Hispaw is particularly suited for trekking through the jungle. The offers range from group treks to individual tours lasting one to three days. Click here to read more about our trip into the underbrush.
A tip for all the scaredy-cats out there: we did not see any snakes or similarly venomous critters -- but I am sure they saw us!
Make sure to visit Lilys in Hispaw. Lily had the nicest hotel we saw on our trip through Burma: competent, helpful and friendly. Nice rooms, a beautiful roof terrace (for breakfast) and pancakes that are worth the price of your stay alone.
If you need info or help, Lily is always happy to help you out, no matter what.
Lilys also offer jungle treks, just as at reception.
A river cruise should be part of every Burma trip. You can travel down the Irrawaddy on a proper luxury liner, if you so desire. We did the opposite, though, and took the public IWT ferry for our one-day river trip that took us from Mandalay to Bagan as well as for the trip from Mrauk-U to Sittwe.
If you like to travel adventurously, take the public IWT ferry -- you will meet lots of locals, guaranteed!
Hardcore travellers who like rough-riding can also take the public ferry from Taunggok to Sittwe and spend a few days on the water. Make sure to bring a rice sack, so that you have something soft to sleep on when you're crashing on the steel floor.
If you're fed up with travelling (or with life itself), do yourself a favour and spend some time in Mrs Popcorn's cosy garden and snuggle with her cats. The world looks much rosier after one of Mrs Popcorn's homemade ice teas -- it's full of herbs from her garden and comes with a guarantee that the ice is store-bought and clean.
Street food aficionados will love Burma. In the cities, street food can be found at markets and on street corners -- pretty much everywhere, really.
You do, however, have to be your own judge on your stomach's tolerance for exotic food. Burma adheres to the same hygiene regulations as most other holiday destinations. Curries are generally prepared in the morning and are hence safest to eat at lunch time. The curries are then left to sit in their pots for the rest of the day. If you feel like a snack, you can always pick up a fried candy bread that is freshly prepared all day.
Grilled food does not generally pose a health hazard and also tastes quite good at most places. It's best to go to a typical street food restaurant, have a Myanmar beer and sit in one of those tiny but colourful plastic chairs while enjoying the evening.
It is quite normal to complain a about your own country's public transport system: frequent delays, bad service, etc. [ add your own complaints ]. But after you've been to Burma, you'll suddenly begin to appreciate your homegrown transport system like never before...
Riding on a train in Burma is quite the experience; one day of rollercoaster-like action on the tracks was enough for me. The train route from Mandalay to Lashio lends itself to a trip from Pyin U Lwin to Hispaw via the famous Goteik viaduct.
Other routes (e.g. from Mandalay to Bhamo) are allegedly quite exhausting, as you'll have to hold on to your seat because the train is rocking so much.
Like Bagan, the Inle lake is one of the most popular travel destinations in Burma. The one-legged rowers are the main attraction; they have been fishing on the lake for centuries, rowing with just one leg while keeping their balance on the small boats. They are popular with photographers and like to proudly pose on their boats for pictures.
Equally busy is the area around the Inle lake. The street to the hotel is lined with brash vendors who want to sell boat tours.
It's best to give in to them and book a tour, so you can spend a day on the water looking at all sorts of interesting sights.
Particularly recommended is a trip through the canals and rivers to the pagoda field near the market of Indein. A stroll through the vast, covered market will lead you to a beautiful pagoda field with all sorts of stupas in various stages of construction or decay.
The small city Mrauk-U is close to the Bay of Bengal. Mrauk-U is famous for its impressive temples that look very different from other such monuments in Burma. The temples and palaces of Mrauk-U are dark, bulky and reminiscent of fortresses. But on the inside they are richly decorated with thousands of buddha statues.
You can reach Mrauk-U either by bus or plane from Sittwe or on the ferry. Only third-classes buses drive to Mrauk-U. Breakdowns or delays excepted, the ride takes about 18 hours and is an unforgettable experience...
Book a guide. Just for a trip or for a whole day. Ask in your hotel for tour guides or look them up on the internet. Sometimes the guides will find you, particularly if you hang out at tourist spots/sights.
Tour guides often carry a notebook with them that contains all the recommendations written by other visitors. They like to show it proudly and will ask you to add your own comments.
If the guide is pleasant enough and comes with recommendations (in a language you actually understand), you should definitely ask him to take you places. He will show you sights that you would have never found any other way.
Guides are often garrulous too, so they'll tell you a lot about the country and its people. A good opportunity to ask some personal questions!
Make sure your guide speaks acceptable English or your day will be lost!
Trips lasting several days: be aware that cultural differences and personal idiosyncrasies can become annoying after a few days -- no matter how well you got along with your guide in the beginning. Test the waters with your guide for three days or so before you agree on a longer trip. This way, you can still get another guide if the relationship becomes frayed.
Ocean dreams come true on Ngapali Beach! This vast sand beach is one of the nicest in Burma -- and it has recently been voted one of the nicest in the world, in fact.
Under the palm trees on Ngapali Beach you will find various inviting hotels. As of 2016, no hotel is taller than a palm tree...yet. Let's hope the place will retain its natural charm!
Surprise friends and family with a generous portion of Burmese chili on their spaghetti and watch their heads begin to smoke
Coarsely ground chili is available at the market and costs only a few cents.
It is advisable to travel long distances by plane. But the route between Yangon and Mandalay is just a day-trip on the bus, because the military government built a four-lane highway right through the country (and there's hardly any traffic on it). All other bus routes also work quite well. But if you're travelling economy, you will definitely end up in a jalopy. Here's what a fellow traveller wrote in his blog about a trip to Mrauk U: the bus broke down 6 times.
Well, as long as you have patience...
Also worth mentioning is the fact that night buses don't have reclining seats for sleeping (as they do in other Asian countries); they simply have normal seats.
You are not allowed to drive yourself in Burma, which is probably for the better. The sharing-cabs are a good way to get around town efficiently and for little money. If you are travelling by train, you will have to deal with lots of shaking and rattling as well as all sorts of delays. But it's quite an adventure and hence worth your money. If you take the public ferry, you will definitely come in contact with lots of locals. The only difference between the public ferry and the 'speed boat' is the price. The so-called speed boat is a little more pricey, which keeps most of the locals away. Speed-wise, the speed boat is about as slow as all the other boats. Plus, you'll be sharing the ride with lots of other tourists and will have to listen to their rather tiring stories of misadventure...
English will only get you so far in Myanmar. When picking a guide, make sure to test his language skills or you won't understand anything he says (and you definitely won't be able to tell him where to take you). Patience and gestures will get you a long way in Burma. Somehow you'll always arrive at your destination...or at least in its vicinity.
For quite some time you could only travel through Burma with factory-fresh dollar bills because there were no ATMs in the country. These bills also had to be flawless, otherwise they would not be accepted. This has changed now. There are ATMs and banks in most bigger cities. You can pay in the country's own currency, Kyat, everywhere you go. Large amounts can be paid in US dollars. It is advisable to carry the bills in a book so they don't crease. If someone offers you dirty or folded dollar bills, make sure to insist on receiving clean ones. The Burmese also like to scribble onto the bills, which means they won't get accepted anymore. We only had problems once with dollar bills (in Sittwe), i.e. a bill wasn't accepted.
Near tourist spots you will often be reminded how to behave. It goes without saying that you should follow the advice otherwise you might not be admitted to the places you want to see. This aside, the Burmese are quite pleasant and nice, but also very traditional. Walking around unshaved or in dirty clothes is frowned upon. If they don't like the way you look, they will not offer you a favourable exchange rate, for example.
Burma is a massive country that was ruled by many kings over the centuries. For this reason there are many different ethnicities living together in this country, but not necessarily peacefully. It is good advice to check the current political situation before your trip, as it changes quite frequently. Only months after we visited Mrauk U, there were attacks on minorities in the area which resulted in numerous deaths.
Apart from the political situation, Burma (like all buddhist countries) is a very pleasant and safe destination. If you keep your eyes open and use a bit of common sense, you will not have any problems and meet lots of open-minded, sincere people.