I’ve heard it said that backpacking through Myanmar is your chance to experience what South East Asia was like 20 years ago, before it was flooded with package tourists and screaming touts, and the internet changed the ways we travel. Well, I can’t tell you if this is true or not – 20 years ago I was 6, and backpacking through South-East Asia was much less important to me than playing with my Polly Pockets – but what I can tell you is that Myanmar is unlike anywhere else I’ve been.
Myanmar is majestic. It sits on the edge between the Indian sub-continent and South East Asia, stretching up to the edge of the Himalayas in the north and down to the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea in the south. The landscape is diverse to say the least, from wide, flat plains and river deltas to frozen mountains and deep, clear lakes. It’s also extremely culturally diverse, with the people of each state and region having distinctly different styles of dress, food, customs and even language.
So, without further ado, here are my top nine reasons why Myanmar should be at the top of your travel list.
1. The people will make your trip unforgettable.
More than any other place I’ve been, in Myanmar, the people love to talk to travellers. They love to meet new people. They love to see tourists. They love to share their homeland with you. It’s utterly genuine, and utterly charming.
Everywhere I went in Myanmar, people wanted to talk. Men, women, children, young and old, everyone wanted to share their story. Eating at a street stall in the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon, an old man asked to share my tea. He decided to teach me some Burmese, and told me about his wife. At the Sule Pagoda, a man a few years older than me took it upon himself to show me what to do. He then told me story after story about his life, from his childhood in a tiny village in the far north, to the time he considered migrating illegally (his words) to Australia, to his dream of being a famous writer. In Pyay a 12 year old girl asked if she could practice her English with me. She also got her uncle to take me to some amazing ancient ruins, and insisted I attend her English teacher’s birthday party, where I made a dozen new friends. My tour guide to Mt Popa invited me to dinner with his family. His father was an NLD activist, and he had amazing stories about the things he had done.
Myanmar is all about it’s people. It’s always such a cliche to have “the people” at number one on any list like this, but I couldn’t help it – the people I met were what made my trip to Myanmar so very memorable and wonderful. I’ll be posting more detailed stories about some of these people soon (I’m looking at you, my friends from Pyay!!) – I’ll link them once I’ve written the posts.
2. Those incredible golden temples
It feels like Buddhism is everywhere you turn in Myanmar. The religion is deeply ingrained in society, along with nat (spirit) worship, and the evidence is everywhere. Hills are topped with gleaming golden stupas and pagodas, while monks in deep maroon coloured robes are a fundamental part of any urban landscape.
Many of the temples, stupas and pagodas claim a history dating back thousands of years. The ruined temple city of Bagan, where up to 40,000 temples are scattered across the wide plains, are thought to have been built around 1050-1100 AD, while the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda in central Yangon is claimed to date back as far at the year 600 BC, with successive kings and queens adding layers of bricks, gold and gems to the massive monument. Several are also said to house relics of the Buddha himself, such as hairs, and they are very important pilgrimage sites for the faithful.
Decked in solid gold or gold leaf, covered with gemstones, and surrounded by marble floors and statues, many of these temples need to be seen to be believed. In the right light, it’s possible to see the huge diamond glinting at the very tip of Shwedagon, 100 metres up in the air (326 feet). The Shwesandaw Pagoda at Pyay is even taller, guarded by two gigantic stone lions and overlooked by a huge seated Buddha statue draped in a golden robe.
It’s definitely possible (even likely?) to get temple fatigue in this country, I’ll admit, but these temples are well worth seeing, and are very different from the temples in the rest of South East Asia. The majesty of the sloping pagodas is really wonderful, and as with any holy site, the very air is heavy with meaning and reverence. They’re pretty great.
3. It’s really easy to get around.
I have to admit, one thing I was really worried about in Myanmar was how to actually get around. With the country changing so very, very fast, guidebooks simply can’t keep up. But even with the rapid development, internet penetration is still very low in this country. Telecommunications companies view it as one of the last unsaturated markets, and are diving in as fast as they can, but internet access is still sketchy at best, and you basically cannot book online. Not flights, not buses, not hotels or guesthouses or trains or anything at all really.
And, as a child of the digital age, I have to admit that scared me. How do you get around without the internet??
Very easily, actually.
Most long-distance travel in Myanmar is done by overnight bus, and aside from one boat trip and one very memorable train ride, that’s how I got around. Getting a ticket is easy. Find any stall or shopfront with a picture of a bus, and they’ll be able to help you out. Or get your guest house to do it for you. I even bought a ticket off a man in the street at one point, that seemed to work out fine too.
Once you’re on the bus, other people will look out for you. Depending on the route, you’ll likely be the only foreigner, and you’ll stand out. The driver will remember you, and make sure you get off at the right spot. They might even make an extra stop for you – the driver of my bus from Pyay to Bagan made an unscheduled stop in downtown Nyaung-U near the hotel district for me and the one other backpacker on the bus, before carrying on to the main bus depot where everyone else would disembark.
Yes, there’s a language barrier, but with everyone so friendly and helpful, Myanmar is really simple to get around for the independent traveller. Despite what you might read in information provided by packaged tour companies, you really don’t need to book ahead every step of the way. You can just as easily make up your mind where to go on the day.
4. No one is trying to rip you off.
You might find this one hard to believe, especially if you’ve been to backpacker meccas like Bangkok, but trust me here – they’re not trying to rip you off. Really.
Myanmar is a very safe place to travel. Crime against foreigners is virtually unknown. If someone sees money hanging out of your pocket, they’ll probably suggest you be careful in case it falls out – the very notion that someone might try to take it doesn’t even register. And this beautiful level of honesty actually extends to the service industry too.
Throughout Myanmar, I found the prices clear, fair and good value. Taxis charge reasonable rates, souvenirs are reasonably priced, and people behaved fairly the whole time. Some people in very touristy areas like Bagan or the village of Inthein near Inle Lake put on the hard sell a little, but even then, they’re not trying to rip you off, just get you to buy things. And when taxi drivers suggest you go to a particular hotel, it’s not because they’re getting a cut. They’re genuinely being helpful.
Haggling is ok, but please, don’t be a dick about it, ok? It’s fine to ask the boatman to drop his nominated price a little for an afternoon cruise around the lake. It’s not ok to haggle over a $2 peddicab fare at 2am when the guy promised to take you as far as needed to find you a hotel with a spare room, as one embarrassing backpacker I met did. Use your common sense, and behave decently towards people.
5. Myanmar puts the “mystery” in “mystery food”
Ok, so I know there are plenty of picky eaters out there who would be really put off by this, but I have to admit, I actually love it.
Burmese food is very generous, and usually comes with dozens (actually dozens) of unordered side dishes. For example, at a street cafe in Yangon I ordered fried rice and a soft drink, and also ended up with spring rolls, dipping sauce, a soup, some vegetable sides, and a big pot of tea, for no extra charge.
But my favourite way to eat in Myanmar was at the long distance bus roadside cafes. The buses usually stop after a few hours to give everyone a chance to stand up, use the loo, and most importantly, eat. Walking into one of these bustling restaurants, you’ll be shown to a table, then the wait staff will hurriedly rush to find their one colleague who speaks a little English. This person will nervously approach you and ask, “Chicken? Beef?” Make your selection, and in a flash you’ll have a plate of rice and a small dish of oily curry with the meat of your choice. (A lot of people complain about the oiliness without realising you’re not actually meant to eat the oil, it’s there to protect the food from exposure – just pick out the yummy bits and leave the oil behind.) Then will come the salad. And the beans. Some peanuts, and fried soybeans. And a corn dish. Another vegetable. And some chilli. And a condiment you can’t identify. Sliced cucumbers. Plate after plate appears, with all sorts of different things!
At first I was really worried – I couldn’t possibly eat all this! But I quickly realised I wasn’t supposed to – no one is offended when you don’t finish, the food is supposed to be plentiful. Just taste a little bit of everything, eat a lot of the ones you like and move the ones you don’t to the far side of your table. I really don’t know what a lot of what I ate in Myanmar was, but that’s half the fun.
My other favourite thing about food in Myanmar was the cheap, hearty breakfasts. Just find a place where there are plenty of people, sit down, and order whatever is going. You’ll end up with something like fresh chapatti and potato curry, or a plate full of samousas, with sweet black tea and bottomless green tea for the huge price of about $0.50. It rocks.
6. Feeling like Indiana Jones as you explore ancient ruins
One of the magic things about Bagan is that, with 40,000 or so ruined temples to explore, there’s very rarely a crowd. Often you’re the only one pushing through the undergrowth and scrambling through long-forgotten doorways. Ok, so it’s not quite as leafy and tropical as the temples Indy usually explores, but it’s still fun to imagine yourself as the intrepid explorer out to discover some ancient artefact, and to imagine the people who once trod the path you’re now treading when the place was at the height of its glory.
Other ancient ruins are more well-kept, but still a fascinating find. The Sri Ksetra Archaeological Site near Pyay is an excellent example, with the ancient boundaries of one of Myanmar former royal capitals being gradually unearthed.
I think ruins are fascinating, and there’s certainly no shortage in Myanmar.
7. Inle Lake.
That’s just it. Inle Lake. Go there.
Why? It’s a fascinating, peaceful, beautiful crossroads of ancient custom and modern simplicity, at the base of a gorgeous valley surrounded by sprawling countryside. There’s so much to do in this area that you could spend your whole trip there easily (though I wouldn’t suggest you do that actually), from natural hot springs to vineyards to visiting cave monasteries and sharing a cup of tea with the monks who live there.
Then of course there’s the actual lake, resplendent under a hot sun and edged by floating vegetable gardens. The fishermen with their one-legged rowing style are fascinating – I spent nearly an hour just watching their peaceful, elegant work. The little rivers and canals that take you to nearby villages such as beautiful (but touristy) Inthein are fantastic too. It’s really interesting to see the way the homes, shops and lives of the people here revolve around the river and the lake.
I don’t think I’ve done a great job of expressing just how lovely this little part of Myanmar is, but there’s a very good reason it’s on the front of every guidebook and on every itinerary. It’s just gorgeous.
8. The stories that will move and inspire you.
One of the best things about the people I met was the inspiring, often tragic, stories they shared with me, stories that have stayed with me long after my flight left Yangon airport.
The guy who told me about considering illegal migration to Australia was an absolutely amazing man, and put a spin on that topic I hadn’t heard before. He grew up in a tiny village in the far north, but after the death of his parents ended up at an orphanage in Mandalay, far from home. He became a novice monk for a time, meeting an inspiring older monk who shaped much of his life. He studied at the university, and his friend suggested they pay a people smuggler to take them to Australia – he chicken out at the last minute, he said, because he was too scared of getting caught by the authorities, but the friend went through with it and now lives in Sydney. They’re still in touch. He dreams of being a famous writer.
Or there was my tour guide from Mt Popa, determined to live up to his father’s reputation as an NLD and humanitarian activist. Much of his story was tragic, from the death of his father as a political prisoner unable to see his children, to the death of his brother because they were unable to afford the bribes demanded by the hospital staff to get him treatment for injuries he had suffered, to the stroke suffered by his mother in her grief. (I met her – she can no longer speak, but she seemed to be full of character and determination either way.) One of his stories that has stuck with me most powerfully was his story of collecting donations to donate to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which killed something like 140,000 people in southern Myanmar in 2008, and devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands more. He drove the donations down himself, but everything was confiscated at a government check point and he was thrown in prison for six months for resisting the confiscation. He was only 21 at the time, and he doesn’t know if anything got to the people who needed help.
The students I met in Pyay were another world all together. Full of optimism about the future and everything it holds, they told me of plans to study, to travel, to learn, to see the world. It’s probably one time where I did much more talking than the person I was talking to – they were so eager to hear about my life, and to get suggestions for their own study prospects. Their vibrancy and enthusiasm for life was contagious, and their generosity of spirit was captivating. One of the boys gave me his keychain as a memento – it was such a lovely little gesture of friendship.
When you go to Myanmar, talk to people. Or more importantly, listen to people. Having been cut off from the outside world for so many years, so many people want to remind the world that they exist, that they have these stories to tell. And their stories will stay with you for a long time.
9. It’s all changing, very, very quickly.
After decades of sanctions, boycotts and bans, Myanmar is finally opening up to the world. And this means it’s changing. FAST.
The race to see Myanmar is having some negative consequences. There’s issues with scarcity of accommodation (though personally in November 2013 I had no issues finding somewhere to stay without booking in advance), and there’s a definite lack of infrastructure to support tourists. But if you really want to understand what all the fuss is about, if you want to try yourself to experience that idea of ‘what backpacking was like 20 years ago’, then you need to go soon. Because Myanmar will be a very different place in just five years time, I’m certain of it.
Should you go to Myanmar? Look, a lot has been said on this issue, and it’s very, very complicated. For the 1990s and 2000s, most travellers avoided Myanmar, at the request of the National League for Democracy who requested the boycott to show international disapproval of the military junta and their heavy-handed (to put it very mildly) treatment of political opponents, ethnic minorities, and everyday Burmese people. But since 2010, that’s all been changing, and Myanmar has taken some very promising steps on the way to instating democracy, lifting living standards, reducing human rights abuses, and generally improving the government’s conduct in all areas. But there are still issues. Ethnic minorities are still persecuted. Living standards are still very low. Corruption is still off the charts. And you can guarantee that some of the money you spend in Myanmar will go into the hands of people perpetrating these crimes. It’s impossible to avoid.
But that said, a lot of your money – the majority, if you’re careful – will also go to people who aren’t part of the corrupt regime. Food vendors, taxi drivers, hoteliers, tour guides, craftspeople, and countless others who would welcome your business with open arms, who are just doing what they can to improve their lives, their family’s lives, and maybe even their wider community. The people of Myanmar want tourists to visit. They want to meet people, to hear of the outside world, to know that people in the outside world are thinking of them and feel solidarity in their struggles. And well, if you want to get cynical, you have to acknowledge that human rights abuses, corruption, persecution of minorities and low living standards aren’t exactly absent from the rest of South-East Asia.
If you’re considering going to Myamnar, the thing you should absolutely do is learn about the situation and make up your own mind about whether to go. Find out who Aung San Suu Kyi is and why she matters. Try to understand both sides of the argument. Travel Fish has a good summary of the issues – be sure to read the comments section for another perspective too. As for me? I think you know the answer – I went, and I loved it, and I will never regret my decision.
What about you? Thinking of taking a trip to the golden land? Or have you been there recently? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂