Myanmar is a wonderful country to travel in – but as of anywhere, there’s some things you might want to be prepared for. Here’s ten of those things you will want to know before traveling to Myanmar. Go ahead and save yourself from planning mistakes and packing failures, find out what to expect – and what definitely not to.
Plan everything ahead. This is a major mistake that we made when preparing for our trip. We relied way too much on our guidebook which claimed that due to the increasing number of tourists coming to Myanmar, there was a shortage of accommodations. We thought that to be plausible especially because we were traveling in high season (December and January), so we had our itinerary set up for the whole stay. Honestly, we were the only people with three weeks of rooms booked ahead.
Sure, it’s nice to be able to chose your accommodation instead of take what’s left, but it can be a real bummer if you stumble upon some other place you’d like to visit or you change your mind about anything. Keep in mind that Burmese transportation could also always mess with your itinerary (I’ll get to that in part two), so it’s easier to stay flexible instead of booking everything ahead. It might even save you money in the long run because you won’t be charged again to change pre-existent bookings. I’d generally recommend booking on the spot as you need it – except possibly for places like Bagan that everyone travels to when in Myanmar. It’s already a rather expensive place in comparison to the rest of the country, so no need to end up paying even more because the affordable rooms are all taken.
Lots of sunscreen. This might seem like a super obvious one, but when I say lots, what it means is enough for however long you are staying. When I ran out of sunscreen halfway through the trip, I found it was really hard to get my hands on some and when I did, it was insanely expensive. That’s no wonder of course, because it’s a tourist only item. The Burmese do not use the same products for sun protection, so either you bring enough to drown your pale self in for some weeks, or you pay the equivalent of like 10 Euros for the tiniest bottle you can imagine.
Of course, you could always go local and use Thanaka, which is a paste made from tree bark that you will see used everywhere in Myanmar for sun protection. Especially women and kids often have the paste applied to their faces in more or less complex patterns, from simple circles to decorative leaves. While it looks lovely on them, I feel like I wouldn’t have pulled it off covering my whole face, neck and arms in Thanaka multiple times everyday in order to properly protect my skin. Of course, it’s up for you to decide if you want to give that a go – but I personally can only recommend stocking up on sunscreen.
A super undeveloped country. As I’ve said before, we’ve been reading a guide book in preparation for this trip and it is NOT getting a good Amazon review I’m telling you. So honestly, we were thinking we’d deal with power shortages at night (at least outside the cities), regular power cuts (that actually happened) and basically no working internet anywhere. Well, what shall I say, we were wrong. From the moment we stepped out of Yangon Airport, everybody seemed to be online constantly – and as neither Marvin nor myself are real techies, our phones were probably the shittiest ones around, too. I don’t mean to sound obnoxious here, the more people who benefit from these technologies the better if you ask me – I just didn’t really see that coming. I know I might to end up sounding like a colonialist jerk traveler, so please don’t hate me – I just clearly did a really shitty job at researching a.k.a I only read one guidebook which got many things plain wrong.
We met a really cool Burmese dude at a bar one night and when we admitted our expectations to him, he straight up laughed in our faces: “Oh, you guys were expecting us to be North Korea”. Embarrassed as we might have been at his statement – no, we were not expecting Myanmar to be like either of the Koreas. The point I’m trying to make is: Myanmar is a fast developing country, especially technology-wise, so don’t be surprised if you pass through a tiny village on a hike and see some kids watching a YouTube video on 4G high speed connection because that might as well happen.
A flashlight. Although power shortages weren’t a thing where we were, blackouts for sure were. So having your own battery-relying source of light might help. Even more importantly, you might want to use those to discover temples, for example in Bagan. Those can be really dark on the inside and sometimes there won’t be anyone else around, so it comes in real handy to have a little flashlight on you.
(Literally) be up for:
Amazing sunrises. Look, I know it’s hard to get out of bed that early, but it is so worth it. The obvious choice is, again, Bagan of course, but we’ve seen some amazing sunrises both on the boat to and in Mandalay, so just make sure to make use of these opportunities. The same obviously goes for sunset, but because it’s so early (around 6.30 pm), you’re bound to be around for those more naturally.
Towels. You might find that to be another obvious one and maybe it is, but we were provided with towels in each and every accommodation we stayed at, from very simple to fairly nice. It’s definitely enough to bring one of these super thin traveler towels just in case.
To take pictures with many many many people – the more your features differ from the dark-haired, rather small Burmese, the more selfies you’ll be in. I was prepared to stand out a lot because of my very light skin and hair, but people were also interested in fairly tall Marvin and we’ve heard similar experiences from people with very curly hair. It’s a fun experience because mostly, people will be too shy or won’t know how to ask you directly if you’d be up for a picture, so they’ll just look over to you a lot and whisper with their friends possibly, then at some point approach you with their phone in hand, look at you, then back at the phone a couple of times and that’s that basically.
I always found these situations so funny and have happily taken a selfie with each and everyone who approached me, although of course it did feel weird to attract that much attention. On several occasions, a bunch of girls actually lined up to have their picture taken with me (Can you find all seven in the picture?) and some parents have tried to get their kid to stand next to me for a photo. The kids would usually just stare at me in bewilderment and start crying though. So what I’m saying is, in case you’re very non-asian looking, be prepared for that.
Cash. And multiple cards. And a friend to help you out possibly. A few years ago, ATMs were still really rare in Myanmar (according to our guidebook they still are but we already found out it’s crap), but nowadays you can find them in the cities, at the airports, the main railway stations and in many other places. Now before you get to excited, I just wanna say they aren’t exactly reliable. Marvin and I checked each and every ATM in a place one day and none of them would provide us with cash because they were either not working or out of money.
Also, my credit and debit card both only worked about once in the whole three weeks of our stay and broke the machines every other time. If I hadn’t been with Marvin whose cards for some reason were most successful at receiving money from them, things could have gotten complicated for me. So all I’m saying is, don’t start looking for your next ATM when you’re already running low on cash. Might save you some trouble to have a little back-up just in case.
Your feet. You probably know this, but in many religions, it is considered inappropriate to wear shoes when entering houses of prayer. Buddhism, which is the religion of almost 90% of Burma’s inhabitants, is one of them. So while you’re probably wearing slippers anyway because of the heat, be prepared to take them off at any time because you will be visiting temples a lot. I have seen many tourists make a fuss about leaving their shoes at the entrance, which I find ridiculous and just disrespectful.
However, sometimes the temple site will be so spacious that you might find leaving through another exit more convenient to continue your way. In this case, just carry your shoes with you, but be sure to not let them touch the ground or anything else and also do absolutely not point them at anything at all. In fact, we usually carried a daypack around with us which is super useful for a million other things (guide book, sunscreen, camera, water, you name it), so to be thoughtful, maybe just put some in there while you’re visiting the temple site if you must bring them along.
A new level of friendliness. The Burmese people are possibly the nicest people I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t say that any country’s people have ever been unfriendly to me (quite the contrary), but this was just an experience that stood out. In Myanmar, many people will be openly greet you in the street and ask about your country of origin or why you chose to come to their country. But even those a bit shyer who just look over to you curiously will usually give you their biggest smile when you approach them with the first word that everyone foreigner learns in Burmese: Mingalabar. Although this is just their very melodious way of saying hello, it might as well be a magic enchantment that will turn everyone around into your new best friends.
If you think I missed one or ten things, watch out for part two of this post!
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