Myanmar: What to skip and when to go
I didn’t fall in love with Myanmar.
In fact, there are more things I disliked about Myanmar than things I liked. My reaction took me by surprise- I’m used to loving a place, leaving my heart there and making return trips to collect it (I’m looking at you India and Malaysia!). But not liking a place very much… well that’s a novel sensation.
Myanmar is somewhere in between an off the path beaten destination and somewhere popular. Western backpackers dominate the scene as well honeymooning Chinese. It makes for an interesting combination. I think my trip to Myanmar could’ve been improved should I have had proper information about weather conditions and general pricing of things hence the existence for this post. I would never say don’t go to a place but for future travelers- make informed choices!
Lets begin- as we always do- with a PPG (Panda’s Progressive Geography) lesson about mysterious Myanmar:
Myanmar had a strong kingdom in ancient times, but the nation was taken over by the British in the 1800s. It was occupied by the Empire of Japan in the 1940s. Myanmar became independent in 1948 as the Union of Burma, and had a democratic government at first. However, in 1962, a coup d’état brought the military into power, where it has been ever since.
Myanmar is the largest country in South East Asia that is not an island. It is bordered by China on the north, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west and India on the northwest. 89% of the population is Buddhist and the official currency is the kyat (pronounced as ‘chat/chet’).
Starting the trip in Yangon
I began my trip in Yangon and I really loved this bit of the holiday! Yangon has a bustling foodie scene and it’s relatively easy to get around. There are an abundance of temples to see Yangon but I decided I would only go visit one- Shwedagon Pagoda. It didn’t disappoint!
The Shwedagon Pagoda is a very well preserved heritage monument, and a sacred religious pilgrimage site for many Buddhist followers in Myanmar.As a tourist you can visit as long as you pay the 10,000 kyat fee and dress modestly. The main pagoda, which reaches a height of 99 meters, is visible throughout the city, and it shimmers in the sun with its incredibly golden surface. I could hardly even look at the pagoda without squinting my eyes, there was so much gold!
All in all, I really enjoyed my time in Yangon and could see myself going back simply to eat!
Off to Inle Lake
Inle Lake wasn’t on my original itinerary but after reading a few blogs, I felt like I would be missing out if I skipped this place! However the whole experience turned out to be a rather expensive and unnecessary ordeal. The closest airport to Inle Lake is tiny Heho airport. To get from Heho airport to the lake costs 25000 kyat (one way) and you really don’t have many options other than this. Although there are “backpacker” accommodation options further away from the lake, my days of hostels are far behind me and since Inle Lake was in the middle of my trip, I wanted to splurge a bit so I chose to stay on the banks of the lake. It was gorgeous and I felt that every penny I spent here was totally worthwhile since accommodation areas near the lake were all priced similarly.
Just to enter Inle Lake you pay a fee of 13,500 kyat so budget for that. Every single person heading toward the lake is asked to pay the fee so it’s not something people only staying by the lake have to pay. The main attraction of staying in this area is to hire a boat and experience life on the lake. I didn’t realise that all resorts were not walking distance away from the nearest town or from each other so I was forced to book my boat ride through my hotel (for lack of any other option) and that was also more expensive than I anticipated at 25,000 kyats.
I’d seen pictures from other blogs and I was so excited to go see what life on the lake was like for those living in the area. However I didn’t realise that the entire boating experience was one huge commercialised extravaganza designed to guilt you into buying things from local vendors. It started off well- I was in awe as we floated by the life on the lake, by the villages that look like ordinary ones – with school, post office, cafes, except with water canals instead of roads and all houses on stilts.
As fascinating as it was to see how silk was made from lotus flowers and watching silver being manufactured, at the end of the day I’m not a shopper and I don’t want to buy things that I won’t use. As we went from place to place I started noticing the well rehearsed lines from each enthusiastic young girl… when I tried to ask questions, they were met with blank stares and delayed panic. It’s safe to say that while I loved floating through the water village, seeing life on the lake, my mindset was definitely changed when I realised that it was more of an attempt to get tourists to part with their hard earned money. Not for me thanks!
I enjoyed the remainder of my time there, reading peacefully and enjoying the serenity of nature. I was totally unplugged as the area boasts extremely slow WiFi that was too frustrating to attempt to use so I just disconnected. While I left Inle Lake well rested, I definitely felt that I could’ve skipped that part of my trip!
Ending off in Bagan
Bagan is probably the jewel in Myanmar’s crown… that epic shot of the parachutes flying the sky above the ancient temples is what comes to mind when you think of Bagan right? Well you may have to adjust that. As of January 2018, the government in Myanmar outlawed climbing up temples and therefore, removed the chances of getting those beautiful views. Rather, they’ve built ‘viewing mounds’ which apparently offer visitors views of the surrounding temples. They don’t. The mounds are lower than the surrounding temples so you really don’t see much. I spent a sunrise there and this was the view I looked at.
It was a complete waste of my time honestly.
The temples themselves are impressive and there are heaps to visit. You can choose which ones to see or just wander aimlessly and immerse yourself. I opted for a private driver but if you’re into e-bikes or scooters, you can use those too. As beautiful and impressive as these temples are, after the first few, they do all blend into each other (and I mean this respectfully) so I would suggest researching the ones you REALLY want to see before becoming burnt out.
For sunset I wasn’t keen to go anywhere in Bagan but my driver convinced me that he knew a great spot for sunset views and after the disappointment of sunrise, I decided to trust him. He drove me around a few temples and he seemed surprised at the police presence around them. Eventually- as we crawled slowly through the gravel roads and thick trees- he dropped me off at a temple and gestured for me to go. I was surprised and told him that I don’t want him or I to get into trouble because of the law; he laughed and said that “the government is not helping the people”. When I climbed to the top of the pagoda, I was surrounded by tourists whose drivers had told them the same thing. The views were gorgeous though and I felt that it was shame that many people might miss these when visiting Bagan in the future.
While I support a law that aims to protect ancient structures, I do believe that the government needs to provide real alternatives for tourists coming to admire the views. These viewing mounds are impractical especially the one I was taken to which was right near a pond so it was mosquito central. Furthermore, if you’re going to have policeman watching some temples, then why not all? This would eliminate the eventuality of all tourists congregating on top of one temple, thus causing even more strain to the structure. None of it made much sense.
I spent 2 nights and 3 days in Bagan but didn’t have much opportunity to explore much as it rained A LOT and was extremely cloudy. I would advise visitors to visit Bagan between October- April. And something to note is that all tourists must purchase a Bagan Archeological Zone ticket for 25,000 kyat (US $18). The ticket is valid for a mere 3 days from the date of the purchase and I was asked to produce this over 5 times during the course of 3 days so that various officials could check the dates of validity.
Myanmar is magical, there is no doubt about that in my mind but it still has a long way to go in terms of accommodating tourists used to traveling around South East Asia. With high accommodation prices (unfortunately, the value you get for the price you pay is not amazing either and you can expect to pay roughly twice as what you would pay in Thailand for the same standard) and a lack of information around tourist sites, this is one of the most confusing destinations I have ever visited in Asia. I struggled to figure out the driving on the roads (they use right hand drive cars on left hand drive roads), the attraction of commercialised boat tours and puzzling temple visiting legislation, there were also things I appreciated.
- No international brands or chain stores. The country has been closed for international trade for a few decades and most Burmese would not be able to pay chain store prices. Being so cut-off from the rest of the expanding world for so long, Myanmar truly does feel like a step back in time very much like Iran.
- The food is incredible. Myanmar boasts some great local dishes like Mohinga (rice noodles in fish soup), Shan noodles, steamed buns filled with red beans, samosa salad, vermicelli noodles and tons of other yummy dishes. It tastes like a blend of Indian and Thai cuisine.
- The country has not been sucked into globalisation and is extremely authentic in many ways. Men still wear traditional longyi skirts, a wraparound piece of ground-length material, tied to the front, whilst women wear thanakha, a traditional make-up on their faces, and people of all ages greet you with a red-toothed smile from the highly addictive betel nut on which they chew constantly.
Even with all its teething problems I do believe that the magic of this country, like many, is absolutely endless, but to experience it in all its glory NOW is theme to go. Before the hordes of tourism touch down in Myanmar, seeing it in its most traditional sense is what makes it one of my most memorable- yet confusing- destinations.
Is Myanmar worth a trip on its own?
I do believe that Myanmar has a lot to offer and if its possible to make it a trip on its own, then definitely do! But bear in mind that prices for tourists are higher in Myanmar than in other surrounding countries starting with an expensive eVisa to highly priced accommodation so budget accordingly.
How long should I go for?
A minimum of 2 weeks in Myanmar would ideal however if you are strapped for time, at least 3 days in Bagan and 2 in Yangon would fine.
Should I purchase a SIM card?
While the internet in some places was dreadful (Inle Lake), Internet in Yangon and Bagan was adequate. If you’re planning to stay a long time and travel to remote places, a SIM card may be a good option for you.
Did you apply for a visa beforehand?
Yes I applied for my $50 Myanmar visa online and received it within 24 hours. You can apply here if you are eligible.
Have you ever been to. Myanmar? Let me know in the comments below!