06 February 2009

Our travel tips for Myanmar / Burma

There is an ongoing debate about whether traveling to Myanmar / Burma is the right thing to do or not given the recent history and current political situation within the country.

I don't want to get into the pros and cons of the travel boycott that was requested by Aung San Suu Kyi and endorsed by the then British prime minister, Tony Blair. But what we would recommend is that before anyone comes here is to fully understand the situation on the ground and to decide for themselves if they think they should or should not come.

We virtually always travel with a Lonely Planet guide book for every country that we go to. Although the current 9th edition for Myanmar / Burma is a little old (published in 2005) and some of the information a bit out of date, I would not recommend that anyone considered coming to the country without it. The book clearly outlines both sides of the travel boycott argument, fully details the places you can and can't go, the things you can and can't discuss, the history and political issues.

It's inevitable that by traveling here some of the money you spend will end up in the hands of the military junta. The Lonely Planet also details how to minimise this and to ensure that you maximise your effect on the local population.

I think that there is a also a fair amount of fear spread by some people in the Western media and other tourists (who probably haven't been there) that travel to Myanmar is unsafe and you are likely to end up in some sort of gulag if you go. This will not happen unless you are foolish enough to turn your trip into a political crusade (and get caught!).

So having spent 28 days in Myanmar what are our thoughts on it and what additional advice would we give people from our experience?

Well conditions and traveling here are fairly tough, easily the worst / hardest I have experienced. Before we came a few people had warned us that coming here was a little bit like traveling back in time 50 years. Sometimes it felt like a lot longer. Once you get out of the capital, Yangon, the main forms of privately owned transport appear to be of the non-motorised variety; horse and cart, ox cart, bicycle and tri-shaw.

Whilst we were in Kalaw we were taking to a missionary who had been working there on and off for over 50 years and in that time the conditions had hardly changed, in fact some had got worse!

Traveling any distance overland is incredibly time consuming and frustrating. The trains are unbelievably slow, run at incredibly stupid times, usually run many hours late, are prone to frequent breakdowns, joggle your internal organs around like you are on a bucking bronco and more often than not are quite filthy. Planning travel by train is also quite difficult as there are few published timetables and if you can find one it will probably be out of date.

Traveling by road is not much better, although rather surprisingly it is often faster than rail. We can't comment much on the buses as we never found one that was going the right place at the right time. We saw quite a few though and most looked like fairly ropey 1930's style sharabangs that pre-war Brits would have gone to Skeggy in.
Although hiring a taxi gives you the convenience of traveling where and when you want it is also really expensive if you want to go any further than across town. The taxis are also mostly 70's and 80's Toyotas and Nissans that are largely held together with tie wraps and sellotape. God knows when any of them last had a change of brake pads! Plus the condition of the roads themselves are really poor, more pot holes than tarmac.

Our advice for any travelers coming here would be to fly between the main cities. It's not the best way to see the countryside or meet the local people. However it's quite often not much more expensive than the overpriced (for tourists) train tickets, cheaper than by car, quicker, easier, more convenient, more comfortable, less dirty, less hassle . . .

The first problem that most visitors to Myanmar will encounter is the money. As detailed on an older blog posting there are no banking facilities open to tourists, credit card and debit cards don't work in most places (apart from some of the top end hotels) and travelers cheques are mostly useless. This means you have to bring all your money that you may need (in US dollars) into the country with you. Not really the most comfortable thing, carting a months worth of money around with you.

The inability to get more money if you need it can be a real problem too and means that you have to be really careful of overspending anywhere. We met several tourists who ran short of money before the end of their stays here and were having to hole up in a hotel until their flight out! Bring more money than you think you may need.

Changing money is also a slightly shady task which requires the use of the black market if you are to get anything like a sensible exchange rate. You have to be really careful when you change money as there are plenty of shysters who will try and trick and con you. Get a recommendation from someone and avoid using people who approach you on the street (especially those with the best exchange rates). I would also change as much money as you can in Yangon as the exchange rate outside of the capital can be worse by up to 20%.

Finding good food and nice places to eat was also quite difficult. Most restaurants fall into the grubby "hole in the wall" type. One evening in particular in Mandalay springs to mind which highlights the typical conditions. We were sat on small plastic chairs that would be about the right size for a primary school child and were eating a surprisingly good Chinese meal. Sat at an adjacent table was an old local boy who spent most of his time hacking up the contents of his lungs and spitting them onto the restaurant floor. To help improve the general ambiance a small dog wandered over to where our table was and proceeded to empty the contents of his bladder onto the floor. It wasn't like that when we went to Claridges!

Evening entertainment is also fairly thin on the ground. There is no real bar or club scene so to speak. If there was one the combination of the 11 o'clock curfew and constant power cuts would put a bit of a dampener on things. By 9pm most nights the majority of restaurants and bars are shutting up for the night.

I think our top food tip is to stick to the local style, Chinese and Indian dishes as some of the interpretations of Western food have been a little strange to say the least. A couple of Italian dishes that Liz had spring to mind, a spaghetti bolognese that tasted of pernod and a pizza with a base that appeared (in both size and texture) to be made from a digestive biscuit.

One of the other peculiarities is the intermitency of the electricity supply. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind it (other than they can), but the government / military turn off the domestic electricity supply on a daily basis, usually during daylight hours but at other random intervals too. This usually results in no hot water for your shower (or the shower going off whilst you are in it), the restaurant you are sat in being plunged into darkness (until they get the generators started) or you missing the end of the film you've just spent the last hour and a half watching.

So if those are the difficult bits what are the good bits? Well actually most of the difficult stuff is actually great fun too, or at least character building (apart from those soul destroying trains!) They are a big part of what makes travel and being here a so different.

The obvious good thing about Myanmar is some of its sights and attractions. Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, the ancient cities around Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and Bago were all fantastic places to visit (just make sure you fly between them!). We would have also liked to have tried Ngapali Beach in the Bay of Bengal but backpacker budgetary requirements prevented us from doing so.

The other amazing thing about coming here is the People. Despite living under a quite ruthless military regime and with a large proportion of the population in severe poverty, you are unlikely to meet a more welcoming and friendly people anywhere in the world. The local people are fiercely proud of their country and heritage (but not their government) and want to do everything they can to make sure you have a great time in Myanmar. It's as if they want to make sure that all visitors go home with a positive message about the country and it's people, a message other than the usual ones about the military regime.

Everywhere you go people just want to stop and talk to you, ask you questions and find out about where you are from. At first it's very odd and you keep thinking "what does this person want from me?" or "what are they trying to sell me?". In most cases it's nothing, it's just that they are really friendly, don't see many visitors here and want to talk and practice their English. At virtually every other monastery we went to the young monks would ask us to stay on so that we could help them with learning English.

As soon as someone finds out you're from England the conversation will go something along the lines of "Ah, England . . . football . . . Rooney!" and then you'll be drawn into a discussion on all of the latest issues on the Premier League. And you won't be able to catch them out as everyone seems to have an encyclopedic level of knowledge that would put Stato to shame.

So if you are willing to put up with some challenging living, traveling and eating conditions then you will see some great things and meet lots of fantastic people . . . just make sure you stay away from those trains!

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