The Truths and Myths
about Travelling in Myanmar
To visit or not to visit Myanmar.. seems to be the growing topic. The political issues are becoming more talked about, sometimes stopping travellers from visiting this unique and beautiful country.
When I first started researching Myanmar a few years back.. I was mindblown. The more I read, the bigger my bucket list was growing. There were also worries running through my mind, the conflict between the locals and the government that I barely knew anything about or whether it’s safe to travel there alone..
Then within a few months – an opportunity came up and a few weeks later, I was travelling across Myanmar with a friend.
Did I really need to worry about going there alone and wait for someone to go with me?
Can you travel around the country without supporting the government?
There were also quite a few things in my research that proved not to be true, at all.
Anyway, here we go : Truths and Myths about Travelling in Myanmar.
Myanmar is dangerous to travel to
Mostly Myth (for tourists)
There are tensions and events happening in Myanmar (more on this further on), which no matter how much we read about, we will not learn the exact truth.
It is nearly impossible to experience it for yourself as those events happen far from the tourist trails (even if you’re a crazy, adventurous backpacker, yes) to the point where you simply have no access to them.
When visiting Myanmar in August 2016, before the media started to recognize the Rohingya problem. I was lucky to trek in the Shan Mountains where tourists could only visit while being supervised by a local. I was eager to learn about the conflicts (it’s still only just touching the surface) and the fact that the people I’ve met there were absolutely the kindest.
Now, most of the areas in the Shan and Kachin State are strictly closed off to tourists, due to the potential danger and the ongoing conflict, where the possibility of violent clashes exists.
I suggest you check the safety precautions and maps such as this one: click here with the safe and unsafe areas marked clearly. The Australian government website also has some useful information. Be aware of travelling anywhere outside of the tourist trails in the Rakhine State as well.
From my own experience (bear in mind this was Aug, 2016) I felt extremely safe when travelling around Myanmar. The country is unique and absolutely beautiful, the people will treat you amazingly and you’ll be shocked by their kindness.
Solo females – I’ve met so many females that travelled solo and had absolutely no issues whatsoever.
All the tourist money goes towards the government, supporting their choices.
Much deeper than that
This is an extremely big issue, which only a number of individuals fully understand. It isn’t just a conflict between the government and the people. The military, who used to fully rule the country, still makes the biggest impact on what is happening at the moment.
It isn’t just a question of “do I support the government by travelling there?” It’s much deeper than that.
All in all, the military still controls the country, not so much Aung San Suu Kyi.
In regards to the tourist money, most of the infrastructure is either government-owned or it belongs to companies (or individuals) that are linked to the regime, although many international hotels are owned by overseas interests.
It is possible to support the local people without your money going towards the government by eating at small, local shops and vendors or by employing local drivers and guides. You can also stay at simple private guesthouses, but this is quite difficult to double check.
Otherwise, most bus companies, restaurants and so on supporting the government whether wanting to or not.
Myanmar is a large country with many truly kind people who have absolutely nothing to do with the political issues. There are also people who depend on the tourist industry, as this is their main income in order to support their family. If you are debating whether to go or not, I’d say listen to your heart. If you go, try to support the local population. There is no right or wrong in this kind of situations.
It’s all Temples and Pagodas
Kind of True (I would add Buddha’s too)
It’s a hard one to answer. Myanmar is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world and it does have a temple or pagoda pretty much everywhere you go. While travelling around the country – they will probably fill about 80% of your itinerary and the rest will mostly be Buddha’s (ok maybe slight over exaggeration, but you get the point).
Regardless, the country still has a LOT to offer. From the kind people to the stunning landscapes, train rides, boat rides and the most beautiful sunsets and sunrise’s you’ll ever see.
In all honesty, though – all of the pagodas, temples and Buddha’s are absolutely stunning and surprisingly – I didn’t get bored of them.
You Must be part of a group tour
While probably being true years ago, before the country has been opened to tourism, it is nowhere near the truth now.
In all honesty, during the first few days in Myanmar, I was glad for being with a friend, this simply was due to how much I was standing out from anyone else.. that made me uncomfortable. But it only took me a couple of days before I started feeling completely fine and extremely safe. I also met many travellers who visited the country alone, meeting a number of people who they carried on travelling with.
Travelling solo in Myanmar is easy and safe.
You will most probably do the tourist track whether you want it or not, even when going off it slightly – it’ll still be close enough, making it easy for you.
One of the biggest recommendations I have for travelling around Myanmar is to not plan much, have a rough idea of where you’d like to go but don’t go too crazy. Things can easily change depending what you’ll see along the way and who you’ll meet, and trust me – you don’t want to be stuck with a booked hotel in a completely opposite direction to where the new ‘must do’ recommendation is based.
There are no ATM’S
And it’s a big one. I was so worried about this, everyone I met before travelling to Myanmar seemed to believe that statement.
Of course, once you’re in smaller towns, it might not be as easy to find an ATM, as it is anywhere. But, as soon as you’re in a city (or a decent sized town) – there will not be a problem whatsoever!
Same goes with the US Dollars.. keep reading.
You need the US Dollar Currency
I honestly cannot recall paying in the US currency… Other than for the accommodation which was paid online. Actually.. I didn’t even have any US currency, as my friend got there a couple of days earlier and told me not to bother.
When it came to cash – everything was in the local currency aka Kyat. The only time I remember having a choice was in a (super) fancy hotel restaurant that we ended up at completely by accident, where we somehow managed to have a tea on the house and didn’t spend a penny anyway.. winnings.
There are no hostels in Myanmar
Personally, I’ve stayed at one hostel when travelling around Myanmar. While there are a few guesthouses offering dorms and a few actual hostels in the big cities, they are still not much of a thing there.
You will mostly stay in hotels or guesthouses, which is why it’s good to share with someone – you simply split the bill. Bear in mind that the number of visitors is growing rapidly, therefore I imagine in no time – we’ll see hostels popping up in the main areas.
Read on for prices.
There are also some stunning hotels in the famous parts such as Bagan.
For best accommodation prices, we’ve been using Agoda. If you would like to stay in private guesthouses – it’s best to walk around and find one after arriving in the area.
Twin room in Mandalay
Travelling in Myanmar is expensive
This should be split into few points. First of all, the country doesn’t have any big branded shops or chains – there is no Tesco or (are you ready?) – 7 elevens. Myanmar is still more on the low-key, especially compared to its neighbour Thailand. This means some things get pricey, especially when it comes to accommodation.
As mentioned earlier, hostels are not much of a thing there, this means usually paying for a double or twin room.
During my visit (Aug, 2016) the standard price for a twin/double room was around $20. In bigger cities such as Mandalay – that got us some pretty sweet stays at 4 star hotels with delicious breakfast, whereas smaller places such as Hpa-an, we got an extremely simple hostel.
Food in Myanmar is quite cheap – similar prices to Thailand for example, around $1.50 for a meal. I suggest eating at small stands/vendors to support the local people.
Transport was also similar cost to it’s neighbour – Thailand. Buses will vary in price, but a comfy long distance ones were about $18. Trains are extremely cheap compared to the buses – at $1.50 for a 4 hour journey.
It’s a thing in Myanmar. Sometimes you’ll see signs where it clearly states the different prices for locals and foreigners, that can vary and some are even 6/7 times more expensive.
You will get Food Poisoning
Not once did I get food poisoned. I think my travel buddy did at the very beginning if I remember correctly, it all depends on your immune system (although mine used to be extremely weak) and most importantly luck. Yes, you should be careful with drinking tap water or having ice in your drinks, but sometimes that will or will not help, so please don’t worry too much.
Don’t let this stop you from sampling the local food as well, statements such as “Don’t eat salads because it’s been washed in tap water” in my opinion are quite over the top.
Saying that – some restaurants might look quite ‘dirty’ but just go with your gut, when you see that some food has been clearly sitting there for quite a bit, go to the next place.
One more thing – please don’t wash your eyes with tap water – or you might end up with an eye infection like both my travel buddy and I did (not pretty).
There is no internet
It’s not the greatest and you won’t find it everywhere – but it’s definitely there.
We were booking accommodation as we went and I managed to keep my Snapchat up to date as well as other social media. Usually, it meant connecting in the evening when going back to the hotel, but it was possible.
Some towns didn’t have a great connection, but that was a nice breath of fresh air, to be honest with you. Either way – you can always buy a sim with data on it.
The Transport is really bad
I was surprised how good the transport in Myanmar is. You can choose from buses and trains to taxis, boats and tricycles.
In general, I’d say buses are the best way to travel around the country. They are also often the only way to get to certain places unless you hire a private driver or tour guide. There are many long-distance bus companies operating specifically for tourists such as the JJ Express, which are extremely comfortable but slightly more expensive (around $18 for a night journey).
Trains are the cheapest and most picturesque option by far. For example, a train from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin will cost you a ‘whopping’ 1,200 Kyats – $1.30 (for a 4 hour journey). This is for the upper class. The economy class was 550 ($1) – the seats are wooden benches, whereas upper class has nice comfy reclining seats.
We were booking everything on site instead of online as the prices were cheaper, plus it’s the only way to get local buses too (which is more likely to support the locals), if you do that – get there a couple of hours early to be sure there are still some spaces left. You can also ask your hotel’s reception to ring the bus station and check for you.
There are no washing machines
If you have travelled around SE Asia, you probably know that giving your washing in to be done for you is a completely standard thing to do. It’s the same in Myanmar, however – they wash it all by hand. As in, underwear and literally ALL.
I imagine this will be changing quite quickly and some hotels already have washing machines, but that won’t become the norm for a while.
Because of that, the price of doing your laundry will be quite high. I remember one of my loads cost me around $12 as it’s counted by item – every t-shirt, underwear or socks are paid for separately, not by weight like many other surrounding countries. Due to that (the price) and also to how inappropriate it felt for someone else washing my underwear – we usually ended up washing it by ourselves decorating our hotel rooms with panties all around.
People are extremely friendly
Yes, yes and yes. Some of the kindest people I’ve met were in Myanmar, I could go on and on about this one – but no matter who you meet whether it’s the people at markets, monks or local people in general, they will often try and talk to you even if their English is not on a great level.
I actually think it’s a great thing and you should take every opportunity to communicate with the locals as that’s the only way I’ve learned the things I know today about the country whether it’s the political issues or history.
In smaller towns, we’ve also had situations where people couldn’t stop looking at us, as they’re not used to foreign faces. For example, one day two guys literally stopped working, turned around and stood there looking at us completely baffled.
I also had children crying when looking at me because they’ve never seen a white person (plus it didn’t work how pale I am). But please don’t let that make you feel uncomfortable or suspicious of the people – it’s pure curiosity, or in the kids eyes – horror.
Females need to cover up and have more restrictions
Kind fo True
Being a tourist, you don’t need to do this – but due to the culture, you should have your shoulders and legs covered, especially when entering religious sites. Personally, I was always wearing trousers or longis (the local skirt) out of pure respect and because I didn’t like the extra attention, as being a foreigner – I already got quite a lot of it (not in a bad way).
Sometimes, you will see signs restricting women from specific areas of religious sites, the main one is Mount Kyaiktiyo, where women cannot touch the golden rock or enter certain areas. Due to the Buddhist religion, the same as everywhere – women should avoid any physical contact with monks, but of course speaking to them is completely fine.
You need to visit Myanmar asap due to rapid changes.
Kind fo True
As much as I want to say no to this – I am extremely glad for having the chance to visit a year ago. Even when the political issues are becoming more talked about, Myanmar’s tourism is growing quite rapidly and of course, this means changes and development.
It also, however, means restrictions. Just in one year – three of my absolute favourite things to do in Myanmar are not possible anymore. First, Sleeping in the Monastery – visiting is ok but staying overnight is not doable due to some issues with tourists.
Second is climbing the pagodas in Bagan for the most stunning views of the sunsets – this was a standard thing to do but due to the number of people visiting, it had to be stopped to keep the pagodas safe. And the third is trekking in the Shan state.. for the reasons mentioned at the very beginning of this article.
So yes, if you want to experience the real Myanmar (of course I’m not talking about the conflicts)… I’d say visit soon. However, I believe it will still be a great country to visit whenever you go. Especially if you are someone who likes more comfort travel.
So this is it!
I hope this post on the Truths and Myths about Travelling in Myanmar has answered at least some of your questions, if not – let me know in the comments!
In regards to the political issues – would you like to know more?
PS. Below are some more pictures for you lovelies!
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My Backpacking List for Myanmar and the rest of the world <3
Some (but definitely NOT ALL) of the food places look like this, this is what I meant when saying go with your gut and if you don’t feel like your stomach is hardcore enough – find another place. Oh and yes – we did eat there and were completely fine 🙂 I say it’s all about the experience!