I have been back in Melbourne for a couple of weeks now. I have a draft I typed while I was traveling, at least half way into the 2-week trip. Now that I am sitting back and reflecting, I’ll try to add a bit more thoughts and reflection for those traveling in the region in the future.
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Myanmar as destination
In short… I highly recommend it.
- Honest, accommodating, lovely people.
- Great food, with little hygiene or MSG issue (during my limited visit there)
- Punctual. Transportation run on time, get there on time (but consider the next point)
- eVisa was made available very quickly.
- ‘Recommended peak season’ of Dec-Feb is indeed a great time to visit. Dry and cool, so less fatigue, less wet socks or feet. No puddle to negotiate with, so I assume it helps with things running according to the timetable. But it also means lots of travelers as well as shorter day (sun sets by 6pm!)
- Some remote areas may still require explicit/written application to visit, so you should do your own research if you are going deeper into it.
I do not like deciding much of details before going on a trip. The whole point of traveling, for me personally, is to let things take me. Guidebooks and other people’s experience can be quite useful in avoiding pot holes. Yet, seeing that this is a country that was officially opened up for free traveling only a few years ago, I looked for some resources to find out what the conditions are like, and I chose to make a pretty conservative itinerary with plenty of spare time to recover in case of any hold-ups.
I’ve always trusted Lonely Planet, since before the web-based user content became as widely available as it is today. Printed guidebooks, by nature, carries information based on editor’s experience from months or years before, which then get edited, printed and distributed by the time you find them in a bookshop. And many of their books are not updated yearly. Lonely Planet’s latest guidebook on Myanmar is an edition that was published in mid 2014. You can do the math as to when the editor went there. In a fast-changing destination like Myanmar. This could become an issue for you who visit there today. The first time I experienced a major gap between reality and a guidebook was I think when I went to Laos several years ago. Their border office hours, the accepted currency, their location – all changed since the time of publication. I did not have any major problem with it, but that experience made me aware.
Having said that, I still look to Lonely Planet as the bible it has always been. I feel (could be the faded memory playing up but) they used to carry much more content on historical and cultural context which was always good to be aware of before visiting a new destination. TripAdvisor, which I thought for a while might have been a good user-generated information portal, is now nothing more than a tour and hotel listing site. User blogs are good, and you often find interesting angle, but they often do not bother to mention the baseline which is assumed because, well, we all read the Lonely Planet (or something similar). I’d love to know if you have a good website you recommend for various destinations, in English.
Electricity, Internet, Water and Safety
I only visited along a well-beaten path in Myanmar. If you are going trekking, or venturing into less developed parts of the country, this may be totally false. I wouldn’t know.
Electricity – Only once did I see the circuit breaker kick in while I was chatting at the hotel reception. It took a couple of minutes to reset and get the power back on. Somebody might have used many blow dryers at one time. Hotels do have power generators in the reception area so the power stability is yet to be top notch. But it is not like they don’t have adequate electricity coverage. Street lights, refrigerator, fans in the bathroom, aircon. What more do you need?
The standard is a 2 round-pin plug, but often the accommodation for visitors have the hybrid socket on the wall, which would take on US/Japan/Twaiwan style 2 parallel plates, as well as the 2 round-pin. It is still a good idea to buy the converter before you enter Myanmar.
Internet – In the popular guest houses, backpackers and hotels I stayed in or saw in the listing, they had a decent internet connection with local wifi connection. In some accommodation I heard that the capacity was not enough or somebody else was using up the bandwidth, but I usually saw people talking to somebody overseas through Skype or Facebook messenger. I was able to upload images to Instagram along the way in most accommodations. Some people I met were using prepaid SIM card for their mobile phones, which they said were pretty cheap. If you need to check something online on the go, or to connect with your friends who you split paths during the day, then this may be worth considering.
Water – In most places, I did not feel the need to use bottled water for brushing my teeth, an extreme measure applied where the tap water may have hygiene issue. They may not be suitable for drinking, but putting in your mouth for rinsing is not going to kill you. Well, I did not die, and I did not have major diarrhea issue. Of course, I was drinking bottled water. But hotels often had a water server of filtered water, and they were happy to let me fill up half a litre bottle before I headed out for the day. Just like any other destination, be careful with a possibility of reused bottle on the street seller. I always tried to buy from a small local shop rather than supermarket, to ensure my spending money went to the hands of local residents, but not only did I find them cheaper I did not find any quality issue with what I found on the shelf.
Food – Maybe this is different story in the warmer time of the year, but I did not come across any food poisoning issue. This is not the first time I travel in SouthEast Asia’s destination that is not as developed as Singapore or Bangkok. So I tend to naturally look for cues that tell me good places to eat. I am also allergic to MSG, so maybe I am extra careful in choosing where I eat. Having said that, looking out for places where people queue up to buy/eat, cooking method looks authentic rather than everything from saturated coloured bottle or powder, then I’d think it is fairly safe. I found many things I had were mildly flavoured. Why waste your precious morning hours waiting for the ‘free breakfast’ at the hotel – go out for a walk at 5am when the buddhists come back from alm walk, muslims are responding to that beautiful singing voice that calls for morning prayer, and sit down at a local eatery to experience what everyone lives on.
Safety – I did not venture into red light district or anything touristy like that, but as far as I could tell, it is a very safe destination. Of course, do not do stupid thing like pulling out a large pile of cash notes or walk around with expensive jewelry, bags, gadget, etc. People live humble lives here. Try to blend in. Act like locals. Bow, take off shoes, basics.
US dollar or Kyat – which currency to carry? That is the question. Guidebook says USD, a friend who recently returned just before I visited told me USD. So I gathered enough USD, clean notes, that would last me most of the journey. Reality? I don’t know whether you need to carry USD.
If you are like me, preferring to try to experience what local people actually do, then you would need to carry the local currency Kyat. On the first couple of days in Mandalay, I only had USD with me, and I could not pay for 300kyat a bottle water, so I bought 2 and left USD1 without asking for a change. It was more value, but they had to go through a trouble of exchanging it, so I hope they were not upset.
There may be some accommodations, expensive ones, that may prefer USD. Maybe it is easier to count $25 x 3 nights with 3 pieces of USD notes, rather than 80,000 or whatever the amount would be in kyat. I found Bagan and Mt Kyaiktiyo extremely expensive. In Bagan, the popular backpacker (very clean, full of friendly people, great location) was at US$25 per night in a 6-bed dorm. At Mt Kyaikyiyo, where the Golden Rock sits, a hotel room cost me UD$105 per night.
Some destinations require a ticket that covers entry to national park / series of temples. Local driver may be against this as they cannot see where this money goes and how it is spent (suspecting corruption as would have been common under socialist + military regime). They even take you to the side door for local people to enter for prayer, rather than stopping at the more impressive front entrance where visitor ticket booth is. But I do not agree with becoming the example of cheating culture. $25 for 5 or 10 temples and parks is a bargain, considering how much effort goes into maintaining them. For the temples that are free entry, you are expected to make a donation any way, which would be probably around 500 kyat for local people – that’s like 50 cents – so you may be willing to put 1,000 kyat to make up for your presence and photographing their precious temple… So why be stingy with the entrance tickets? Another reason to have USD – this one I found is often at fair exchange rate with USD sounding cheaper, or at least easier to pay with smaller number of notes.
ATMs – I found them often available in major street corners and in the lobby of big hotels. I came across a few that were out of service, probably out of certain notes. I used my Australian bank’s ATM card. They charge handling fee, my local bank charge overseas transaction fee. Not a fair world. Alternative is to bring cash with you when you leave home, and exchange at airport like Bangkok where I found exchange rate is quite reasonable.
It is still not a bad idea to ask for a printed map from your accommodation. You can write things on it, mark interesting things you encounter, which you may want to share on blog or revisit in your next journey years later.
Digital map has the merit of always keeping track of where you are, even if you just wandered about without thinking about where it actually leads to. And I often find myself desperately lost or completely off the intended track – though it may lead to an unexpected friendship (wait and see he reappears later in this Myanmar journey). If you do not mind charging your devices all the time, sure, maybe this is your option. I am handful making sure my camera’s batteries are charged up and cannot prioritise mobile phone charging, so I do not depend much on mobile map.
2 software many travelers seem to use:
City Map 2 Go – this has been my choice for years. You download the map of you destination before you get there. Then you can check your location from the moment you get off the bus. You can even save pins for your places of interest, so you can ensure your bike-taxi driver is going to the right direction, Initially during this trip I did not realise I’d turned off the location services for this app on my new iPhone which made it impossible to use. But after that, sure, this is just as good as it is in any destination. It comes with a list of major sights, restaurants and accommodations, and more information is available when it is online, like when you are back in wifi at hotel.
Maps.ME – some people I met at backpackers told me this is the app they were using. I only tried it briefly, but it is similar to City Maps 2 Go, as I understand.
Why talk about temples? People who visit Myanmar would most likely have been to places like Thailand, and you’d know the rules. Just take your shoes off. Yes, but I found some differences.
Shoes off at the gate – in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I remember the general rule was to take your shoes off before stepping up to tiled floor of the building. This is similar to what I have grown up accustomed to in Japan. In Myanmar, however, often it seems the rule is to take your shoes off before entering the ground of a temple, which means you take your shoes off at the gate, even if it means you end up walking bare feet on what may seem like a gravel path. The thinking here is not about ‘dirt is not unclean’; it is the ‘Sacred place needs to be respected and cannot be walked over with dirty footwear’.
This rule did not seem to be universally practiced, which confused me. Sometimes I would take my shoes off at the very bottom of the long steps leading up to the temple at the hill top, and half way up I may meet a pair of novice (young training monk), one of whom bare feet, the other with sandals on. But it is definitely safer and respectful to just take your shoes off early before entering the temple ground, rather than being unaware of stretching it and upset the people who actually go to those temples to connect with their god. I did not realise the same rule applied to a Hindu temple, just because I have been to few of them, and somebody pointed at my footwear half way up the hill. To be fair, it was a tough one, because I did not know the rule, and I was the only visitor so there were no sandals to be found at the entrance or anywhere along the way.
There are a lot more I want to share with you, which you may or may not be aware of. But that’s enough for now. In the next post, I’ll try to continue the story of my journey. Maybe a bit more about Mandalay, or already moved to the train journey to Bagan bit. I’ll get to that soon (I hope).
As always, I love to hear your comments, thoughts, share, likes, etc. Feel free to check out my Facebook page and Instagram feed as well. Thank you for your support. Safe journeys!