Think You Know Myanmar? Think Again – 9 Essential Facts & 6 Tips Before You Go

My trip to Yangon, the financial capital, sprang out of a chance encounter before I left Hong Kong, and was only confirmed after I had started travelling in Thailand. I relied heavily on their tips, and hopefully this will be helpful for other backpackers going through the country. This review is specific to Yangon.

Section 1: What Happens in Yangon Stays in Yangon

Actually, it never leaves Yangon mostly because the country has only been recently connected and even the most digitally addicted people quickly decide that there’s more to do in than pray a dropped connection comes back. So here’s a recount of unique things I noticed about this charming city.

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It’s local. To people living in Yangon for more than 2 years, the mushrooming of foreign restaurants, products, and people is mind blowing. Now instead of just Chinese restaurants, you have Korean, Japanese, French and Italian to choose from, just to name a few. To travellers and visitors, these one or two outposts may not even be noticeable. However, the lack of a tourism industry that exists in the rest of South-East Asia is refreshing; locals do not approach you to hawk wares or entice you for a tour; if they do, it’s truly because they’re curious and want to chat or help. The restaurants are also filled with locals and they happily accommodate you. You are free to wander anywhere, and you will be left alone.

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Gestures are everything. English is not widely spoken, and Myanmar/Burmese is (I am told) an impossibly complicated language. You can stick to learning greetings, thank you, and numbers – and lots of pointing. People are genuinely kind, and I spent 15 minutes at a shop trying to set up data connection with two attendees who didn’t understand a word of English. When they finally figured it out and couldn’t fix it, they phoned their friends, then they took me next door to another shop where the owner did speak a bit of English and tried again to help. It’s not one isolated case, so try to get your point across not by speaking more loudly, but by being more creative.

Taxi drivers just have moods. Taxis have no meter, so the price is what ever the driver wants. Don’t take a high price personally. Yes, it can be that they see you’re a foreigner and want to make an extra bit, but they also negotiate with locals. A driver can equally say no to a destination no matter your offer price – because he does’t feel like it. Another driver might volunteer a low price because he feels like it. It’s that simple. There’s no reason why one driver said no and the one behind says yes, so just keep trying if you know you have a fair price. Smiling helps!

Taxi drivers also say sorry! One taxi driver heard ‘German Embassy’ and took me behind the ‘Japanese Embassy’ that I wanted to go to and apologised profusely before circling back even though I could have walked 5 minutes to get where I needed to go. Another taxi driver apologised for getting into a traffic jam (which the entire city was in by rush hour). I’ve had taxi drivers double back to get where I needed to go, and other ones who patiently wait for me to figure things out on a map.

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Anything goes for driving. Until recently, Myanmar drove on the left and followed the British colonial system. That changed overnight, and the traffic is (mostly) on the right (except when an an aggressive bus decides to go up against oncoming traffic). As such, most steering wheels are still on the right, and a significant number that aren’t. Either way, the taxi drivers, and especially the bus drivers, have a lot of character. Give them a tin box with a pedal and a steering wheel, and they’ll make it work.

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Ride through time. If you dare, ride on one of the public buses for 200 Kyat (US$0.20) for any length of the route. The public buses are relics from the 70s in Japan, Thailand and Korea. You may find a door (or not), wooden floor boards, a TV, hard bench or a coach seat, and handrails of all shapes and sizes. You can even see what signs and advertisements looked like in other countries from 40 years ago. These vehicles of varying lengths and heights aren’t exactly sightly, and yet are always more intact inside than you would expect. A safe bet is to take a bus from uptown back downtown to Sule, as the major roads run North-South.

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Unique architecture. The local place I stayed at has a hallway that looks like a jail leading to isolation cells. However, when you walk in, the units are rather large and spacious. In contrast, you have other buildings that look like boat houses with stunning views from rooftops. Downtown Sule is gridded, and has colourful colonial architecture that is slowly crumbling away, and is still a collection of different ethnic communities that make up the mosaic of Myanmar (which still has a lot of internal ethnic conflicts, but this piece won’t go into that).

IMG_20150512_152226 (1)Crumbling sidewalks and pristine public parks. Kandawgyi LakeInya Lake, and People’s Park and People’s Square, are extremely well-kept parks with massive lakes. Within metres of walking in, the screeching buses and honks fade away and you can lie in the well-kept grass under a willow tree. At night, young couples go to Inya Lake, and Kandawgyi Lake is lively on Friday nights for music.

If some of this piques your interest, then Myanmar might be the place for you. It has a subtle way of getting capturing your imagination and endearing you even before you realise. By the time I left a week later, I was already planning on my next return – and I’d just seen one city. The section section (below) is essential travel info to help you get started on your trip there.

DSC05309You’re in an irreplaceable moment in time. A year ago, Myanmar’s SIM Cards costed US$160. Now they cost US$1.50 (or usually US$2-4 from a reseller). Yes, new competitors like Telenor and Ooredoo have driven down prices of the MPT monopoly, but the story’s more interesting then that. Previously, SIM cards were given free, but for a lottery, and only one family could have one. As such, the US$160 was the black market price, because before 2008 many things depended on the black market. Three years ago, there were virtually no cars, so everyone relied on buses and collapsing (literally seat flying out) taxis. Yangon is now a car-congested metropolis, filled with new(er) models. A friend who moved here two years ago used to work out of the Shangri La when the power went out in her office because it had a generator (and continued access to Wi Fi) in order to meet client deadlines. The Yangon I saw seemed to be a 24-hour city. Other developing countries are also changing rapidly, but Myanmar’s floodgates have just begun to open.


Section 2: Essential Travel Info

Visas: Visa Upon Arrival and eVisas Available, But Check Conditions

You can get a visa upon arrival, but make sure you have as much documentation as possible. If you have even a few days, I would highly suggest getting an eVisa (if you are flying in only) to save you any hassle at the airport in case you’re unlucky at immigration. Crossing by land is more complicated, and I’d generally not recommend it except for the seasoned adventurers.

Generally What To Expect

Actually, just leave your expectations on the plane. Whatever you expect, Myanmar will have other surprises. If you are flying into Yangon, the airport is quite nice and clean. Yangon is a bustling city, filled with (newly introduced) cars, and the shops are equipped with the same neon lights you see in other countries. It’s still rough around the edges, and little useful signage in English, but the people are extremely friendly even if English is not widely spoken.

Also, expect to spend more than you do in other South-East Asian countries, especially on accommodation and potentially transportation.

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Cash Only

It is a cash country. Make sure you have pristine, post-2006, colour, USD to change. No creases or folds. No rips. No joke.

When you arrive at Yangon airport, you can change your clean crisp USD bills for local Kyat. The rates are good, and better for larger notes. Unlike a few years ago, avoid the money changers downtown (called ‘Sule‘). You can leave the smaller denominations in case you need to pay in USD.

An alternative, if you are in downtown Yangon, is to try to find an ATM and withdraw a large amount. Make sure that your bank will allow you to withdraw in Myanmar, which is still quite disconnected from the global financial markets.

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Accommodation

Accommodation is expensive. Hostels are not yet abundant, and the places you can find are not decorated like the ones in Thailand or other popular neighbouring countries. You can easily expect between USD 20-50 for a basic hotel room. Nomad’s Wind has a decent list for each of the major cities. Your best bet is Couch Surfing.

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Food

Unless you are in areas like Kandawgyi Lake, People’s Park and People’s Square, Sule, and Golden Valley, there probably won’t be an English menu. You can take a cue at looking at what the locals order and pointing. If you are at a local joint like this one then you will likely find Shan noodles or South Indian food for about 500-1000 Kyat (US$0.5-1.0 approx). Local food is a range between Indian, Thai, and Chinese influences. This means from basically stir-fry to curries, preserves, and some raw vegetables as a side. I’ve never had a problem eating at the local restaurants and food stalls, but if you have a sensitive stomach, choose somewhere that has a flame going rather than dishes sitting in the display cabinets.

If you go to one of the new Western / foreign restaurants that have been cropping up in the past few years, then your prices sit between US$2-5. Shan Noodles in the best downtown places usually cost about US$2. At the upper end, Shangri-La Sule, then you can expect between US$4 for a pie or US$18 for a meal.

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Internet and SIM

In Yangon, many Western places and cafes will have Wi-Fi, but it is not always reliable. I usually lost signals when there was rain.

SIM cards are now readily accessible. MPT is the national telecoms company with the widest coverage, while Telenor and Ooredoo are generally ‘faster’ but with more spotty coverage. You’ll just have to try your luck. A SIM from the telecom shop should be 1500 Kyat, whereas if you get it from resellers you will have to negotiate a price (between 2000-4000 Kyat, but I wouldn’t pay above that). You can then purchase a top up at any of the convenience stores or at the telecoms shop itself (GSM Top Up is usually understood). The lowest top up for 1 GB of data should be 5000 Kyat (US$5), but this might change!

As a tip, I have been told that even in remote regions where nearly nothing loads, Facebook usually still works. It is how locals keep connected.

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Transportation

Yangon is big. Do not attempt to walk all of it, but some parts are great for an afternoon stroll. You can go around Kandawgyi Lake, People’s Park and People’s Square, and Inya Lake if you like parks, as they are extremely well kept and have some restaurants around. The downtown area, Sule, is walkable, but you can rent a bicycle to save yourself some time and hop between the various areas, such as Chinatown, the Indian quarter, etc.

You can also take taxis if you know the name of the place you’re going to (hotel, famous restaurant, lake, tourist attraction). Yangon is a city that goes by landmarks (especially since it’s a little complicated to give directions). Common landmarks to tell taxi’s would be: Kandawgyi Lake (+ name of restaurant if you want certain side), Shwedagon PagodaInya LakeSuleShangri-La Sule, Bygyoke Market, Ferry Terminal / Port Authority, Train Station, and of course Airport.*

*Note with names: Kandawgyi is pronounced Can-Dau-Jee and Bygoke Market is ‘Bi-j-yo-kay’ with a short ‘i’ and soft ‘g’.
Shwedagon is pronounced Sh-Way-da-gon (like the word ‘gone’)

A typical taxi ride around the downtown areas will set you back between 1500-3000 Kyat (US$1-3) depending on the driver and your negotiation skills. A typical taxi ride from where I stayed far uptown, which is 30-60 mins drive down to Kandawgyi Lake or Sule was 3000-4000 Kyat (US$3-4). If you want to know where I live to get a sense of distance, click here. A ride to the airport will likely be at least 5000 Kyat from downtown.

In contrast, a local bus ride is a flat 200 Kyat. It is the price for foreigners, no matter the distance. I loved the buses, which go along the few main, predictable roads up and down the city. However, make sure you don’t get motion sickness and have high tolerance for aggressive driving. Look for either a bus shelter or a collection of collection of people standing by the side walk looking at the street. The announcer will yell the name of the stops as the bus is screeching by. For the buses going down the length of the city, you can shout Sule and see if they nod and grab you.

An attraction and transportation route is also the circular train which goes around Yangon. That costs 200 Kyat as well – easily one of the most enjoyable ways to see the different areas of the city. It takes about 4 hours to complete a circle.

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Safety

If you came expecting the usual tourist scams, or petty crime, you’re way off! Yangon is extremely safe. As a woman, I could go anywhere I wanted and never felt stared at or followed. I often went back to a local area late at night (11pm) and walked through some dimly lit streets feeling fine. All the drivers of taxis have gone the direct route (since there are no meters and prices are negotiated beforehand). You don’t need a tour to take you to the sites in the city – just tell a driver!

Shrines around Shwedagon Pagoda near Sunset

As a final thought: no matter how much you’ve read about Myanmar (or any place for that matter), you don’t know it. No matter how long you’ve stayed, you won’t quite ‘get it’. If it worries you, don’t let it. It’s entirely part of the charm. 

If you liked this post, check out my post on the 80-20 Packing rule and my public Japan travel expenses.

 

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