Alternative title: Mythbusting Myanmar
When we visited: February 17th to March 6th, 2013.
Since Myanmar opened its doors to the world (and invited the tourists to come on in) times have been a changin’. The 2012 Myanmar Lonely Planet was out of date to the point of irrelevance a couple of months after its publication, and internet forums are full of people searching for up to date information.
In February 2013, before we left, we (okay, I) went a bit google-mad, trying to get some idea of what it was actually like (and how much it actually cost, of course) to travel in Myanmar since its doors opened and its recent tourist boom began. The results, quite frankly, scared the bajayzus out of me.
The general internet* consensus was that the 2013 version of Myanmar is: super expensive, overrun with big-bus tour groups, with shite customer service, oily food, and no chance of getting accommodation on arrival. On the bright side, the internet also described Myanmar as being full of amazing, ridiculously friendly people and beautiful sights.
(*To be fair, I may have relied on the flashpacker-dominated Tripadvisor reviews a little too heavily!)
An article on Boots n’ All, while full of great information, estimates $45/day per budget traveler. Having kept our daily budget under $25/day during our time in mainland Malaysia, the idea of spending at least $45/day was a little harsh.
Anyway, now that we’re back, I’m ready to get my Mythbuster on and let you guys know the reality of backpacking in Myanmar right now. Well, last month, anyway.
Myth: Myanmar is super expensive.
Reality: For the most part, Myanmar is cheap as chips. You can eat well for around $2 a meal, and bus trips only cost a couple of dollars more than in Malaysia or Thailand. Accommodation (particularly in Yangon and Mandalay) is definitely a bit pricier than other South East Asian countries. That said, we found a couple of double rooms for $12 and plenty for around $20. Plus, we met a fair few backpackers who were spending $5-$10 a night.
In total, we spent an average of around $26/day each. We were careful with money, sure, but never scrimped on experiences. We paid for guided trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, stayed in rooms with (mostly!) aircon and hot showers, went on boat rides, visited a vineyard, drank a fair few beers, and ate. A lot.
Myth: Customer service is rubbish.
Reality: While flicking through accommodation reviews, I came across the idea that – due to the high demand and lack of options – the service at hotels and restaurants had gone downhill in a big way. Perhaps our slightly different standards (or lack thereof) are to blame here, but we found it to be entirely the opposite. We never had problems with disappearing bookings, rude people, or terrible rooms. On the contrary, people couldn’t have been kinder: we often scored free juice on arrival, and there was almost always someone opening doors and carrying bags for us. Whether we liked it or not.
Myth: Big bus tour groups are taking over the country.
Reality: There’s some truth to this one. For the most part, I say travel whenever, however, and wherever you feel like it. However, when a shiny behemoth of a tour bus speeds past me on my bicycle (pushing a few locals on horse-cart aside in the process) on a teeny dirt road in Bagan, I do feel a tad resentful.
I understand (sorta…) the impulse to have things arranged for you ahead of time and to avoid navigating local transport, but in the quaint, dusty towns of Myanmar, it feels a little intrusive. That’s all I’m saying.
Plus, on a less selfish note, staying at local guesthouses, using local transport, and hiring guides on a town-by-town basis ensures that more of your money is pumped back into local economies, rather than flowing straight to the government.
Myth: The food is oily as can be.
Reality: Uh, also true. We found some great salads, but for the most part local dishes are served swimming in their own little pools of oil. We also noticed that ‘steamed’ tends to mean ‘boiled in oily broth’. Mmm-mm! Still, most of the food is pretty tasty. And the salads (tomato and avocado especially) are really tasty.
Myth: Finding accommodation on arrival is impossible.
Reality: In super-duper high season (December-January), this may well have been a problem. We heard plenty of horror stories of backpackers wandering the streets of Yangon, searching for a place to rest their weary heads.
So, despite our general ‘no booking in advance’ policy, we did book two rooms; one in Yangon on the night we arrived, and one in Inle Lake. And while we weren’t exactly sad we did, it wasn’t entirely necessary and we ended up spending quite a bit more than if we’d just arrived and looked for places that you can’t book online. Yangon does seem to be a little tricky right now– the accommodation isn’t exactly plentiful, and the budget options fill up quickly. However, when we passed through on our way out we didn’t book and, after a little wandering, found something a lot cheaper.
Bottom line? If you book online, you pay more. Finding accommodation on arrival in Yangon and Mandalay can be time-consuming, but is certainly not impossible. Everywhere else, there seemed to be plenty of space.
Myth: The people are out-of-this-world friendly.
Reality: I’m happy to confirm that this is, judging from our experience, is totally, completely true. From the moment we arrived, we were greeted with grins, waves, a couple of double takes (tattooed women don’t seem too common there, surprisingly enough…) and plenty of ‘Hello! Where you from? What is your name? Welcome to Myanmar!’s. The strangest part? They weren’t even trying to sell us anything. Weird, I know.
Here’s a wee story to illustrate the instinctive, unquestioning hospitality we encountered: During our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, we stayed with families in small villages along the route. One night, we ventured out to find the local ‘shop’ (it had beer!). We wandered for a bit, before coming across a dude grinning at us. ‘Shop?’ we asked. He smiled, nodded, and gestured for us to come on up. At the top of the staircase, we saw his wife, smiling and bowing, and a mat set up with cushions and a pot of tea.
Apparently, we’d stumbled into some random villagers’ house and, instead of being told to piss off (a perfectly reasonable reaction, I reckon), we’d been invited in for a cup of tea. See what I’m saying? Out-of-this-world nice.
Myth: It’s just plain beautiful.
Reality: I’ll let the photos answer this one.
All in all, traveling in Myanmar was, for me, a pleasant surprise. I encountered all the rad stuff I was hoping for and avoided all the rubbish stuff I was dreading. Win!