When we first saw pictures of balloons floating over the ancient Pagodas of Bagan we knew that we were going to have to visit Myanmar and experience this magical place for ourselves. Low and behold it turned out to be one of the best travel decisions we ever made and so we want to share a few introductory points on travelling to this beautiful country to spread the love and hopefully encourage you to go.
First Things First
The Largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, Myanmar is unlike anywhere we have ever visited before. Formerly known as Burma it was a socialist state up until 2012 meaning its tourism trade is only a few years old and much of the country is completely unaffected by western influence. The result of this is an incredibly untouched feel to the country, amazingly hospitable people and a sense of excitement everywhere you go.
Money - Kyats (pronounced chat)
Language - Myanmar Language
‘Hello’ = Mingalabar
Myanmar People, as they are uncreatively known, are some of the most generous and kind spirited people we have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Proud of their heritage, traditions and country they welcome you with open arms, smiling at every given opportunity. From young children excited to kick a football with you in the street to proud elders beaming smiles in your direction wherever you go, the Myanmar people are genuinely inspirational. At no point during our 3 weeks there did we feel anything other than welcome.
Myanmar is one of the only places we have ever been where hardly anyone speaks ANY English and those who do are incredibly difficult to understand! Myanmar language is a world away from English and so after the initial ’Hi!’ you will soon draw a conversational blank. This gives a brilliant charm to day to day interactions and is so far removed from your daily routine at home that you quickly learn to love the communication complications and soon become a master at Burmese gesticulation as you attempt to converse in DIY sign language. You will have to resign yourself to the fact that 1 in 2 restaurant orders will come out completely different to what you had imagined but it will be served with the broadest of smiles and so becomes a side note. In fact these order roulettes fast become a source of much amusement as you place your bets as to what will come out next.
The food in Myanmar was a complete revelation to us as we must admit we didn’t enter the country with high expectations, especially having come from India and then Malaysia where much of their cultural identity revolves around food. The Myanmar diet centers around delicious soups and noodle dishes and you will quickly become hooked on chilli as they use it in everything - delicious! Western food is practically unheard of other than in big tourist spots so you’ll quickly learn to love the delicious Shaan Noodles and Tea Leaf salads.
One thing that will immediately catch your attention in restaurants and at street stalls is people kissing their teeth at the waiting staff. Initially this custom seems incredibly rude, however you quickly learn that it is simply the way in which locals get the attention of the staff and creates an effective if unconventional system.
Restaurants are very affordable and so you will eat almost every meal out. If you are feeling adventurous you can eat at a street stall, however be warned this is a risky move and might end in a night of regular toilet visits. If you are going to take this gamble make sure it's calculated by picking a busy stall where you can see lots of other customers and that the food is piping hot. If you do this, the rewards can be delicious and VERY cheap!
Accommodation in Myanmar varies considerably and is quite expensive in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries. Yangon is particularly expensive, however you can find cheaper accommodation in other parts of the country. In these places we advise that you check the beds if you get the opportunity - a fair few of the places we stayed in had bed bugs which is far from ideal! On a more positive note hospitality wherever you go tends to be excellent and you are made to feel immediately at home and part of the family.
Unlike many of it’s neighbours, Myanmar is not a country of bartering and haggling, it just simply doesn’t happen. If you attempt to negotiate a price with a street stall owner for example the negotiations will be over before they have begun. This actually results in quite a refreshing simplicity to transaction as the price that’s stated is the final one!
Up until the end of the socialist regime, Myanmar people would very rarely travel long distances if ever at all. Before we set off on our first long bus ride (in a small people carrier) we were told this fact followed by the warning that this results in many locals having car sickness. Low and behold an hour into our journey the sick bags were out in force and our bus quickly gained the aroma of regurgitated breakfast… lovely.
Times are changing...
This article will be relatively inaccurate quite soon due how quickly Myanmar is changing - If this is the case please do let us know and we can use this as a comparative marker in time.