El Chalten will always stay in my heart as a place where I felt in …
Before my travel to Burma I knew that it won’t be an easy travel destination. I did wanted to escape the european winter cold, but even more I wanted to explore and experience something different from what I’ve seen before. Something authentic, so hard to find these days. Burma didn’t disappoint me.
The opinions about Myanmar from the people who’ve been there varied from: ‘it is truly amazing! If you want a true experience you must visit as soon as possible!’ to ‘Go somewhere else. It’s an overpriced place and hard to travel’. Both were true. The second opinion didn’t discourage me though, quite the opposite! Hard to travel usually means authentic.
Myanmar is still a military regime, only starting to slowly opening itself to the external world from a few years. When I traveled to Burma for 15 days in March 2015 it was still one of the places with the least impact of tourism I’ve ever seen.
I gladly made it to there before Mc Donald did.
Should you travel to Burma?
It all depends on your travelling style. It’s not a place for everyone.
If you want an easy, pleasant time, nice sunny holidays, get some exotic feeling and simply ‘have fun’… rather consider nearby Thailand. They will pamper you as much as you need! Nothing wrong with that, and it will be much easier to get there.
Even though Burma has some great beaches around the Ngapali, for the typical ‘sun & fun’ holiday seekers, other countries of South East Asia have more to offer.
If what you have a bit of Indiana Jones style of travelling, read on. I definitely recommend visiting Burma to people who are looking for a true experience and who are already experienced in travelling.
Comparing to the other countries in the region, Burma is relatively expensive and difficult to travel, due to poor (but rapidly growing) tourist infrastructure. Adding to that lack of trustful and actual information, and big distances between the most worth visiting places can make travelling there complicated, indeed.
In opposition to all the touristy playgrounds like Thailand or Philippines nearby, Burma is authentic and truly great which is hard to find in the rapidly globalized world. Is that what you want?
Then here are my advice for people who consider Burma as their backpacking destiny.
1. Go there soon
When is the best time to visit Myanma? ‘As soon as possible’.
Myanmar is changing really fast, which means that it also looses its uniqueness as fast as the changes go. My experience from early 2015 already significantly varied from experiences of the people who visited the country the year before.
The tendencies surely will be increase the easiness of travel the country, but probably for the price of using it uniqueness. In a few years the most spectacular places in Burma may not differ much from its super touristy neighbours. Go there as fast to feel like a traveler, not like a tourist.
Regarding the weather conditions the best is to go there during Myanmar’s dry season which runs from October through to May.
2. Ask yourself what kind of experience you want to get from Burma
‘Visiting Burma’ will mean different things for different people. It’s a huge country, which has so much to offer that you simply cannot do it all at once.
Most of people visit Bagan and Inle lake, which are maybe the most specatucalar attractions for visitors. Some go also for the beaches in the area of Ngpali beach. Ask yourself carefully what kind of experience you want from this country, and I’m sure you will get it if you research properly.
For me the most important aspect was having a peek to the buddhist philosophy and lifestyle. After visiting Shwedagon Paya, a huge buddhist complex in Yangon, the capital of Burma I went 12 hours bus ride south to spend almost a week in a buddhist monastery.
Living in a forrest and incorporating buddhist routines into my life for a few days was maybe one of the most unique experiences during all my travels. These time there stretched and felt longer than it was by ‘measurable standards’.
Some of the things I’ve learned in the buddhist monastery I still apply into my everyday life. You can read more about that in my article about mindfulness.
3. Listen only to the very actual and confirmed information
While doing research before your trip, keep in mind that Burmese tourist infrastructure is growing so fast, that some of the info, even from one year ago, might not be actual anymore.
Don’t stress out too much (as I did). For example, I remember promptly exchanging my dollars to kayats with very bad rates on Thai airport after being told from many resources that there are no ATMs in Burma. And what? A huge ATM was one of the first thing I’ve since when I arrived there! There were ATMs in every bigger tourist hub (Bagan, Inle, Yangon, Mandalay).
My advice would be to make as much of research as you can, get both cash in dollars and a debit card with you and assume that all will be good.
4. Consider staying longer than you initially planned
If you are an experienced traveler, I bet that you gonna love Burma.
If you can, try to spend all 28 days of your allocated visa allowance in Myanmar. It’s so various that everyone will find some interesting sights to explore.
Travelling through the country with buses is cheap, (7-14 dollars per overnight ride) but time consuming. The local transport won’t make it easy to see it all. Of course you can use national planes, but they are quite difficult to book and expensive (at least 10 times more expensive than the land transport).
Plus, if you take a flight a fair share of the fees you’ve paid goes to the government, supporting which is still a tricky very issue.
5. Get your visa in advance
I went to the nearest embassy on Myanmar which luckily was in Berlin and got visa the same day (which was by the way a day before my trip).
This last minut organsing is possible with a bit of luck, but to keep it less stressful and dependant on burmese beaurocracy I would recommend to take care of your visa in advance.
Check the official website for more info: http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/
6. Get Vaccines and take medications with you
Go to travel doctor and get proper vaccines a few weeks before you leave. Hepatitis A and Typhoid are musts, because of the contaminated food and water in Burma. Vaccines and prevention against Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis, Malaria, Rabies and Yellow Fever are highly recommended.
Take some stomach medications with you. Even with my strong and easily adjustable stomach, I was food poisoned most of the time of my trip. It has never happened to me to any place I visited before.
7. Plan your itinerary before
As much as I normally like to arrive to a place and build my travel itinerary once I am on a spot and listen to myself how I feel, who I met etc, with Burma is maybe worthing thinking about that in advanced.
Burma is huge and crossing the long distances will take time, plus in more popular places (Bagan, Inle) the infrastructure is still not enough big to cater the demand. To avoid overpaying use Hostelworld.com or Agora.com and book your accommodations in advance.
If you want to get inspired , here is what I visited in Burma in two weeks.
8. Travel respectfully to Burmese political situation
Although Myanmar now claims an elected civilian government, the country is still full of oppression. Read about the current history of Burma before going, to avoid involuntary support the proceeders harmful for the citizens.
Support local entrepreneurship by staying in small hostels and using buses instead of planes (the fees goes to government).
9. Chill down and enjoy being out of your comfort zone
Travelling Burma can be a good lesson that it’s all about enjoying the journey, not the destination.
Waiting waiting and waiting. I remember a lot of that. Travelling the country alone was not always pleasant. Buses ride can range from 7 hours to 15 hours depends when you go, so simply chill and enjoy your time of being disconnected to the comfort you are used to.
I ended up in the middle of nowhere with no English speaker around me. No wi fi. Just me alone, in the middle of the night with strangers who don’t speak my language.
You can get this experience a lot in Burma, which is maybe not the most pleasant one but definitely teaches you something. It’s a great training to chill and get out of your comfort zone. Travels between the places are long and necessary. There are not many places which were almost untouched by globalization, and Burma definitely counts like one of them.
10. Don’t expect things
Don’t think that it will be similar to any other place you seen before Burma is unique. Observe it with your eyes wide open and don’t expect things. They will be different than what you’ve seen before and some things which you normally get elsewhere will be missing.
For example don’t expect delicious fancy presented asian food. Nothing like that. Outside of the monastery where we’ve been eating our last meal at 10 30 AM , consisted of great various and vegan food prepared by local women from the village, in other places in Burma food didn’t really match with my taste. What’s more it made my normally super strong stomach sick for almost all my stay in Burma. Deal with it and live like locals do.
What you will get instead will be never-ending smiles from people around you, their curiosity and friendliness. Breathtaking landscapes and well preserved temples. You may even get a ‘ chronic temple fatigue’ and simple get bored of all these buddhist masterpieces of architecture. Then go and pend time in the traditional teak villages, visit small-town markets getting to know some of the most truly friendly people you will meet anywhere in the world.