Myanmar (Burma): Impressions

My trip to Myanmar (Burma) was short and sweet hitting the four main areas of Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake, and Mandalay. However, on the second day of my stay in Yangon a fellow traveller (who’d been in the country for a month), described Burma as mostly “temples and pagodas”. And he was right. The only thing I’d add is that the country seems to be a “greener Cambodia” and offers some trekking opportunities outside of the main cities. The following are some of my impressions of the country.

  • Accommodation took most of my budget. If you’re using the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar, add about $3-$4 to the listed price for accommodation. I was travelling solo, but it seems that travelling as a pair would offer better room rates. Double rooms were as cheap as $15 per night regardless if one or two people were in the room. Dorms were roughly $10 a night. The other thing to bear in mind is that November to March is the high season because the temperatures are nicer.
  • Food is cheap. $2 (1500 KS) will usually buy you a large portion of rice or noodles (fried or steamed) with your choice of meat or vegetables.
  • Beer is cheap (1200-1800 KS). Don’t be fooled by the “reward” of Myanmar beer’s bottle cap, it’s still cheaper to buy another beer such as Mandalay or Dagon.
  • The banks and official money changers gave the best exchange for new USD, while hotels and hostels weren’t that good. Exchange rates vary according to the amount you’re changing: small bills ($1, $5, $10, $20) get about 30 Kyats less than bigger bills ($50 and $100s). Rates in hotels weren’t good. My $50USD bill was rejected because it was folded, something I missed when changing money back in Penang, Malaysia. The hotel, however, accepted it.
  • The country seems to shut down at around 9 or 10 pm and it gets quiet. Yangon and Mandalay were pretty warm but Bagan and Inle Lake were pretty cool at night.
  • On the tourist trail I had no problem communicating in English. I did learn two phrases in Burmese: jay su be (“thank you”) and mingalaba (“auspiciousness be upon you”, aka “hello”).
  • People are nice and they don’t stare at you like their other SE Asian counterparts (think… Indonesia?!). In Yangon folks would initiate a conversation for the sake of talking, in other places it was all about the sale.
  • You can find some very fine peated whiskey for cheap, $2.70 (Golden Royal) but try the local moonshine, made from palm sugar. It smells bad but tastes okay and, despite the alcohol percentage advertised, it isn’t all that strong.
  • Betel nut tastes like soap… and if you haven’t had it before, maybe just start with a little bit. Yech.
  • The Burmese face paint is a neat idea. Lots of girls/women still wearing it. A new fashion to be adopted in the West?
  • I didn’t see any fast food joints in the cities I visited, but Pepsi and Coke can be found in most places if not their replacements “Star” and “Max”.
  • For a country “with no ATMs”, there sure were a lot of ATMs. Most accepted Mastercard/Cirrus/Maestro but CB Bank has just introduced Visa cards to the country. I saw one guy trying to use it but he never withdrew any money.
  • Just about everybody was using the English version of the Lonely Planet guide. Couldn’t help but congratulate LP on that accomplishment.

Those are just some of my impressions of the country thus far. I’ll be writing up about my travel itinerary shortly.