Myanmar is a mystery deepened, not solved, by a visit. The military junta that long controlled the country officially dissolved in 2011 and tourism in Myanmar has been soaring since. More than once, I was given the advice to “go see it before it changes.”
Well, I can only imagine that my husband and I must have made it in time.
When we traveled to Myanmar from Thailand in September 2014, I was stunned and inspired. We had been avidly traveling around Asia since 2009 and the last place that made such an impression on me was Cambodia. Cambodia was striking for a myriad of reasons and very different from other countries we had visited in Asia, but Myanmar was SO much MORE different.
1. It is completely off the banana pancake trail
The “banana pancake trail” is a term used to describe the well-beaten backpacker path through Southeast Asia, inspired by the expected luxury of a warm, fresh banana pancake that one can generally count on from their guesthouse of choice, or at least from some little restaurant in the surrounding area.
Banana pancakes are served in those places that make a backpacker feel like Indian Jones, if he or she only ignores the western kids on gap-year at the table over, or the expat married to the local woman who operates the place.
Suspiciously, there seems to be a direct correlation between seeing these western faces and having access to banana pancakes, leading one to secretly contemplate whether they truly are Indiana Jones.
I explain this to illustrate a very important, unusual, and telling element of travel in Myanmar:
You will see western faces, but you will NOT find banana pancakes.
If you are so lucky to come across a banana pancake that I missed, I just short of guarantee you it will not be widespread and it will be in a place without banana pancake ambiance. Those of you who have traveled in Southeast Asia should know what I mean.
Banana pancakes are an indicative food. Just as a particular species can, by its very presence in an ecosystem, indicate many other truths about that habitat, banana pancakes are the same way. The presence of Starbucks in an area of Asia represents a whole other set of truths about that habitat.
This is important to know, not because I think people should travel around to global Starbucks locations or deprive themselves of an authentic experience for the sake of a breakfast treat they could have made at home, but to prepare you.
2. Spend a little extra on hotels
The supply of adequate hotels in Myanmar has not yet caught up with the demand created by increasing numbers of tourists. But don’t let that deter you from going because you can find great options, if you invest time into reading reviews from other travelers.
My favorite site for travelers’ reviews is Tripadvisor. Just type in your destination city and choose the hotels option. You can also search for guest houses. This is a good resource for planning any trip, whether domestic or international, but while choosing hotels in Myanmar, this site will be of particular importance. Many other websites showcase photos that look absolutely nothing like the hotel will look in person. The “travelers’ photos” section of Tripadvisor is a lifesaver. Sometimes professional and potentially misleading photos can get mixed in with travelers’ photos, but these are easy to spot, as they appear to be advertising photos and you can see who posted them.
And while you can easily find a clean, comfortable guesthouse for $20 – $30 USD in many places in Southeast Asia, I encourage you to increase your budget in Myanmar for the sake of your overall experience.
Below, I’ve included the hotels we stayed at in Bagan, Inle Lake, and Yangon. We were looking for mid-range hotels within a reasonable budget. I’m sure if you are really on a backpacker’s budget, a trip in Myanmar can still be accomplished. However, as much as we appreciated those days of yesteryear, I’m now willing to pay a little more for comfort and sanitation. With that perspective in mind, here are my recommendations:
Given the other limited options in Bagan, we settled on this hotel after reading through a plethora of other hotel reviews. Overall, the Amazing Bagan Resort gives the impression of a place that would have been bustling during British colonial times and has all the potential for a renaissance with some tender loving care. If you can spend a little more to stay here, I don’t think you’ll regret that decision.
Inle Lake (Taunggyi)
This was a bit of a splurge, but completely worth it, particularly if you will be taking a long bus ride from Bagan or Yangon. This hotel is built right on Inle Lake and features spectacular views.
**Note that this was my least favorite hotel in Myanmar, but it was also a HUGE upgrade from the quality of the hotel we originally booked and then promptly left after witnessing its shocking conditions: the Triple H Hotel.
Absolutely avoid the Triple H Hotel. This was the only hotel that we didn’t check on Tripadvisor before booking, which was a huge mistake. The inside of the toilet was completely black. When someone came up to clean it (after we had already been brought to our dungeon…I mean, room…), I couldn’t decide which outcome would be worse: if they weren’t able to remove the black or if they WERE able to.
Upon accepting the age-old notion of “happy wife, happy life,” my husband agreed to start walking far, far away from the Triple H Hotel and we soon stumbled upon the Panorama Hotel. It was very conveniently located, sanitary, and comfortable. It was nothing to write home about, but it was sufficient. I hope to find even better options on our next trip.
3. The older generation speaks English better than the younger generation: take time to talk with them
Generally, as one would expect from the effects of globalization, younger people in Asian countries speak English better than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Myanmar does not follow this pattern.
In fact, the best English language skills I encountered in Myanmar were almost invariably held by people who looked to be 70 years of age or older (besides an adorable, hustling postcard sales boy, who successfully sold me many postcards I did not need). Even people who did not speak English were eager to interact. Unofficial sign language and smiles go a long way.
Burmese food is delicious and the scenery is splendid, but the real reason to travel to Myanmar is the people. One conversation I had with an elderly man and his daughter from Chin State, while sitting in an open-air Muslim restaurant in the humid heat of Bagan, will remain in my memory forever. Those unexpected moments are the greatest treasures you can bring home from Myanmar, but if you don’t take the time to sit down and make yourself available for conversation, you’ll miss out.
4. Try some “thanaka” on your cheeks
Upon arriving in Myanmar, you are sure to quickly notice what looks like pale yellow paint on the cheeks of many people, particularly women, girls, and babies, but also some men. This is called “thanaka,” a paste derived from the bark of thanaka trees, used for a variety of cosmetic and medicinal purposes, mostly notably, sun protection. The use of thanaka extends beyond its practical utility to act as a beauty/fashion statement. Girls and young women carefully apply their thanaka in beautiful shapes and patterns on their face, focusing on the cheeks.
While you are out and about in Myanmar, you are likely to be approached by a person selling small packages of thanaka. Don’t pass up the opportunity. Nowhere else in the world will you see this. Very likely, your salesperson will enthusiastically offer to help you apply the thanaka to your cheeks. Don’t pass up this opportunity either. The beauty of a trip to Myanmar is connecting with the people and the sight of a foreigner applying thanaka is sure to attract others and conversation. Go with the flow and don’t forget to take a photo!
5. Some areas are restricted for tourists and you can only cross overland at the Thai-Myanmar border
Certain states and areas within states are restrict international travelers. Information regarding these restricted areas changes from time to time and it can be difficult to obtain up-to-date information. At present (2016), certain areas within the Chin State, Kachin State, Kayah State, and Kayin State are restricted. All the areas described in this post including, Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake, and Yangon are open to tourists, as of the time of this writing.
In addition, while Myanmar is bordered by China, India, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand, the only border crossings open to foreign tourists are those on the Thai-Myanmar border. These include: Mae Sot (Thailand)/Myawaddy (Myanmar), Mae Sai (Thailand)/Tachileik (Myanmar), and Phunaron (Thailand)/Htee Kee (Myanmar). Other border crossings are either restricted or require special government approval.
I’m so glad we got to Myanmar “before it changed.” I encourage you to do the same. Although I loved relaxing and reading at Inle Lake, Myanmar is not particularly the place I would go to relax and unwind. Things will be a little more difficult than traveling in other Asian countries. The best time to go is when you are open to learning, excited, and refreshed.
If you have traveled to Myanmar or are planning a trip, please tell us about it! I’m happy to answer any questions about our experience that you may have.