Now is the time to visit the beautiful country of Myanmar before it becomes too crowded by tourists. Myanmar is a beautiful country west of Thailand that opened its doors to tourists a few years ago. It has an interesting history and beautiful places to visit. Burmese people are wonderful and make you feel welcome to their country. A few months ago I decided to go on a jouney to discover Myanmar. It is a unique country in many ways but before visiting the country I think there are a few things to know.
1. The difference between Burma and Myanmar
Apparently there is no difference. Since the British colonial rule the country has been called ”Burma”. However, the military government changed the name to Myanmar in 1989. To make it clear I call the country Myanmar and the people and language Burmese.
2. The two most important words: Hello and Thank you
A smile will always go a long way, as well as knowing a few words in Burmese. The word for Hello is Min-ga-la-bar. It’s easy to learn when you get there because everyone says it. Although learning how to say ” Thank you” is a bit more complicated and needs some practice to say it right: cè-zù tin-ba-deh. Burmese people appreciate it when you make an effort to speak their language.
They even thank you for buying a packet of noodle.
3. All the red spots on the street are not blood
The Burmese people have a strange addiction of chewing betel nut. It is an addictive chewing tobacco that gives you a high. Betel nut vendors have stalls everywhere on the side of the streets. They wrap the betel in a leaf and some herbs and white sticky stuff is added. It is quite a process which is interesting to see but it does not make is appealing.
Betel is mostly chewed by men. They buy a little bag full of them and chew it all through the day and spit it out where ever they feel like they’re done with it. That is why you find red spots which look like blood stains all over the streets. I was horrified when I first saw it but it didn’t take me long to figure out where it came from. You can see who is addicted to it because people that chew it regularly have got red lips and rotten teeth. You can compare this addiction to smoking or drinking. In Myanmar a lot of people smoke as well but they usually don’t buy a whole pack of cigarettes but buy one at a time.
4. Men wear skirts
As soon as you enter Myanmar you’ll see men wearing cloths from their waist to their feet. It’s traditionally called a longyi. It’s not only worn by men, also women wear longyi’s but they fold them around their waste and secure it on the side whereas men tie it in the front. Almost everyone wears them in Myanmar, longyi’s make Myanmar unique. I’ve never seen a country where people are as traditionally cloth as Myanmar. I hope they will keep wearing it rather than changing to the western way of dressing.
Nowadays almost everyone in Myanmar has got a cellphone. They tuck them between their longyi and belly. Might be a good business idea, longyi’s with pockets.
A couple purchasing food at the market wearing their longyi’s
5. Internet is slow, really slow
You’ll be surprised how many people carry around smartphones. Even the average salesperson selling goods from a little cart are watching the latest series on their smartphone. I alwals felt like I was interrupting but if you think about it: they sell every item for probably less than 30 cents so imagine how long it takes them to save up for a smartphone. Anyway, Myanmar has got internet but you need a lot of patience. It takes forever before a page is loaded. Make sure you look up all the information you need on the internet before you go. The advantage of bad internet is that you’ll probably spend more time enjoying Myanmar. You’ll give up doing anything online really quickly.
6. Accommodation is expensive
Most of any travelers’ budget will go to accommodation in Myanmar. In any city the cost of a room is probably double or triple the price than it is in other South East Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos orVietnam. The cheapest room costs around US $25 dollar. Notable is that most hotels are usually very comfortable and build according to western standards. Sometimes the heat can be unbearable outside so a comfortable air-conditioned hotel room can mean a lot. During high season it’s best to book hotels in advance but during low season you can try to get some discount by walking in. Like always make sure to check review online, most hotels in Myanmar advertise on booking.com.
7. Be careful of what you eat
Most Asian countries are known for their food and you don’t have to go far to find it. This is not the case in Myanmar because there are simply not a lot of restaurants. In Yangon or Mandalay you have to make an effort to find something good, Bagan on the other hand has got plenty of good restaurants. Of course there is street food in the centers of the cities but you might just want to walk past because it’s generally not hygienic. If you do want to experience street food in Myanmar, try to avoid meat. On my first day in Yangon I tried street food because it was the only food I could find. I spend two weeks in bed after that. There are places to eat but it’s better to ask at your hotel for good places to eat. Might save you some trouble.
Fried noodles and fried rice: Simple but good! (And a safe choice)
8. Never point your feet at a Buddha
About 90% of the Burmese people are Buddhist. This makes it a very reserved society. For Buddhists the feet are the lowest and unclean part of your body. Pointing with your feet towards someone is seen as disrespectful.
9. Myanmar has got ATM’s
You don’t need to take loads of dollars to enter Myanmar anymore. Most travelers think that Myanmar has got no ATMs but nowadays you can find secure banks everywhere in the cities. Most banks give Burmese Kyat but dollars are popular too. It is advisable to take some dollars with you but make sure they are of good quality. If they have a little crack some hotels might not accept them. Usually they give change in Kyat.
10. Take the train during the day but avoid the night train
The train system that is currently used in Myanmar was constructed by the British when they were still occupying it. This was a long time ago but the Burmese haven’t improved much of their train system. Therefore the train rides make you feel like you’re going back in time. The trains usually go about 30 to 40 kilometers per hour, it takes forever to get anywhere. When you travel during the day you can see the landscape pass by slowly which is very nice because there is a lot to see on the way. Occasionally the train passes a small village and you see all the little children jumping around while waving to the train. Especially when they see foreigners in the train they are so happy. If you need to travel during the night taking a bus is a better option because it is not possible to sleep much in the train. We took a night train from Yangon to Bagan. On one hand it was the most horrible experience in Myanmar but on the other hand it was the best as well because we saw so many beautiful things along the way.
The train never seemed to arrive…
11. Use your right hand
In Myanmar the left hand is seen as dirty because it is associated with the toilet. Therefore you cannot eat with your left hand neither can you hand over something with your left hand. It is considered as rude.
12. Be careful to speak about politics
First of all it is hard to find a Burmese that speaks English good enough to discuss politics and secondly it’s a sensitive subject. You can try to talk about it but just be respectful and know when people do not want to talk about it.
13. Give begging monks and nuns money
On Saturday and Sunday little monks and nuns go onto the street with a big bowl. They are usually not older than 10 when they beg for money. You do not necessarily have to give money but you are supposed to give something. Food is happily accepted. Many street vendors give them food to get through the next week. The nuns wear pink robes and the monks are dressed in orange robes.
A young Buddhist monk
14. No go districts
Myanmar is discovering the advantages of tourism to their economy. They have opened up a big part of their country where tourists can go but there is also a big part where tourists are not welcome. To go to any of these parts you need a permit which is complicated to obtain. Most regions bordering Thailand are no go districts and therefore the easiest way to travel to Myanmar is by airplane.
15. Playing cards are forbidden in Myanmar
You are not allowed to bring playing cards into Myanmar. I assume because of gambling reasons. From my experiences I know a lot of backpackers carry playing cards so keep in mind to get rid of them before you enter the country.
16. The yellow paste Burmese wear on their faces
Almost all Burmese women wear yellow paste on their cheeks as sunscreen. It is paste made from tree bark mixed with water. When I first entered Myanmar I thought it was something religious but that is not the case. It does not really protect you from the sun anyway because I used it and ended up looking like a tomato!
Burmese women waiting to embark the train after going to the market
Do you know other things you should know before travelling to Myanmar or have any questions about Myanmar? Leave a comment.