Traveling in Myanmar

“You were in Myanmar one month?! So long?!” We hear this question often, especially if by chance the person knows where Myanmar is. Contrary to its neighbors, Thailand or India, Myanmar is just developing from the touristic point of view, very few people come there, and most of them end up following the beaten tracks. And that you can do in a few days. But it’s not really our cup of tea, so we did everything to discover the true Myanmar, alternative, hidden from the eye of those who always run. We summarize our thoughts and observations in few points hoping you find them useful.

1. Accommodation

In Myanmar it’s illegal to host foreign tourists in a private house. For us, as we traveled across South East Asia sleeping in the hostel maybe 10 times, it was a big challenge. Couchsurfing does not work. Even contacts from friends of friends were limited to drinking a coffee together, because despite the best intentions, nobody could share with us even a piece of floor. You need to go for hostels then, and it’s quite expensive. Only some of them are granted the permission to accept foreigner tourists. This rise the price, so the room costs 3-4 times more than in Thailand or other countries in South East Asia. However, there is one solution…

2. Meditation Center

Meditation Centers are maybe the only places in Myanmar, where people from abroad can be hosted. We spent two weeks at the Thabarwa Mediation Center, located in the suburbs of Yangon. Every day was focused on meditating and doing good deeds, we supported the Center in functioning, caring about old people, setting a compost bin or participating in alms rounds – a daily ceremony of collecting food in which monks go from the Center to Yangon and there, walking barefoot, receive food from the people. This food is the meal for monks, but also for the over 2.000 other people living in the Center, often old, sick, with disabilities (more about our experience in the Center here). Staying at the Center was a great occasion to observe and participate the real Myanmar life, not just the one prepared for tourists, like for example in…

3. Bagan, Inle lake and other tourist destinations

They are beautiful. Really. A must. But if you don’t fancy following the pre-organized path, as in our case, frustration is guaranteed. Only the entrance to those areas costs a lot of dollars, and there you can find heaps of tourist offers, beside they all look the same. You can go for really interesting, but mass trips, you can visit very interesting factories on Inle lake, for example cigars or scarves, but all in all you see this is just a well-organized souvenirs business. It helps somebody, but usually not those who really need help and it does not care for lake itself, which every year is smaller and smaller. Despite that, Bagan and Inle lake cannot be omitted. You can just try to take the best out of it, for example by renting a bike. You can also find 3-4 people and together negotiate a boat ride in Inle lake directly with the owner. You can also try to escape the organized path and…

4. Visit ordinary people

Those cut off from the tourist industry. At the beginning it can be challenging, tourists are rather led through the same paths, from bus to hotel, through all the attractions and most visitors take those paths leaving money to exactly the same people. But if you put some effort then… then you can really discover the magic of Myanmar. Because it was in Myanmar where we met the most friendly and open people. When we took bicycles and started to wander around small villages at Inle lake, each meeting with locals turned out to be a great experience. Nobody spoke English, but smiles and gestures were enough. From each village we would come out with a bag full of mango and warmth in our hearts. Those villages, although located literally few kilometers from the touristic center, are not used to tourists popping up, so they see in them something more than a walking wallet. But you need to put some effort to find places like that. And choose the right…

5. Mean of transport

We recommend bicycles. In Bagan or Inle lake there is no better way of moving. From Yangon to Bagan we went by train. We read in Internet to avoid the third class… so we took it. You can survive it. It’s even quite an interesting adventure, in compartment with local people, 16h on wooden bunches, up and down, up and down as if the wheel were squared. Once in Bagan, the train stops in the middle of nowhere; there are still a few kilometers to the city, which you can do on foot or use one of many taxis being careful to negotiate the price. For entering the area consider that you have to pay the tourist fee. Last summer it was 25$. The railway is not so developed, for many places the only choice will be bus. There are good quality buses, but again you have to be careful with the price, for tourist destinations it will be difficult to get other bus than touristic. We didn’t find any alternative for that, so wherever we could go by train, we did it, if not we took the bus after comparing prices in few different selling points. And now the most important (at least from the Italian point of view ;)) which is…

6. Food

Bought in local bars and stands it is really, really cheap. The price is the same for tourists and for local people. It’s quite challenging to be vegetarian, in a lot of bars you just choose and pay for meat, other items like rice and vegetables are for free. But you cannot take only them, so you need to buy meat, give it to somebody else and enjoy the rest. You can find really good food around monks, in temples or meditation centers: people give them always the best they have. We also recommend small, local cafeterias, with café and different snacks. Cheap, delicious and great people willing to interact. It also never happened that somebody in those local bars tried to cheat on us. We were going there without thinking too much, spending long hours and observing people around. English there usually is not too good, but enough to get coffee, and snacks they will bring anyway, you pay for what you eat. To sum up…

Is it worth to go to Myanmar?

Yes. But you need a lot of patience and good will. Go out of the beaten track. Look for local communities and don’t let people channel you into the usual system, at least not all the time. From our perspective there are in fact two Myanmars: the touristic one, beautiful but frustrating and rather not fully true and the ordinary one, friendly, curious, local, but demanding time and effort so hard to discover on a tidbit trip.

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