I was searching for my next destination for a solo trip this year and I had China on my radar. As I went through a bit of research, I reckoned that the trip would not be as cheap as I thought. So I started looking for cheaper options and stumbled upon Myanmar. As I googled places to see in Myanmar, I found amazing sunset photos of Bagan with pagodas scattered all around. At that moment, I told myself, “Myanmar it is!”
Booking air ticket
I traveled to Myanmar in March 2015 and at that time (and as of this writing), there were no direct flights to Yangon from Manila. Air Asia flies to Yangon from Manila via Kuala Lumpur while Cebu Pacific has flights via Singapore, operated by Tiger Air. During the time I booked, I opted for Malaysia Airlines taking the route Manila-KL-Yangon, as the fares were comparable to these airlines and the total travel time was the shortest.
The Philippines and Myanmar signed an agreement that Philippine passport holders may enter Myanmar without a visa for a stay of up to 14 days, effective January 4, 2014.
My travel dates did not exceed 14 days so I don’t need to secure a visa. However, this came as a surprise to the Malaysia Airlines’ ground crew in charge of checking the boarding pass prior to boarding. She wanted me to show her a Myanmar visa but I confidently informed her that Filipinos can travel to Myanmar visa-free if the visit does not exceed 14 days. My source was the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs so I’m sure I’m on the right side. Behind me on the line are two Indonesians who are entering Myanmar on a business trip and were similarly questioned why they have no visa.
Yangon International Airport - this wall painting is definitely an attention-grabber
After some clicking and typing at her keyboard and some staring at the monitor, she picked up the phone as if she couldn’t find the answer there. After a phone conversation which I did not understand, she eventually ripped off our boarding passes and allowed us to board the plane. I don’t recall her apologizing for holding us at the boarding gate due to ignorance but it was a relief to finally be seated inside the plane. I have learned later on that unlike Filipinos and Indonesians, Malaysians do not have a visa-free access to Myanmar.
I’ve read from various online information that accommodations in Myanmar are limited, and as such, it is advisable to book ahead of time. I wanted to maximize my visa-free days in Myanmar so I didn’t plan to waste my time there searching for a place to stay. I searched online using Agoda, Booking.com and Asiatravel and found several available hotels.
Compared with other Asian countries, hotels in Myanmar are generally more expensive due to the lack of rooms to accommodate tourists. For the same price, one can get far better hotels in other Asian countries. Myanmar has recently opened their country to foreigners in 2012 after nearly 50 years under military rule, and it seems that they are not up to the influx of tourists. However, the situation will definitely change in the coming years or maybe sooner than I thought.
Clothes and Footwear
Myanmar, as with other Southeast Asian countries will either have a dry or wet season. Going in March, I expected a lot of walking under the heat of the sun so I packed light clothes. Burmese are very conservative so as a sign of respect, my advice to travelers in Myanmar is to dress conservatively, as well.
Myanmar is the Land of Golden Pagoda and by that, it means you’ll be entering a lot of temples. Women can wear long skirts, trousers or long dress, or why not buy their traditional longyi skirt. For tops, no sleeveless and spaghetti straps, and for the gifted, sorry, no exposure of cleavage either. For men, from the visitors I saw, they wore light pants, shorts (below the knee) and some even tried on the longyi.
Most men wear the longyi
If you plan to take overnight buses, like I did, get ready for an indoor winter experience! Wear pants and bring a sweater to keep you warm and let you a restful sleep. But in fairness, I tried JJ Express in two of the four long trips I had and I would say that it was comfortably cool.
On footwear, flip flops are the way to go, unless hiking and trekking is part of your itinerary. As mentioned, expect to visit a lot of temples, and in each one of these, you’ll be required to remove your shoes before entering. No socks are allowed, either.
Forget about having a foot spa or visiting a nail salon prior to your Myanmar trip, because you will have to walk around the temples barefooted whether you like it or not, whether it’s grubby or clean, or in the presence of bird poops, spitted betel juice or not (Beware of red splatter marks on the ground. These are not graffiti versions on the floor because these are betel juice spit from their mouths after chewing betel nut). Most night buses provide a pack of small free wet towel. I learned to keep them after using to wipe my hands. They come handy as “foot wipes”, too!
Credit cards have no use in Myanmar, at least when I was there. I saw several ATM’s though in Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan, but I carried with me US dollars in exchange for kyats. The thing is that Myanmar banks and money changers only accepts US dollar bills in mint condition. By that, I mean no folds, no stamps, no marks and crisp as new. What made it difficult to obtain such in the Philippines is that most money changers, even those from banks are sometimes stamped for traceability.
On top of that, I had to endure the bank teller’s questioning look and just when I thought I had redeemed myself from acting weird after explaining I need it in Myanmar, they’d give me another quizzical look. I could see a speech bubble that says “Myanmar? Where is that? Whatcha gonna do in Myanmar?”
Upon exchanging your crisp, “hard-exchanged” dollars, you can now say goodbye to those and say hello to old, crumpled kyats.
Cash donations in one of the temples of Bagan, Myanmar
People and culture
You will never question why Myanmar is called the Land of the Golden Pagodas once you get there. Pagodas gilded with gold are such a common landmark in the country, much like Jollibee cannot be used as a meeting place in the Philippines if you want you and your “ka-eyeball” to meet without a doubt at the exact place at the right time, unless you specify which Jollibee branch that is.
The temple of all golden temples may undeniably be the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. (More on Shwedagon on my upcoming posts.)
The density of pagodas in Myanmar reflects Burmese devotion to Buddhism. The relatively high proportion of monks in the population is also evident. In my less than two weeks of stay in the country, I have seen how Burmese people are very much into practicing their religion as temples are normally full of locals making offerings of candles, flowers and incense, and praying silently and intently.
Burmese people are friendly, welcoming and sometimes curious. While walking around, I’ve been asked a lot of times, “where you from?”, without finding them intrusive. They would often mistake me for a Thai, maybe because that’s the closest Asian nation that they’re familiar with. They are also humble and honest in a way that you can leave your belongings without fearing that somebody will have interest and take it.
What had me the most is the authenticity, not just of the people, but the country, in general. Men and women still wear their traditional clothes, mainly the longyi, which are long colorful skirts much like a sarong in the Philippines. Women and children wear thanaka on their face. Thanaka powder comes from a thanaka bark which they grind on a stone slab wetted with water until it forms a yellowish paste that they dab around their face in different ways: circular, stripey or shaped as a leaf. The paste dries as a powdery substance.
Women buying thanaka barks for use as their basic cosmetics
Cute Burmese children hanging out outside one of the monasteries
You’ll also encounter a lot of people with reddish brown-stained teeth, a result of chewing betel nut, and a part of their traditions. It is also true that a lot of drivers are chewing betel nut, and since you already know that they’d spit it afterwards, be careful with hanging out your head from your taxi or bus window. The last thing you want is get a disgusting bloody stain in your face.
A basketful of neatly stacked betel leaves used to wrap chewable concoction, mainly composed of betel nut
When I saw their public telephone booths, I felt like travelling back to my school days when the telephones looked like this (see photo below), and when pay phones are guarded by the stall staff who will monitor how long you had made the call as this will be the basis of your payment. Even the Yangon airport use the same. The hotels I’ve stayed in have wifis but these were mostly not reliable.
Telephone station at the Yangon International Airport
In other words, when in Myanmar, you can say without a doubt that indeed, you’re in Myanmar as you’ll experience things that are distinctively Myanmar - no Starbucks, no Mc Donald’s. I love that this country has not yet been infiltrated by mainstream tourism, but my guess is that it won’t be long before this could happen. I wish for Myanmar tourism to grow but I also wish that they still retain what makes them distinct as Burmese.
Stilt houses, boats and pagodas floating along Inle Lake
On the left is Myanmar's version of a mini-bus or truck
Tourists can easily feel how young the tourism industry is in Myanmar. As a foreigner, you’ll receive a lot of attention from the locals, even more so for westerners because they really stand out of the crowd. I find it amusing to see young Burmese people approach the westerners to have a picture with them. The tourists themselves had now unwittingly become the tourist attractions for the locals.
As I already mentioned in my other posts, I’m not a foodie but then a description of a country wouldn’t be complete without describing the local food. I find Burmese food to be flavorful, plentiful and cheap! I won’t say that Burmese food is healthy in general because I find their curries sopping in oil. But I do like that an order of food almost always comes with fresh steamed vegetable side dishes, fruits and unlimited rice! Just be careful especially if you’re allergic with peanuts because some restaurants and food stalls sprinkle fried salted peanuts into their rice. I also liked the dry version of Shan noodles (rice noodles stir-fried with chicken, topped with ground peanuts, chili powder and vegetables).
Hotels are more expensive compared to other Southeast asian countries. I have encountered mostly friendly and helpful hotel staff but considering that the tourism industry is new, they still have a lot to improve on in terms of guest relations and provision of services. The free breakfasts were also quite similar in every place in every hotel…sliced bread, butter, jam, and fruits (banana, watermelon or papaya). I was thinking that rice noodles would have been a great breakfast option.
I also observed that their rooms doesn’t have individual telephones, so if you’re room is at the 3rd floor and you realized you were not provided a towel, you would have to go down at the reception area to request for it.
Sand and color paintings depicting Buddhist symbolisms
More of individual places in Myanmar (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake) on my next posts. 🙂