Officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar also known as Burma, is the biggest country in Southeast Asia. In regards to tourism, Myanmar is still in baby shoes and there is a lot of work required to improve infrastructure and transportation. However, the conditions for tourists are constantly improving and hopefully with time will allow us to move faster to see all that Myanmar has to offer. Some of the parts of the country are very hard to access due to bad transportation, other parts are even closed to tourists due to conflicts.
Myanmar is not really a country many people are thinking of visiting. However, there is a slight boom and I believe that more people will visit Myanmar in the future. So better do it quickly before it changes (hopefully not) into a very touristy place.
So if you are thinking of visiting Myanmar you should consider the following.
YOU SHOULDN’T GO TO MYANMAR IF YOU DON’T LIKE TO INTERACT WITH LOCALS AND SPEND TIME TO GET TO KNOW THEM
After our trip in South east Asia, many people ask us which country was our favourite or which country really surprised us. It was definitely Myanmar.
They say Thailand is a land of million smiles. But have you ever been to Myanmar? Why did we like Myanmar so much? Because of the lovely people there. I have never met such lovely, friendly, modest and open-hearted people. Hospitality and love is pouring out of them. We haven’t felt like this in any other country in Southeast Asia. Everywhere we went, we met people smiling at us. Locals waving at us, or just coming to us for a little chat to practice their English. And no, they usually didn’t want to sell us any tours or souvenirs. All they wanted is to talk to us and get to know us. This is so amazing as this is the reason we got to know their culture better. Many people in Myanmar have good English. We were a bit surprised and happy that we could talk to them.
Unfortunately, the current government (still dominated by the military) doesn’t do much for the majority of the people, and even though the country is rich, the population is very poor. They don’t have free education nor affordable healthcare. The wages are so little that you just can’t believe it. Jobs are very hard to find. Nevertheless, the people have the biggest hearts. It broke my own heart as they deserve much more than they have. For the Burmese people family is everything. Many of them don’t even have a house or proper room to sleep in. Just one room which is shared by the entire family often 3 generations. Of course that is also the case for other countries in the world and Southeast Asia.
We were in Mandalay and we had the best day ever. Here we met Jadu and he drove us to the temple with his bike. We knew that it was quite far and didn’t want him to do it, yet he insisted. Now, we are glad as we had such a nice and genuine conversation with him. The people of Myanmar are very hardworking. You can feel the energy and that they want to get ahead. Jadu is 48 years and driving his bike for nearly 20 years. It is a family business and his son will probably continue as well. Not all of his children can go to secondary school as it is to expensive. He used to be a monk (or novice) and learned his impressive English in a temple.
When we were in Bagan, and we had stayed in a really nice and affordable hotel place called Nova Hotel and the people who work there were so wonderful. We didn’t want to leave. We literally felt like we are at home. The way they treat the guests is incredible. They don’t have much but they always put up a big smile on their faces and go on with their lives. This experiences gave us a lot, meaning that THE BEST THINGS IN THIS WORLD ARE FOR FREE.
Once we came back from our trip and they saw that we bought traditional Longyi (similar to a sarong). They were so excited that we bought it and that Nico was wearing it. They gathered around and showed us how to fix it properly and we were all happy. The next day after a wondeful breakfast the girls from the restaurant were so excited to apply Thanaka, a yellowish paste made from Thanaka wood, on my face. This was an incredible experience. And guess what? No one wanted money for it.
Meeting locals is the best way to truly explore the country. In some countries you feel at times that the locals only want to exploit you just because you are a tourist. While it provides locals the means to feed their family it is often the way how tourists are approached and pushed to spend money that makes it so unpleasant. In Myanmar it is done differently. Yes, locals want to see more tourists and sell their products. But its how it is done here that makes Myanmar in this regard special.
They are GENUINELY HAPPY to see you and their culture forbids the rudeness you see at times in other countries around the globe. They know that people are scared or want to sanction the military because of the current conflict with the Rohingya. Trust me, they don’t like it neither. It’s them who are suffering and not the generals sending their children to fancy schools in Europe and the US.
FUN FACT: Don’t be scared when you see men (sometimes women) with red mouths and teeth. I know it sounds strange but I got really scared when a few men approached us offering help. No, they are not vampires and no, they are not spitting blood. They like to chew abetel nuts/seeds wrapped in leaves. It is just their thing. It’s not necessarily healthy but almost everyone does it.
YOU SHOULDN’T GO TO MYANMAR IF YOU HATE BEAUTIFUL WHITE SAND BEACHES
I will be honest with you, at first I didn’t even think that Myanmar has beaches worth mentioning. And I didn’t consider visiting them at first. However, as I was very wrong, the most popular and the best known beach in Myanmar called Ngapali was one of the best beaches we visited in Southeast Asia. Thanks to a lovely girl sitting next to me in the plane to Yangon I found out about that. Ok, and Nico (aka the guide) mentioned something at some point but I didn’t really paid attention.
This beach is located in Rakhine State, Western Myanmar. Ngapali Beach is a long stretch of 3 km pure white sand fringed by long palm trees with the clear waters of the Bay of Bengal. If you like a quiet beach holiday, Ngapali is the place. The name Ngapali doesn’t have any particular meaning, but legend has it, that it comes from a homesick Italian living there for many years and reminiscing about his hometown Napoli. After seeing the beach I’m not sure how someone would want to return to Napoli.
Ngapali Beach is the perfect place to relax without any bars around and barely any nightlife. Only a few cute local women are walking around and asking if you want to buy fresh fruits. Just to point out, if you don’t want anything, they will smile and leave you alone. And, if you do buy something they will give a gift on top of it. There are few local souvenirs shops around. If you see a girl named Tuh, say hi. She makes really beautiful jewellery. I got like 10 bracelets and other things.
We stayed in the hotel called River Top Lodge, just a 2 minute walk from the beach. I highly recommend this place. The staff is so friendly and we also had one of the best breakfasts here. The rooms are new, big and very comfortable. The hotel has even an area on the beach with their own beach chairs.
HOW TO GET TO NGAPALI BEACH
You can take a bus to Ngapali Beach from Yangon but it is 400km and in Myanmar it will take light years to get there. We thought about it 😀 But we had enough of trains and buses and decided to fly from Yangon. The tickets were 140€ per person. If you book in advance they might be cheaper. We procrastinated like usually. And, yes, some people tell stories of how dangerous the planes are but we felt safe at all times and found the service of our airline very professional. If you are planning to come from Bagan, it was a bit difficult at the time of our research as you will have to change buses. It is possible, though.
YOU SHOULDN’T GO TO MYANMAR IF YOU HATE IMPRESSIVE TEMPLES
Myanmar got plenty amazing temples. If you think every temple looks the same. No, no. Definitely not in Myanmar.
Probably you will start your trip in the former capital of Myanmar, Yangon. Here, we visited the very famous Shwedagon Pagoda. I highly recommend to take a tour around the pagoda. We didn’t want to pay extra money but we just couldn’t resist the lovely guide. It is a great start for you to get to know the culture a bit better. He explained us more about Myanmar, the culture and of course the pagoda itself.
After a few days in Yangon we headed to Mandalay. Mandalay lies 900 km north of Yangon. If you don’t have enough time, you can fly there directly. It is a bit pricey to fly there, so to save money and to try something new and we took a night train. When we were buying our train tickets the people in the booth were so happy and curious. They told us that they gave us “the good coupe where you can sleep”. We thought, yeah right, this is what we are usually told and then, we sit next to toilet. To our surprise the train was alright, and we really did get our own private coupe.
However, the ride was a crazy experience. It took us 14 hours to get to Mandalay. At night it can get chilly, down to 15 degrees. The windows in the aisle outside our coupe were open so it was cold and we had no blankets so make sure you bring some warm clothes. I think the worst part was that it was very shaky. We felt like on a boat in the middle of a big storm, moving from one side to another. But we survived. I thought that boats suck but this was on a different level. I had to take 2 motion sickness pills.
Mandalay has some wonderful temples such as Kuthodaw and Sandamuni pagodas. What is special about Kuthodaw Pagoda is the world’s largest book. You are reading that right. It is a temple that consists of 729 stone “pages”, organised into rows. Each page is around 1 meter high and has their own private stupa. And each stone page has a text. This collection of stone pages represent 15 books of the Buddhist Tripitaka. Legend says that it took 8 years to write it.
I do recommend to stay at least 2-3 days in Mandalay. There is another amazing day trip you can do from Mandalay where you can see more unique temples. You need to take the boat which leaves only at 9 in the morning and you will be back by 14. And these are the temples you will see.
Migun Sayadaw Temple. I have never seen anything like this before.
One of Southeast Asia’s most known sights is Bagan. I am sure everyone has seen pictures with beautiful views on pagodas and balloons in the air. Bagan as one of the most famous and iconic landmarks in Myanmar and it is an absolute MUST see. It was one of my dreams to visit it. Especially, sunrise and the air balloons. Bagan is so beautiful, we spent 3 days wandering around. Bagan is a large area with the biggest collection of Buddhist temples, stupas and monasteries in the world. There are more than 2.200 monuments spread around a semi-desert sandy surface. So if you want to explore this place fully, plan at least 3 days in Bagan. The best way to explore Bagan is to rent an e-bike. We paid around 7€ per day for 2 persons.
Note: During our time in Bagan the government started closing down several temples’ staircases which could be used to reach higher levels to enjoy a better view. So you better hurry or you will share the few left open with the crowds.
HOW TO GET TO BAGAN
Once you are in Mandalay you can take a shuttle bus to Bagan which takes around 5 hours. Just ask your hotel or hostel they are surely able to organize your transport.
YOU SHOULDN’T GO TO MYANMAR IF YOU DON’T LIKE TO WATCH BEAUTIFUL SUNSETS AND SUNRISES
Watching sunsets and sunrises over Bagan is a magical experience. It is something that will leave you speechless.
We also enjoyed a beautiful sunset over U Bein Bridge in Mandalay. The U Bein Bridge is made from teak pilings taken from the palace in Amarapura. Ancient recycling I suppose. This bridge is 1.2 km long and it is the longest bridge of its kind in the world.
Myanmar was one of the biggest surprises during our travels. We didn’t think that Myanmar will be a country where we would feel like at home and one of our favourite countries in the world. It’s a country that I want to come back to some day for sure. In general we felt very welcomed in Myanmar, safe and we wish we could have stayed longer than 2 weeks. There are many contradictions and misconceptions about Myanmar. I do not want to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. It is not my place and not the purpose of this post. Nevertheless, I will lose a few words on it.
As a traveler and blogger I feel responsible to write about Myanmar, as it is facing a bad reputation that puts the simple people who have nothing to do with the ongoing conflict(s) in a really difficult position. And I hope I can make a small difference to some of you by inspiring you to visit this beautiful country. If I can inspire at least one person, I would be very happy.
I just want to point out that every single country in Southeast Asia has dark spots in its history. Some more than others. Even worse, right now, in present times many things go wrong and injustices continue or are reinforced. People in the West who think that they are in a position to judge on a whole country based on the decisions and actions of a few and announce or promote “travel embargos” should reconsider.
If you think that you shouldn’t visit Myanmar, then you shouldn’t visit any countries in Southeast Asia. I advise you to read “Silk and Blood: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia” by Michael Vatikiotis. Here you will learn things you never heard of regarding the countries in Southeast Asia from someone who actually lived and worked in the region for 30 years. It surprised us so much to learn more about the history and current issues in those countries. Most importantly, how corrupted these countries’ leaders are. How certain groups and people who consider themselves to be “good leaders” when their true interest lies in enriching themselves and their families usually by exploiting innocent people, minorities or simply the ones who cannot defend themselves.
So please, before you start judging this country, learn more about Myanmar, the conflict itself, visit the country and then make your assumptions. Don’t simply rely on what you see and hear in the news and social media. The people you are very likely to “punish” the most are innocent and depend highly on tourists. The owners of restaurants, small hotels, small time businesses selling souvenirs, etc. Don’t be so ignorant and naive to assume you punish or deter the ones responsible for the atrocities committed. This article is about our highlights in Myanmar, about the experiences we had and I am sure that there are many other travellers who experienced the same.
BURMA OR MYANMAR?
In 1989, the military government decided to change the name from Burma to Myanmar. However, some people, including politicians continue to use the term Burma as they do not accept the decision made by the military government. Yet, Myanmar continues to be the official name.
IS MYANMAR SAFE?
A question, I got asked a few times, especially in regards to the conflicts in Myanmar. Same as in Mexico and other countries there are parts where you as a tourist shouldn’t go. Check our article: Is Mexico safe?
The only danger you as a foreigner will encounter is provoking locals by disrespectful behavior in public and/or especially religious sites or petty theft. We have never felt safer than in other countries in Southeast Asia. In all countries you should be aware of cultural differences, customs and cautious with your belongings. Read something about Myanmar and nothing can go wrong. That means for instance take shoes/flipflops/socks off when entering temples.
People on Myanmar are very traditional, they still wear their traditional clothes. Women usually wear long skirts and men long pants or the traditional Longyi. That is why I always wore long dresses. As in every country in this world, take care of your belongings and never leave them unattended. Theft or violence against foreigners occur very rarely. The conflict between the central government and ethnic groups still persists but does not affect security for tourists.
As in other countries, there are some parts which are out of reach and shouldn’t be visited. For instance you are not advised to go to the southern parts of the Philippines (don’t sail in the Sulu Sea, etc.), Malaysia has also some troubled areas close to the Philippines, same holds true for the southern parts of Thailand where you should be cautious etc. For Myanmar you should avoid the northern parts (“jade wars”) and the border region with Bangladesh. However, you should not be worried as these areas require special permits to enter and that means you wont be allowed to go there anyways.
Even though we felt very safe in Myanmar, I suggest that you check the news of your embassy or foreign ministry website before going, just in case. We do that before going to ANY country.
Better safe than sorry 🙂
HAVE AN AMAZING TIME IN MYANMAR
Please tag us into your photos on Instagram, we would love to see your adventures from Myanmar.
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