Myanmar (Burma) for beginners
Myanmar, (Burma) is one of those places intrepid travellers dream about. After years of being shut off from the rest of the world, tourists have started to return, and I am one of them…
Why go? It’s an experience:
Right now is a great time to visit as crowds have yet to tumble off their coaches and many of the sights and traditions are untouched from the modern world we know so well. It is quite possibly one of the most magical places to visit in South East Asia, from the stunning temples in Yangon and Bagan to the giant lake in Inle.
The food is delish:
I wasn’t expecting much from Burmese food before our trip, and although it might not have the spice of its Thai neighbour , we left dreaming of fresh avocado salads, rich lentil broths and Nangyi thoke, a warm noodle salad with chicken and chilli oil, served with pickles and soup. Another favourite we didn’t quite learn to love was the fermented tea leaf salad, which can be a little bitter.
The people are awesome:
The residents of Myanmar have suffered greatly, but they are some of the most welcoming and friendly people you will ever meet. From the charming old man who walked us back through the dark streets of Yangon to our hotel when we got lost, to the lovely girl who wanted to practice her English as we walked along U Bein Bridge (I am secretly hoping to become pen pals). This isn’t the land of rip-offs and most people are just trying to be friendly and make a decent wage, so prices are fair and haggling is stress-free.
|Before you go Flights: Flights to Myanmar depart most Australian capital cities and will fly into Yangon, the country’s capital.
Visas: Myanmar is slowly starting to introduce visas on arrival, but I still recommend getting one in advance. As well as the application form, you will need confirmation of your travel dates, two recent passport photos, a blank page and six months validity on your passport.
Money: It’s unlikely that you’ll stumble across any ATMs in Myanmar, so you need to bring cash in USD, and book hotels in advance to avoid carrying too much. The notes need to be clean, crisp and without tears. When you arrive, use an official money changer to exchange some of your dollars into kyat (pronounced: chat), for buying small items like dinner and drinks. Tours and sights will usually be advertised in USD.
Best time to visit: Ideally from November to February, when you avoid the stifling heat or monsoon rains. It can get chilly up north so pack some jeans and a jumper.
You can travel between Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay by plane. I recommend spending around three days in each location. Yangon The capital of Myanmar is a great place to start your trip. Highlights include the golden Shewedagon Pagoda (visit at sunset) and the old town around Sule Pagoda, where many of the colonial buildings including the City Hall and British Embassy, are starting to crumble.
For your first taste of Burmese food I recommend lunch at one of the tea shops dotted around the city, then in the evening head to Monsoon, where you can enjoy fragrant curries with coconut-scented rice. You can get across town fairly cheaply, (2 USD a trip) and to the airport (8 USD) in taxis. Most of the drivers speak excellent English.
Bagan If you love temples then this is the place to be. Even if you aren’t a huge fan, the number and range of them is so impressive, it feels like they go on as far as the eye can see, and some can even be climbed.
Rent an electric scooter for around 10 USD to zoom around them in a couple of days. Stay in Old Bagan to wake up among the ruins or stay in Nyaung U, where you will find some of the best restaurants including Black Bamboo, which has a beautiful garden you can chill in. Myanmar is not a place to party, so expect to be in bed with a book by around 9pm. We’re definitely ok with that 😉 Inle Lake
Seems weird to visit a place just to see a body of water, but Inle is so much more than that.
Spend at least one day getting shuttled around the lake, stopping off at the temple full of kittens (!) and the weaving factory on stilts where you can purchase scarves made from lotus.
Not only is the lake awesome, the surrounding countryside is wild and untamed. Go wandering in the hills for an afternoon, before returning to town and stuffing your face at The Viewpoint Restaurant, which serves the best versions of local Shan cuisine and even wines from Myanmar! Mandalay
I’m not going to sugar-coat it, at first glance Mandalay doesn’t seem to have the looks of the other places in Myanmar, but it’s very much a cultural hub. There are plenty of things to climb, including Mandalay Hill and the watch tower at the palace. Evenings are lively; I loved seeing the Moustache Brothers, comedians who were once imprisoned for telling jokes. For a more classic affair, check out the puppeteers at Mandalay Marionettes. Our favourite evening was spent slightly out of town at sunset, to the U Bein Bridge, which according to experts is the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world. It’s terribly photogenic too.