Myanmar is changing rapidly, at least that’s what our guidebook says. It even goes as far as to tell us not to rely on it too heavily. Exactly the advice you want to hear after payment. Even though tourism is becoming commonplace in Myanmar, it’s still relatively unknown to many people. Below are some of the more interesting things we found travelling there.
In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi announced that her party had changed its stance on tourists in Myanmar, in that they could come so long as they travelled responsibly (and therefore not as part of a group tour). We don’t normally consider too much what it means to travel responsibly, but our guidebook contains an entire chapter of helpful, but often generally difficult, if not impossible, tips to follow. Of course some are easy like not travelling as part of a packaged tour or giving to beggars. But the more difficult tips included making sure you reduce spending money on government-owned or government-friendly hotels and utilising taxis or other services outside of tourist attractions. It’s almost impossible to know who owns the hotel you’re staying in and their political persuasion (another tip is not to talk to people about politics unless they bring it up, so you can’t exactly ask), making it a practically impossible goal. Perhaps with months of research to work it out, you could do it, but for most travellers it’s an elusive goal (also hotels need licences, so I assume if the government hates you enough you just won’t get one). While we tried to take taxis outside of the tourist areas we found that they weren’t particularly interested in taking us anywhere, which made for some sweaty walks and yet another responsible tourism fail.
It wasn’t until November 2012 that Myanmar got its first ATM that accepted international bank cards. Prior to that travellers had to bring with them all the cash they needed for their stay and hope they had planned well enough. I cannot stress enough that we are not the kind of people who are organised enough to do this. Sure we have a budget, but our budget is exactly equal to the amount of money we have. If we spend too much, then back to work we go. If we spend too little, then yay we have our budget for our next holiday. Luckily by the time we arrive in May 2015 ATMs are everywhere. Literally. At the main temple in Yangon there are six ATMs, every town we go to has at least one ATM (and generally many more) and many hotels accept credit cards (or have their own ATMs). Luckily for us when can get money whenever we need it (we actually had a lot more trouble trying to find an ATM in Iceland than Myanmar).
Internet is everywhere in Myanmar. Every hotel we stayed at had wifi (although some connections were so terrible, it was hardly worth having). Surprisingly we didn’t come across any blocked sites (unlike China where we couldn’t access Facebook or Thailand where they block access to all stories about tourists being killed there). Even the English language newspaper ran stories on the plight of the Rohinga refugees at sea (as best we could work out the same story wasn’t in the Burmese language newspaper, but it might be because there isn’t a lot of support for them across the country, rather then censorship).
Accommodation in Myanmar is expensive by South East Asian standards. Actually it’s expensive by pretty much all standards, except possibly Icelandic. I suspect it is the combination of lack of supply of hotels and no real hostel culture that causes such steep prices. Hotels in Myanmar have to have a licence to allow them to host foreign guests, and given that every hotel gives us a welcome drink that we must chug before they will show us to our room my guess is that drink is one condition of holding a licence.
Burmese food doesn’t have a great reputation, with many people complaining that it is oily and bland (the oily layer on top of the curries is there to prevent bugs in the food while the dishes sit unseated and open – which explains the oil but makes the food sound even less appetising). Myanmar also has a lot of Chinese and Indian restaurants, so it’s not too hard to have a break from Burmese food when needed.
Nearly every Burmese meal we eat starts with deep fried tofu chips, which are actually a lot more delicious then they sound. We also get a soy/chilli sauce with every meal, which we were never 100% sure what we were meant to put it on, so just ate everything with a bit of it. In addition to the large amount of curries on offer, Burmese menus contain a lot of strange, rich salads. The nicest salad we ate was the pickled tea leaf salad, we also had a really nice ginger salad but given the strong flavour two mouthfuls were enough (there was no way we were going to finish an entire plate of it).