Rudyard Kipling said, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
Well, that sure is quite the statement.
As we were planning our trip, the rest of the world seemed to be saying:
“The people are SO nice, probably the friendliest of all Asia.”
“Not too many people travel there, you will have such a unique experience.”
“Myanmar is still pretty closed from the rest of the world.”
“Go as soon as you can while it is still untouched.”
From the above, I’m supposed to come back from visiting and tell you the same things. I’m supposed to be saying how AMAZING it was. I’m supposed to be telling you how lucky I feel to have experienced a place so unique. I’m supposed to tell you how you should get on a plane and quit your job and go there now.
Well, I’m not going to.
Turns out, our 12 day trip to the country was far from the above. I was left confused, and actually a little pissed off. Deep down, I now wish Simon and I spent those precious 12 days elsewhere, preferably in Southern Thailand or Indonesia.
Why did everyone think people were so exceptionally nice?! Why did everyone make me think it was such an untouched place? (There was wi-fi, tons of souvenir hawkers and a lot of tourist guesthouses for goodness sake!)
Why did everyone make it sound like they had such a life-changing time? Why do I feel like the bad guy for not liking it? WHY WAS I SO BORED THERE?
Now don’t get me wrong, we didn’t have any particularly bad experiences and we did see a few amazing locations. But on the whole, I could describe our experience in Myanmar as lack-luster. It was missing that special something that would make me smile and excited when I think back on it. We really did give it a chance. A long chance in fact. It took us a good week until we really told each other how unimpressed we were.
My realities of Myanmar Yeah, the people were nice…but they weren’t that nice.
Where have all these people been traveling from? Did they just come from somewhere where snarling at people and shouting profanities at tourists is the norm?
If they did, then yes of course one would think the people in Myanmar were exceptionally nice. In my opinion, people were very pleasant but nobody was smiling rainbows. In fact, Simon and I felt like we were just being tolerated as tourists rather than anything else.
Maybe we were appreciated for bringing in tourist dollars to small restaurants and guesthouses, but that’s about as far as it goes. Now, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Being tolerated is completely fine. But when my expectations were already high, and it was one of the reasons I wanted to visit the country was for the amazing people and encounters I might have, I only felt let down when I didn’t find it true.
The amazing sites were few and far between
The typical tourist route, called the Golden triangle, consists of taking either government operated expensive flights or long distance buses. Deciding to opt for the latter, Simon and I knew that if the areas we visited really were great, we wouldn’t mind a few uncomfortable 10 hour bus journeys.
Yes, Bagan really is amazing. We rode bikes from ancient temple to temple. We watched the sun go down over the plain of ruins. Yes, our day trip on Inle Lake was beautiful and so much fun. We enjoyed the whole day thoroughly (even though we were taken to many shops and handicraft factories along the way). Yes, the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon is quite impressive. Counting those experiences, only 3-4 days of the 12 I would consider to be that memorable. And while this all sounds pretty harsh, it is the most honest way I can put it.
It might also sound really spoiled, but when you want to make the most of every day on the road you have, packing in experiences almost daily is key. From the above you can kind of guess what happened with the other days- we got a bit bored. While of course we had fun hanging out together and searching for delicious cold lassis to drink or having a Myanmar beer with some street food, that’s really about it.
During the hottest times of the day and after 8-9pm everything is pretty slow in Myanmar and we found ourselves back in our rooms searching through the guide book for something to do.
Making comparisons to other parts of SE Asia
Simon and I really started to notice how much of a mediocre time we had in Myanmar when we got to Northern Thailand and Laos.
In the last 17 days in those two countries we have had nothing but a good time, and have been seeing beautiful places and embarking on different activities with new friends non-stop. We are never left wondering what to do, and we usually find we have to pick and choose activities. Even in the sweltering heat, we still made it outside at the hottest times of the day because every disgusting drop of sweat released was worth it.
Some reasons that could be to blame
We are spoiled and unappreciative? God I hope not.
We were tired from the first leg of our trip and ready for some ‘easy travel’? Possibly.
We like meeting other young travelers and after two months in India and Nepal we were ready to have fun? That could be part of it.
We got used to the constant excitement and chaos of India and became underwhelmed easily? Maybe.
We had too high of expectations? Definitely.
Recommendations for other travelers
I’m sure everyone who has been to Myanmar will have a different opinion and different recommendations. While mine are no better than someone else’s, maybe they will at least be a bit different and something new to consider.
1. Go after you have already done the more popular countries in South East Asia. Just because places like Thailand and Cambodia are more touristy, it doesn’t mean they are lacking in experiences, beautiful sites and culture. Once you feel like you’ve had enough of the region, go to Myanmar with an open mind for something different.
2. Don’t go solo. Accommodation is pricey compared to other SE Asian countries and there are no dorm style hostels. Going alone might not only mean expensive accommodation but also a lonely trip. If traveling alone, try and go during high season or just expect a lot of down time.
3. Try the local food. After researching typical Myanmar cuisine, we did have a few fantastic meals. It was hard in the beginning to figure out what to order and what was good, but it was far better than sticking to fried noodles for 12 days. The salads were surprisingly my favorite.
4. Plan the length of time wisely. For us, 10 days would have been ample time to see Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake. We didn’t make it to Mandalay because we didn’t want to add another bus journey to our schedule. Since you can only really fly in and out of Myanmar, you don’t have much flexibility on extending you time, or cutting it short.
5. Don’t expect to get off the beaten path if you just stay in the golden triangle. Surprisingly to us, there was wifi at almost every guesthouse and people hassling us for souvenirs at every single monument. The days of ‘untouched’ and ‘off the beaten path’ in Myanmar may be long gone.
Have you ever had a travel experience like this? What was your experience in Myanmar?