If you had asked me a year ago what countries were on the top of my list to visit, you wouldn’t have found Myanmar on it. Nepal, Thailand, Costa Rica, maybe South Africa. But the nation formerly known as Burma wouldn’t have even made the top 20. It isn’t on most people’s radars- as it turns out, a lot of Thai people don’t actually know where Myanmar is even though they share a massive border.
I had a chance to go there this year, as a part of my “Southeast Asia Tour.” It was the kind of decision that I made simply because I could- “It’s right there, why not?” I went into it not really knowing what to expect. Now, my only regret is that I didn’t stay longer.
The research that I did, both before I flew in from Thailand and while I was there, was pretty sparse. A lot of blogs that document trips to Myanmar are (besides hard to find) very old, as are the guidebooks laying around in most hostels. One book I picked up looked brand-new, but when I looked inside the cover I saw it had been published over ten years ago. Myanmar is a rapidly changing place, and quite a bit of the information I read was extremely out of date.
I want to encourage people to come and visit this incredible country, before it changes even more. It has only opened up to tourists within the last few decades, with numbers of visitors steadily increasing (50% increases for the last 2-3 years). Even with the increases, though, the numbers are still low- around 4.6 million for 2015. Compare that to Thailand, with an estimated 30 million foreign visitors per year. Here are some reasons to jump on this train before it passes you by, and what you need to know before you go.
- You will need a visa, which is pretty standard for the region. While you don’t need one for Thailand, most of the other countries in the area (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) will require a “Visa on Arrival” at the minimum, and Myanmar requires an application ahead of time. It’s very easy to apply for and costs about $25 at embassies, $50 online. You’ll receive an approval letter, and this is what you give the immigration officers when you get there.
- Myanmar is bordered by Thailand, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and India. Most of the border with Thailand is considered volatile, and there are only a few select checkpoints that you can pass through by bus. The recommended way to travel to Myanmar is by plane, and there are several large international airports within the tourist triangle (a portion of the middle of the country consisting of Bagan and Mandalay in the upper West, Yangon in the South, and Inle Lake in the upper East)
- Dress code- think conservative. You have to picture yourself going back in time about 100 years. Even though western clothing has made it across the borders, it is still fairly uncommon. Women cover their legs and shoulders at all times, and men still frequently wear sarong-like skirts called longyis. You will definitely want to opt for t-shirts instead of tank tops, but don’t be too intimidated by it. You’d be surprised how many conservative outfits you can put together using your “western clothes,” especially if you were already packing a few temple-appropriate garments.
- Betel Juice- Chewing the betel nut is a huge habit in Asia. In Myanmar, it’s commonly prepared in a small green pouch and sold on every street corner. The nut gives a buzz similar to caffeine, and although it’s been a proven cause of oral cancer, it’s an extremely prominent habit. It produces a large amount of saliva that is bright red, and my advice when you encounter it is simply this: don’t be scared of the stained-red mouths and red stains on the pavement, and also watch out for stray streams of spit flying across your path.
- They use an old-school sunscreen- it’s called thanaka and many women smear it on their cheeks and arms. It’s a natural skincare remedy that protects from the sun, smells nice, and keeps skin clear. You might think everyone looks a bit dirty at first, but really they’re just taking good care of their skin the natural way.
- Unlike Thailand, if someone comes up to you wanting to talk, they most likely aren’t trying to scam you or sell you something. Usually, they just want to talk to someone from a different place or who speaks a different language. People in Myanmar are smart- their national literacy rate is around 93%. One thing the guidebooks got right was that people will often hang out around tourist attractions looking to practice their English, French, Spanish, etc. with visiting Westerners. And Damian, if you’re reading this- your English is really good!
- You will be a celebrity. Because Westerners are still uncommon, there aren’t many people around with light skin, hair or eyes. It was really tough for me to get used to the non-stop staring, but most of the time it’s pretty good natured. Even though I caught a lot of people taking my photo when they thought I wasn’t looking, most were polite enough to come up and ask to take a photo with me. And I managed to get some selfies in with them as well.
Myanmar, for now, is the road less traveled. For those who are a bit over the Thailand scene (excessive drinking, drugs, crowded beaches and attractions), it offers a refuge of culture with exciting new sights and foods. Sure, it’s a bit trickier to get to and figure out, but the payoff is so completely worth it. So do yourself a favor- the next time you’re in or near Southeast Asia, add this once-hidden gem to your itinerary. I may not have been there long, but I am absolutely sure I’ll be back.