Our Month-Long Adventure in Myanmar/Burma

by Elizabeth

We just wrapped up a full month in Myanmar!  Our visit was filled with explorations of ancient pagodas, trekking through bright green rice paddies, children waving and crying out “bye bye” before shyly hiding behind their parent when we waved back, and crunchy tea leaf salads.  The highs were offset (or potentially accentuated) by long, uncomfortable bus rides, painfully slow internet connections, and out of date information.

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Hard to beat the view from the top of one of the many pagodas in Bagan.

Before getting our location-specific posts up, we wanted to get a few of our general impression of the country down on (digital) paper.  We found that planning our trip in Myanmar was much more difficult than many other places that we’ve visited because the country is changing so rapidly that the guide book information was poor and outdated and online resources more than two years old couldn’t be trusted to reflect on the ground conditions.

That said, we had an amazing experience.  The people that we interacted with in Myanmar seemed generally excited to see us and were helpful in ways that you don’t always see these days in Southeast Asia.  The cultural sights were breathtaking and the countrysides were beautiful.

Is it Myanmar or Burma?

The question of what to call Myanmar/Burma is a tough one.  The country’s official name was changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 by the military junta following the country’s popular uprising the year before.  The name change was part of a larger re-naming scheme, which also included the primary city of Rangoon becoming Yangon.  The United Nations quickly recognized the new name, but countries such as the United Kingdom and United States continued to refer to the country as Burma because they did not accept the legitimacy of the military government.  I have previously used the term “Burma” out of defiance to the military government and in support of the democratic movement, but it turns out it’s not that simple.

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Trekking in the hills near Hsi-Paw.

What complicates the issue is that the terms Burma and Myanmar were both historically used by locals to refer to the country.  Moreover, calling the country Burma (and its people Burmese) ignores the significant ethnic divisions and differences in the country.  There are not only Burmese people living in Myanmar/Burma, but also Shan, Chin, Kachin, and Mon people to name a few.  Ethnicity is still a hot button issue — there continues to be fighting in several regions between the ethic majority and the government. 

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Reclining buddha outside of Mawlamyine.

Recently Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the country’s democratic movement, has stated that she doesn’t care what term journalists use.  Once we were on the ground in Myanmar, it seemed that every traveller that we ran into used the term “Myanmar,” and I adopted the same because to do otherwise seemed both overtly political and to take sides on an issue I wasn’t sure I fully understood.  This is just a long way of saying that the Myanmar/Burma name is complicated, but that they mean the same thing.

Our “28-Day” Myanmar Itinerary

Of all of the places that we’ve visited, figuring out an itinerary for our time in Myanmar was the most challenging.  The difficulty is threefold: (1) there is a lot to see on a limited-duration tourist visa, (2) transit times are long and painful, and (3) available information is limited and outdated.  I’ve outlined the itinerary that we followed below, but it was far from perfect in terms of minimizing travel time or fitting “everything” in. 

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The sacred Shwedagon Paya in Yangon.

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Beautiful countryside surrounding Hpa-An.

We did not plan all the details for our travel ahead of time, which resulted in us moving more slowly (because we still had to plan and research) and making a strategic error in deciding our route to Chin state that resulted in longer travel times.  On the plus side, our lack of planning did allow us to stop for longer in places that we enjoyed and adapt to travel advice that we received en route, so maybe it all evens out?  We’ve linked to our location-specific posts on the list below.

Day 1: Arrive in Yangon
Day 2: Yangon
Day 3: Yangon; night bus to Bagan
Day 4: Bagan
Day 5: Bagan
Day 6: Bagan (Mt. Popa day trip)
Day 7: Boat to Mandalay
Day 8: Mandalay
Day 9: Mandalay
Day 10: Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin
Day 11: Train to Hsi-Paw
Day 12: Hsi-Paw
Day 13: Trekking near Hsi-Paw
Day 14: Trekking near Hsi-Paw
Day 15: Hsi-Paw
Day 16: Hsi-Paw to Mandalay
Day 17: Mandalay to Mindat (Chin state)
Day 18: Way Off the Tourist Circuit in Mindat
Day 19: Mindat
Day 20: Mindat to Yangon night bus
Day 21: Yangon night bus to Mawlamyine
Day 22: Mawlamyine
Day 23: Mawlamyine (Ogre Island day trip)
Day 24: Mawlamyine (food poisoning recovery)
Day 25: Mawlamyine
Day 26: Mawlamyine to Hpa-An
Day 27: Hpa-An
Day 28: Hpa-An
Day 29: Hpa-An to Yangon
Day 30: Depart Yangon

We met people who fit way more into their 28-day (or shorter) stay.  Hiring a guide or private transport for certain segments, such as Mindat, could have saved us significant time.  Our itinerary thus reflects our preference to travel independently (and inexpensively) whenever possible.

Transportation

There’s nothing quite like public transit in Myanmar.  If you looked at a map, you’d think that you could get from place to place relatively quickly and easily.  You would be wrong.

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Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsi-Paw by train.  Also in the running for the slowest train ride ever.

To give you an idea of transit times, I’ve listed our transit times and modes.  Normally, we’d try to avoid so much travel in such a short time period, but it really was unavoidable in Myanmar unless you were willing to shell out for multiple flights.

Yangon → Bagan: Overnight bus, 12 hours

Bagan → Mandalay: Daytime boat (sunrise to sunset), 12 hours

Mandalay → Pyin Oo Lwin: Share taxi, 90 minutes

Pyin Oo Lwin → Hsi-Paw: Train, 6 hours

Hsi-Paw → Mandalay: Minivan, 7 hours

Mandalay → Mindat: Minivan, 9 hours

Mindat → Mawlamyine: Minivan to Pakokku, 4.5 hours; Overnight bus to Yangon, 11 hours; Daytime bus to Mawlamyine, 7 hours.  Yep, that’s a total of 22.5 hours of travel time.  A little part of us died inside.

Mawlamyine → Hpa-an: Daytime bus, 2 hours

Hpa-an → Yangon: Daytime bus, 8 hours

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For shorter rides, we could always count on a friendly family wiling to share the back of a pickup truck!

A special note on the overnight buses in Myanmar.  They are almost unavoidable due to the long transit times — either you spend all day on the bus or you spend all night.  They are actually pretty nice in that they aren’t the typical old, dirty buses that stop for ever person along the side of the road and squish in as many people in the aisles as possible.  Many of the buses are fairly new and there is even a VIP option that only has 3 seats across (2 seats, aisle, 1 seat), although these seem to need more advance booking than we managed so we never took one (probably because the price difference between a VIP and normal bus was insignificant).

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No overnight bus ride would be complete without neon blue lighting that stays on all night!

What makes the overnight buses special is two-fold.  First, when they say they have air-conditioning they aren’t messing around.  They blast the AC so hard that we pulled out all of our winter clothes (wool long-sleeved shirt, sweater, puffy jacket, scarf) and still were grateful for the fleece blanket that was provided.  Doesn’t matter that it’s 90 degrees outside and that you have to de-layer if you need to get off to use the bathroom.  Second, the buses are basically discotheques on wheels.  We lucked out and our overnight buses stopped blasting music by 10pm or so, but they’ve been known to keep the music going all night long.  We wont be missing our overnight bus rides at all.

Food: Eating Everything

This could probably be a post on its own.  The food in Myanmar was great… except when it wasn’t.  We found Myanmar to be a real mixed-bag on the food front.

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Spoiler alert: we found Dory.

We were somewhat familiar with Myanmar food from restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the world-famous (or at least famous in the Bay Area and Myanmar) Burma Superstar.  But the restaurants have tamed some aspects of the food, including occasionally adding romaine lettuce to the tea leaf salad, decreasing how much oil they use, and generally telling you what it is that they’re placing in front of you. As always, the real thing is a bit different.

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Meat on a stick ready for grilling in Mawlamyine.  Some of the options were a bit of a mystery.

On the plus side, Myanmar food uses tasty spices and oils. Unfortunately, further from the big cities and in poorer areas, we found that the food wasn’t spiced as well and more oil.  This makes sense for people who need more calories in their diets, but made searching for food in remote places like Mindat less fun.

One  challenge in these smaller towns or at road-side stops (of which we were forced to stop and eat at many) is that there weren’t really food options (or if there were, we couldn’t really communicate about them).  Instead, we would simply order “chicken” and they would start bringing out a bunch of dishes.  One small dish would be our chicken dish — a couple morsels of chicken, sometimes spiced well but usually cold — the other dishes would remain unidentified and often consisted of a fish paste, chile peppers, maybe a veggie platter, and a soup.  Prices for these meals started as low as $0.80!  By the end of our stay I was dreading these mystery meals though…

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Every meal came with so many little dishes!

A big plus for eating was salads.  Myanmar salads include the notable tea leaf salad (featuring pickled tea leaves, roasted peanuts, crunchy dried beans, fried garlic, and dried shrimp paste among other tasty bits), along with ginger salad, a “tomato salad” unlike what you would expect in the U.S. or Europe (chopped tomatoes with crushed peanuts), and others.  At better places, these salads use some oil as a dressing like we would use olive oil, with peanuts and other topping adding flavor.  In Bagan, we ate multiple meals where we each ordered a salad and shared a main plate.  Unfortunately, we also ended up with a few salads that seemed like they were more oil than salad.

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Cuisine also varies by ethnicity within Myanmar.  Even in Yangon, we had “Shan noodles” (Shan state is not near Yangon, but as in most countries, many people from minority groups move to the big cities) at a street stand, which I gather were thicker noodles using something of a peanut sauce.  In Mawlamyine, we even had “Indian Food,” where the dishes were Indian style dishes, but appeared to use typical Myanmar spices.

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Beware the innocent-looking snow peas.  Not snow peas.  Not innocent.

And then there were the hot peppers.  They look like little snow peas.  They are not snow peas.  Eating them like they were snow peas resulted in so much sadness (and an emergency order of a big bottle of water).  An important lesson was learned.

Visas: Getting and overstaying them

When I researched visiting Myanmar several years ago, the consensus was that the easiest way to get a visa was by visiting Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok, Thailand.  With everything else on our plate to research for our trip, this was not a logistical detail that I returned to confirm.  That is, not until we learned about Myanmar’s new e-visa program from an American traveler who currently lives in Yangon that we ran into at our guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.  The online form was easy to fill out and required none of the complicated paperwork required to obtain a Chinese visa, although it did require an uploaded passport photo.  The best part was that, despite the advertised three business days for processing, we had our e-visa letter in hand by the end of the day!  We simply presented our letter at immigration upon arrival and we were good to go.  That said, we did make another cancellable priceline.com reservation for a flight leaving Myanmar just in case.  Our airline did request the booking before they would check us in, but I’m not sure what would happen if we had simply said that we planned to leave via an overland crossing (we saw scary reports that this might not be enough).

Tourist visas to visit Myanmar are valid for 28 days.  We stayed 30.  It turns out that overstaying your visa is no big deal.  Upon exiting Myanmar we stopped by the “visa overstay” booth at the Yangon airport (just before the normal immigration counters) and handed over our passports, departure card, and $3 USD per person per day.  This was the only time that we had to make a payment in US dollars during our entire stay in Myanmar. 

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The process was straightforward, no questions were asked, and the guy didn’t seem to be particularly picky about the state of my $1 bills (although he did examine my crisp $10, the $1 bills would probably be used for change later that day).  We’ve heard of people overstaying by weeks with no problems, although probably not advisable to stay longer than 90 days total.  We’d also heard that we might have trouble checking into hotels once we had overstayed our visa, since this is something that all hotels check, but it wasn’t a problem for us at all.

Money: Now as easy as anywhere else

Money historically has presented travelers to Myanmar with a huge dilemma.  Until recently, there was a significant difference between the official government exchange rate and the black market rate for kyat (pronounced ‘chat’).  Punishment for exchanging money on the black market was severe.  In the 1988 edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Myanmar, travelers were advised on how to get the more favorable black market exchange rate when they arrived at the airport without technically breaking any rules: during their layover in the Bangkok airport (all flights went through Bangkok at the time), one should purchase a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey and a carton of 555 cigarettes (total cost $15).  Once in Myanmar, travelers would be approached by locals in the airport looking to purchases whiskey and cigarettes.  It would quickly become apparent what the black market rate was based on the offers and the sale would violate no laws.

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Aung Sun used to be on the money. But not anymore. These are on the wall at the Cinderella Hotel in Mawlamyine.

As recently as 2012 there were no ATMs in the country that accepted foreign bank cards.  Travelers were required to bring all of the money that they expected to spend in crisp US bills.  One hundred dollar bills would fetch the best rates and it was critical that the notes be new and the serial number not start with certain sequences that had been counterfeited by the North Koreans.  A single fold or mark would render a note unusable.

Fast forward to 2016.  We’d heard that there were now ATMs in Yangon and Mandalay, but that they could be unreliable.  We schlepped some nice US dollar bills with us from our stopover in New York just in case.  Totally unnecessary.  There are now ATMs everywhere.  Not just Yangon and Mandalay, but every other town that we stayed in was equipped with at least one ATM (with the notable exception of way off the path Mindat in Chin State).  There was even an ATM inside Shwedagon Paya, considered the country’s most sacred site.  The ATMs aren’t always 100% reliable, but welcome to traveling the developing world.  Getting and spending kyat was no big deal.  Hotel prices were often quoted in US dollars, but we typically got a good exchange rate when we opted to pay in kyat (our last night being the main exception, but it was still worth it to get rid of our final kyat).

So, that was our general take on Myanmar.  Location-specific posts to follow.  Any burning questions on travel in Myanmar you’d like us to address?

[This blog post generally describes our visit to Myanmar from November 7-December 7, 2016.]

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2 thoughts on “Our Month-Long Adventure in Myanmar/Burma

  1. Pingback: Southern Myanmar, Part 2: Hpa-An | two backpacks, no plan

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