Colin and I really liked Myanmar. It’s a lot less touristy than other areas we’ve been to. The people are really nice and still seem happy to see tourists; whereas in other more touristy areas, I think that you get a lot of locals who hate the tourists (and I’m one of those crotchety locals when I’m at home too, so I don’t blame them). Colin and I actually got stopped a lot to take photos with locals and other Asian tourists (because of my purple hair and Colin’s red beard). In the photo above, I took individual pictures with almost everyone in the group – men and women. All the girls I passed stared at me, and a lot of them complimented me with something like, “pretty hair!” At one point, Colin was approached in a temple by about 15 men with military uniforms on. He was thinking he was in big trouble for something, but each of them wanted a picture with him so they could show their friends back in the smaller town in Myanmar that they were all from. It was fun!
Here’s an example of how nice the people are in the cities we visited: The first time we used the Myanmar currency (kyat, or MMK), we (Colin) accidentally paid the taxi driver 116,000 MMK instead of the 17,000 MMK that we actually owed him (that’s about a $75 USD difference). The 10,000 and 1,000 bills look very similar, so it is a very easy mix up and one that we accidentally almost made a few times even after this incident. Anyway, when we got into the hotel and realized what had happened, the taxi driver had already driven off. We told the receptionist what had just happened, and she took a look at the security cameras’ footage to see if she could figure out how to get ahold of him. She ended up calling him to ask him about it, and he drove back about 10 minutes later with the entire 99,000 MMK (about $75 USD) that we had overpaid. We didn’t even have a chance to tip the guy since he left it all with the hotel receptionist who in turn gave it to us. I thought for sure we were out of the money, but like I said – the people here are so nice!
Even though it is a lot less touristy than other areas, you won’t be the only tourist around. There is a common traveler’s trail in the shape of a diamond. It’s made up of 2 traveler’s triangles – 1) Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake; 2) Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake. If you do the whole diamond, you just include both Yangon and Mandalay. We chose the second option and didn’t get to see Yangon. I’ve heard that it might be easier to fly into Yangon compared to Mandalay, but just make sure you look at both. Even with these being the tourist sites, there are still not that many tourists, and of those, there seems to be more tourists that are from other parts of Asia compared to other Western countries. In Bagan, there were even a lot of tourists from other parts of Myanmar that were visiting the temples.
In the photo above, you can see the wrap around fabric I’m wearing that looks similar to a skirt. It’s called a longyi (pronounced long-jee), and traditionally, everyone here wears one all the time – men and women alike. The men wear ones that only have square patterns on them (they look like a checkered pattern or some look like a flannel pattern) called a pa soe, and women wear fun patterns and colors called a tha me. In recent years, you’ll see some men and women wearing other kinds of pants / skirts, but most of the people you see that are from Myanmar are still wearing a longyi. It reminds me a lot of the kitenge that you see women wearing in Tanzania, and I was happy to buy a couple for myself to wear around!
Another thing I love about Myanmar is that you’ll see most of the women and children with a yellow paste on their faces. It’s usually on their cheeks and sometimes their noses and foreheads. It’s called thanaka, and it’s made from tree bark. There are a few different trees that it can be made with, but the most common and the only one I saw was from a tree that everyone also called thanaka. The thanaka is good for your skin – not only does it help prevent acne, but it also protects your skin from the sun. You’ll see slabs of stone with part of a tree and a lot of yellow paste all over them. You just add a little water to the stone and rub the tree on it until you have enough of the paste for your face. You can find anyone around who is happy to help you put some on yourself. A lot of the temples in Mandalay had girls walking around offering to draw pretty designs on your cheeks. I wore thanaka about 50% of the time I was in Myanmar because someone was able to find me some. I eventually just ended up buying some in a convenient store. It’s a condensed version that you just add a little water to and apply. You can see a video of me here: Sara gets thanaka put on in Myanmar
And of course, we love the food. There is a lot of good pumpkin curry around, and there are lots of fried rice type dishes, fried noodles, noodle soups, etc. Try the spicy shan noodles. They use this particular spicy sauce for a lot of dishes in all of Myanmar that has garlic and little green chili peppers chopped up in it. It’s delicious!
Something that surprised us about Myanmar is that it’s chilly and sometimes downright cold at night. Granted, we were there in winter (so check the time of year you’ll be there), but I was under the impression that this area of Asia is pretty much always hot and not raining or hot and raining. Umm… wrong. Very wrong. And I discovered it the hard way. See further below for how our night train ride went from Mandalay to Bagan. But it’s hot during the day. You really need warm clothes for watching sunrise; you kind of need them for sunset; and you really need them if you’re out at night.
Something else that I found surprising is that Myanmar drives on the right-hand side of the road, but the steering wheels are usually on the right-hand side as well. I’m used to the US where we drive on the right, and the steering wheel is on the left; and now I’m used to New Zealand where they drive on the left-hand side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right. But Myanmar has combined them both!? I don’t know the history behind this, but it surprised me.
Speaking of driving, you’ll hear A LOT of honking here. It isn’t necessarily rude honking though. If you hear a horn, they are most likely just letting you know that they are right there. For example, if you’re walking on the side of the road, they are either letting you know politely with their horn that you need to move or making sure you know they are there so you don’t end up walking out in front of them. Don’t let it make you anxious – it’s just the way they drive. There are few stop signs and fewer lights. To get out into traffic or cross a street, you just have to make a run for it. It’s an interesting system that would drive a lot of people nuts (myself included if I were driving), but it works for them.
They typically have squat toilets (not a squatty potty – they are toilet holes in the ground that you squat over) except for in the hotels and other buildings that cater to tourists. There is also rarely toilet paper in the bathrooms. Get used to carrying your own TP if you want to use it. To flush a squat toilet, there will be a bucket of water (of if you’re lucky, a hose with a spray nozzle attached), and you just put water in the toilet. It should “flush” after a couple of scoops of water. You’re also supposed to use water (the hose with a spray nozzle) to “wipe” with – you rinse off your bum instead of using TP. I never got used to this, and I just carried my TP with me. However, be aware that their plumbing is not built to have any kind of TP thrown into the toilet (squat or not), so make sure to only throw your TP into a trash can.
I think the most upsetting thing about our trip to Myanmar (which doesn’t bother Colin nearly as much as it should if you ask me) is that in their religion (Buddhism), men are more powerful than women. Yeah, you might be saying “duh” to yourself, but I thought that Buddhism was all about equality. Well, turns out that it’s not. The only place that I actually felt the bias was in a couple of temples where there are signs that “ladies are not allowed” in some of the areas.
It’s not apparent or in-your-face other than that. No one treated me with any disrespect. But I asked two of our guides why I wasn’t allowed in these areas in the temples. One of them skirted around the issue telling me something I couldn’t understand for a good 7 minutes before he got around to saying that men are stronger than women. The other got right down to it and said that it is because men are more powerful than women. One of the girls next to me asked him, “And you believe this?” His response was to say, “This is our religion.” So yeah, he believes it. Oh, and women aren’t allowed to stand on the right side of a man because his right side is powerful, and she shouldn’t block it. She isn’t even supposed to sleep on his right side.
I think that a lot of people from home would question why we would go into Myanmar with all the conflict going on right now. We felt very safe the whole time we were there. However, I think that it would be amiss to write a blog post on Myanmar and not mention the current conflict and the Rohingya. Take a look at this article from BBC published in Dec 2017 and this article from the Guardian published in Sep 2017 for further information, but I’ll try to summarize some of it here. Keep in mind that this is a very summarized version, and you’ll need to research the full facts for yourself. Also, there have been several conflicts over the years. This is just the most recent.
Since August 25, 2017, an untold number of minority Muslims (the Rohingya) have been killed by security forces (militants) in Myanmar (numbers vary from 600 to 3,000+ depending on the source), and hundreds of thousands (600,000+) have escaped to neighboring Bangladesh. The UN calls the violence "a textbook example of ethnic cleansing," but Myanmar's de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, has refused to speak out against the violence and refuses to allow international peacekeepers into the country.
We should also touch on the whole Myanmar vs. Burma thing. In 1989, the ruling military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. This was a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. The city Rangoon became Yangon along with several other city name changes. The country’s name change was recognized by the United Nations, and by some countries such as France and Japan, but not by other countries such as the United States, the UK, Australia, and Canada. They did not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country.
The two words actually mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelled in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar. When I asked one of our guides what the difference was, he said that the Burma period was over, and they are now in the Myanmar period. Maybe it depends on who you talk to? Honestly, to me, it doesn’t matter what you call the country as long as you know that a lot of people use the names interchangeably. In the words of Taylor Swift, “Call it what you want.” What matters more to me is the human rights abuses in the 1980’s and mentioned above.
Our Myanmar route was Mandalay --> Bagan --> Inle --> Mandalay. See the links below for more information on each place we went.
We booked our trains / buses through 12go.asia, and it worked out well. When I gave a bad review for anything, 12go.asia would respond back to me with an actual answer based on what I said in the review. Anything bad in the review was more about the actual company anyway – 12go.asia is just a third party booking site like Kayak, Orbitz, etc.
We took an overnight train from Mandalay to Bagan. It left 2 minutes before its scheduled departure time, so don’t be late (it left at 7:58 PM). Somehow though, it was still an hour late than the estimated arrival (it got in at 4:10 AM). Do not do this. It was an awful idea. I figured it couldn’t be worse than an overnight bus, and we may as well try it out. Nope. Don’t do it. First of all, I thought I was going to die. I’m a nervous-nelly on most buses, trains, and planes. This was different. I didn’t get much sleep because I literally thought we were for sure dying. The train rocks from side to side pretty violently, and it seems like it may come off the tracks any minute.
However, even if it wasn’t rocking, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep for so many other reasons. Take your pick: they keep the lights on the entire time; the seats barely lean back (and if you do decide to take the train, make sure you buy the first class tickets because all the other seats are wooden benches); the train stops a lot, so we were worried about our bags being stolen since they are in the cabin with you; and last, but certainly not least, it is cold as FUCK. Yeah, excuse my French and all that, but you need to know how seriously cold it was. Part of it was my fault because it was our first night in Myanmar, and I didn’t know how cold it really got. I was in leggings and a T-shirt. We quickly realized that it was going to get cold though because the windows aren’t closed all the way. Some of them are broken and don’t close all the way, and some of them just have slats in them. The wind is just blowing in at you the entire time. We could see our breath at one point. Luckily, we had our winter clothes easily reachable in our bags, so we got all of them out. I still had my feet in sandals though, and my feet were numb for the whole ride and even an hour after the train arrived because they were so cold. In summary, don’t take an overnight train in Myanmar. I’ve heard the day ones are really pretty though.
We took the JJ Express overnight bus from Bagan to Inle Lake. They give each person a blanket (airline blanket sized) and a bottle of water. We also got desserts! But there is no bathroom on the bus. We made enough stops that it was okay, but I have a tiny bladder, and it was uncomfortable at times. The bus is also freezing (not as bad as the train) because they use a lot of A/C, so you should wear a hat and scarf and socks. The roads are very bumpy and curvy, and the seats don’t lean back very far. I heard that some of the other buses are just as uncomfortable in some ways but that the seats on them lean back further. I also got almost no sleep on the bus, but it was better than the train.
We also took the JJ Express overnight bus from Inle Lake back to Mandalay. Same notes as above except that instead of desserts, they served us dinner (even though the bus left at 8 PM). And we ended up getting in almost an hour late because we spent so much time at one of the stops. We were only about 10 kilometers away from the final stop, and we stopped to let some people off. The problem was that no one that knew what was going on spoke any English. So here you have half the bus that doesn’t speak the Myanmar language, and somehow we were supposed to figure out who is getting off the bus and who is staying on. Most of us thought there was only one stop, but I guess they were letting some people get off to get on another bus to take them closer to town. Anyway, the whole thing took a very long time and left everyone very confused. Luckily, I figured out what the guy was saying and got us to the hotel. But it was 40% a guess haha.
Here are my blog posts on each place we went specifically:
Click the links below to see some of our videos from Myanmar:
And see here for more pictures from Myanmar.
Overall, don’t pass up a visit to Myanmar. It was definitely worth the trip! Please let me know if you have any other questions or if you’ve been and have anything to add :)
Hi, I'm Sara Monica Patton. I love animals, traveling, and eating. Read more about me in my first blog post here.