The best way to understand Myanmar is to clear your mind of any other place you have visited and let it stand on its own. Forget that time India. Ignore that week in Morocco. Do not even bring up Thailand. Myanmar is different, not same same.
Myanmar was a nice surprise and a welcome change of pace. Since it only recently opened its borders to mass tourism, many of the things we find unpleasant about other SE Asian countries do not exist here. Touts are not very prevalent, but where they do exist they are neither pushy nor persistent. We did not have to bargain hard for things like local transportation, and sometimes for food we paid the locals’ price (in many countries, foreigners are wildly overcharged). If a local does something nice, they are doing it because they want to, not because they expect a handout in return. When we were at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bagan, one of the locals wanted to put thanakha on Tara’s face. She took Tara to a nearby hut and showed her how to grind the bark from a piece of wood against a stone tablet to create the paste. As she was doing it, she asked if we wanted a fan or longyi, but there was never a hard sell. She did not ask for money afterward and seemed as happy as Tara to have this type of interaction.
Right now is a near perfect time to visit the country. Most of the people you will encounter are friendly and genuinely want to help you. The importance of tourism dollars is not lost on anyone, but we never felt like dollar signs. In fact, the floodgates of tourism have not opened, at least not completely. Even when we visited heavily touristic sights in larger cities, the majority of people were still curious instead of jaded. Children in particular would run up smiling and say mingalaba. Those too shy to speak would smile and wave.
After visiting Myanmar, we thought about the things we did that helped us get the most out of our 22 days there. Mostly, we immersed ourselves in the culture as much as possible. The locals aren’t yet jaded from immense amounts of tourists, so they love to see foreigners wearing a longyi or thanakha. They are a little shy but very friendly. Be open, curious and follow these five pieces of advice to have a great time:
1) Mingalaba the $%#! out of people
You can walk by a shopkeeper and just stare at him as he stares at you. Or you can do one simple thing to animate him: Say “mingalaba” with a smile.
Mingalaba is the way the people of Myanmar say hello, and it means “auspiciousness be upon you.” As with people from other cultures, they appreciate that you have taken the time to learn basic words in the local language. No matter where we were in Myanmar, we would smile, wave and say mingalaba. This is a sure-fire way to bring a wide smile to almost anyone’s face.
2) Buy a longyi and wear it
If you are too shy to throw out unsolicited mingalabas, this is a good icebreaker. By wearing a longyi (pronounced lon-gee), a traditional long wrap sarong worn by men and women, you’ll attract just as many eyes as a freckled redhead. Now that you have their attention, make eye contact, smile and say mingalaba. Trust us, no one will leave you hanging. At the very least, you’ll get a smile back.
But you cannot just buy a longyi and tie it any old way. Make sure to talk to the shop owner or someone from your guesthouse to get a lesson in tying a longyi, as men and women tie them in different ways. Women secure their htamein near their hip, and the side depends on which region they are from (the north/Mandalay tucks on the left, south/Yangon tucks on the right). Men never tie theirs the way women do. Instead, they twist and secure it in front and tuck their wallets into the back.
If you decide to purchase a longyi with a tribal pattern, make sure you know which you are buying. Mike chose a traditional pattern that the Kachin people wear on special occasions, which made a great conversation starter when he ran into people from that tribe.
3) Take local transport, find out the locals’ prices and pay them
Stumbling off a 10-hour bumpy overnight bus at 3:30am can really disorient you. Before you pay triple the going rate for a taxi, take a second to get your bearings. In most cases, we asked the guesthouse in advance what a transfer from the bus station should cost. This helped us negotiate a fair and reasonable price. It also filled us with the confidence to walk away from a high quote, knowing they would relent and charge us appropriately.
Motorcycle taxis, songthaews, horse-drawn carriages and even ferries will try to overcharge you, but if you talk to locals or your guesthouse, you might find the cost is even cheaper than a guidebook suggests. Paying the right price will make you feel like you’ve gotten a good deal and did not get ripped off. There is nothing worse than leaving a country feeling like you’ve been mostly ripped off along your travels.
Guidebooks serve as an excellent jumping-off point for finding recommendations for restaurants, but do not completely rely on them. We found local teahouses and beer stations with great food that did not raise prices for foreigners. Once an establishment appears in a guidebook, they almost always raise prices to match the new influx of customers. The difference in prices between places that cater to foreigners (read: have an English version of their menu) versus locals is jaw-dropping (prices were at least five times higher). Even more expensive are the Western-style expat establishments. We do caution you about street food, as sanitation conditions are not up to par. Even though we have eaten street food in other Southeast Asian countries, we avoided it in Myanmar because we did not trust the sanitation standards. Others would argue that it is ok there, so make your own informed decision when you are faced with the option.
4) Temper your expectations on luxury
There are rumors of VIP buses driving around Myanmar. These buses have working air conditioning, televisions that are not cranked to 3,000% volume for the entire ride and enough room to recline comfortably. Ostensibly, these buses run the same routes we took, but we never saw them. Still, the buses we were on were fine, but prepare yourself: be ready for your chair’s reclining function to be broken, a smaller amount of legroom than on an airplane, the AC not to work or to be colder than a walk-in freezer and the TV to be set on LOUD while playing karaoke videos or doomed romantic shows. Wear versatile clothing; pack a jacket; and bring earplugs, bug repellent (so many mosquitos got into our buses) and sunblock in case there are no curtains for the untinted windows (we got burned a couple times).
Most hotels and bathrooms follow suit with less than two-star conditions. Showers and sinks may only have one valve and therefore one [fluctuating] temperature. Squatting may be your only option for a toilet. Fans may be the only way to stay cool, or the AC may not get quite as cold as you were hoping. Be prepared and be patient. The influx of visitors has outnumbered available rooms in some cities, and the country is scrambling to catch up. The existing hotels know they will fill their rooms whether they renovate or not, and it is evident that many are choosing not to use their profits on upgrading facilities.
5) Prepare to blow kisses and learn the local customs and culture
Is your beer mug empty? Pucker up and blow a kiss, loudly. A waiter will materialize out of thin air. Calling for service by smooching never felt so strange for us, but once you get over the initial sense of taboo, it grows on you and the response is impressively fast.
Besides making a kissing sound, pay attention to which hand you use. The left hand is considered unclean. Any time you are handed an item or you pass something to someone, use your right hand. If you want to be polite, cradle your right elbow with your left hand as you extend your right arm.
Be respectful by watching where you point your feet, too. The feet are considered dirty (and with good reason!), so aiming them toward someone or a Buddha statue is highly insulting. And whatever you do, do not point, nudge or move something with them!
Check out our people of Myanmar photos!
Find out here why we choose to use Myanmar instead of Burma.
Determine a budget for your trip to Myanmar.