After recently travelling through Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) with a friend of mine, I felt compelled to write about my experience. It was one of the most intriguing places I have ever visited and over the coming weeks I’ll be providing more detail about the political situation there, some of the sites and perhaps some photos of this nexus between India and South East Asia. Truly fascinating.
Lost in Time
When first arriving in Myanmar, the first thing you notice is that there are a lot of old vehicles driving the streets. Particularly buses. It’s the first indication you get that this place is stuck in some sort of weird sanction-imposed, poverty-induced time warp! As you travel further and further into the countryside, you begin to see many more ox and cart arrangements straight from 3000 years ago and comparatively very few horses. Motorised cultivation seems to be light years away which is astounding because this method of agriculture is widespread even in what many people would class as a poorer nation, Laos. The number of times you find yourself saying “old school” in Myanmar is amazing.
Much of the tourist transport in Myanmar is the same method as the locals use. That is, coaches and mini-buses. Because the roads in the most part are very poor, it takes a long time to travel from place to place and it means that visiting the main tourist destinations in the country will require at least three overnight coach journeys which can be horrendous. Worse still, arrival times of coaches after these journeys is quite often between 3am and 5am, so you can arrive at a guesthouse absolutely shattered from a bus journey, but still have to wait for a room to become available. (It’s all part of the oppression)
Cost of Living
The local currency in Myanmar is the non-convertible Kyat (pronounced chee-at). It means that it is almost impossible to buy or sell Kyat outside of Myanmar. Furthermore, there are no ATMs within Myanmar to access your money from. So you are forced to carry as much US Dollars as you will need for your entire stay with you at all times and then try and exchange it on the black market. The black market is in full swing in Myanmar, so guesthouses will routinely exchange money for you at reasonable rates.
Once you have your Kyat, living expenses within the country are generally very low. Most meals were averaging $1.50-$2 plus drinks. This average was based on us eating what we wanted and not trying to resort to the cheapest item on the menu. If you did that, you could get away with less than $1 for every meal. Also, breakfast is seemingly always included in room prices meaning another saving on meals. And accommodation costs are ridiculously low for the quality provided! Most rooms were about $6 per person for the better quality varieties. Some rooms were as little as $3-$4 per night.
All in all, when including the cost of transport, food, accommodation, some tourist access fees and miscellaneous expenses, I spent about US$20 per day. CHEAP!
Internet is inexpensive and available fairly widely in Myanmar, but it is apparently heavily monitored by the authorities and many sites are simply blocked. So there can be some issues accessing email accounts such as hotmail – I wouldn’t go there expecting to be able to email freely.
Myanmar is a hot place. I visited in March/April and the temperatures were regularly above 40C (104F) with less humidity in the North than the South. These temperatures really take their toll on your body when walking around town. But more importantly, at night some rooms can be unbearably hot! So air conditioning in some places is a wise investment, even if the electricity supply is erratic.
Myanmar is a tough country. It wears you down. Many travellers I met in Myanmar compared it to India, but felt that India was much more in your face whereas Myanmar wore you down more. Perhaps its the oppressed national psyche which imparts itself on visitors leading to more depressed feelings – a negativity which you can’t put your finger on. Whatever the case, Myanmar is a country definitely worth visiting as an interesting look at how a country in a unique geographical location copes with the lunacy of a despotic regime.