I first went to Burma in March 2010 and it was the first destination I wrote about when I started this blog a short time after. I thought it’d be interesting to make a comparison of how Burma was then and how it is now given the change in political situation.
Having recently just returned from Burma, I can report… that not a whole lot has changed for the casual tourist. Sure, tourist numbers are up, prices are up and people now have smartphones, but things really haven’t changed in as a dramatic a way as some people seem to think.
One of my lasting memories of Burma was the electricity situation. Every hotel had massive generators out the front because frequent electricity cuts would leave entire cities without power. Of course, air conditioning was on a separate circuit so when the electricity was off and the hotel was running on generator power, air conditioning was useless. In Mandalay, I remember that electricity was off for most of my visit there and the generator was running overtime. That has now changed. I can only think of perhaps one or two minor electricity interruptions in my recent trip meaning that air conditioning is now something worth searching for, particularly in places like Mandalay in the hotter months when temperatures often reach 44C.
Tourist numbers in 2010 were quite strong. I remember thinking that it was incredible to see far more tourists in Burma than I had seen in Sumatra a few years before. Places like Mandalay, Yangon and Inle Lake regularly had full hotels and it was not uncommon to see tourists when you wandered around town. At Golden Rock, I saw 5 names in the visitors book for the day I visited. This time at Golden Rock there would have been 20. Inle Lake this time was full of tour groups, particularly older types. The same with Bagan which is quickly becoming one of my least favourite places in Asia. Yes, tourist numbers have increased significantly, but it was quite heavily visited in 2010 anyway.
The prices of hotel rooms have gone up. They’ve gone up so much that Burma no longer has budget rooms. Just less expensive ones. For a crappy, bed-bug ridden place in Bagan with hot water that is always cold, air conditioning that works more like a ceiling fan and WiFi that only sometimes works, you can expect to pay $25. In 2010 a room like this would have cost $12. Rooms are poor value compared to what you can get elsewhere in Asia. I’d say on average rooms are overpriced by about $5-10. So while it’s no major expense, you can’t help but feel ripped off while you’re there. My cheapest room was $10 in Kalaw and I believe that was good value by Asian standards and great value by Burmese standards.
When I was in Burma in 2010, internet was widely available in internet cafes but had silly blocks on sites such as gmail. The odd hotel had an internet connection, but the infrastructure was fairly dodgy and useful for the odd checking of email. Things have changed to the degree that some hotels now have internet connections fast enough for skype video calls while almost all hotels had a wifi signal of some sort.
I didn’t see anyone with a mobile phone in 2010. In 2014, nearly everyone has a mobile phone. Even people who are doing jobs which you would imagine would render them quite poor have these massive smartphones. I just couldn’t get over how many seemingly poor people had massive smartphones that put my iphone to shame. The most popular brands I saw were Huawei and Samsung. There must be quite a bit of money flowing in Burma at the moment and I don’t think it’s contained to those who are connected to the tourism industry.
In 2010, the only way to operate your finances in Burma was to bring in a stack of USD and change it on the black market. The official rate was 3 to 1 while the blackmarket rate was 1000 to 1. Now the official rate is about 1000 to 1 so you can now change money at official money changers all around the place. Better still, banks can now operate ATMs. Withdrawing money from ATMs tended to be expensive as a $5 charge was added on by the Burmese banks. But ATMs were everywhere and if you withdraw a big enough chunk of cash per transaction, it’s probably better to do that than bring USD which are still required to be in absolutely pristine condition. I only absolutely needed USD once when purchasing a train ticket.
Coke is now everywhere and is expensive. You can still get the local cola for $0.30, but coke usually costs about $0.80. The same with Pepsi and all those other big brands.
There are lots more cars on the road. Now that trade restrictions have been eased, people are buying cars. Traffic is crazy at times and riding a motorbike up to Hsipaw from Mandalay was at times frightening as big 4WDs barreled down the wrong side of the road seemingly oblivious to global norms which say that you should try to avoid head on collisions. The number of cars is just going to grow and traffic in Mandalay and Yangon is going to get like every other big city in Asia. It’s just a matter of time.
Price of food
Food prices seem to remain unchanged. You can eat soups and noodles for $0.50 anywhere meaning costs can still be kept low.
So while there are some things that have changed, not a lot has for the casual tourist. You can still avoid tourists. You can still visit the country relatively cheaply (although you’ll be staying in shitty accommodation for the price).
So don’t be put off by reports that Burma is no longer an untouched destination due to the tourist influx. It never was untouched. And besides, the people outside the main tourist areas are still friendly, curious and welcoming. Just like anywhere else in Asia.