It took far longer than it should.
I’d been talking about going to Myanmar for years. I remember listening to Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet fame talk about the country at a travel writing expo in 2010, explaining in typically blunt terms why independent travellers should visit the country regardless of politics and conventional wisdom. By the end of his speech I knew I’d go, but a procession of excuses and changed plans meant it was over four years until I finally did. In that time, the Myanmar of Wheeler’s experience changed almost beyond recognition.
The bulky generators on the streets of Yangon remain largely silent, power now a semi-reliable commodity in the country’s biggest city. In a nation largely cut off from the outside world for decades, Internet access — while still cripplingly slow most of the time — is readily available in the tourist hotspots. Locals openly talk about life under military rule in a way I suspect they wouldn’t have dared to in the past.
Tour buses and a steady stream of backpackers now fill streets that were largely devoid of foreigners. The trains are as slow and bumpy as ever, but VIP buses ply the route between Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake on upgraded roads with a surprising degree of comfort. Hotel prices have escalated rapidly, traveller lore suggesting they now provide some of the worst accommodation value in the region.
As a result, Lauren and I didn’t quite know what to expect from our time in the country, and decided to opt for a short, two-week visit to get a sense of what was on offer. If we didn’t like it, if it just wasn’t for us, we didn’t have to spend long there. In, out, tick, done.
Not so much.
As changed as Myanmar may be, as rapidly modernizing as it undoubtedly is, it still feels unlike anywhere else I’ve been. The gridlock and crumbling colonial facade of steamy Yangon, the dusty, jaw-dropping plains of Bagan, the chilly mountain trails of Kalaw, the dead-calm waters of Inle Lake — they’ve come the closest to the naively-stereotyped view of South East Asia I had before ever visiting the region. With tourism still so new, there’s little antipathy towards foreigners — curiosity and enthusiasm for tourists abound, even from those not directly involved in the industry that serves them.
We rarely had the chance to even look lost before someone would appear to point us in the right direction, whether they spoke English or not. The staff in every guesthouse and hotel couldn’t do enough to smooth our journeys, whether it was shuttling me around town on a scooter to buy bus tickets, calling friends to help with a phone problem, sorting out a certain girlfriend when she left her passport behind or any of the other small daily kindnesses that make such a difference on the road.
The food, too, was a surprise. My prior experience of Burmese food consisted of tea leaf salads and oily curries from restaurants in Chiang Mai — tasty, sure, but limited and not overly healthy. As it turned out, I ate often and well no matter where I was in the country (other than guesthouse breakfasts, which were uniformly terrible). Thanks to British colonial rule, there’s a strong Indian and Nepali presence in some parts of Myanmar, and I had some of the best Indian food of my life in both Kalaw and Nyaung Shwe.
There was a Shan noodle place in Yangon where I lunched every single day, immersing myself in soupy, spicy, porky deliciousness until I could barely move, and a bbq fish and beer-filled visit to 19th Street on our final night was the perfect way to end the trip. Cheap, delicious street food was never more than a block or two away, and despite the warnings and suspiciously-cold chicken I was served on occasion, we never got sick.
I fired my camera’s shutter close to 1000 times in 14 days, prolific even for me, and an indication of just how ridiculously photogenic the country and its people really are. Hazy sunsets from atop a Bagan temple, brightly-coloured vegetables stacked high in the markets of Kalaw, golden pagodas winking in the afternoon light… and smiling people, everywhere. Flicking back through both photos and memories, it’s the smiles that stand out.
Life isn’t necessarily easy in Myanmar, the deprivations of decades of sanctions now giving way to rampant inflation, many minorities still ignored (or worse) by those in power — but on a superficial level at least, laughter, jokes and a sense of fun are never far from the surface.
With my various banks unanimous their ATM cards wouldn’t work, the pristine US bills I bought with me needed to last until I left. Prepaying a few night’s accommodation helped, but in the end it wouldn’t really have mattered. While it’s certainly true you’ll get better value for money in nearby countries, hotels and guesthouses weren’t prohibitively expensive when travelling as a couple. High-season prices for a clean double room with hot water and a/c in the places that needed it were $30-$40/night everywhere we went — a big jump from even a couple of years ago, but still manageable.
Those big, comfortable overnight buses ran at $10-$20 depending on the distance, and came with complimentary water, snacks and, if we were particularly lucky, god-awful music videos til the small hours. They always left on schedule and arrived a couple of hours late, but since that typically meant 7am rather than 5am, we weren’t complaining. Eating on the street typically cost under a dollar for a steaming bowl of mohinga or a noodle dish, and we struggled to pay more than about five bucks for dinner and a drink even in relatively fancy-looking restaurants.
Multi-day entrance fees to Inle Lake and Bagan were $10 and $15 respectively, and remarkable value at that. Getting a visa for Myanmar is a little more costly than other South East Asian countries, but not prohibitively so. The country may be noticeably more expensive than it once was — even the locals will tell you that — but for all but the cheapest of foreign visitors, it remains a highly affordable destination.
Two weeks was just long enough to get a taste of the country, but we were left wanting much more. If we didn’t have flights already booked we’d still be there now, slurping soup and cursing the wi-fi in equal measure. It’s a complex, diverse and beautiful country, one that’s gentrifying quickly but which still provides enough challenge to keep travel interesting and unpredictable in a way it often isn’t elsewhere. How long will it remain that way? I genuinely don’t know.
It may have taken far too long to get to Myanmar, but it was well worth the wait.
It won’t be another four years until I return.
Have you been to Myanmar? What were your impressions?