Last June, I decided to go on an adventure to Myanmar. Prior to this trip, I had no idea of what to expect. The only people I knew, who had been were Burmese nationals studying at my university. To me, it felt like a new frontier and I was ready. Before my departure, there was the Rohingya refugee crisis and my parents weren’t too keen about my travel plans so whilst obtaining my visa at the embassy, I made some inquires about travel safety and did plenty of research beforehand – mainly to give my parents (and myself) a piece of mind. I am really glad that I stuck with my initial plans because from what I’ve heard, things are changing quickly. Two weeks after I left, a KFC restaurant opened up in Yangon – if that doesn’t mean change, I don’t know what does.
It is such a beautiful country and I would recommend to anyone. These are a couple of things I reckon everyone should do, see or experience whilst in the country. There are of course plenty of other things I wished I had done, but hey I need an excuse to go back, right?
Take the Circle Train
If you’ve got a few hours to kill, hop on the Circle Train in Yangon and get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and explore the Burmese countryside. It’s breathtaking. To travel the entire line, it’ll take about 3 hours. It was probably one of the more memorable days I’ve spent in the former capital. Sitting on the train, watching people go about their lives, hawkers walking up and down the carriages with massive baskets of produce and titbits balanced on their heads, life-stock getting transported between towns and just an overall slower pace of life.
I urge you to get off at a random stop and go for a walkabout. Jana, Ross and I decided to get off at the furthest point of the journey, where a massive market could be seen from the train. We walked around taking in the sights, sounds and smell. Oh yes, that smell, I won’t soon forget. As we were with a really tall westerner, the locals stopped us so they could take photos with him. He achieved celebrity-status really. What was great about the two people I was with were that they didn’t hesitate to get out of their comfort zone. Ross was feeling peckish and found a little roadside pop up eatery and with barely any communication; we received an array of dishes, some of which confused us.Just a heads up, there is a price difference between what the locals and foreigners pay. We picked up on this and managed to pay the local price (which was about US$1 or 1000 Kyat for the 3 of us).
Do a trek between Kalaw and Inle Lake
The trek we opted for was approximately 60kms lasting 3D2N. What sold my friends and I on the tour we took was the opportunity to spend a night in a monastery (the other night was spent in a local longhouse in someone’s backyard). It was also slightly cheaper than the one we were recommended. At approximately 30USD/per day, vegetarian food, 2 nights accommodation, transportation across Inle Lake, two guides and a cook were included.
During the hike, we had the opportunity to walk through several villages and a school, which we disrupted a lesson to say hello to the students. We were under the impression that we would be able to have more opportunity to chat with the locals instead of just walking through most villages. There were a few occasions where we sat down in a little shelter and had tea with a few locals and on another occasion, we stopped at a rail station and played Frisbee, jump rope and other games with the kids – such a great laugh.If you sneak more than just cities, I would suggest doing this as you get to see the Burmese countryside and trek though the mountains and forests. Having a bunch of fantastic characters to hike with is just an added bonus – I had 7 other solo travellers and a Dutch couple to share this experience with (who I meant along my travels). Hi guys!
Talk to the locals
Something you will hear throughout your journey, it is simply a Burmese greeting. The locals are a friendly bunch and ever since the recent reopening of Myanmar’s borders, I’ve found that they are extremely welcoming to foreigners and travellers alike. They have a burning curiosity and love to share their culture and history. The further out of Yangon you get, you’ll come across kids that will wave and cautiously approach you, hiding behind one another, echoing mingalabar. While venturing around pagodas and public areas, don’t be surprised if someone approaches you and they strike up a conversation. Don’t be fooled! They have a good command of the English language.
So next time you go to Myanmar, join someone for some Burmese tea (so much tasty goodness!) and listen to what they have to tell you.
Don’t skip Bagan
If I’m honest, I don’t know anyone who goes to Myanmar and doesn’t visit Bagan. There are over 2000 stupas and pagodas throughout the land to marvel at. Being one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites, there is a fee to enter the city, which can be paid in either USD or Myanmar Kyats.There are a few methods to explore the temples.
1. Hire your own driver to take you around.
2. Walk – it’ll take ages if I’m honest.
3. Rent an electric bike as scooters and motorbikes are illegal for foreigners to hire.As you can see from the photo below, we chose #3. Make sure your e-bikes are fully charged before taking off. One day, Tim ran out of battery juice and another day I almost ran out because I kept using my turbo. Whoops, rookie. Something that we did in Bagan was to go on a river/’alternative’ temple tour. We had the opportunity to be guided to three temples, which weren’t commonly visited by travellers and had a sunset cruise before heading home.
How could I forget?! You SHOULD definitely try dining at Weather’s Spoon. They served possibly one of the best meals I’ve had in Myanmar. It’s a little diner with literally writings on the wall from people around the world. Take me back!
Honestly, go there. I almost made the mistake of skipping Shwedagon Pagoda because I had visited Sule Pagoda a couple of days prior and didn’t want to get “templed out” so early on in my trip. I’ve seen my fair share of religious sites and this pagoda definitely tops my list. It is grand and magnificent. It’s indescribable. After visiting this site, you will begin to understand why Myanmar is known as the Land of Golden Pagodas. Even if religious sites aren’t your cup of tea, I strongly suggest making a trip to check this place out.The flooring surrounding the Pagoda is tiled so during peak of the afternoon sun, you will need to take care not to burn your feet – there is rubber mats laid out along the circumference of the pagoda. When visiting ANY religious sites in Myanmar, always ensure you’re dressed respectfully. Cover your shoulders and knees for both genders and shoes are removed prior to entering the premises. I’m not going to school you on being culturally respectful but good luck trying to enter these sites otherwise. If you forget to dress this way, don’t worry, you can either buy or rent a longyi (Burmese version of a sarong).
Well, that wraps up my top 5 suggestions while in Myanmar! It is honestly such a beautiful country and quite different to the other South East Asian countries I’ve travelled to. It’s hard to describe it in one world or phrase. I guess you’ll just have to go and experience it for yourself!
Peace, love and good vibes.