Make sure you read these 17 pearls of wisdom before visiting what is quickly becoming one of the hottest backpacking destinations in the world.
1. Bring an alarm clock
I have never been to a country where I saw so many sunrises. If you are a keen photographer then rising with the sun will not only give you a beautiful light, but you’ll also capture the famous balloons over Bagan and the procession of monks wandering the streets in the early hours of the morning in search of alms for their lunch or the needy.
2. You CAN find ATMs here
If you’ve read that there are no ATMs in Burma then you’re probably reading a really outdated guide or an article that has been written by a blind person. ATMs are everywhere now in Burma and you no longer need to take all the cash you need for your trip with you. We found ATMs in every city we visited in the country, although they were a little harder to find in places out of main cities such as Hsipaw and Inle Lake.
3. Pack lighter. And then lighter still
Seriously, when you start packing for Burma, half what you have, and then half it again. You can purchase a traditional longyi in one of the markets for just a few dollars when you arrive or some cotton harlem pants. Trust me, that’s all you will be wearing. Longyis are breathable and easy to rinse, wash and hang in your hotel room. They take just an hour to dry and you’ll be complemented by the locals for wearing the traditional clothing.
4. Burma is now connected
For better or worse, the days of travelling off the grid have gone in Burma and you can now find Wi-Fi in most hotels and hostels, and even in the dullest, dingiest bars in the back alleys of Mandalay. Most places provide it for free as long as you are paying for a service of theirs. Don’t expect to upload a ton of pictures though – you’ll be sitting there for hours.
5. Smacking is normal
And I’m not talking about the kind that leaves bruises… Lip smacking, or that smooching noise, is the normal way to get someone’s attention in Burma, including waiters, waitresses and even those just passing by. Make sure you listen out for it and master it first in private to avoid ending up just sounding like a pervert.
6. Power cuts do still happen
We were told that power cuts rarely ever happen, however we experienced a number of power cuts in Yangon and in Ngapali. While it didn’t really bother us (we used candles in Ngapali) it does mean you’re unable to charge all those devices you brought along with you, so bring spare battery packs or limit your electronic devices to a minimum – which brings me to the next point…
7. Safety deposit boxes do not exist
In all the hotels we stayed in not a single one had any form of safety deposit box or in room safe. That meant that any cash or expensive belongings including heavy laptops, iPad etc had to be taken with us wherever we went as we didn’t risk leaving them in our room. It may be advisable to invest in lockable backpacks or just limit your devices so you don’t have a heavy daypack.
8. Burma has its own time zone
Burma is one of the few countries in the world with a half hour time zone – others include India and Iran. We’d never been to a half hour time zone (Burma is six and a half hours ahead of GMT) so were a little confused to start with.
9. Visas are a breeze
As of 1 September 2014, tourists can now get their Burma e-visa via a new website (www.myanmarevisa.gov.mm) for $50 per person. Visas take one week to arrive, are valid for 28 days and must be used within three months of the application date.
10. You only need one pair of shoes
The only pair of shoes we took were our trusted Havaianas. You will be constantly taking your shoes off, every time you enter a temple or someone’s home, so wear footwear like flip flops, which are easy to remove and carry with you.
11. Don’t leave shoes with minders
While we found we were able to freely leave our flip flops at most temples (and found them on our return) there were a couple of temples in Bagan where you are expected to pay a ‘minders fee’ for watching your shoes, and in one instance our shoes were kept hostage until we purchased something from the minder’s stall. So take them with you and clip them on your backpack – better to be safe than sorry.
12. Set an example with litter
Burma is a country with a very infant infrastructure; garbage collectors don’t exist so expect to find a lot of rubbish on the sidewalks and river banks. We found public places and religious temples to be relatively clean, however locals have no qualms about chucking rubbish over the side of boats and out of trains. Try to lead by example by collecting your rubbish and disposing of it correctly. Education is the first step!
13. Reclaiming of old cities
Burma can be quite confusing for travellers as there is a mix of old and new city names being used – such as Bago and Pegu, Yangon and Rangoon – so it’s worth noting down both, although most tourist information centres will be using the city’s new names as opposed to their British colonial names.
14. Learn some local lingo
Learn the basic greetings in Burmese such as hello (min ga la ba), goodbye (thaw dau mal) and thank you (kyeizu pyu yue). The locals love to hear you try it and it is a great way of breaking the ice. Don’t worry too much if you’re having trouble: many locals speak English and you’ll find they’ll want to speak to you in English to practice. So if a man stops his car in the middle of a street and gets out to talk to you – true story – don’t be alarmed: he just wants to practice his English!
15. Beware of fake jewels
Although the typical backpacker doesn’t spend thousands on precious sapphire and ruby jewels, don’t be tricked or fooled into buying cheap jewels in markets and stalls. They may say they are real but there are many stories of tourists buying fake rubies that were simply just pieces of red glass. And if you do purchase a jewel make sure you have a certified certificate with your purchase that can be shown to customs when you depart the country.
16. Drink only bottled water
Only drink bottled water and never water from the tap. Water is pretty cheap to buy although you’ll pay a premium if you purchase it from sellers at train stations or temples so make sure you bring plenty of water with you on day trips.
17. Vaccinations are important
There are a ton of forums that discuss this subject in a lot of depth. No matter what anyone says, it’s always best to have your vaccinations up to date and to visit your nearest travel clinic for advice on travel to Burma. Malaria is present in Burma and it’s better to have some protection against it then not. And be aware of dengue fever – I was unlucky enough to get it and its awful, so cover up in the evenings and use insect repellent everywhere. You can’t wear too much!