So as I was getting ready to leave Burma, I started to reflect on what I’d seen and experienced during those 3 weeks. As my friend only had 2 weeks we traveled the country quite quickly. I believe 2 weeks gives you enough time to see all the main sights, and some, but 3 or 4 weeks to really get the feel for the country and the diversity between all the different states and tribes. I’ve heard that you can overstay your visa as well for £3 a day and it won’t get you into trouble with the authorities.
Boating on Inlay Lake
Soon after we landed in Yangon at the beginning of our trip, we realised the guidebooks from last year are already outdated. If the book says a hotel costs $7 a night, it will most definately now be in the $30 region. That was something we were not prepared for. Locals are saying that every single month you can see the country change, it’s happening very quickly at the moment. It makes me greatful that I got to see Burma now while it’s still relatively pure. I just hope it’s not changing too fast for the people to cope.
The high increase of tourism is also dividing the gap between the rich and the poor very quickly. While the majority of the Burmese people are poor, a small group of people are getting very rich very fast. The rich can afford to build hotels and they can afford to cater for tourists on a level that many foreigners expect (i.e non backpackers). The tourists are then forced to spend their money at the rich people’s places as there are very few options. For example: when we arrived at Inlay Lake we had to stay at the monastery as there were no hotels with free rooms and because the hotels charged $20 and up while the monastery only charged $5. A few days after we left Inlay Lake we got the news that the monastery had been shut down as the hotels wanted their guests.
Because of this it’s important to try and spread the money as much as possible – to spend less with the hotels and more with the locals.
Trecking on the mountains
Sleeping in Burma is expensive and tricky. It’s a good idea to pre-book a few days before if possible as many times it’s near impossible to find free rooms. This is a country not very prepared for the recent increase in tourism so there are simply not enough hotels and they know they can charge a lot as the tourists won’t have much choice. We made it easy for ourselves and booked hotels from the Lonely Planet guidebook, but as every single tourist in Burma are traveling with this book, those hotels are also the most popular and expensive and are often full. Cheaper options do exist, just not in the guide books.
And just because you’re paying $45 a night for a room doesn’t mean you’ll get a nice one! It will be simple and you’ll wonder why they can’t at least try to make it seem nicer by putting a new layer of paint on the walls.
Meditating with some village kids in Bagan
It has been fairly easy to travel between places with plenty of busses and trains – some are cheap and some are expensive. The boat between Bagan – Mandalay was the most expensive ($30-40) and it didn’t quite feel worth the money. The busses are reasonably priced but come with strange time schedules (leaving extremely early in the mornings and arriving in the middle of the night). The trains have been very cheap but they run slowly so take much longer. Taxis are easy to find everywhere and won’t cost you too much, even though they are more expensive than I thought. The best way is to find fellow travelers so the fare can be shared.
Showing the curious kids on the train my laptop camera
Although the food is similar to its neighbour Thailand, there is no comparison. Burmese food seemed surprisingly bland to me at first and it’s thankfully not that spicy. But it grew on me and I’ve enjoyed every meal, except for the tea leaf salad which was way too… yukky. Each part of Burma has its own specialities, for example Shan noodles in the Shan state which I particularly enjoyed. They also got a lot of fruits and they are so much juicier and tastier than in Europe. They sell them as smoothies and juices, or they carry the fruits in a basket on their head and cut them up for you into a plastic bag.
You cannot drink the water here so you constantly have to run to the shop to buy bottles of filtered water, and I don’t know where the ice or water used for juices comes from but it didn’t made us sick even once. Although I did get sick from the food at the beginning of the trip which lasted for just under a week. Stomach pains and frequent toilet visits, not fun… It may have been dodgy food somewhere along the way, or my stomach was simply adjusting to the change in diet.
Resting under a tree during hot days of trecking
We had learned that Burma has no banks and no ATM’s so the entire trip’s budget would need to be brought in cash and it needed to be American dollars. Not just any dollars, they need to be in top condition and printed no earlier than 2009. While the condition of the dollars proved to be important (they refuse to accept torn, folded or old bills), the info regarding banks is untrue. We arrived in Yangon to find that they have now introduced banks and you can withdraw money at ATM machines even in smaller – touristy – towns. We also noticed you can exchange Euros in some places, although dollars will still be easier.
There are two kinds of prices for most things – local prices and tourist prices – for example when buying transport tickets. The tourists always has to pay more. And it’s a good idea to have plenty of dollars in your pocket as some places wants to get paid in dollars, such as hotels, tourist attraction entrance fees and train tickets.
Haggeling is also common and in many places expected. When I asked one market stall owner around Inle Lake how much a piece of jewellery was he said “7000 kyats, but you can haggle”. At the same market a woman told me a necklace I wanted was 35,000 kyats (about $40), when I told her it was too much she asked me how much I’d pay and I said 5000 kyats (about $6). She agreed. After I had bought it I realised I could have easily gotten it down to 1000…
Crossing the U Bein bridge in Amarapura
It was a great and interesting trip and although I like Burma very much, I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly I liked about it. It’s messy, chaotic and dirty but that can also be a good thing. It’s exciting to travel in a place where everything is so different to our home countries, it makes us realise things about our own lives that perhaps were hard to see clearly before. This trip has definately made me appreciate my life more and realise how good we have it. We love to complain about everything from phones to food to commuting and I like to think I won’t be complaining as much once my trip in Asia is over.
The absolute best thing about Burma however is by far the people, they really make the nation great. They are genuine and kind and always with a smile on their face. They will never run away with your money and they are always there to help in any way they can. The city people are naturally tougher and try hard to look like westerners or the Korean popstars, while the villagers are curious and inquisitive and dress in whatever clothes they can find. I have been particularly touched by their strong family values, how they take care of eachother – the kids take care of their brothers and sisters, the grandparents are forever present, and the parents are never far away from their children and treat them gently. They work as a unit. I also noticed that the young kids never cry or shout which makes me wonder what we are doing wrong in the West where you are never far away from a screaming kid.
I was also touched by the simpleness of their lives. Coming from a world where we are taught we can do and have everything, we are never happy – we always want more. I believe this constant need for new and different can never make you happy, you will never be satisfied with life until you stop and start feeling happy with the life you got. Otherwise we miss the beautiful things we have right here right now. The majority of Burmese don’t have mobile phones, laptops and designer clothes, and they don’t fly all over the world to see the Eiffeltower or pyramids – they only have their lands, their families and their work, and they seem perfectly happy to me. Happier even. I hope this is a realisation that I will keep with me forever in my quest to find inner peace and contentment. Thank you Burma, I hope we shall meet soon again.
Sunrise over Bagan
All photos by Michal Golab