Myth-busting Myanmar: Twelve misconceptions and the truth behind them
Armed with out-of-date guidebooks and stories from people who had visited years earlier, we entered Myanmar unsure of what to expect.
After 28 days in the country, we learned that some preconceptions were bang on, and others were very, very wrong.
Nº 1 - Dollars need to be in perfect condition
As we flattened our dollar bills and enclosed them in various books to keep them just so, we still weren’t sure whether Myanmar was really that strict on its requirement that notes be in ‘perfect condition’. We can confirm that in the majority this IS the case, so make sure your notes have no rips or tears and definitely no pen marks. If you are paying in dollars, they will be scrutinised, although we’re not sure what would happen if you didn’t have any cleaner ones.
Nº 2 - ATMs aren’t common
We assumed that ATMs could be found in the main tourist areas (Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan) but as we were visiting some lesser-visited places (Hpa-an, Mawlamyine, Kalaw, Pyin Oo Lwin, Hsipaw) we didn’t know whether it would be wise to arrive at these towns with heaps of cash. Fear not, only the most rural of villages had no ATM, and most towns had cash points that accepted both our Halifax Mastercard and Barclays Visa.
Nº 3 - Foreigners aren’t that interesting to locals
As tourists, we are so often armed with cameras, mindlessly snapping in markets and at archeological sites (and taking shamless selfies) that we forget we are sometimes the main attraction. We thought that we wouldn’t be that interesting to the Burmese people, and we were very wrong. If you go even slightly off the tourist trail in Myanmar, you will pique many local’s interest.
As an example, when we were visiting religious sites around Hpa-an, many local tourists were from areas of Myanmar that are either off-limits to independent foreign tourists or just not frequented often. That’s why Matt ended up being hugged by a fifty-year-old woman for a solid five minutes and ended up starting a sort of harem…
If you find people staring, or frowning, at you, taking sly photographs or whispering to their friends, give them a smile. Most people are just unsure how to approach you, and will almost certainly give you a huge grin back. You may have to take time out of your schedule to pose for photographs, shake hands or, as Rachel experienced, have your bum squeezed by curious ladies, but take it in your stride and you’ll have an incredible time here.
Nº 4 - The airport is the worst place to exchange money
We landed in Myanmar with $2000 in cash, not sure how much to exchange. In the end, with Yangon airport giving us a rate better than Google, we exchanged half of that on Day One and it was the best decision. There are several other moneychangers in cities and towns, but none offered us as good a rate as the airports and you always have to be aware of scammers.
Nº 5 - USD is king
Contrary to many accounts in the past, many locals prefer to accept bills in kyat, even if the advertised price is in US dollars. It’s easy to exchange money, often at great rates, so don’t worry if you have too much USD.
Nº 6 - There will be a major language barrier
We thought that the English language would be as mysterious to some Burmese people as we were, but we were wrong again. Many people had excellent English and even those that had basic grasp of the language were very kind and easy to speak to.
Nº 7 - It’s expensive
We were fully prepared for higher prices, after booking accommodation which averaged $X per night. But, with the high amount of cheap eateries around and the reasonable price of activities, we ended up coming in $500 under budget, averaging $50 per day for the two of us. Sure, you can’t expect the rock-bottom prices of boozy islands in Thailand, but that can hardly be said to be expensive, can it?!
Nº 8 - Internet is rarely available
Every hotel we stayed at and some restaurants we ate in had wifi, and the majority of it wasn’t too spotty. We could rarely stream Netflix, but we could download things offline, check our emails and keep in touch with family over Facetime with little bother.
Nº 9 - Everyone chews betel nuts
After a couple of weeks in Myanmar, it’s just as surprising to be greeted with a pearly white smile as it is to see shining red gums and splats of blood-like spit on the floor. Many people do chew betel nuts (which are carcinogenic, by the way) but there are just as many people who refrain.
Nº 10 - Bus and train travel are uncomfortable
We will go ahead and say that we (nearly) enjoyed travelling on the buses and trains. Tickets are cheap and they get you from A to B; if comfort isn’t your number one priority, you shouldn’t have an issue travelling this way.
Nº 11 - Myanmar is unsafe
There is unrest in certain areas of Myanmar and for that reason, tourist travel is forbidden or permitted only with a guide or special permit. Bad things can happen anywhere you travel, but I have never felt safer in a country than I did in Myanmar. Many side-roads don’t have streetlights, and we did come across some questionable stray dogs, but the people we met were very respectful and caring, and we didn’t once feel threatened or unsure in the presence of any local person.
Nº 12 - Bagan is well preserved and set to be UNESCO
Until recently, people were free to climb on the temples, and many damaged temples were being ‘restored’ with brand new bricks, made to ‘look’ old… The future of Bagan’s ancient temples (some date back to the second century!) is set to change, however, and hopefully for the better!