Going to Myanmar? A few tips

I’ve now returned home, so I thought I’d put up a few hints and tips if visiting the country.

Given the nature of development there, it’s worth taking basic medical needs with you. Depending on where you are, it’s not always straightforward to go out and get a supply of headache tablets or the like, so bring them with you. Likewise any plasters (band aids for our transatlantic cousins!) if you get a cut. The same applies to things like anti-mosquito spray. Given the amount of walking when visiting the sights, any bites can quickly become extremely irritating. This becomes especially true if they target the feet, and shoes then need to be comfortable as those bites can quickly become sores.

Of course, when going to temples or pagodas, they are visited barefoot, and especially in the wet season, the last thing you want is for any open wounds to become infected. So an anti-septic is not a bad idea either. Even if that isn’t needed, a supply of baby wipes for the feet is a definite must take. Any good ground handler such as ICS Travel Group is going to supply them for you anyway, but having an additional number is a good idea as one or two wipes may not fully do the job.

When the day involves lots of temple visits, such as when travelling to Bagan, make sure you go out in flip flops or similar. There is nothing that will get you down quite as quickly as continually taking off and putting on shoes and socks, and especially so if you have grimy feet when putting them back on. Flip flops are easier and far more convenient.

The standard advice is to take US dollars for the duration of your stay. In truth, the number of ATMs available now is adequate in most of the cities and tourist areas, and the hotels will usually offer money changing facilities. But it remains better to have more dollars than you need and face the miserable buy back rate from the bank on your return than to run out. The more likely scenario is not that you won’t be able to find a cash machine, it’s more that the link might go down and it doesn’t work when you need it.

And on the question of the dollars (or Euros if you must – though note the exchange rate for those will be 1:1 so Euros is the more expensive option) ensure the notes are crisp, unfolded and preferably new. It’s not an unreasoning desire for new notes, when the locals exchange currency, they will be offered a worse rate of exchange if the notes are damaged or tired – that’s why they will often reject them as payment unless they are in excellent condition.

As far as getting kyats (local currency) is concerned, getting them from the hotel, money changer, or withdrawing them from the ATM is reasonably straightforward. You won’t need that much; food, drink and incidentals are all pretty cheap, a decent meal in a local restaurant can be as little as £3. Even in the hotels where you would expect to pay far more, budget £10 for a two course meal and a beer – unless staying in one of the more exclusive properties.

The question of going to local restaurants is one to be a little bit careful about. Although it’s very much part of a trip to want to eat where the locals do, some care is needed, and an understanding of why there’s a concerned look on your guide’s face. Local eating places tend to cook the food in the morning and leave it to stand for the day, re-heating it when it is ordered. Standards of hygiene are not necessarily up to the standards expected, and of course the food may be washed in local water (where there is running water) which it isn’t recommended to drink. Chances are you’ll be fine, but the possibility of getting a stomach bug is there, and it’s risking losing a couple of days of the trip to a miserable experience in the hotel bathroom, plus the issue about limited pharmacies in any given area applies. It’s best avoided and not worth the risk.

Your guide will tend to choose a place that isn’t quite where the locals go, unless they’re a touch more affluent but absolutely will give you a flavour of the local cuisine, and is clean and still extremely inexpensive. As a compromise, take the guide’s advice, they know the clean places that offer decent food, and remember that getting good quality produce, especially meats, is going to cost them a bit more. They aren’t out to gouge you, it’s not expensive, and they don’t tend to be tourist restaurants in the way you imagine.

Tipping is the bane of any traveller, especially the British who are unaccustomed to doing it and get into a panic about what is appropriate to give. The Myanmar people don’t routinely expect tips, so anything you do give will be received with gratitude, but it won’t be expected. If you ask the guide what to do, you’ll receive the answer that it’s up to you, and they aren’t being difficult about this, it really is.

Guides and drivers will be around $10 and $5 per day respectively, but it’s still not an expectation. In my own case I was more interested in tipping when it went to local people. Your guide will freely answer the question when you ask if anything you leave will go directly to whoever has served you, as is usually the case. And knowing how little they earn (these are anything but a wealthy people) will tend to make you want to contribute a little anyway.

As mentioned on a previous post, please remember that the monks are not there as a tourist attraction and behave accordingly. The working monasteries are not there for you to walk around uninvited – I actually witnessed someone doing this – and for the love of (your) God don’t pat them on the head or touch their robes, let alone try and get them to pose for a selfie. This should be common sense, but having witnessed them running the gauntlet of the paparazzi (tourists) when receiving their daily alms, don’t be one of those who made me ashamed to be a fellow national/region/culture of them.

Indeed, the people generally are the friendliest, loveliest, most delightful you can find anywhere, something that most visitors to the country tend to note. But be polite, they are not there for your benefit – if you want to take a photo, ask them. Gesturing with the camera is clear enough in any language.

In temples and pagodas, remember that they are there for the local people first and foremost and don’t get in their way or distract them. You’re a guest, behave like one.

It’s worth noting that the many stalls and shops immediately outside the temples are also there for the local people rather than the tourists – that doesn’t affect anything, but it’s easy to see things as a tourist trap when they aren’t.

It may be that in some of the more rural areas you are lucky enough to visit a local family. You will find them incredibly welcoming, offering you tea and a snack of some form (bean cake for example). Although this is clearly a real honour, it can be that you feel a bit awkward, receiving hospitality from those who don’t have much. Try and relax and enjoy it and a small gift of something useful would be gratefully received. That’s not payment, because they won’t want payment. But thanks are always appreciated. Again, talk to your guide, he or she will help you feel at ease. Many of the guides do local work for the people anyway, as they tend to be amongst the better educated and better off.

When paying for something or passing something to someone, use your right hand rather than your left. For most people this isn’t even an issue as they’re right handed. As a leftie, it’s something I had to continually remind myself about. It not the end of the world, but try to remember to do it, especially if you are left handed. Consider it yet another burden that we have to carry in life, and we’re well used to that.

Greeting people is through saying “Mingelaba” and thanking them by saying “Jezube”. After repeating it in your head a few times, you’ll get it.

English is not spoken that widely, nor to the degree of fluency you might hope for. It will take a couple of days to tune in to the accent with which it is spoken, but then they have the same issue with us if we happen to have a Scottish, Geordie or Alabama accent too.   Your guide should speak good English if you’ve chosen a decent ground handler.

And on the question of guides themselves, do ensure you get one, in all places except the beach resorts. You’ll miss out on so much if you don’t, and the trip will be nothing but frustrating. Some countries it isn’t necessary, here it is.

Is it Myanmar or Burma? Using them interchangeably is not going to give offence, but remember that the Burmese (Bamar) people are just one ethnic group among many in the country. They are the dominant one in terms of the proportion, comprising two thirds of the population. But it could be viewed as akin to referring to the Netherlands as Holland or the United Kingdom as England.

And finally enjoy it. It’s a road less travelled but there are no dragons here. The hints and tips are mostly common sense with a few that may not have been considered as immediately obvious. This is a supremely welcoming, friendly country.   You’ll have the time of your life. And let me know if these little suggestions prove useful.