Stroll past Yangon’s Bogyoke market and it’s impossible not to detect the fast-paced change that is sweeping through Myanmar (Burma). Government-backed banks on the market’s fringes are finally selling Kyat at a market rate, while hawkers openly tout Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirts and National League for Democracy (NLD) mugs.
Yet for all this, and the cautiously welcomed decision by the government to allow wider press freedom, Myanmar is still a very different place to travel than its Southeast Asian neighbours, lacking the widespread infrastructure and western comforts found over the border in Thailand. However, follow these tips and you’ll be certain to get the very best out of this stunning destination.
1. Pack noise-cancelling headphones
Before you leave for Myanmar, be sure to spend any extra cash on a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones, essential for cutting out the booming, distorted sound of the TV on long-distance bus rides. Buses are by far the cheapest way to travel in Myanmar, meaning 52-seat coaches are chock full of locals looking to be entertained. The Burmese are fanatical about music videos starring perfectly coiffed but unlucky-in-love boys, soaps centring on love triangles at street corner tea stands, and lengthy clips of Buddhist chanting. All bases are covered, at ear-splitting volume, whether on a short hop from Yangon to Bago or on the epic ten-hour west-east route from Bagan to Inle Lake. On overnight buses, the TV can be left on until as late as 1am.
2. Go veggie
Burmese food can be every bit as delicious as its Thai and Vietnamese cousins. But eating meat here can be a chastening experience. According to one Bagan cafe owner, chickens can be kept for as long as 15 years before being slaughtered when they finally stop laying eggs. We don’t need to tell you that the meat is hardly succulent and tender. Similarly, a short walk through Nyaungshwe market’s meat stalls is fascinating, but won’t leave you hungry for beef. Instead, go veggie. Thanks to the huge Buddhist population, options are plentiful. The ethnic Shan food is especially good for non-meat eaters, with hearty noodle broths supplemented with super-fresh greens, many grown on the floating fields around Inle Lake.
3. Wear shoes at all times
All Asian cities can feel grubby in rainy season. But Yangon suffers especially during the wet months of June to September. Wearing shoes is vital at this time. Not only will it stop your feet from getting soaked, you’ll also avoid any nasty stubbed toes on the uneven pavements, of which there are many. The city has largely been left to its own devices by the government since the capital was moved to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005. Rubbish goes uncollected, many sidewalks are simply muddy paths and rats scavenge openly in side streets. Sandals are not a smart idea if you’re even slightly squeamish about what you might tread in. Ditch them and you’ll be able to stride fearlessly through this delightful, crumbling colonial city.
4. Check your cab has got a handle to hold on to
Owing to economic sanctions imposed by the West since the military crackdown of 1988, taxis in Myanmar are by and large ageing white Toyota Celica estates. Car imports are heavily restricted and only the very richest manage to get hold of swanky new 4x4s. While the engines of these old motors still purr thanks to Burmese mechanical nous, they’re obviously well behind the safety-focused cars of today. Seat belts on back seats are notable by their absence, so before you slide in and get driven off into the chaos of Yangon’s roads, be sure to check your cab at least has a handle for you to grab hold of when flying round corners or overtaking colonial-era trucks on single lane highways.
5. Never sit down on hired bikes
Hiring bikes is one of the best ways to see rural Myanmar, giving a great insight into areas well away from the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay. But if you want to enjoy sitting down for a meal after a long day’s ride, then be sure to stand on the pedals as often as you can while you’re out sightseeing. This is especially true on the rutted roads around Nyaungshwe, a truly bone-shaking experience that’ll be made all the more uncomfortable if you use the saddle. It might seem more awkward, but you’ll be skipping some of the harshest saddle sore imaginable come the evening.
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