Out of the countries I’ve visited on my trip so far, Myanmar was probably one of the most taxing for me. That being said, I had an absolute blast and really enjoyed hanging out there! It is a totally unique country which is vastly different from the rest of Southeast Asia. Sure, it can be frustrating at times, but it’s totally worth going to see.
- High English proficiency: Burmese people seemed to – overall – have a better grasp of English than people of some other places in this part of the world (e.g. Thailand). This makes navigating, asking for directions (psh, as if I ever did that…), and general day-to-day stuff significantly easier.
- Natural beauty: The landscape in Myanmar is awesome. Whether you’re exploring the southern coast, the plains of the center, or the mountains of the north; Myanmar has so much variety that it will keep you entertained for quite some time!
- The people: People there were so nice! Very quick to smile, eager to help, and so excited to just talk with someone from a different place. One of my favorite experiences was when I got to hang out with two grad students in Yangon. They asked me questions about America and politics there, then talked with me about politics in Myanmar and Buddhism. They even took me to a monastary and introduced me to a monk who lived there. It was an amazing evening that I never could’ve had on my own.
- Cultural novelties: Myanmar has some Western influences that have made their way into the country. From automobiles to satellite TV to Premier League jerseys; the world we came all this way to escape is spreading ever further. Still, there is so much that hasn’t changed. Throwing safety to the wind, 20 people will pack aboard a small pickup truck; packing into the back, climbing on the roof, and hanging off the back and sides as it careens down a congested and pot-holed street. Men still wear the traditional longyii, a skirt-like tube of fabric that will have you doing double takes for the first few days. Women and kids wear thanakha smeared on their face to protect from the sun. Many say it’s the secret to Burmese beauty. At first, I couldn’t help but think all the people with yellowy paste on their faces looked a little peculiar. By the end, I saw many a cute girl who it looked mighty fetching on.
- Tea shops: People in Myanmar love their tea. If you go to a small village, they probably won’t have a bar. But they’ll sure as heck have a tea shop. You go, sit down and pour a little cup of Chinese tea. A server will bring you coffee or tea with milk if you wish, as well as friend snacks or some sort of local noodle dish. It’s also the social center for the men of the town. The best thing? A local tea house is one of the best and cheapest places to get a tasty meal and drink. At my favorite tea shop in Hpa An, I could get a cup of local coffee and a nice big bowl of Shan style noodles for less than $1. Talk about good eats!
- Touts: I hate touts. With a passion. While they’re not as bad in Myanmar as other places, they’re still a huge annoyance if you’re exhausted, sore, constipated, and just want to be left alone. The best way I found to deal with them is to just pretend they don’t exist. Once I pretended I was Korean. One time, when a tout grabbed my arm to stop me walking away, I resorted to the, “Unhand me or I rip your face off,” glare. There are also the people who act helpful at first: trying to show you something exciting or cultural. Then, ‘random’ act of kindness completed, they try and squeeze you for some money. Those ones are easier. I took a perverse pleasure in letting them waste their time, then saying, “I’m sorry, I thought you were just being nice. I don’t want to give you any money.”
- Early to bed, disgustingly early to rise: While this isn’t necessarily so bad, nothing is more annoying than being woken up at 5:30 or 6 a.m. by advertisements, sermons, and random noise blasted through a loudspeaker. Or by a particularly enthusiastic staff member at your guesthouse banging through the hallways and singing lustily at the top of his lungs. It makes me appreciate a culture where people are quiet till 7 or 8 or so. I do like my sleep!
- Betel spit: Myanmar is a betel chewing country. It’s a nut that they wrap in a leaf with some other stuff and chew. It makes your mouth all tingly and numb and makes you spit incessently. Oh, and it turns your spit red. If you walk down a street in Myanmar, there will be dark red stains on the pavement, sometimes little pools of nasty red spit. To top it all off; chewing betel long term leads to blackened teeth and gums stained a brilliant red. I guess it’s good fodder for a Halloween costume if one were so inclined.
- Karaoke buses: Tour buses (the ones that go between cities) in Myanmar have a horrible habit of putting on generic karaoke videos and blasting the audio at horrendous levels. Once they’ve punished peoples’ eardrums with a few hours of musical bombardment, they put on a quality Burmese soap opera. For a little taste of what those are like, check out this post. When traveling in Myanmar, I recommend a train if at all possible. It’s so much more enjoyable.
There. Those are some good and bad things about Myanmar. Despite the frustrating parts, I had a great time and would love to go back someday; especially when the off-limits parts of the country open up to tourists. It will be really interesting to see how things change in the future. Hopefully the people won’t lose their welcoming and curious spirit which makes their home such a wonderful place to visit.