In researching my recent trip to Myanmar, I was having a hard time finding up-to-date information about the rapidly changing country. My Lonely Planet guidebook told of a land devoid of ATMs where the traveler must bring in absolutely pristine US dollars, and even then, must exchange them on the black market to get a fair rate. LP said that visitors must accept substandard accommodation, rickety transportation and – God forbid! – live without internet while in the country. Blog posts and Trip Advisor reviews from just a few years ago confirmed all this, plus said that Myanmar had no chain stores and no cell phone coverage.
All that information from the very recent past is out of date. Now, seemingly overnight, Myanmar is ready for tourists.
In the last few years, ATMs have sprung up all over the country, three of which are near the baggage carousel at the sparkling new airport, which I used to get a handful of kyat at market rate. I was surprised to not only have Wi-Fi at our cheap hostel in Yangon, but amazed at the blazing speed! The buses ranged from new-and-comfortable to rough-but-acceptable. We took a 50-Cents-An-Hour-Bus from Hpa-An to Yangon ($4 for an 8 hour trip) and it was totally fine. Sure, the AC couldn’t keep up and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned since the Raj, but it was perfectly acceptable. In general, I have found that you need to pay at least $1 an hour for a bus to be comfortable. This was far ahead of the curve!
In Bago, Kinpun and Hpa-An, we stayed in mid-range hotels that were clean, comfortable, newly remodeled and had excellent service, despite – or perhaps because of – the nascent tourist industry. There was just enough English from hotel staff, taxi drivers, bus operators and servers to get by, and everyone was genuinely welcoming and eager to please. It was, all-in-all, an easy place to travel.
Sadly, (at least for me, the locals may be utterly thrilled) a KFC has popped up in central Yangon, a sign of the chain store invasion to come. (See rant in the footnotes.)
Even though Myanmar is becoming an easier place to visit, I saw few signs of tourism altering the culture. Myanmar retains an exoticism no longer found in much of Thailand or Bali, for example. Most all the women wear beautiful, colorful dresses, the men wear wrap-around skirts called longyi, and many people, men and women alike, wear thanaka, a make-up/sunscreen made from tree bark. The pace of life is slow, monks outnumber tourists on the street, and people were genuinely friendly and curious of outsiders as evidenced by the number of photos my blond wife posed for.
I know the people of Myanmar, especially after years of isolation, need an influx of cash, but I hope the country retains its charm as it changes. It is hypocritical and selfish of me, but I don’t want to see the golden arches next to the golden pagodas, or the locals in shorts and t-shirts, or a 7-11 on every corner, even though I know such things may be greatly enjoyed by the local people.
Street photographer Yanidal wrote in 2012 that “traveling to Myanmar to shoot street photography is a once in a life time opportunity. Not that you won’t be able to return, but the odds that the country will have changed drastically by then are very high.” He is right. Now is the time to go, because Myanmar is ready for more tourists, and with more tourists, things will change.
Footnote Rant: When America sends its restaurants oversees, it is not sending its best…it is sending McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, and some, I assume, are good restaurants. It is a shame that our culinary export is mass-produced, artery-clogging, fast-food that is flavored by salt and fat. When Indians, Thais, Italians, Chinese or Mexicans set up restaurants in the States, it is almost always a family run affair, with recipes and ingredients that don’t vary much from the homeland. We can do better America! We should ban fast-food colonization because it is making the world fat and hurting our reputation!
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Absolutely helpful as I am going to Myanmar shortly. Thanks so much for this. Have been reading up tremendously and like you mentioned have found the same stuff everywhere about the net being painfully slow and cards not being accepted. I am disappointed with the KFC too! Totally looking forward to this intriguing country!
Ah, you will love it! It is an awesome place. Everything is pretty easy. Which places are on your itinerary?
Mandalay , Bagan, Inle, Yangon 2 nights at each city.
Should be a great trip. We stayed in the south due to time constraints but plan to those spots next time. Have fun!
Thanks! I will look forward to your Myanmar posts:)
Awesome post. Makes me want to go there. 🙂
Looking forward to follow your posts on Instagram too.
If you like Thailand, you’d love Myanmar. There is almost no nightlife, but otherwise it is an awesome place to visit for now.
You are making me feel more impatient than I already was! I had this whole trip planned for last January and then my mom got sick … now I’ve made other plans for this January (another fast changer I want to see sooner rather than later: Cuba), so I’d better get on the stick and get Myanmar on my calendar for the next break. It’s just so far! Great post, Jeff – you have stirred me to action. (P.S. Totally agree on the fast food invasion.)
I went to Cuba last December and glad I went when I did. I am sure you will love it! Myanmar reminds me a lot of Cuba – colonial buildings, laid back life, friendly people, very green.
I was also pleasantly surprised with how fast the internet connection was wherever I stayed. My trip to Myanmar last year confirmed my ‘fear’. Yangon had changed so much from my first trip to the country in early 2012. Most old cars had been replaced with shiny brand new cars, traffic jam which was nonexistent three years earlier had gripped some parts of the city, and as you said… KFC, and Coca-Cola, and what I heard Starbucks is coming soon as well.
The thing is having American fast food restaurants in their cities is still viewed as ‘progress’ to many people in Asia. Food often comes at a higher price in those places, and those who can afford to eat there certainly feel proud. To change that perception certainly takes time.
I was surprised to see all the new cars. Interesting that they didn’t have Coca-Cola a few years ago. I thought they’d conquered the world. I even drank one in Cuba in 2003!
It is funny how in America McDonalds is cheap and tacky, but overseas it has reinvented itself as a more upscale place. There is one near my house that is actually stylish – has comfortable outdoor seating and a nice interior. Of course, I haven’t eaten there yet when I can get great Thai food for half the price!
I would love to visit Myanmar and your post highlights the need to go sooner rather than later. I agree with your rant at the end…these fast food chains are awful and it is sad that they spread like a virus everywhere.
There is certainly an urgency to visiting places like Cuba and Myanmar that are changing rapidly. I think it will remain a charming place to visit for many, many years go come, but it is *extra* special right now.
This is exactly how I felt when I visited a few months ago! I love how their culture is still so unchanged compared to other countries in the area.
Agreed. Living in the suburbs of Bangkok I see some traces of traditional Thai life, but overall all, the country has been altered greatly by the influx of tourists and modernization. Again, not bad things for the residents, but as a visitor seeing that old school charm is unbeatable.
I’m still going to call it Burma, dang it! But you’re right…fast food should stay out of everywhere. Garbage in, garbage out (after making you fat and sick). Luckily, I saw no KFC in Burma. I look forward to your “street photography” here!! You know, I never actually wrote my posts for Myanmar. I wrote one, I think, but it was just an on-the-fly post from Myanmar/Burma. I have more photos and a few good stories. Did you get to Bagan?
I call it Burma too, but I wasn’t sure in a blog post. Do I go with nostalgia or what people are calling it nowadays?
We didn’t get to Bagan – just stayed in the south near Yangon. We had 9 full days only. Next time we’ll go north!
Most people say there’s nothing in Mandalay, but for me…it was like your train ride: a wonderful unexpected bonus. But I can see why some might not like it there.
Great post, Jeff. I LOVED this!
It’s selfish of me too to wish that countries like Myanmar could retain their uniqueness and not become mini versions of the US.
The US has the best and the worst of everything. Why Corporate America insists on shoving the worst down the throats of the world is beyond my understanding. Oh wait, money. I forgot.
These huge corporations have the resources (cash, legal, people, supply chain) to open up hundreds of shops in a new market and the local people flock to them! As Bama mentioned in his comment, US fast food is an upscale and expensive dining experience in developing countries.
Having said that, I hope the people still wear the colorful clothes that are way more stylish than what we wear in the west. That was one of the more interesting aspects of the trip.
Jeff your lead photo with the monks is incredible. Well incredible doesn’t really cover it but let’s say my jaw dropped. Like you the effect tourism is having on so many areas concerns me a great deal. Let’s hope another tidal wave of fast food outlets doesn’t change the culture and landscape of this beautiful country.
Western stores and culture has a way of taking over and homogenizing the world. Crappy souvenir shops and big billboards and mediocre food seem to grow everywhere tourists go! Something tells me that although this country will change, and a change a lot, the people, who are some of the nicest I’ve ever met, will still be the highlight of the trip for years to come.
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