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All that information from the very recent past is out of date.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!
I have photo prints available on my portfolio site.