May I Suggest Cancelling Your Next Travel Plans and Going to Burma?

By J.T.

We didn't know what to expect from Burma (aka Myanmar). Guide books and websites from even a year ago were already out of date. While our SE Asia guidebook did give us some insight, we mostly relied on the scuttlebutt from other backpackers. We had heard things like you don't need crisp U.S. dollars anymore and that you can cross overland from other travelers, but we were still nervous as we boarded our flight.

We actually had booked a flight back to Bangkok, but since we were headed to Chiang Mai and were close to the border at the end, we decided to cross overland instead. We were a little bit nervous about this because while we had met people who had entered Burma that way, we hadn't met anyone who had crossed back. We crossed to Mae Sot, in Thailand, and the only tricky part was that the Burmese road leading to the border is so narrow that you can only go every other day. The other days are reserved for people coming the other way. At there border we encountered no problems or scams of any kind.

We didn't bring any U.S. dollars and we didn't need any. There were ATMs everywhere, and they all accepted foreign debit cards. One U.S. dollar is about 1,000 kyat, and since the largest bill is 5,000 kyat, this means carrying around a stack of bills, but that's the only problem there.

 The Burmese national past time is putting Buddhas everywhere.

The Burmese national past time is putting Buddhas everywhere.

Getting from place to place is easy. I'd read that up until a few years ago, there were no tourist buses and people had to largely rely on flights. That is not the case any more. At every guesthouse, we booked our onward travel via bus. Some buses were great, some were horrible...about what you would expect from any country in SE Asia.

Normally we book transportation ourselves, rather than relying on a third party, and thus we avoid any mark-up. But the bus tickets, including long rides, were fairly cheap (around $15/person), and the commission usually only around $1. Maybe it's because there aren't yet a lot of tourists in Burma that there aren't a lot of scams. But we mostly found people to be honest and friendly (except of course, for taxi drivers, who are the worst everywhere).

We also didn't encounter any of the other bad sides of tourism so common in SE Asia. We didn't find tourists partying and acting like assholes, or any sex tourism. That might be there. We just didn't see it.

In fact, the biggest reason to go to Burma is not that there aren't a lot of people there yet, or that it's cheap and not as challenging as you might expect, but that the people are some of the friendliest people we've met anywhere.

 Why have one temple when you could have 2,000?

Why have one temple when you could have 2,000?

In Hpa An, we rented a motorbike to tour the surrounding caves. We had a hand-drawn map that definitely wasn't to scale, and found ourselves lost quite a bit. Twice we stopped at a gas stand to ask for directions and twice someone got on their motorbike, drove ten minutes, and showed us where to go. Both times we reached into our pockets to take out a 1,000 kyat as a tip, which would be normal in most places, but both times our guide jumped on his bike, and, smiling, waved goodbye as he drove off before we could hand over the money.

In Yangon, I had a minor crisis with my new nose ring. A lady in a shop handed me tissue when it was bleeding, a concierge at a hotel (at which I was staying) gave me directions, and a guy at a salon solved my problem. This last I also offered money to and was rebuffed.

This isn't to say that nobody took money from us, but those that did were normally in a tourist-centered area, such as Bagan. Just as in Egypt, people would hang around some of the temples and unlock parts for tourists. We would tip 500 to 1,000 kyat, but got the feeling that if we didn't tip they wouldn't have minded much. Even in Bagan, our guesthouse gave us money back because they said they should have given us a low-season discount. This was just as we were leaving, so they certainly didn't have to do it if they didn't want to. They could have forgotten, or the guy at the desk could have pocketed the money, but they didn't.

 Jason with two monks and a local kid.

Jason with two monks and a local kid.

We took a three-day hike through the countryside, where Jason struck up a conversation with a couple of monks walking in the same direction. Their English was pretty limited, but they were excited to talk to him. This is where the part about not seeing bad tourists comes into play again. People were genuinely happy to see us pretty much wherever we went. They smiled and waved constantly, which, for this Midwestern girl, was a highlight. In Thailand it's like locals are "over" the whole tourist thing. I get it. I feel the same way in Seattle all the time, and we don't even have sex tourists or horrible drunken people (except for Raiders fans, who can be really annoying).

So, if you are feeling adventurous, may I humbly suggest Burma?

The rest of the world will still be there. Get to Burma while they're still happy to see you.