I recently did a quick round-up of why you should visit Myanmar right now. A lot of it was focused on the tourism sector’s relative infancy compared to other well-beaten paths in South East Asia. For some people, the new-ness is a draw. For others, it could be a drawback.
Just as a precursor, this is definitely not me hating on Myanmar. I absolutely enjoyed my time there. But the country does have its quirks, and I’m not in the business of gushing about everywhere we go. We’re in a no bullshit zone here, and I believe everyone’s expectations need to be managed.
So without further ado, here’s how to tell if maybe you should sit back and wait a little longer before you go.
There’s no getting around this. Myanmar is a developing country, and given their political climate and economic status, it’s understandable that being green isn’t a priority.
We found serene historic sites littered with, well, litter. Driving along the highway, we’d spot piles of plastic bags tangled in bushes and other trash, a result of lack of dedicated collection and landfill infrastructure.
Environmental laws and policies are limited, and poorly upheld as a result of lack of human resources, budget allocation, and political will.
There is some movement towards a more sustainable model. Several development projects have been halted to protect the country’s biodiversity. And Myanmar’s elected leader came out for a day to raise awareness about rubbish cleanup and to do some cleaning of her own. But until real laws and policies come into play, look forward to less-than-pristine sites.
Similar to my point above, the Burmese have different priorities in life, and safety is not one of them.
We saw construction workers walk around with flip flops and rain boots. Hard hat? What’s a hard hat? Lane markings are fun street designs.
I was fortunate enough not to have any stomach issues this time, but I have heard from multiple people who haven’t reacted well to Burmese cuisine, partly due to the difference in hygiene practices.
Trucks and scooters are loaded with people and products that are bigger than the vehicles themselves. Roads, while paved and improved, are still narrow and they wind around, so be prepared for a hair-raising ride where all traffic looks like it’s coming head-on.
If you’re going to Myanmar, chances are that you’ll visit a monastery or pagoda. These are sacred areas and all footwear needs to be removed. That means that you’re walking around outdoors in your bare feet.
For those of us who are used to soft shoe cushioning, walking on rough cement is uncomfortable to say the least. The ground gets hot during the day, and I only saw a perfunctory cleaning. Which means that you’re stepping on pebbles, branches, insects, and pigeon poop among other things. It’s like tetanus waiting to happen. But you can take heart in the fact that the most dangerous creepy crawlies avoid the heat of day, so you won’t be stepping on anything deadly!
Myanmar is not a place of wheelchair accessibility. You will need to be able to scale some steep stairs in limited light. Medical care is limited and behind western standards. If you have an underlying condition, I’d really re-think coming here. For everyone else, get your shots.
It’s no secret that Myanmar’s military rulers were corrupt. The reach of powerful government officials continues to bleed through the fabric of their society despite attempts at reform. There’s a huge divide between the rich and the poor, and many of the powerful line their pockets through public funding like schools, banks, transportation, and drugs. It’s hard to avoid helping put more money into their accounts.
Then there’s the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Buddhist-happy Myanmar. There are as many as 67 concentration-style camps housing the Rohingya people who are oppressed, unable to vote, restricted in freedom with no citizenship. According to the Burmese government, they are categorized as illegal immigrants, and the word Rohingya itself is taboo.
It’s true that a regular traveller may not see any of this, as there are restrictions on where travellers can go in the country. But you’ll still see your share of girls who are far too young to be sitting cramped over lacquerware, inviting strangers to take photos of them at work. It’s heartbreaking.
I’ve read several accounts of tourists hoping for serene sunsets and tranquility only be to be met with a barrage of tour buses and tour groups, so manage your expectations. And it can all be avoided if you do a little work first and hire a private guide.
This was one of the most frustrating trips that I’d ever had to plan. Initially, I took on the gargantuan task of trying to travel independently and realized that I’d have to concede defeat. Trying to figure out where to go, how to get there, and the most efficient timing available was a huge challenge. Websites in English were poorly translated and rarely updated. I found three different prices to apply for visas, all claiming to be “official.” Permits are required to visit parts of the country, so if you plan to visit any of these areas, you’ll face more bureacracy.
I discovered that Canadian banks treat any transactions with Myanmar as fraudulent. When booking hotels, I had one Visa and one Mastercard dinged for suspicious activity and had to contact both banks to clear up issues.
But for me, the extra work is worth it. For all of its struggles, Myanmar is full of wonderful sights, sounds, and experiences. The people we encountered were very friendly and the views were remarkable. I would do it all over again. Just with tougher feet.