How to travel in Myanmar without sponsoring the government – and save yourself a small fortune
The first question when you visit countries like Myanmar, North Korea, Tibet – all the places with a tumultuous history and oppressive government – ‘Shall I go and sponsor the oppressive government with my tourist money?’
Well, there’s a different approach to each one of them. I think I’d never go to North Korea because sponsoring Kim Jong Un is unavoidable. If he doesn’t even look at things, unlike his father, why would I pay him? Tibet is a special issue for me. Myanmar is different.
First of all, I heard a lot of nightmarish backpacker stories about the deadly expensive accommodation (starting from 20USD for a shithole), deadly expensive food and transport for foreigners, no opportunity to CouchSurf because the locals are not allowed to host foreigners, the crazy money exchange troubles (like your US dollars must be ironed without any spots and issued before 2006 or they will not be accepted for exchange) etc. etc.
It’s all a load of chickenshit.
First of all, where to sleep?
a) CouchSurfing is possible. There are quite a few expats living in Myanmar (so far only Mandalay and Yangon) and as long as they live in their own apartment (not in a school/monastery accommodation) no one will ban them from hosting fellow foreigners. And these expats are interesting people to meet – although I imagine they get a lot of requests every day, so be polite and considerate.
b) Every field or beach is your campground. Another thing is that the locals freak out when they see you trying to pitch a tent. It’s ‘dangerous’ (the only danger I can imagine is that a buffalo might shit at your front porch). But if you don’t convince them that you’ll be alright, they will end up inviting you to their house or putting you into a local cheap guesthouse – after checking you in with the local police office of course. If you camp and really need a shower, check the local bus station – they normally have showers. Or jump into the river, that’s what the locals do!
c) It is said that the expensive tourist hotels must have a special license to accept foreigners. I guess it’s true in Mandalay or Yangon, but in the smaller villages off the beaten track nobody will dive a damn about any license. Local guesthouse price is 2000 kyat pp (2.50 usd), at least that’s how we slept in a small village on the Andaman coast.
d) Monasteries and nunneries are technically not allowed to host you either, but as long as you make friends with a monk or a nun you’re put, they have their own connections and, to be honest, local police is as curious about you as anyone, they will register you just for fun and let it go. I had trouble staying at a locals’ house in Sagaing, but the monk who brought me there talked to the immigration dude and then took me to stay at a nunnery that apparently hosts many foreigners every week. Donations are welcome, of course (food, sweets, teas, souvenirs from your country).
e) I stayed in a local house, but that was in a deep village where no foreigner came before. Yangon, Mandalay and all touristy places are out of question, but on the other hand, an owner of an optical store invited me to stay with his family in Mandalay. Just try to keep a low profile.
f) In Kyaktio, the town under the Golden Rock Pagoda trail, there is a restaurant called Sea Sar, with a hotel attached, just a few steps from where the bus drops you off. Pilgrims can sleep on bamboo mats in the upper restaurant hall, and ‘showers’ are across the road for 200 kyats (I won’t ruin the surprise – check them yourself :)). Sleeping at the restaurant hall is totally free, but I think they expect you to buy food there (standard local prices, no rip-off). I never found anything like this in other towns, but Kyaktio is a known pilgrimage site.
AD1 Guesthouse – 87th street – 27/28th street. Very backpacker-friendly and location right next to the coolest market.
Pyin Oo Lwin:
Grace hotel II – on the main road, between the Golden Dream Hotel and Purcell tower. 1700 kyats for a single room.
YMCA rents out rooms for $10 per person, as I was told. Never been there myself.
Where to eat?
There are some foreigner-oriented eateries, with smoothies and cakes and all that Western lovely stuff, incl. wi-fi. I visit them to check my emails and write this blog post. Prices 1500 – 7000 kyat (2 – 8 USD)
Why would you eat at a posh Western restaurant in Myanmar? Go get some street food or drop by one of those roadside local eateries. Street offers you amazing yoghurts, Indian spicy stuff, Burmese cracky snacks, fresh fruit and more. Local restaurants have yummy Shan noodles, rice with everything you can imagine and even sometimes real coffee! A thermos of fresh green tea is always on the table. And it all costs you no more than 1500 for A LOT of food+drinks.
Here is something for foreigner-oriented restaurants with Wi-Fi anyway:
Innwa Bakery, between Anawratha rd. and Bo Soon Pat st., free WiFi, power outlets and cakes (900-2000 kyats) and smoothies (1500 kyats)
Café Riviera, 78th street – 34/35 street. Posh interior, horrible coffee, but nice cold drinks for a reasonable (Western) price + free WiFi
Teahouse – 78th street – 28th street, great Shan noodles and coffee for 500 kyats altogether. The owner speaks English and is really helpful!
Donuts – 78th street – 30/31st street. Free Wi-fi that frequently malfunctions. Cakes are nice though.
Pyin Oo Lwin:
Feel Cafe – IS DA PLACE! In front of the Pyin Oo Lwin golf club, about 25 mins walk from the main road. Local price, funky design, amazing local food, free WiFi, but a bit tough with power outlets.
Vegetarian restaurant near Chinese temple. Located near the Chinese temple in the South-East of town. Really amazing and not expensive buffet. No wi-fi.
How to get around?
Hitchhiking is quite easy and possible, although most of the time people have no idea what are you talking about.
Trains are slow and it’s like pulling teeth out of your mouth. The landscape is incredibly dull (even the advertised bridge between Kyaukme and Pyin Oo Lwin).
Buses randomly stop everywhere and sometimes take ages, but sometimes fly fast like a nuke.
Boats are fun. But only once. The landscape is incredibly dull. I took a boat with a fellow CSer from Yangon to some random destination. We embarked an hour before departure, at 6pm, and easily found a spot on the crowded wooden deck to spead our sleeping bags and sleep throughout the night. However, a few minutes into the trip the ticket vendor came up to us and said that he can upgrade us to 1st class – meaning that we ended up sleeping not on the open deck but on the bow in a roofed cabin with a bunch of local women with kids and sacks of food. It was smashing!
What to see?
I decidedly didn’t want to pay for the Mandalay Palace that was built in order to attract tourism and used slave labour to be restored from ruins. I didn’t go to Bagan because all pagodas look exactly the same, but these ones are used by the government to get your tourist money. Most of the parks in Yangon are free to visit for the locals but change the foreigners and this doesn’t make much sense to me. Shwedagon Pagoda is quite cool though, and worth the $5 fee. It ight be the first site you visit upon arrival to Myanmar and at that point you still won’t be fed up with pagodas and gold. And it’s a helluva gold, I tell you.
As soon as you get off the beaten track, Myanmar is a fairy tale. The local people are most hospitable and nice, even if you don’t have a common language. They insist to pay for your meals over and over again, and the more presents you give them – the more you will be receiving from them.
Mingun is a very touristy village with a lot of things to see. At some point a ticket vendor will catch you on the street and ask to pay for being in the village, but you know, it is easy to avoid.
Sagaing’s Soon Oo Pon Nya Shin Pagoda opens one of the best views both on the river and the bridges and on the town, full of golden spires of other pagodas and red roofs of monasteries and nunneries. The monk who lives there, Tilawka, appears out of nowhere, hunts down all the foreigners and shows them around the place.
Monywa has the funniest sleeping (more like drowsy) Buddha I’ve ever seen.
Mandalay is a crappy concrete hole but U Bein bridge and surroundings are great.
Lashio has a monastery built in a rock and there’re caves underneath. Normally I think you are not allowed to go to the caves (the doors are padlocked), but I got lucky and a teenage boy who worked at the monastery took me for an adventure up the rock and then down under the ground!
Kyakhto / Kyaktio and the Golden Rock Pagoda is a great pilgrimage trail that goes up the mountain. I went up there with a girl I co-Couchsurfed with. We left around 3am and got up to the top by 7 or 8am. The Golden Rock was under reconstruction and we couldn’t see the damn thing, but the hike was worth it anyways, with millions of teahouses with cute puppies along the way, along with souvenir shops that sell… bamboo-carved guns.
So, to sum it up:
Make friends with monks.
Sneak everywhere for free.
Buy a longyi (wrap-around skirt for both men and women) and blend in.
Myanmar is one of the best places to travel right now, if you are not a princess.