Myanmar (Burma) - What to know before you go
One of our Rickshaw Ramblers, Kim, and her husband John ventured for the first time to Myanmar at the end of last year. They really saw it all, from tranquil rice paddies to hectic villages on stilts and wild mountains. Kim has written her “Know before you go” tips to help anyone prepare for a trip to this hidden kingdom.
First things first & Myanmar facts
First things first, while travelling anywhere in my humble opinion, you need to be open-minded and respectful to the local people, understand their religion, culture, humour and be interested in talking to everyone. Enjoying their stories, meeting their family and sampling their food. We are in their country.
Some facts about Myanmar I picked up on our adventure:
- Myanmar is rapidly coming into the 21st century, after years of repression and war
- People still living how they did hundreds of years ago, with real family values, and for the most part still live off the land, with their animals
- 89% of the country is Buddhist
- Monastic schools assist in providing basic education needs of the country especially for children from needy families and orphans. Primary school children of Myanmar attend the Buddhist monasteries to acquire literacy and number skills as well as knowledge of the Buddhist religion. Many children stay and become lifetime Monks or Nuns, but others return to their families, but often returning up to five times in their lifetime to study for short periods.
- The people of Myanmar are not afraid to move forward from its past; a random example – most huts in the country have solar panels!
Myanmar – What to do, and not do
What should you do?
- Wave till your arm aches!
- Smile until your jaw hurts!
- Practice your Burmese!
What shouldn’t you do?
- Expose shoulders and knees
- Ask about war and politics – The people are proud and guarded about their history, that isn’t to say that some will openly chat and give their point of view about the past, present or future
- Kissing or public affection
- Pointing at people (this means, I want to fight you) or pointing Buddha statues. Either with your feet or your fingers!
- Pat anyone on the head (no matter the age or gender!)
Key Burmese phrases
- Hello – Min-ga-la-ba
- Thank you – Jeh-za-beh
- Please – Kyeizu-pyu-yue
- Yes – Ho de
- No – Ma ho bu
- How are you – Nei kaon la
- What is your name – Na meh be lou kor d’le
- Nice to meet you – Tway ya da wanta ba de
- Excuse me – Ka mya?
- Good bye – Thwa dau mal
- Good morning – Mingalabar
- Good night – Eigh douh meh
- I don’t understand – Na-ma-le ba bu
What to wear
Covering up in most Asian countries is important, firstly it makes you feel more comfortable. Secondly, you’ll avoid any unwanted attention and fit in a bit more with the local culture.
Myanmar is no exception, although you will always see many travellers who ignore this advice. My solution is to try and buy clothes from the local shops, saving a lot of packing time and weight. Most clothes are inexpensive, and you are giving back to the local community, then you can always give them away before leaving if you don’t have space to bring them home.
For men travelling to Myanmar, baggy cotton pants are the most comfortable and coolest option (according to John)! Both men and women should never wear “short” shorts (even though you might see people wearing shorts, it’s just not worth the risk). I bought a couple of baggy pantaloons, and although it feels almost like a uniform for tourists, (and not something you’ll see on the Paris Fashion Week catwalk) they are cool, can be rolled up small, easily rinsed and comfortable to wear while travelling. It’s also important to always cover shoulders and for women no plunging neckline (ahem!).
Myanmar is one of the few countries in south-east Asia that still wear traditional clothing for the most part, which I found truly beautiful to see.
What to pack
Travel light! Who cares if you wear the outfit every night for dinner, it’s probably a different place anyway! Always take sarongs, I came up with 30 ways to use a sarong while on my adventures (article coming soon!).
Before you arrive in Myanmar:
I always take a small quantity of everything, face cream, toothpaste & toothbrush to start with and then I top up locally. We found it like a cultural exchange in itself by trying out local products. We found the toothpaste in Myanmar was slightly salty!? I can also recommend bringing some high factor sun-cream from home (just to be sure you’re protected), as well as antiseptic wipes as they are not so easy to find.
While you’re there:
The best thing to do is buy 10p soap powder sachets and rinse clothes overnight, so you’re not carrying a tonne of clothes around. Almost everything is available to buy locally in Myanmar which is great. I recommend a full medical kit before you do any trekking, mainly because you never know when you’ll need a plaster while you’re half way up a mountain without any shops. A torch is useful and spare batteries for the same reason.
We found the locals, especially in remote areas, loved hotel giveaways. We collected them during our travels (from all over the place!), combs, nail files, mini shampoo, shower gel, toothbrush toothpaste, etc. The young girls swoon over nail varnish, even half used bottles, I asked friends for donations before I left. In the hills the families we met love reusable water flasks, you’re encouraged to leave used water bottles in the trees for the workers to take home! We even left a bright-pink one as a surprise for one of the children to take to school, with a matching lunch box (we thought they would love it!)! Showing the people you meet photos of your family, pets, house and landscapes on your phone, the people in Myanmar love to chat and discuss life back in England (especially snow pictures and countryside views)! I wish I had a Polaroid camera with me, to let me take and leave the pictures with families, in some of the most remote areas – if I were to go back I would do this!
There were several parts of Myanmar’s history we didn’t realise until we spend time in the country.
We didn’t realise that the country was split into so many states, with Shan being the biggest. We also had no idea that the Military held such a firm hold across the whole of Myanmar, it wasn’t just in certain parts it is across the entire state. We learnt more about Aung San See Kyi and that she had under house arrest or detention over the previous 20/25 years and the level of her campaigning for freedom. The reality was that the whole of Myanmar was under a strict military regime that did not tolerate any democratic process both individually or collectively. It is only now that people realise that there is the beginning to be a sense of free will across the country. But even at this time in the upper Shan state, the Shan gorilla are fighting government troops (with a significant amount of success).
Travelling around - What to expect
Myanmar is a much larger country than we had anticipated, and you should expect long steam train travel (yep, still running steam trains!), long boat trips, small internal flights and a lot of truck rides to get around this wild country. We took a plane from the capital Rangoon/Yangon to the central highlands, which was a great way to see the country below and also to experience cream cheese doughnuts (actually not bad when there were slim pickings available).
One of my highlights was while kayaking on the rice paddy fields (which was pretty surreal in itself). The oarsman and I exchanged our variations of songs about rowing. His song was along the lines of “Messing about on the river” and of course I taught him “Row, row, row your boat”. All while in tranquil countryside in the middle of nowhere.
What is the food like?
We loved the food, but as vegetarians, it can be difficult as you can never quite know what else is being added to their fantastic noodle soups. However, we have learnt to close our minds and enjoy the food that we found there. The people of Myanmar love their pork and fish. Noodles come with everything and are the mainstay of every meal, with flavours of Indian and Chinese mingled together. The fruit is sensational, especially pineapple and jackfruit. I recommend trying everything, the people we met were delighted to see you tasting and exploring their food.
Myanmar is one of the few countries where tea leaves are not only drunk but eaten too. Pickled tea leaf is a national favourite, and this salad served at celebrations or ceremonies. It can be found in some of the Tea shops in Yangon but sometimes on other menus, if you see it, try it! Talking of tea, it is hard to go anywhere without being asked to sit and have some tea, I suggest saying yes and enjoy a conversation (or just gesturing as best as you can!) and a refreshing drink with a local (that’s what travel is all about?!)!
What are the people like?
In my opinion, most people are reserved yet respectful, but once engaged they are open and interested in you. A smile is always returned. So SMILE, say hello in Burmese, which will cause a laugh if nothing else.
What summed up their culture for me was while on our adventure, a lady carrying rice in a bamboo basket burst into laughter, as her basket broke spreading freshly cooked rice all over the track. I can imagine most people in western culture would be doing the total opposite in that situation!?
The people of Myanmar is what made this country incredible for me. Of course, it has other amazing things too like the food, views, history, etc. But it was the beautiful, friendly people that made this place shine. I can’t recommend Myanmar more, go yesterday!
Kim and John had an incredible time in Myanmar, and the people is what made it so special. We’ll give you the real experience of this country and meet the people who live there.
Are you up for it?!