As a woman travelling alone, I’ve learned that there are some places best avoided. Countries under military rule that have experienced over 50 years of political oppression are pretty high up on that list. But Myanmar (formerly Burma), was calling me.
After military rule ended in 2011, the country started to open up to tourism and it seemed like the right time to finally venture East. I was so glad I did, because Myanmar turned out to be home to some of the world’s happiest people and a destination that left me wanting to go back for more. If you’re planning a trip to Myanmar, you’re likely to encounter lots of rapidly changing information about the country, so I’ve put together my first-hand experiences of the most common travel rumours I heard prior to my arrival in the country.
RUMOUR 1: MYANMAR IS SAFE FOR A WOMAN TRAVELLING ALONE
TRUE. Street lights are infrequent down side-roads, and there are also many stray dogs which are best given a wide berth. But in terms of the people, I was treated with respect, care, and interest. Not once did I feel intimidated, uncomfortable, or like I was under any threat.
Groups of local males in the street restaurants I visited were polite and mainly seemed interested in how good this foreigner’s chopstick skills were! Women seemed respected, and my vest tops and baggy trousers were perfectly acceptable street attire (although it’s advisable to take a shawl for entry into the many temples, or “pagodas”, you’ll want to visit).
RUMOUR 2: THE PEOPLE OF MYANMAR ARE INCREDIBLY FRIENDLY
TRUE. Everyone was kind, friendly and at the very worst inquisitive about the foreign girl walking past. Children often ran up with a friendly “Min-gala-bar!” (“hello”) and wanted a closer look out of curiosity. I quickly got used having people wave, smile, and yell “Min-gala-bar!” at me across the road.
Two of my most memorable experiences happened when I was open to this friendly Burmese nature. I was invited into an elderly woman’s tiny roadside home for tea, where she encouraged me to teach her two grandsons about where I was from on their map. The second was when I was invited to watch the sunset over an ancient pagoda by a young student who was studying tourism at university. He wanted to practice his tour-guide skills on me, and I was happy to oblige! These are truly magical memories.
RUMOUR 3: ACCOMADATION IN MYANMAR IS EXPENSIVE
TRUE. But that doesn’t necessarily mean expensive by western standards. I stayed at the Bamboo Guest House in the capital, Yangon. I treated myself to the Thande Hotel in ancient Bagan. And I stayed in the Zawgi Inn in Nyaung Shwe, near Inle Lake. In all three, the service was outstanding, and the rooms ranged from cosy and very clean, to luxurious.
The reason that the cost of accommodation is perceived as high by tourists, is probably due to relative scarcity. By that, I mean apartments and bed-and-breakfast style guest houses are frequent enough in these cities, but certainly not plentiful. People pay a lot, because they don’t have much choice.
Essentially, don’t expect to be paying a mere couple of dollars for accommodation, but if you’re used to western prices, accommodation prices are palatable. Despite the relative expense, it felt nice to know I was contributing to an emerging economy, that’s finally been allowed to grow after years of poverty. The service was impeccable and worth every cent.
RUMOUR 4: DOLLARS ARE AS GOOD AS LOCAL CURRENCY
TRUE TO AN EXTENT. It’s almost impossible to exchange your money for local currency (Burmese Kyat) outside of Myanmar. Taking dollars with you to exchange, once you’re across the boarder, is a must. An important thing to remember is that dollars must be in pristine condition if you want to be able to exchange them, so keep them flat and crisp.
Large denominations (e.g. $100 bills) get you a better exchange rate than smaller bills. Dollars are sometimes accepted as alternative currency to Burmese Kyat in shops and restaurants, but don’t rely on this. I’d advise a healthy mixture of local currency and dollars. Also bear in mind, that cash machines are both few and far between, and not keen on foreign bank cards. My card was obsolete when I was there, so I had to rely on notes. My advice is to ensure you’ve got enough physical money with you, for your whole trip.
RUMOUR 6: IT’S QUICKER TO FLY
TRUE. A 14 hour coach trip between cities takes 45 minute on a plane, but expect to pay peanuts for a coach and up to 10x as much for a flight. I was time-poor and flew between cities. I found airports ramshackle and disorganised, although once I got into the swing of it, I quite enjoyed the chaos! Internal flight booking is almost impossible without an agent, and I booked using very helpful agent Myanmar Shalom before I arrived.
It’s up to you. If you’ve time and you like the travelling part as much as the destination part, then an overnight coach or two might be quite an adventure! I guess it’s also nice to know you’re not choking the planet quite so much by choosing a coach over flying, too.
Finally, there’s one very special day trip I’d recommend above all others: Green Hill Valley Elephant Sanctuary, up in the Shan region near Inle Lake. It truly ranks as one of the most profound and enjoyable experiences of my life.Caring for the rescue elephants was a privilege. It will stay with you forever if you decide to spend a day with these animals in their natural teak-forest habitat. Not only that, but these gentle giants encapsulated so many good qualities that I’d learned about the Burmese people during my trip; calmness, thoughtfulness, and gentleness but with an undeniable strength.
If you’re thinking about a trip to Myanmar, hopefully this post has helped you pick out the truth from any rumours you’ve been reading. One thing is guaranteed; if you go with an open mind, you’re going to have one of the most enchanting trips of your life. A trip to Myanmar and time spent with its people will bring you nothing but happiness and gratitude.
Do you have other advice for women travelling solo to Myanmar? Please share these with our readers in the comments below!