Sunday, 2 October 2011

Myanmar: Do's and Don'ts!

Last on the list and concluding this summer's big trip is the beautiful, controversial, friendly country of Myanmar.


- Go to Bagan. The area is unique - from the thousands of temples filling the plains, sitting right next to the streets, to the friendly 'keyholders' who look after each building (often with a bagful of paintings the just happen to have on them!). Quiet and relaxing, with remarkably few tourists (even for Myanmar's standards), I would happily have spent more time there.

- Visit Shwedagon Pagoda at night. Although the enormous golden stupa at its centre makes for a memorable experience at any time, it is when the sun has fallen away and the black sky dominates that the Pagoda really comes to life. Shimmering reflections cast by the artfully placed lights, the sound of a gong occasionally breaking the comfortable silence, majestic Buddhas decorated with shining precious gems tucked inside alcoves. Set in the centre of an extremely bustling city, it is a refuge of quiet and contemplation, and even after already more temples than I could remember across the countries we'd visited, this one really sticks out in my memory - brilliant gold against absolute black.

- Consider carefully where your money is going, and where you would like it to go. I've deliberately avoided any political overtones to recaps on Myanmar, as this is a record primarily of experiences, but before we travelled there, we spend a considerable amount of time planning how our money would be spent and where. Private guesthouses and hostels are an obvious call, along with restaurants and shops, but even these have to pay a percentage to the government, and it's worth checking out. Trains are government owned and run, as is one of the national airlines. There's no avoiding the charge for the Bagan Archaeological zone, or the visa fee before you even get there, but the amount can be limited from then on. Do a bit of research, be realistic, and spend as much as possible in private and local community run enterprises.

- Be respectful towards ancient sites. There are a number of temples in Bagan with clear signs indicating that they should not be climbed, or the internal staircase to the roof used. Unfortunately, some of the keyholders have responded to demand, and will offer to take you up there for a token fee. Please resist - there are temples which can be climbed for those brilliant views, and whilst they may be more crowded, that's for a reason.


- Get involved in political rants/judgements. It's unfair to the local population, who potentially have to suffer the consequences, and inappropriate as a foreigner to come in ready to criticise in the presence of the very people who live there. On our first night in the country, we were forced to listen to a young guy denouncing the way of life and the fact that's it's 'allowed' in front of the poor hostel staff, and continuing with a plan for the next day to 'sneak round to Aung San Suu Kyis' father's house for a look - apparently it's off limits but I bet I can convince a taxi driver to drop me off near - the regime are quite lax there so I've heard'. The look on his face, as though he were about to commit some act of rebellion to be applauded, said it all. And the eagerness to offer enough money to a driver to help? I was astonished at the insensitivity. Then there were the two men at the airport asking a monk what he thought about the junta. It's not clever.

- Forget to dress appropriately. Although modesty is advised throughout SE Asia, in Myanmar I would argue that it is really essential. Covering knees and shoulders is the minimum, and the one tourist we saw in short shorts received a number of discouraging stares from the local people. As an added bonus, longer clothes help reduce the number of mozzie bites. So it's win win (even if you walk around feeling like a human furnace...)

- Arrive without enough money! This is probably the most important thing to remember when visiting Myanmar. There are no ATMs or foreign banks once inside the country, so you must bring enough to last your whole trip. Also, when exchanging money, only perfect US dollars are accepted. The slightest rip or mark on a note will deem it null and void. The best exchange rates are usually outside of banks, on the streets, although we heard plenty of stories of scams taking place, so checking and double-checking before committing to anything is essential. Finally, Yangon always has the best rate, as we found out when we spent a little more than expected in Bagan and needed to exchange more dollars, so stock up whilst in the capital if travelling elsewhere. Before we arrived, we estimated our spending for the trip and our final total wasn't far off, which left us with only a few coins at the end.