In review: Myanmar travel in 2013

HAS Burma really become the global tourism hotspot?

This question dogged me as I flew back to Burma last month to see what changes had taken place since my last visit in 2012. Would my favourite spots be overrun by tourists? Would it be hard to find a room? Had they finally introduced an ATM? Had Burma’s wonderful unaffected people started to change?

These were just some of the questions that flitted through my mind as dusty Yangon appeared beneath our plane, a place I’d first visited with open-eyed wonder in 2009 before elections heralded significant changes that have been so well documented here and on Asian Correspondent. And the questions are valid, even after just 12 months absence, as nowhere I’ve travelled has opened up as quickly as Burma, and there is definitely a feeling of nostalgia amongst those who know and love it for its old world charms, pre-modern pace and genteel people – particularly as much of this may now change.

Buddhist nuns walk by Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Getting a room

“Good luck getting a hotel room” an Associated Press article on Burma’s tourism boom proclaimed early last year espousing over bookings and insufficient hotel room numbers in Yangon. Would this be the case this time around? Well yes, and no because I didn’t stay in places tourists probably normally go. I opted for a hotel near the airport for the first week given projects I was running in that part of the city, and the second week stayed nearer Shwedagon Pagoda (ie. not downtown Yangon in the tourist district) at a family run place – I was the only English speaker, possibly the first they’d ever had, and all correspondence was done with the 12-year-old grandson of the owner who had some English. It was a fun week.

From there I moved to Pathein on the Ayerwaddy delta – not particularly a tourist destination but one that interested me – and then on to Chaungtha beach. Accommodation was more of a challenge at the beach but that was more because it was a weekend and holiday season for visiting Yangonites as well.

Verdict? There seems to be enough accommodation in Yangon, and other places, if you are prepared to stay anywhere, perhaps outside main tourist centres. But I met people that had just got off a plane and headed straight to downtown Yangon and got a room without reservations. It can be done and most hotels will ring around for you with little prompting.

Changing money

The bane of the Burma traveller has always been money. For years what you walked in with was all you had, and that needed to be pristine, new, U.S dollar notes. God forbid should they have the slightest wear, ink mark or fold as no one would touch them. Then increasingly there were other options – payment on credit card in select places, advances on credit cards in others (with high rates) and so on. But the signs greeting me on arrival at Yangon international airport last month were almost too unbelievable to be true – an announcement that the Co-operative Bank now offered  international banking and ATMS! As it turns out finding a working ATM was a challenge although I met some Germans who had been able to withdraw about 20 Euros for the price of 8 – hardly a worthwhile transaction but no doubt this will improve.

This article in The Myanmar Times from November 2012 obviously thinks it’s a lot easier, and perhaps it is.

However gone are the days when you could only change U.S. dollar notes – although banks will still only change these. Money change facilities abound particularly around Sule pagoda, downtown and other shopping districts and they exchange currencies including Australian, Malaysian, Singaporean, Thai, UK pounds and Euro. But while systems are changing here, the old methods hold true – bring plenty of cash as this is still a cash only economy.

New western establishments

There was a significant increase in the number of cafes and western style diners in Yangon that I hadn’t noticed in 2012, all proudly displaying wifi signs. But the old favourites were there too – age old teashops, noodle bars, street food outlets, even the fried chicken joint I’d first noticed back in 2009 – perhaps the Yangon equivalent to KFC? But no mega chains, no golden arches of McDonalds, no Starbucks, no Western hotels. Those that embrace the time warp that exists here may breathe a sigh of relief over that, although reports are that Marrybrown, from Malaysia, might win the franchise race to enter Myanmar. Pepsi-cola has also reached a distribution deal and no doubt other multi nationals will soon follow. For now though the only fast food on Yangon’s streets are steaming noodles, hot samosas, dim sum, fruit juice and whatever is on offer in the ubiquitous local teashop.

If you're willing to risk it, a meal of rice and chicken, like these school kids are having here, costs as little as USD $1 on the streets of Yangon. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Prices

Hotel prices were higher in Yangon this time around, the lower end creeping towards or hovering above USD $20 a night – this is not Asia on a shoestring.

But move away from Yangon and to lesser known spots and you will find beds for just USD $10 eg. Pathein and Chaungtha on this trip. Food and transport prices had not changed, although the number of western establishments with western prices had. But street food, for those that are game, remains particularly good value.

Traffic and transport

The freeing up of drivers’ licenses for the Yangonese has meant an influx of traffic onto the roads, anywhere within a 20km radius of the city. Crossing streets in downtown Yangon is definitely more of a challenge than it used to be, but is it as bad as the gridlock you experience in places like Jakarta, Delhi or Kuala Lumpur? No, not even close. However to me the increase in traffic in less than 12 months is definitely a wake-up call for local officials to do something about it. And apparently they are. The New Light of Myanmar reported in February 2013 the help of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) that will also address transport for city dwellers.

For now however public transport remains somewhat of a nightmare for the foreigner. Taxis are not air conditioned and not cheap. Buses are very inexpensive but the Burmese script and their overcrowded and sometimes dilapidated condition is off putting. The only train system operating in Yangon is the circular train; a very enjoyable, but not particularly comfortable, three hour loop around the city and its outer districts.

The circular train around Yangon is a good way to beat the crowds and the traffic. But it's a slow trip in rickety old wooden train carriages. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

Tourists and crowds

Admittedly the far reaching effects of tourism, and the type of tourism now coming into Burma, was my greatest fear. Compared to Mandalay, Inle Lake or Bagan, tourism in Yangon has always been a rather relaxed affair with few staying long enough for the city to work its magic. Queues in immigration at Yangon airport certainly heralded the documented increases in tourism, now reaching more than 1 million per year, but on checking the Myanmar Tourism website most remain foreign independent travellers rather than package tourists, suggesting Burma is still attractive to the adventurous traveller who can live without air conditioning and KFC. And despite the airport queues, Yangon seems only slightly busier, although fellow repeat Burma travellers did tell me they noticed bigger crowds in Mandalay this time.

I was surprised to travel to Pathein on the Ayerwaddy River with several foreigners on board – on other multi day boats trips in the far north I had not seen another foreigner for days. While close to Yangon, this delta region has only recently opened up, but it remains a rough, no frills experience and therefore the presence of other tourists surprised me, particularly some young Europeans who admitted to having extended their travel to Thailand across the border – possibly a type of traveller authorities are seeking to avoid.

Sunset on the Ayerwaddy river. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

From Associated Press again:

Burma is eager for the hard currency that foreigners bring, but is struggling to handle the influx. At the same time, it is wondering how widely to throw open the doors — should it become another well-trodden tourist haven like Thailand or should it aim for fewer, less-transformative numbers of visitors to keep its ancient cultural sights and charm intact?

Amid the rush to welcome the world’s tourists, there are calls to avoid the pitfalls of nearby countries like Thailand which benefited from mass tourism while its cities have turned into urban jungles that are magnets for backpackers and sex tourism.

Some have suggested aiming for a limited, higher-end tourism market like Bhutan.

“Although we’re way behind, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We want to handle Burma with care. It’s like a fragile thing,” said Su Su Tin, who runs a travel agency and is an executive member of a consortium of more than 100 hotels, airlines and tour operators.

However one traveller surmised the tourist situation in this way:

I did finish this trip more convinced than ever that the best way to see Burma is just to skip the main “sights” which I always found underwhelming, and see everything else…  everything I have seen has continued to reinforce that. Almost everyone I met did the same big 4 itinerary and seemed like they missed most of the more authentic and timeless places.

The “big 4” in Burma includes Inle Lake, Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan, and there is good reason they are so popular. They are also great places for the first time Burmese traveller. It is also true that repeat visitors to Burma then obviously strike off the beaten track.

To the question were locals more affected now by tourism than in the past, it was hard to answer. In Yangon there seemed no noticeable change and my travels in Burma now encompass such different regions every time it’s hard to make any comparison to previous visits. Even at popular Chaungtha beach I was more overwhelmed by Yangon tourist numbers than foreigners, and found myself giggling with locals over their antics, although there was an array of bikini clad Europeans.

In fact it is perhaps the Chaungtha locals who seemed the most unaffected of people I had met during this trip and memories of them will stay with them for a long time. On my last day in Burma I was walking back to town when a tractor, seemingly over flowing with all and sundry, pulled up alongside me. There was no English but they motioned me onboard, dropping me off with much ceremony on the main street with smiles all round and no mention of payment. And again later that night a young motorbike rider I’d employed during the day insisted on taking me back to my hotel “just in case, but it’s free, no payment please”.

Have the Burmese changed? If this is any experience to go by, a resounding no.

The over flowing tractor load waving goodbye. Pic: Joanne Lane, www.visitedplanet.com

It was a good note on which to finish my sojourn. The verdict? Prices may be up, hotels fuller and tourists spilling into less travelled routes, but for me Burma is just as charming as ever.

Here are some other articles about travel in Burma:
Life in Myanmar (March 2010)
To go or not to go: Burma revisited (November 2010)
Is it okay to visit Burma (January 2012)
Is Burma Asia’s next expat haven? (May 2012)