Things to know before coming to Myanmar
Since opening its doors to the world a few years ago, the explosion in tourism within Myanmar has been nothing short of phenomenal. More hotels are being built here than in any other country in the world at the moment and as soon as one is finished, it reports rooms full to capacity. The key to enjoying any trip is to prevent faux pas and have a few handy tips for conversation starters. Here are a few suggestions that might help you prior to your first visit to this fascinating country.
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New Year Celebrations
Burmese New Year is in many ways similar to Songkran in Thailand. Here it is called Thingyan and it involves water, lots of it. The four day water throwing testing takes place between April 13th and 16th and staying dry is just about an impossibility. All businesses grind to a halt and shopping and banking is not an option.
Originally a traditional festival of purification by water it has taken on a more friendly, party atmosphere, much the same as in Thailand. The fourth day of the festival is New Year’s Day and on this day fish and birds are released into the wild as demonstrations of acts of merit. Feasts are held in honour of the monks.
On a more light hearted note, Myanmar’s new found freedom has seen the rise of punk rockers. No self respecting punk wants a flaccid mohawk and they would, in recent years, use strong glue to keep their Mohawks erect. This worked perfectly well but unfortunately meant that after the festival they had to shave their heads, as the only way of getting rid of the glue. Now due to increased trade they have discovered hairspray.
New Year celebrations last four days
Hotels: Expensive and growing, rapidly
There are more hotels being built here than in any other place in the world at the moment. As Myanmar’s bourgeoning tourism industry continues apace, hotels are going up as fast as they can build them. Tourist numbers are growing exponentially and as a result rooms are at a premium. There is something of a shortage of hotels and that shortage is expected to continue for a decade to come.
In addition to the tourist numbers going through the roof, older hotels are closing for renovations, not wanting to miss out on the rush. Always check in advance to make sure your hotel isn’t planning renovation work and always book WELL in advance to avoid problems.
Hotel in Myanmar
Myanmar’s Amazing Beaches
This fascinating country has a two thousand kilometres of coastline and some of the most amazing beaches in Southeast Asia. Most are still relatively undercover and unspoilt. It is a paradise for beach lovers. Ngapali Beach, just a 45 minute flight from Yangon, is becoming the resort capital of the country. Silver Beach or Ngwe Saung, as it is known has a full thirteen kilometres of beach, one of the longest in Asia, and is also growing in popularity.
As many of these are West facing they provide stunning sunsets to be enjoyed by the many visitors.
Fantastic Food but learn the rules.
A typical Burmese meal will include steamed rice, fish, meat, vegetables and soup; all the dishes arrive at the same time. It is polite to use the fingertips to mould the rice into small balls, then mix it with various dishes. Buddhists in the country do not eat beef and Muslims do not eat pork. All meals are served with sweet sour and spicy condiments so you can customise the dish to your own personal taste.
As with in many Muslim countries, the left hand is considered unclean as this is used in the bathroom. Therefore it is always important to eat with and present money with, the right hand.
The Internet and Telecommunications are Growing
Up until quite recently the internet was totally banned in the country. It is good to report that these restriction have now been lifted. The internet though is not a priority for the government here and service is generally slow and nowhere near what is expected in the West. It has to be remembered that the internet has only been in the country since the turn of the millennium and is very much a fledgling service. Things are improving all the time though and social network sites that were banned are becoming accepted. In 2013 the CEO of Google Eric Schmidt visited the country.
Mobile phones also are still something of a novelty. Things here are also changing but SIM cards are more expensive than in other Asian countries. A cheap US SIM card is available but is only available to foreigners.
The Internet and Telecommunications are Growing
It’s not cheap and your money needs to be clean
It is better to carry US dollars here, larger notes bring a better exchange rate. There are no ATMs. Make sure that the dollars in your pocket are crisp and clean. Even a note that has been folded is considered worthless; worn and dirty notes get the same response.
Five star hotels, good restaurants and up-market shops will accept credit cards, though transactions will incur a surcharge of around 2 to 3%. This is however changing quickly and at the time of writing, things are really staring to improve.
Local Currency is the Kyat which is pronounce ‘chat’. The exchange rate is around 880 to US$1.00. The largest denomination is only 10,000 Kyat and this is new. So with the largest note in your wallet being valued at less than $12.00 be prepared to carry lots. Don’t be too concerned about this, however, crime against foreigners is very low here. Buddhism is very prominent here and with that comes honesty.
You’ll need plenty of cash and make sure it’s clean
Give me a kiss and I’ll give you a drink
This sounds strange on the face of it but the way to politely attract the attention of a service staff in a bar is to make a kissing sound. Similar to the sound you would make to call your pet cat into the house, is the accepted way of getting someone’s attention.
In the heart of the city’s Chinatown is 19 Street. Here the locals gather to drink and this sound fills the air on most nights. Bars and restaurants like the streets with their plastic chairs spilling out across the footpaths. Beers are cheap and this is a great area to come people watching. This being said, the people you will be watching will be predominantly men. Burmese women tend to stay home at night.
A kissing sound gets you a beer
What do Burmese men wear under their Longyis?
A traditional dress for people here is the Longyi, which is a skirt. The men tie theirs at the front and the women fold theirs and tie it at the side. The Logy has, if anything, grown in popularity recently. The charismatic leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi , has popularised them, by wearing beautiful tailored versions with exquisite tops on her high profile meetings with top ranking world leaders.
If you feel like joining in, do so. It is not seen as disrespectful and will certainly get a conversation going. What’s worn underneath? Generally underwear in the cities, but nothing in countryside areas and within their homes.
The men wear skirts
Bone – shakin’ Trains
Myanmar is not well developed in respect of railway travel., This is definitely not a train traveler paradise and this should always be remembered. The tracks are in poor quality and the rolling stock is old, resulting in uncomfortable journeys. That being said, train travel is still a fantastic way to see the country. They will often run late and even the most reliable route of Yangon to Mandaly takes 16 hours, without delays, but it runs through stunning countryside.
Overnight sleeper trains can be useful, they save the cost of a hotel but it is not always easy to get any sleep. Carry warm clothing as it can get quite chilly in the wee small hours.
Trains in Myanmar
Be prepared for red teeth.
To see people, particularly old men with bright red teeth is not uncommon. This is caused by the wide spread Asian practice of chewing betel nut. The locals buy these from street side vendors who sell the betel nut wrapped in large green leaves. They generally come accompanied by spices and a pinch of tobacco. The nut has to be chewed for a long time bore the narcotic effect is felt. It is not a clean process, the constant spitting out of the residue colours pavements and can make a real mess.
The woman with red teeth