everything you need to know before you visit Myanmar

Myanmar is a beautiful country with lush green landscapes and pagoda-spotted drylands. It's full of smiling people who go out of their way to help you, who protect their cultural identity with pride. 

However, as often as I've heard about the beauty of Myanmar, I thought I knew enough to travel there without surprises. As someone who's traveled Southeast Asia {and lived there} pretty extensively, I entered the country feeling prepared. I know as a frequent roamer to expect the unexpected. But I figured I had read and heard enough about Myanmar to know everything I needed before arriving in the Land of Golden Pagodas.

Boy, was I wrong.

There were things I read about that I feel were downplayed in other peoples' stories. There were also things that I felt people up-played. If I've learned anything from my time in Asia, its that I still have a lot to learn about Asia. But everything I do know I've put into this little guide. 

Here are some key things to know before you visit Myanmar...

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Electricity is not a given //

I visited Myanmar during rainy season, but it actually only rained a handful of times during my 10-day stay. During the rain, obviously, the power would cut out. What surprised me were the frequent power outages that occurred at random on sunny afternoons or in the middle of Indian dinner. Although the power cuts didn't affect me, I've heard horror stories of other travelers trying to pull out money from a cash machine and the power cutting randomly. I'd suggest bringing plenty of U.S. Dollars with you like me and my travel partner did. It helped us avoid losing our debit cards or having messy money machine issues. Also, it's smart to bring a power bank for your phone or other devices that may need charging while the power is out. 

Don't count on having WiFi //

Even in the capital city, on the best day, WiFi is slow and aggravating. If you are counting on booking accommodation as you go or working from your laptop, better think again. I'd suggest bringing your own portable WiFi device and ensuring you have everything booked well in advance. 

There are fees for almost everything //

We were walking through 'People's Park' in Yangon for hours before we were stopped at a sketchy-looking hut and told we needed to pay a fee to continue enjoying the surrounding scenery. Not only were we asked to pay to be in the park, but we were then asked to pay an extra fee for using our cameras. We laughed at how silly it was, but as our travels in Myanmar continued, we realized these fees continued everywhere we traveled. We would walk to temples or pagodas and be charged to enter, then charged extra for our camera. We have even woken up aggressively on our overnight bus trip to Inle Lake to pay a fee to enter the general region {12,000 kyat/USD $10 per person}. The fee at Inle Lake was small compared to the 25,000 kyat/USD $20 per person fee we paid to enter Bagan. Just know that fees exist in Myanmar and while most of them are small, they do get annoying. 

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Bring your newest, crispest notes //

I had read before arriving in Myanmar that currency exchange places take very careful looks at U.S. Dollars. I made sure I brought notes straight from my bank. However, 'careful' took on a new meaning when there was a pen mark on Benjamin Franklin's face that neither Luke or myself noticed {so tiny I thought it was a wrinkle on Franklin's face}. Instantly, we were handed back the note. I gave another note to the man, which was handed back to me due to it having a crease down the middle from my wallet. Bring fresh, crsip notes and keep them in a sturdy envelope so that you don't end up with currency you can't get converted. 

Dress conservatively //

I think I wore shorts twice during my 10-day stay. Once at night when we biked to dinner and another time in Bagan when we were sitting in the hotel reception area waiting on the overnight bus back to Yangon. All my other clothes sat in my bag on reserve for Bali. You might think you only need to cover-up when you visit the sacred sites in Bagan or Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, but you'd be wrong. There are many markets that won't let you walk through without shoulders and knees covered. I've said this before, and I feel the need to always repeat it because the number of tourists who come to Southeast Asia thinking the heat negates the importance of preserving local culture is shocking: you should expect to be covered throughout most of Southeast Asia. Myanmar is no exception to the rule-- if anything, it sets the bar. You'll get all kinds of looks if you don't cover yourself, so don't expect to tan. 

The food is kind of Indian...but also kind of Chinese...and also kind of... //

Before going to Myanmar, I was told how fantastic the food was. Specifically, the street food. Maybe I've been spoiled by the deliciousness that is food in Vietnam and Laos. Maybe my travels around Thailand have me accustomed to something that made me expect...more. The truth {according to me and backed-up by Luke} is that Burmese food is...alright...I guess?! Rice heavy and lacking spice, there wasn't really anything that stuck out to either of us. I had lovely vegetarian spring rolls in Bagan...but they weren't particularly flavourful. The best meal we had was an Indian meal in Inle Lake at Inlay Hut, which is run by a man who calls himself Stan and claims to be the world's biggest Eminem fan. He plays rap music in the hut and wears anti-Trump t-shirts. The food was great, but both Luke and myself think the service and atmosphere were what made the meal that night. My advice? Try everything with an open mind, but know that it might not be the foodie experience it's hyped up to be. 

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Be prepared for taxi drama //

The Burmese are not hagglers. They will offer you a price. They might come down once. But they will then leave you to lug your baggage like a poor schmuck down the road. They are also aggressive. I watched people have their arms grabbed and pulled towards taxis. The best thing we found while in Myanmar was an app called 'Grab.' Download the sucker {it's free} and you'll find legitimate rides for up to 35% off the cost of a regular taxi fare. Your first three rides are given at a 2,000 kyat discount just for signing up! Think of it as the Uber of Myanmar! You're welcome. 

Toilet paper is always a luxury //

We stayed in mid-range accommodation. A bungalow on Inle Lake, a 'pod' hostel in Yangon, and a guest house in Bagan. Neither Luke or I like the backpacker culture that exists in Southeast Asia {post coming soon!}, so we knew we'd spend a bit more for something we were both more comfortable in {by spending more I don't mean crazy luxury resorts}. All of that to say that toilets, where we stayed, were not the issue. It's toilets you might need to use at a restaurant or in a store or in a public space that might scare anyone who hasn't traveled outside of Western culture. Most people around the world use 'squat toilets.' As in, a hole...that you squat over. It's actually healthier for your bowels, but I won't get into that now. What you should know is that if you have to use one of these such toilets, you might want to bring your own toilet paper. There is a high chance {like 99%} that any such loos don't have that amenity. We carried baby wipes and toilet paper with us just in case, but I typically made Luke go check the bathrooms and report back! 

Tax is included...except when it's not //

Some places we went to eat already included tax in the displayed price of an item. Other places calculated the total once you ordered. And there is no trick {that we found} to knowing which include the tax in the price and which calculates it afterwards. Just to be safe, make sure you have a little extra kyat on hand. You don't want to end up short at the till. 

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All in all, I think Myanmar 'wows' people who make it their first stop in Asia. I think it's something that everyone should experience for themselves. The kindness I experienced while visiting Myanmar is what ultimately allowed me to appreciate it. That and the sunsets in Bagan didn't hurt. Like any travel destination, I hope those who visit Myanmar do so with an open mind and decide for themselves if it's love or if it's...well...Myanmar and I aren't putting a label on our relationship just yet. We're very millennial that way. ;)