Myanmar, or Burma, is a country in South-Eastern Asia. Although most people (and especially the stupid "Loney Planet Myanmar" book) connect Myanmar only with its bad government, this is not the whole story and should not be the only fact to focus on. Rather it is much more worth seeing Myanmar how it really is: A beautiful country, with hospitable and friendly people and an incredible rich culture. This country has so much to give, it is awesome.
Hitchhiking in general
Hitch-hiking in Myanmar is not that difficult, if you know how to do it. First of all, forget about the European way raising your thumb. As in almost all non-Western countries, raising your thumb will not be understood as anything but an odd gesture. Try other ways using body language for instance by waving at the drivers and signalling them to stop, or by waving and pointing in the direction you're going. You need to communicate with the driver in the few seconds you have while he sees you. Once you learn this, you will get rides in no time.
The potential for a great country for hitchhiking is definitely there. The people are very interested in foreigners, the roads are big and provide plenty of space to stand, traffic is very slow, there are a lot of pick-up trucks which are perfect for hitchhikers (there is always some free space) and there are so many different old, funny and exciting vehicles on the road, that it could be great fun for a hitchhiker to get all these different lifts. It is very easy to get attention as a foreigner and you will get a lot of reactions, most of the time very friendly ones. You might also get lifts with people that just come around and talk to you and decide to give you a ride after you told them where you are going.
Hitch-hiking in Myanmar might seem difficult at first. You will face some trouble that can make it seem completely impossible. Here is a list of things you should be prepared for:
- People won't understand what you are doing: You are white, you should be rich and for sure you have enough money for the bus or a taxi.
- This is usually not the case, but some people might be afraid about getting in trouble with the government, when they pick you up. I does not mean that the Burmese people are afraid of getting in contact with foreigners, but some will tell you this reason if you ask them about difficulties with hitchhiking.
- Many pick-up trucks are considered to be short-distance buses. Of course they will be delighted to pick you up, but make sure about the payment first.
- The people are too friendly. Some of you might know this situations where you are somewhere in a fucked up place, nobody is stopping, which is bad and after a while people gather around you because they want to know where you are from and what are you doing. This is also the situation in Myanmar, but here you can add that despite all this things the people also try to help you, which makes the whole situation even worse, because they don't understand hitchhiking. With 10 people around you it is hard to stop a car and there you might have the situation that a car finally stops, you jump on and just want to leave and the driver starts to talk to the people on the street about you. They just want to help, but in the end the driver is so confused, that he refuses you and you are again with your buddies on the street. To avoid this, make sure to travel from one town/city to another, but always start hitch-hiking a little outside the cities.
Brand New Myanmar Express Highway
Myanmar hitchhiking is like heaven and hell. Here comes the heaven. Between Mandalay and Yangon is a brand new express-way since December 2010. They put much effort in this project. It was the third time after the fifties and the seventies, that they tried to build this road and finally it worked with Chinese support. Now they did it and it is one of the the greatest an easiest roads you can hitchhike. It is not really a challenge, good for beginners and a nice trip. A lot of cars drive the whole route between the two biggest cities, so you can jump on and off where ever you want. There is no confusion about what you do, because there are no taxis on this highway, only express buses in the night so the understand quickly, that you are looking for a ride in a car on the highway. Also the feeling is very special. It might be like Germany in the early fifties. You have a very new, big and fast road, but there are almost no cars on it. Maybe 10 cars per hour, which is not much for a toll road (the drivers pay about USD 7 from Mandalay to Yangon). At the moment there are still people around the highway planting trees, or fixing some road borders and sometimes you might see some kids which are flying a kite in the middle of the road. Awesome. This would never be possible on the crammed European highways.
Some things that might be important before entering the country:
- There are no ATMs in Myanmar. The money you have in your pocket is all you will own. You will not be able to use credit cards, traveller's checks, or other things that don't look like Dollars, Kyat, or Bhat. The lonely planet will tell you about some hotels that accept Visa, but this information (like 50% of this book) is not valid any more (September 2011). There are rumours about one travel agency in Yangon that might accept Visa cards, but that has nothing to mean.
- In general you should know that a lot of informations about travelling in Myanmar are wrong, because things are changing so fast. This addresses the USD 300 you have to show at the airport (wrong!), the USD 10 airport tax (included in AirAsia tickets since August 2011), the interview in the visa process (getting a visa in Bangkok is straightforward, fast and very easy) and many other informations you will find. As a tourist they will not make your life difficult with absurd rules.
- If you take much money with you, be relaxed. Myanmar is a pretty safe country. Although every tourist is carrying a lot of money around with them, only few people get ripped of. It might be because the people are so nice (see below "people") or because you will not be allowed to enter assumed dangerous areas (see below "travel restrictions").
- Generally the people won't cheat you. Cheating is a new thing to them, but this is changing as well, especially when it comes to changing money in the street. NEVER DO IT! Not even if it's Sunday, the banks are closed and you need money for the hostel. Find another solution, because the guys in the street are only there to cheat you. They won't change your money!
- Cars and buses are very old (because of the embargo), stinky and slow. The traffic is not so much, but in the cities the air might be more polluted as in Bangkok during the rush hours. Sometimes you find yourself while hitchhiking beside the street surrounded by a black smoke cloud, or you sit in the back of a truck and it is a bit annoying to breath the delicious exhaust fumes that pass through you.
Update February 2013: Still same price range of the 'licensed hotels', BUT! In rural areas the locals are usually so confused and surprised to see you that they obviously don't care about any license and check you into any guest-house for a local price (2000 kyats), although they will try to show you the fancier rooms first. They also get freaked out when you try to camp on the beach or outside of the village.
Some places that are popular pilgrimage sites (Kyaiktiyo - the Golden Rock Pagoda) have free accommodation. Check out Sea Sar restaurant/hotel. They allow you to sleep on bamboo mats in the restaurant hall for free. Showers are available for 200 kyats across the road. Their food is lovely too.
Myanmar is maybe (besides Singapore) one of the most expensive countries in South East Asia. A USD 10 budget per day is very tight (guest-houses usually take USD 6-8 per night for the cheapest rooms), with USD 15 you can get around easily and with USD 20 you don't need to worry about money. All the prices you will find on the internet, or in guidebooks are not valid any more. Everything is much more expensive (40% more for food, +USD 2-4 for accommodation in September 2011). Also the exchange rate is changing enormously. In 2010 you could get for USD 1 around 1000 Kyat. In August-September 2011 it was between 650-750 Kyat for USD 1. The rate is changing constantly and can vary in from 50 to 100 Kyat within 24 hours. Be careful with money exchange, don't make a deal with people that offer you exchange on the street. In Yangon the gem market is a good place with fair and stable exchange rates.
You will need Dollars for accommodation and Kyat for the street. So take with you both currencies and don't exchange everything (otherwise you will become a real money trader, without making profit, but loosing a lot). Also most of the people will not accept your dollars if there is something written on, if they have a wrinkle, or let's say if they don't look brand new (I didn't get this). If you pay with Kyat in the guest-house it will become very expensive. Also the local prices for accommodation are about USD 3 (2000 Kyat), but foreigners are only allowed to stay in guest-houses that have permission and those are often much more expensive.
In Myanmar are a lot of black zones where nobody (even the locals) is allowed to go, then there are some areas where you need a special permission, and the rest of the country. It is not possible to enter these areas by accident. There are control points, often at bridges and if you don't have permission, they will send you back. The centre of the country is free to move around. At the border states are a lot of conflicts (north, south-east and west are rebels, there is some oil and gem production and in the east [Shan state] they also grow a lot of heroin for export to India).
It is very obvious that the government is keeping track about your travels. Every guest-house has to report which guests they had and even if you stay in a small village you need to register with the local police guy. It is almost impossible to stay with locals, because they need a permit. A few years ago it might have been allowed to stay one night in a monastery, but also that is not possible any more since the protests in Yangon in 2008. Some locals say that there are many new (unclear) rules and nobody wants to get in trouble. Be careful that you don't push people to help you and put them in danger. Also don't be surprised if you stay during the day with some monks somewhere and the local police officer is coming around to ask some question. As the locals told me, it is just their job nothing important, they have to report what are you doing, but in general there will be no problem, if you don't stay overnight.
I don't want to write much about this point, because you can find a lot of information about this but I think it is almost impossible to get an objective overview about what is going on politically in this country. Also I don't think it is worth focussing too much on political issues, because they are not as important as people (mostly from outside) make them.
The politics in Myanmar are changing like the exchange rate. Since the old general is retired (April 2011) the whole situation became a bit more "relaxed" (like the Burmese would say). Aung San Suu Kyi (she won the elections 1990 and called the tourist boycott) is released and in dialogue with the new government. Some say this is just propaganda. We don't know. You will not come in contact with the government, only if some policemen want to shake your hand and say hello. Most of the locals are willing to share their thoughts about the political situation but often there is a language barrier so they just can express that they think their government is bad.
Visit Myanmar, go there, and don't do it not because of the political situation, but rather do it because of the people! They are very welcome to every foreigner and they are very happy to get opportunities to practise English. At the moment there is a big lack of English teachers and everyone wants to learn English and practise. Also be aware that the people are honestly interested in you. It is completely different to India, Thailand, or Cambodia. If they start talking to you it happens rarely that they also want to sell you something. In Myanmar some kind of giving culture. For example: If you ask for a card they might take you around and search the right shop and at the moment when they order the card (and usually you will think now he wants some money for his service) they will not allow you to pay, but give the card to you as a present. Also when you are hitchhiking and you explain to them that you don't have money, there will be a lot of people that offer you to pay for the bus for you. It is much easier to get around with paid buses than with cars that stop, haha. In general this is very nice, but also be aware. They give what they have even if they have nothing. Be prepared to make people understand not to pay for your transport and carry some small and useful things with you to make presents to nice people also. Sharing is caring!
For all that are interested in meditation, Myanmar has a lot of meditation centres and a lot of high teachings of meditation techniques. If you want to stay for a longer time you need a meditation visa. If you don't have this kind of visa, it might be hard to find centres where you can stay. Dhamma Joti (Vipassana meditation taught by Goenka) in Yangon can take foreigners for 10 day retreats (with English lectures) without meditation visa, also in Sagaing you might find a place where you can practise. in Pa-Auk forest and in another city in the north are centres where you can learn Pa Auk techniques, which is (like the Burmese say) the highest teaching in their country. Don't go to places where you have to pay a shitload of money, those are not real. If you go deeper in this business you will find out how incredibly rich this country is.