Andy Macpherson is a 27-year-old Scot who is currently living in Korea. Andy studied Geography at the University of Glasgow and after graduating bought a one-way ticket to Hong Kong. This turned into a 14 month trip through Asia, full of incredible experiences. After returning to the UK and shaving off his dreadlocks Andy decided to teach in Korea. Always looking to see more of the world he decided to take the Trans-Siberian (in winter), rather than flying. Since arriving in Korea two years ago Andy has settled in well and recently signed a new contract to keep him here for the foreseeable future.
What was it about Burma that provoked you to travel there?
I’ve been fascinated with Burma for years – I’ve wanted to go there for a long time. When I was still a student I used to meet up with a couple who were friends of the family and we’d talk for hours. They inspired me so much with their stories of Burma – having spent more than 15 years living there, and they still have many ties there. So I’ve had an interest in Burma for years but never had the opportunity to visit until recently.
What did you do in preparation of travelling to Burma?
Actually I did very little planning. I talked with a couple of my friends who had been there recently and got some first-hand information from them – guesthouses, where to go and all those kind of things. I have a Korean friend who visits Burma a lot and he gave me some local currency which was very handy for my taxi from the airport, as my flight didn’t arrive till 2AM so the banks were closed.
What were your first impressions upon arriving to Burma?
Coming from Korea where it had been -10°C it was great to arrive to a warm climate. The warm night air that hist me leaving the airport is one of the things that I have always associated with travelling or going on holiday. Coming from Scotland we always go somewhere warm so when you feel that heat hitting you – that’s when the trip starts!
What kinds of expectations, if any, did you have prior to travelling there?
I was very excited to experience Burma after having spent time in India and Thailand, which both have amazingly rich cultures, and so I really wanted to discover what this country that separates them, was like. I was expecting somewhat of a melting pot of South and East Asian culture – with quite a lot of Chinese influence. When I arrived I could see there was a really strong Indian influence but there was a lot more to it than that. Burma has many things that are very unique.
What are the top five places that someone must visit while in Burma?
In Burma most people visit the same places – there is a definite tourist route. Those are Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Nearly all the tourists here seem to follow this route. I have to say these four places are beautiful and I wouldn’t skip any of them if you are visiting Burma for the first time. However I think it’s important to visit somewhere where fewer tourists go – so if you can pick somewhere random and go there, then you can get a more ‘authentic’ experience. The highlight for me was the local people and if you can get to places where they are not fed up with tourists you will have an amazing time.
Are there any places you visited that you would NOT recommend people to go? If so, why?
I would recommend people to trek from Hsipaw rather than Kalaw. The town of Hsipaw was much quieter and we stayed in an amazing place there. I regret having already done a trek from Kalaw otherwise I would definitely have done it from here instead. I stayed in the Golden Lilly Guest House in Kalaw and it was the worst place I stayed. The place was filthy, the owner very grumpy and they overcharged me for the trek.
What kinds of places did you stay in? Would you recommend these places?
In Burma there is a glut of tourists and not enough places to stay so generally you end up paying more for a lesser standard. So compared to other neighbouring countries, the accommodation is quite pricey. Also, there is an issue with booking ahead, as most of the cheaper places don’t have online reservation. This means that you need to call, and if you arrive late there is no guarantee they will keep your room. This happened to me in Kalaw after taking a night bus there. I had to wander around at 3AM and look for a place to stay.
My first night I stayed in a hotel for $55 – Aung Tha Pyay. It was a great place to arrive at 3AM – I had Sky Sports in my room so I could watch the Chelsea game! It was by far the nicest place I stayed, and after that I stayed in budget accommodation for the rest of my trip.
In Hsipaw I stayed at a great place called Yee Shin – $10 for a single room. The owners were incredibly friendly and even went to the bank to get me some one and five kyat notes after I mentioned that I collect notes from different countries I’ve visited.
At Nyaungshwe near Inle Lake there was nowhere to stay so I stayed in a monastery on the main road. This turned out to be a fantastic place to stay – it was clean and cheap ($6) and there was a lovely balcony to sit out and read on.
What were the people of Burma like, especially towards tourists?
I found the people to be really warm and friendly. They are not as used to tourists as other Southeast Asian countries are. I always felt safe and apart from a few people wanting to change money in Yangon you will not be hassled. Sure, in Bagan there will be people selling stuff but if you tell them ‘no’ politely, they will not bother you. Most people are very curious as to where you come from and what you think of their country.
The food! How was it?
I was a little disappointed with the food. The taste of it, plus I managed to get really sick twice. There’s a possibility it may not have been the food but I’m presuming it was because both times it was after eating street food. A lot of the food is oily and greasy such as samosas, but I did really enjoy the Shan noodles with tofu gravy. Some of the markets are great – you can pick up juicy watermelons and papayas for less than a dollar. Avocados are great there, too. Everyone drinks Myanmar beer but after reading that they were owned by the government, I wanted to try some of the other types. I tried them and they were all pretty horrible – one even had a dead fly in it so I ended up just going back to the government-owned Myanmar beer.
What kind of budget did you have for this trip?
I had the luxury of not really having a budget. I was on paid vacation from work, so budgeting wasn’t an issue. I just adapted to the people I was travelling with. Meals and beer are very cheap. Transportation is decent too, and if you get overnight buses you will save on time and accommodation costs. The accommodation is the thing that’s gonna set you back. In Mandalay you will struggle to find a room below $15, just because of the high demand. The cheapest rooms have shared bathrooms, and outside of Mandalay and Yangon you can usually get one of these for around $10. There are dorms in Yangon for $5 but I’ve heard they are pretty filthy.
You have to pay a few government fees, too, such as $10 in Bagan, $5 for Inle Lake and $6 at the Golden Rock. There is also a $10 departure tax that must be paid in US dollars when leaving the country. If you fly with Asiana or one of the higher-end carriers they usually include it in your ticket so you don’t need to worry about it.
Did you face any challenges while travelling in Burma? If so, what were they?
Setting off on a three-day trek and getting horrendously sick! I was going to the toilet all the time, I was so ill – I ended up trekking close to 26km that day and it was brutal. I couldn’t eat anything and I was constantly stopping for the toilet and even spewing whilst walking. Any normal person would have just skipped it and rested for a few days but my time was so limited, so I thought I’d continue and it would quickly pass. Luckily I was trekking with a great group of people and they helped me through it.
What are some of your favourite memories from Burma?
I was actually thinking of skipping Inle Lake and writing it off as a tourist trap but I’m really glad I went. Our monastery stay was great – one of the best places I stayed, but the highlight was my second day there. We bought some fruit, rented bicycles and cycled down the East side of the lake with the intention of going swimming. We cycled for ages and the road never got that close to the Lake so we kept going. Just when we were going to give up we cycled through this tiny random village. We saw some locals so we showed them the universal body language for swimming and they smiled and said yeah. We followed them for a bit and they brought us to a couple of boats which they took us out on the lake with. It was a beautiful day and the reflection on the lake was like glass. They paddled around but it wasn’t deep enough for swimming and there were quite a lot of weeds. So we were content with relaxing while they checked their fishing nets. Afterwards, we went back to the village and we were invited to have tea with them. We brought our watermelon and papaya and before long the whole village of 20 or so people were crammed into this tiny hut. We stayed for a while and took some photos, then headed back on our bikes. That night we got some of the photos developed. The next morning we took a taxi out to the village, got the driver to translate for us, then we were able to share some food and give them the prints of the photos we had taken the day before – it was really special!
Is there anything that visitors to Burma should be aware of beforehand or be careful to avoid?
Burma is really safe and the people seem to be very honest. If you are respectful and learn a little about their culture you should be fine. Most of it is just common sense, for example – don’t make loads of noise when people are worshiping in a temple.
Would you recommend visiting Burma?
Yes, visiting Burma is an amazing experience. The country and people are so photogenic. The only people who should avoid Burma are those who wish to party and those who prefer to travel in luxury. It’s not the most hygienic of places and there is a strong possibility that you will get sick. Otherwise I would recommend it 100%.
What advice would you give to someone wishing to travel to Burma?
Take some medication for when you get sick. Take some long sleeves and trousers with you for the overnight buses because they tend to be really cold – they love the aircon on those things! Bring a camera, and if you have an SLR, bring a zoom lens. Be careful about the US notes that you bring – they should be new and without folds or rips. I’ve met a lot of people who had notes rejected. Bring $100 bills to change into kyat but take some new $1 + $5 US notes to pay for government fees and such – it’s often cheaper than paying in kyat.
What is your best general travel advice?
Everyone has their own ideas about traveling and I think that’s important. For me, I value advice from other travellers way more than guide books and websites, but obviously you need to know about the person you are getting advice from. When I travel I don’t tend to plan too far in advance, I prefer to have the freedom to decide on a whim to visit somewhere rather than to be tied to a set itinerary. That way, when I speak to people and they recommend a place that I haven’t heard of, I can just jump on the next train if I want to. I know this doesn’t work for everyone so it’s important to find what degree of planning suits you best. I love planning but then not following the plan at all as new things come up, if that makes any sense.
Packing light is always a good idea, often I will walk for ages to find the right place to stay so it’s important not to be carrying a lot of stuff you don’t need.
Being respectful is really important, especially when you’re visiting places that don’t get many tourists. I always try to make a good impression on people even although I know they are usually never going to see me again.
A big thanks to Andy for sharing his experiences of travelling through Burma. For more of his stories and beautiful photographs, visit his blog Messages from the Seoul.