How to Survive Burma without a Guide Book or Digital Help

I successfully completed my latest Man Vs Clock challenge, travelling through Burma with no guide book or internet help of any kind. Old-school travels in a country whose infrastructure is an eternity behind its neighbouring country, Thailand. Wandering through a country, which even though under the many spotlights of news-obsession, remained completely alien to me.

Surely, it’d be a big ball of stress and I’d return (if I did even manage to return) with the final hairs on my head turned a shade of grey, with crow’s feet on my eyes to symbolise my month of anguish?

Surprisingly, retrospectively to what I had expected – travelling around Burma with no internet or guide book was easy. Easy peasy, lemon squeasy.

Don’t fancy yours much….

A kiss from lady-luck

I landed in Yangon on the Sunday night, to a lovely surprise. Before I announced the challenge, I sent 11 emails to hotels – some got back to me to say they were fully booked and the rest never got back to me at all. Thanks to a lost in translation conversation, one of the hotels that I thought had rejected me – had sent a driver to the airport with my name on a plaque!

I felt a bit of a cheat, but promised to remain as dogmatic as possible in my quest to make this a proper challenge. I shared a taxi with a Welsh girl who became my travel partner for a week, an unnecessarily angry German, and his suffering Thai bride.

During the journey to the hotel I picked up a few “things to see and do” conversations between those in the taxi, but I didn’t really absorb anything of worthy note, as my senses were stimulated by my new arrival. I also found it really weird that my driver was driving on the right and also sitting on the right!

It all started with a movie

I’ve had a DVD in my purchase for two months, called ‘The Lady.’ It’s a film about the life of Aung Saung Su Kyi. I’ve been itching to watch it, but thought it’d be really cool to watch it while in Burma (as I also read her book ‘letters to Burma’). And so I did.

During a scene where her father, General Aung Saung is murdered, I noticed that the building was in my street (Aung Sang Road) and made it my mission to find it in the morning. It would render even more poignant, considering the fact that ‘Martyr’s Day’ fell on that week.

Trust in the locals

“What is this shit, bro? Someone find me a Brazilian, I ain’t wearing this shit.”

“Kill me”

The swap :)

I was pretty sure I found the building as I gazed at the run down structure, which seemed to scream character and stories of pain. After living in Chiang Mai for a frustrating 4 months, where every single frigging taxi driver doesn’t know where anything is – I had lost a bit of faith in asking locals for directions.

An endearing, pretty Burmese girl with the cutest button nose and electric blue contact lenses approached me and asked if she could help. I told her what I was looking for and she confirmed that this was the building I was looking for. I thanked her and was welcomed with a half-curtsey and an “it’s my pleasure” with a warm, beaming smile. I think you and I are going to get along just fine, Burma.

Soon after she floated away, we were approached by another Burmese local and this was to become the start of a great friendship. For the rest of the week and on my own return to Yangon we hung out with a guy called Yatah – and it was nice to see a little travel romance blossom between my new Welsh friend and him :)

How’s this for smooth – while Bethan was getting measured up for her Longhi (traditional skirt of Myanmar), Yatah started to measure her feet with a tape measure. We thought he was maybe a bit weird, that was until he showed up at the hotel the next day with her newly fitted Longhi and a pair of black suede shoes in her size. Smooth operator, indeed!

No guide books were necessary as our friend took us around the best places to eat, and sightsee for the remainder of our time in Yangon. If you need to ask a local for help, ask a younger person as they will tend to have better English.

Other traveller’s

No matter which country you visit, you will hear “oh you simply MUST visit (insert name of super-duper amazing thing/place here)…”

Although you don’t have to take their advice, it’s wise to ear-drop and to ask as many questions as possible, before making a calculated decision. Or even better – a spontaneous one, just because it feels right (like my trip to Kalaw and deciding to trek).

Monks in Burma are cool!

Monks in Thailand are pretty shy and rarely make eye contact with you. Monks in Burma – you won’t get a word in edgeways! They are more than enthusiastic to practice their English on you and will give you a wealth of information to make your trip easier.

I dare say that I was set for 50% of my journey on the 3rd day, thanks to chilling with an 82 years young, wise monk in a late night tea shop for an hour or ten.

Hotels and Travel Agents

Every hotel that I stayed in knew not only about their city, but about other cities in Myanmar. Booking transport or hotels in your next destination via your hotel is easily done and they’ll happily help you out with any questions if you bring a pen, paper and a map.

Feeling adventurous and desiring to go off the beaten track – I sat for an hour and a half with a travel agent to discuss my itinerary and to see if I was allowed permission to go to Kachin State. After deciding to gamble (the permission may come in two weeks, but not 100%) I nearly fell over in shock when the final price was (a third at my budget) $530!

I declined but left with a wealth of information about the geography of the country.

Final Thoughts

Thanks to the hospitality of the Burmese people, this challenge was carried out with ease and even better – it was just a whole lot of fun! It’s opened up my eyes and I think I’m going to travel like this more often, as you get to talk to locals and go to the places that have surpassed the guide book.

Have you ever travelled old-school style? Did you find it better/worse than today’s modern style of guide books and chronic Googling?

28 Responses

  1. Catalina Ospina

    I liked the old school challenge since the beginning and I’m really glad that you enjoy it so much!
    i actually just realized that when I’ve traveled I’ve never done it with a guide book, it is true that I do a bunch of previous research and planning before leaving but once I’m in the destination I love to visit the tourist information first. So I guess that is semi-old-school traveling, right?
    Catalina Ospina recently posted..A new chapter of the adventureMy Profile

  2. Macca

    Epic mate, well done completing this challenge.

    you old skool traveller you.

    What team was the football shirt you got?

    how’s your grapes?

  3. Emily in Chile

    Great stuff! We’re going to Cuba soon, and while I’m using the internet to plan, I realized the other day that we’ll take quite a bit of cash rather than relying on ATMs and credit cards as we usually do these days. That feels like going old school – when was the last time I actually got money exchanged before a trip and went somewhere with cash rather than just getting money at the airport ATM?

    • Anthony

      Cheers Emily – Cuba is my number one destination that I want to visit. Jealous much! Hell yeah….it’s worth doing, just make sure you take enough 😉

  4. hayadeen

    on the other hand, I like to plan things. Just a rough plan, not necessarily a detail plan.
    Nice to hear your challenge went well. Good for you!

    By the way, you look really dapper wearing Myanmar jersey. 😀
    I think yo can start collecting Asian football team jerseys since AFF Suzuki Cup is about to start. (p/s: it’s a big event in SEA)

    • Anthony

      Thanks, Hyadeen

      Although red is one of my least favourite colours to wear! Is this like a competition between south east asian nations? Tell me more….

      • hayadeen’s a league and very high competitive.
        you know..just like in England, football is a big thing in SEA too..

      • Anthony

        Oh yes I see that! And let me tell you a little secret…I might be on Malaysia’s “Football Focus” tv show in the new year!!!! :)

      • hayadeen

        hey I just read this..
        What??? I know the Football Focus company but not the tv show! did u get into this? Tell me more! *excited*

      • Anthony

        Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah 😛

        I know a guy whose cousin is the presenter. It’s giving me the kick up the arse to get my sites ready in time :)

  5. louis egesa

    after reading the story i see life is good with you there, the lady coming out of the car pretty and sexy the friends smile the pics of you with friend wearing England shirt, i wish i was wearing the toon shirt walking with you there

  6. lauren

    this is a great story! so glad it was successful. how awesome to turn up & have a car waiting for you – such a great surprise. i love the bits about the romance…yes, that guy is definitely a smoooooth operator! and you are awesome for swapping jerseys with the locals! instant friends for sure :)
    lauren recently 3 favorite travel memories…My Profile

    • Anthony

      Cheers Lola, although I’d refuse to swap my football jersey with someone who refers to the game as “soccer” 😛

  7. Adventurous Kate

    Interesting stuff! I knew you’d do fine in Burma — you make friends wherever you go!

    (And that romance with the black suede shoes was adorable!)

    Looking forward to hearing more of your Burmese tales.

    • Anthony

      Hey Tom!

      Missed you too, matey! You can certainly expect a complete orgy of Burma-related posts. You’ll be sick of them in fact 😉

  8. Hogga

    Amazing… not sure if I could do it but would love to try. Just looks like such an amazing adventure! Welcome back!

  9. Lissie

    i’m heading there in November, mainly because it will be a delight to go somewhere that doesn’t have wall-to-wall Internet, I did most of my travelling that way, and yes it’s a lot better. I must admit I’ll take a guidebook, and a lot of cynicism, if only to avoid the “top hotels” and the “top restaraunts” – which without fail will be crap.

    Did you have any trouble finding hotels? Did you just show up or where you getting your guetshouse to call ahead?
    Lissie recently posted..Samoa – The Country That Doesn’t Do AdvertisingMy Profile

    • Anthony

      Hey Lissie,

      Yup, you certainly won’t find wall-to-wall internet in Burma :) I had no problems at all getting hotels – especially when hotels would call the next cities hotel for me in advance. But you must bear in mind that I went in low season and you are going in peak season – so I think you may have to plan a little more, or at least expect to spend more money.

      Enjoy that lovely country! :)

  10. Tom - Active Backpacker

    Nice one Anthony, Burma looks fantastic. We’re headed there in Feb so pretty much peak season, so we’re booking a few guest houses in advance. I have a family member there at the moment and he said he was in Bagan and there were 50 backpackers who had absolutely nowhere to sleep for the night haha, sounds like fun!

    I’ve heard they are mad for English League football stuff too, might bring along a few trinkets as gifts. What are their favourite teams (I’m guessing Man C and Chelsea)?
    Tom – Active Backpacker recently posted..Travel Cinemagraph Series: Amsterdam, Part I – The Map ManMy Profile

    • Anthony

      Tom – I’m jealous you’re going, mate! Yes – and I think February might still be a little busy, you could be surprised!

      Unfortunately, it’s predominantly Man United – but their knowledge on all teams/players is very impressive!

  11. Kyi

    Hi Anthony, I just recently found your blog through Wandering Ever since, I’ve been reading every single post of your blog. I’ve very much enjoyed reading your stories and especially this adventure in my country, Burma.

    I believed you had a great time there.


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