Are you ready for India?  Most common fears and how to overcome them

Are you ready for India? Most common fears and how to overcome them

“I would love to go to India, but I think I’m not ready yet”. I heard this from many fellow travellers over the years. Some of them were quite experienced travellers as well, who may have crossed all South America on their own, but for some reason, India seems always a step up on the backpacking game and not all of us are ready to take it.

I totally respect the choice, knowing one’s limits is fundamental. I also understand that India may not be for everyone. Many people prefer relaxing places where the less people they meet the better they feel. But for those who are intrigued by the magic of this very special Country but still haven’t booked the ticket because they’re scared, well, knowing what to expect is key. A trip to India will surely include many challenges and some frustrations, it’s part of the game, but I can assure you that none of them will cloud the value of a trip to India.

Here are some of the most common fears about India and my tips on how to overcome them.

first time in India

Surviving the culture shock

On your first time in India, be prepared for a significant culture shock.

All Asia is renowned for provoking this type of reaction in western first timers, but India takes it to the next level. The usual Asian mess made of huge crowds, hectic traffic, funny smells, open sewage, questionable hygienic standards and poverty, in India is ten times bolder.

TIP: The difference with your own Country will be extreme (which is also the reason why you’re there in the first place) and the secret to cope is taking it easy. You can’t handle the street chaos anymore? Treat yourself to an accommodation that is fancier than your standard. It will be pretty cheap anyway and It will work as your detoxing secrete escape.

Adapting to different public hygiene standards

India is extremely real and human in every possible sense. You will notice that most of human activities like cooking, eating, going to the toilet, being sick can be carried out in the streets. In Varanasi, the holy city on Ganges shores, you can even witness funeral processions, open air cremations and bodies floating on the river. On top of that, you have all sorts of farm animals living –and pooping- in the streets, a consistent amount of rubbish and the odd open sewage.

TIP: Wear closed shoes or sturdy sandals like Birkenstock. Street-level flip-flops are a big no. Don’t put your backpack on the ground (or at least check the floor before you do it – this one I learned it the hard way). A light scarf can be of great use to create a barrier between you and the funniest smells.

first time in India

Witnessing social injustice and poverty

Most of the time, travelling to India feels like time travel. And in some ways it is so! Some traditions have stayed the same for thousands of years. Unfortunately, one of those is the infamous cast system, which is still thriving in India. Believing in casts and karma means that if someone is in a shitty condition it means that A- they deserved it because of what they did in their past lives and B-there’s nothing they can do to change the situation in this life. This creates a fatalist and hierarchical society, where you will sometimes witness graphic scenes of poverty, sickness, child begging or violence that will be completely overlooked by thousands of other people passing by.

TIP: Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about it (at least not in short exploring trip). Take your time to adjust to the new environment. If it takes you two days to find the courage to exit your hostel in Delhi, let it be. Then donate if you feel like it, but always avoid giving money to begging children, not to encourage the practice.

first time in India

Making your way through the crowds

Because of the huge number of inhabitants, in the streets the mantra is “every man for himself” everywhere, all the time. It’s the law of the jungle, even when trying to get a seat on the train, queuing for the toilet, buying bus tickets. You will have to fight your way through a sweaty and solid crowd many, many times.

TIP: Do not overload your days with activities. Visiting a popular site in India can be overwhelming, don’t ask yourself too much. Try not to be in a tight schedule, moving around India is already stressing enough. Leave yourself generous margins to reschedule things due to fatigue, unexpected glitches, sickness or just changes of plan.

Avoiding scams and dangers

Scams happen (and not just in India), that’s a matter of fact. Research online before you go so you can try to avoid the most obvious ones, like the one of the closed hotel (so that the tuk tuk driver can take you to his cousin’s guest house).

TIP: Be ready to hustle: bargaining is key to avoid paying double or triple the price of things. Be prepared to insist if you suffer an injustice (cancelled flights, wrong hotel).

Staying safe as a woman travelling solo

You will notice that Indians stare A LOT. Which, most of the time, is out of curiosity. Thus said, when a horde of men stares at you, maybe even pressing closer, it can be quite intimidating. If you don’t like a situation, just walk away asap (this applies to Planet Earth in general). Guys will ask to take photos with you (they probably just want to show off with family and friends). In this case you can politely decline and walk away or propose a “group photo” this will: A- saves you time, otherwise everybody else will want a picture with you and B- gives you the chance to include other women in the picture. On night trains choose the upper classes, where you will mostly share your trip with families. In stations team up with other local women, that generally are super curious and have a protective attitude toward you crazy gal who’s wandering around alone!

TIP: make sure to dress in a humble and respectful way. If you don’t want to be stared more than necessary, wear long trousers or a Sari, avoid sporting a décolleté and always take a scarf with you. This will help you stand out less in the crowds.

Delhi Belly

Well, just embrace the risk. Even if you drink and brush your teeth with bottled water, you keep your mouth shut while showering, you repeat “no-water-no-ice-please” as a mantra all day long, you eat at the best looking eateries… You might get sick. I get sick on every single trip. May it be an easy two weeks’ getaway to Bali or a three months long South East Asia experience, I will get sick. It’s a matter of fact. It happens every time and India was no exception. It was actually one of the worst (probably water) intoxication I ever gone through. But for me it’s part of the game now, I’ve been through so many embarrassing situations that Delhi Belly does not scare me anymore.

TIP: be prepared and take the traveller’s Holy Trinity with you. And by that I mean:

  1. Antidiarrheal drug of choice
  2. Broad spectrum of antibiotic (I use Ciproxin)
  3. Probiotics to restore the flora

Just to be on the safe side, I also carry antacid and antispasmodic drugs to settle my stomach and tummy.

Don’t let your fears stop you!

While you are preparing for the worse, a ton other wonderful things will happen: you will witness incredible traditions, costumes, art, architecture and food. You will be amazed by the people: their genuine curiosity towards you and the country you come from (top tip: bring a family photo to pass around while telling –or gesturing- your story to locals, you’ll be amazed by the reactions) their kindness, their understanding despite the culture and language gap. You’ll found that connecting with Indians was way easier than with every other people in Asia (the fact that many of them speak English helps for sure).

My general suggestion here is, if you can, to travel to at least one other Asian country before travelling to India. Learning how to deal with Vietnamese street frenzy, Cambodian dizzying wealth gap or Indonesian no-sewage situation may prepare you for India. But not for the cows (and their poop) in the streets. That’s just in India!

So what are you waiting for? Book that ticket for your first time in India and don’t worry if you’re travelling alone, you will meet plenty of other likeminded travellers to share the road, a laugh and adventure with. And you will have the experience of your life enjoying this mystical, chaotic, colourful and magical Country.

Want more?
Browse my India photo gallery:

VARANASI

INCREDIBLE INDIA

Bali and beyond. A quick Indonesian getaway.

Bali and beyond. A quick Indonesian getaway.

backpacker trip to bali

Indonesia holds a very special place in my heart, to the point that I’m even considering moving there for a while.  Still, it’s not the easiest place to travel in. Java has wonderful temples but it’s the typical crowded, dirty, overpopulated and freaked out Asian capital. Sumatra has lush forests and wonderful reefs, but the limited travel infrastructure and the strict Sharia law that is still enforced in the north can be a problem. Sulawesi and its funeral rituals have been on my bucket list for years now, but it’s far out and massive, meaning that transfers can take days. Which holds true for most of the Archipelago. As well as sleeping in creepy guesthouses, last minute transport fiascos and sudden and unpredictable rain in some parts of the country. For these reasons, a 2 or 3 weeks’ holiday can easily morph into a stressful Asian madness compilation.

Bali and it’s neighbouring islands
still represent a backpackers’ paradise
despite the crowds

 

My suggestion for such a short period of time is to choose one or two islands and to stick to those. In Indonesia, Bali and the close Gili Islands, Lombok and Nusa Lembongan still represent a backpackers’ paradise despite the crowds and have so, so much to offer. So here’s why a backpacking trip to Bali might be your best choice for a quick Indonesian getaway.

backpacker trip to bali

A place for nature lovers

The heart of Bali is a lush jungle that gives way to rice fields. Driving a motorbike up and down its green hills dotted with temples and coffee plantations is one of the most rewarding experiences I ever had in Asia all together. You’ll also find dreamy beaches, clear water, incredible cliffs and rock formations.

One of the most colorful cultures of Asia

Balinese culture is what struck me the most. So gentle and delicate and still, so well preserved. Locals practice Balinese Hinduism, a distinct form of Hindu worship incorporating local animism, ancestor worship and reverence for Buddhist saints. Which to me looks like the best of everything.

Temples and Gods statues are everywhere. They are attended daily for morning offers, prayers, traditional music and dance practice. Every evening you’ll be immersed in Gamelan music coming from the temples, where the sunset prayer is accompanied by percussive instruments, xylophones and bamboo flutes.

Traditional Balinese culture
is still part of modern Bali

 

Their gentle religion also means that, as a girl (local and foreigner alike), you can comfortably walk around wearing shorts, tank tops, and summer chemises without being frown at. Of course you’ll have to cover up when entering a temple, but everywhere else you’ll be fine.

As soon as you leave the most touristic areas, you’ll find traditional houses that look like temples, people that still wear the traditional longyi and shops that sell religious ornaments.

backpacker trip to bali

Up the hills and underwater, what to do in Bali

 

SURF

Bali, Nusa Lembongan and Lombok are all full of surf spots for every level. Waves are consistent and the water is crystal clear. What else. Check out all the surf spots here

SNORKELLING AND DIVING

in Bali you can dive in the north and on the east side of the island, and nearby islands are full of diving sites. I snorkelled around the Gilis, which are surrounded by calm waters and wonderful reefs. You can even see turtles just swimming off the beach.

HIKING

You can either chose to trek between the rice fields or to climb Mount Batur (1700m) or Mount Agung (3000m) the two Balinese volcanos. But if you like volcano hiking your best choice is Mount Rinjani on Lombok, the third highest mountain in Indonesia (3700m).

TEMPLE HOPPING

You’ll have plenty to choose from. Some are immersed in the jungle, others just pop up at crossroads. Tanah Lot, Uluwatu and Besakih Temple are just some of the most famous.

One of the finest cuisines in Asia

Who knows me well knows I’m not a food lover. I grew up with a very basic diet and I tend not to appreciate food when it’s too spicy, too soy-saucy or just too strange looking. Which basically covers all Asian food. Thus said, food lovers swear that Balinese cuisine is one of the best of the region. In Bali it’s also possible to find many international options and very good grilled fish for those who also struggle with Asian food.

backpacker trip to bali

Swift transports and dreamy accomodations

Another reason that makes this area of Indonesia perfect for a quick getaway is the ease with which you can travel around. Bali is served by all mayor local and international airlines. Several ferry companies connect it with the neighbouring islands multiple times a day. Scooter renting is between the cheapest in South East Asia and even during peak season (June-August) you don’t need to reserve to find wonderful accommodations. We never spent more than 15$ for a double room, in places that ranged from lovely beach bungalows to local guesthouses with fancy open air jungle bathrooms, to beautiful traditional mini resorts with swimming pool, breakfast and batik throws on the beds.

Exploring the nearby islands

 

GILI ISLANDS

just 45 minutes of fast ferry away from Bali you will land on three paradise islands, without cars nor scooters, but just horses and chariots to move around. Gili T is the party Island, Gili Meno is a teeny tiny islet, very quiet and honeymoony, and Gili Air is the hippy happy place where we spent four days eating fresh grilled tuna and swimming with turtles.

LOMBOK

Equally blessed with amazing beaches, surf spots and thick jungle, Lombok is traditionally the quieter sister of Bali. For those that really are into hiking, here you can climb Indonesia second-highest volcano, which also fancies a crater-lake and some neighbouring hot springs where you can dip on your back from the summit.

NUSA LEMBONGAN

a surfers’ paradise that many define as “Bali 20 years ago”. For the true surfers or for those who really hate the crowds.

Want more?
Browse my Bali and Gilis photo gallery:

BALI AND THE GILI ISLANDS

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

Where to go in Thailand? Discover the backpacker trail

This article originally appeared on my old blog, Downunderpirates, in June 2014.

 

Today I’m finally taking you to amazing Thailand, a place that everyone has to see at least once in its life. Thailand it’s an extremely easy country to travel in. It is South East Asia’s tourist hub and the final gateway to wilder destinations. A cosy country that welcomes you with a sticky hug and lulls you with its wonderful beaches, luxury accommodation, tasty food, bright colours and infinite smiles. Thailand is the perfect destination to have a glimpse of South East Asian lifestyle without behind swallowed by the hard-core frenzy of Vietnam, Cambodia and so on. Here are my tips for a nice backpacker trip to Thailand.

 

Thailand is the best Country
to start exploring South East Asia
if you’re new to the region

Coming from the challenging journey through Burma, Thailand was like a breath of fresh air for us: Reliable transport system, English speaking people, edible food (even western food sometimes!) lovely accommodations and no open sewage anywhere to be seen!
I know I might sound like a spoiled western tourist that travels around in stilettos and fancy dresses, but trust me, I’m not. After backpacking our way overland through Cambodia and Burma for two months, while also experiencing serious food poisoning along the way, we were a mess and we deserved a break.

backpacker trip to Thailand

We stepped in the northern part of the country as March and the hot season were approaching. Northern Thailand is a lush highland territory, known for its temples-filled cities: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai; and its backpacker trail of small mountain communities and former hill tribe villages that still populate the border areas.

We embarked in an off road
scooter adventure
with nothing more than
a crayon-written map
of the area as GPS

As we still were in the mood for meet ups with hill tribe villagers, we embarked in an off road scooter adventure to explore the villages near Ta Ton. It was a big mistake. We ended up on narrow mountain tracks, then into a creek and in the end we Andre even had to push the scooter under the midday sun on an extremely steep and slippery hill. With no water. And nothing more than a crayon-written map of the area as GPS.
backpacker trip to Thailand
Of course there were entire Thai families travelling on the same scooter, who were handling this no worries, but hey, they’re local. Personally, I almost cried when we hit asphalt again. By the way there were no “traditional” villages to be seen, just regular mountain huts. Fail. Anyway, totally worth it. (Maybe not.)

Pai is a lush playground
for people
in their twenties

The next stop in our northern circuit was backpacker’s paradise and hippy headquarters Pai village. Pai is a (not so) hidden gem of the northern mountains, reachable only with a 4h minibus journey from Chiang Mai. The road is wonderful. Dotted with traditional wooden huts shadowed by lush vegetation. It’s extremely winding as well, and you have good chances of smelling puke on your way into town. If you’re lucky it won’t be yours. We spent four lovely days there, enjoying fellow travellers company again, strolling through night markets (where we ate THE BEST PIZZA in more than one year) and chilled by the pool. Basically it was like a playground for people in their twenties.

From there we moved north again, close to Burma, to have a last glimpse of the hill tribes before heading south for the islands. We explored the surroundings of Tham Lot cave, staying in the charming Cave Lodge, one of the best guesthouses I ever stayed in my life (you can see some pictures here). Despite our best efforts, we didn’t find any other “traditional” tribe. At least not as traditional as the ones that we met in Burma. I fear that in today’s Thailand hill tribes have been exploited for tourism purposes for so long that nowadays they (almost) blurred into modern Thailand.

Thus said, Thai constitution does not consider them as citizens, basically leaving them to themselves without even basic services such as schooling, healthcare, age care and so on. Don’t get me wrong, even if they don’t dress traditionally anymore, they are very interesting people to meet and have a chat with – we spoke with an Akha catholic catechist, that loved Pope Francis almost as Thai whiskey. But please, stay away from all those tourist-trap agencies in Chiang Mai and Chaing Rai that promise to bring you on “hill tribe tours”, often showing you the Padaung -long neck- women in in a very sad, sort of human safari situation. Spoiler: Padaung women are not Thai, they come from Burma EXCLUSIVELY to be exploited in the tourism industry. Please stay away.

In Krabi we assisted to our first
family friendly transgender beauty contest

From Pai, we engaged in a 48h trip that involved a minibus and two overnight buses to Krabi. Located on the Adaman sea, Krabi is the heart of a stunning coastline dotted with limestone formations and colourful ocean environment. The final scene of the famous 007 movie “The Man with a Golden Gun” was actually shoot here. In Krabi, we rested on stunning beaches that you can see here and went island hopping, experiencing the stark difference between westerner and Thai habits when on a boat trip. Thai do swim (with “swimming” I mean floating around in life vests and snorkelling gear) FULLY clothed. Which involves sitting on the boat all dripping wet. For them, a darker tone of skin is not desirable, so they make sure that even their hands and face (the only exposed body parts) are abundantly covered in SPF 90 or something. At the same time the few westerners that were with us lied bare skin on the prow of the long tail boat, sunbathing carelessly.

Diving in Ko Lanta was
one of the highlights of my life

From Krabi, where we happily assisted to our first family friendly transgender beauty contest, Miss Krabi, we moved south to Ko Lanta, which didn’t really stand out for us. Anyway, we got the change to dive here. It was my first dive! There’s no words to explain how great it was. I’m pretty claustrophobic by nature and the idea of going 12 meters underwater didn’t really excite me, but guys, it was seriously one of the highlights of my life. Never mind if the day after I was so sick that I thought I caught Dengue fever. The corals and the fish that we saw were as flashy as the ones that you can see on a National Geographic issue. Underwater it’s full of life, and crazy creatures and Co2 bubbles that float around. It was just perfect. Ten thousand times better than the poor Great Barrier Reef in Australia, that is now sadly greyish and dying. Not to mention that Australian Pacific waters are freaking cold even with a thick full sleeves wet suit. In Thailand you can dive comfortably with a short sleeved suit. Or even in your bikini if you’re called Sarah and you are a dive instructor coming from the UK, and therefore laughing in the face of anything warmer of the North Sea.

Ko Phangan is more than
anyone in their twenties
may ask for a holiday

From there, we finally got to our last beach destination, the ultimate backpackers paradise, the hippiest party island on planet earth, home of the infamous Full Moon Party that every month brings something like 200.000 people to the biggest beach party of the world: Ko Phangan. That place is legit. Way, way, way cheaper that Ibizia, Mykonos or whatever in Europe we consider a party island, Ko Phangan kicks ass. The good thing about it, is that it actually gets rid of the 200.000 clubbers as soon as the morning comes. Leaving the island to the quiet paradise that it is for the rest 29 days of the month. We decided to avoid the Full Moon Party, mostly because accommodation prices in those days raise even three times more than usual, and because going as a couple to a massive rave party didn’t seem to fit. But I’m definitely ready to get back as soon as some of my friends will want to. Ko Phangan is fun.

The mix between some of the most beautiful beaches I ever seen, parties (a part from the Full Moon one, there’s plenty of smaller happenings all along the month), cool people in their twenties, good food and charming bungalows on the beach. More than anyone my age can ask from a holiday. We stayed in Ko Phangan six days, the longest stop ever in our year-and-three-months of travelling.

From there on, our beach time was over, and our long long trip as well. But bustling Bangkok still stood in the way and offered us four days of crazy shopping, good food, amazing sightseeing (check out the Royal Palace pictures here!) and a pretty neat insight of what a South East Asian megalopolis looks like. I loved it. It was not as messy as Phnom Penh and way more clean than Yangoon or Mandalay. Bangkok is a city of sharp contrasts and surprising beauty. It has water canals and massive highways, majestic shopping palaces and narrow alleyways in Chinatown, historical palaces and skyscrapers. Make sure you check it off your bucket list soon!

Want more?
Browse my Thailand Photogalleries:

NORTHERN THAILAND

THAILAND BEACHES

BUSTLING BANGKOK

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about

Disclaimer: This post has been written in 2014, when the country just stared to open up. Since then, things have changed A LOT. Friends that visited last year told me stories of cheap sim cards and 3G everywhere; online accommodation booking and no more Chinese trucks from the ‘40s. Anyway, the struggle is still real. The message here is that while Myanmar is a wonderful and still partly unspoiled Country, it ain’t no entry level Asian destination. I often discuss this matter with other well-seasoned backpackers that have been there too and everyone admits it’s a tough Country to travel in. I don’t mean to discourage you if you’re planning to go, but be aware that it won’t be a walk in the park, at all. Be prepared. So here are my tips for travelling to Burma.

“This is Burma
and it is unlike
any land you know about”

That is how Rudyard Kipling introduced Burma in his Letters From The East in 1898. More than a hundred years later, when you step in Myanmar, the feeling still stands. With a contemporary history marked by the longest military dictatorship in the world, the opening of its borders is quite a novelty. Virtually cut off from Western progress and influence, Burma is still a place where people travel on carts towed by oxen, on plows, on Chinese trucks 50 years old with bare engines and, more generally, on Thai vehicles (left-hand drive) driving the English way (driving on the left).

Both the direction of travel and the name of the country changed in 1948. Burma became Myanmar when the newly born military junta wanted to take a sharp turn after the English era.

 

Tips for travelling to burma

Outside the big centres, women still make laundry at the river. They carry water at home two ounces at a time, and electricity is almost never working. Even in Yangon and Mandalay, blackouts are still quite common, that’s why you’ll see gigantic diesel generators outside of most buildings. Although internet and mobile phones are spreading fast, costs are still a bit crazy: one hundred dollars for a sim card and a Wi-Fi connection speed that takes you back to the nineties. On street corners, you’ll find ladies sitting at small desks with a landline phone on top. They are the freelance of the phone booth: people go see them to make phone calls with spare change.

Myanmar is also a country inhabited by a huge variety of ethnic minorities. Tribal groups speak their own language, have different traditions and different religion. For decades they have fought for territorial independence, meeting the hard knock of the regime, bloodshed and persecution.

Despite the alleged current peace, disorders continue in various areas, obviously off limits for tourists. Indeed, entire parts of the country are still closed, others have just opened and can only be reached with endless combinations of buses, boats and jeeps, or even exclusively by air. In any case, no one seems to be able to provide reliable information about where you can go and where you can’t.

However, things are changing fast in Myanmar. In recent years, the regime has finally released the political prisoner and democratic ambassador Aung San Suu Kyi, it organized a pseudo-election and finally welcomed some opposition members in parliament. Some hundreds of political prisoners have been released, although as many remain in prison. Newspapers and magazines still have to pass through government censorship, making it impossible to publish anything more frequent than a weekly paper, but you can now see pictures and articles of the Lady in the local press. In many restaurants, you’ll find her portrait on the walls and people start to be less afraid.

 Since last August (2013), three land crossings with Thailand have been opened, and the tourist visa has been extended to twenty-eight days. All these changes have created a few discrepancies with the travel stories we collected before coming to Burma. Those who had been here only three or four years ago complained the lack of time and advised all the experiences they couldn’t do: day trekking through the countryside around Inle Lake, almost unattainable archaeological sites, slow boat cruises that lasted two/three days and so on. On the other hand, those who just came back argued that surviving the long month of the visa wasn’t easy. The truth is that traveling to Burma is tiring and exhausting. There are just four main destinations where tourists are pushed: Bagan Pagodas, the placid Inle Lake, Yangoon and Mandalay. Despite this, huge gaps in the newly born tourist industry make travelling extremely complex and tiring.

Long distance buses pass only once a day and usually leave on early evening, which means that their passengers will be conveniently vomited at their destination between 2 to 5 amWhile accommodation prices skyrocketed in recent years due to government taxes on foreign tourism, the overall quality is extremely poor if compared to the rest of South East Asia. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a true down-to-basics hard-core backpacker, but I still get pissed when a lacklustre double room that in Thailand or Cambodia would cost a handful of dollars max, in Myanmar is worth more than twenty. But assuming that one does not go to Myanmar to relax (in theory, not even to freak out 24 hours a day),

There are many reasons
why the country of the golden pagodas
is worth visiting:

1. Exiting overland crossing

Crossing the border from Mae Sot to Myawaddy by land means moving along with thousands of Burmese and Thais on their way to the Friendship Bridge carrying massive luggage. We crossed the border mountain range on a six-seater car, with seven people aboard, on a dirt road where the traffic is one-way every other day. A desperate trip made in an infinite convoy of vehicles of all sorts and age, usually with a load twice their size. A compact mess that moves at 20km/h and stops each time a truck takes a break to cool down its tires and engine (locals has set up roadside business of water cane cooling, as in the best Asian entrepreneurship tradition).

Tips for travelling to burma

2. Folks and local traditions

The red grins of men, with their mouth full of betel. That’s a chewing mixture of nicotine-like herbs and red roots that makes everyone look like Dracula. The women’s shy smiles, with their tulle hats and their tanaka-painted face, the traditional make-up made of powdered bark and aloe, which keeps their skin fresh. The children who say hello non-stop: “hello, bye bye, ningalabaaaaaah!” Music that is everywhere and anywhere all the time. Everyone is singing, listening to a blasting radio or pumping traditional songs in home-made sound systems for the benefit of the whole village. The cult of tea and tea houses, open as early as 3am to welcome at their comforting bonfire the spare travellers that just descended a bus and have no idea where to go. Burmese tea is often mixed with condensed milk and served with hot fritters: so sweet that your coronaries might explode just looking at it.

3. Getting out of the beaten track

Near the southern border with Thailand you’ll find Hpa-an’s rice fields and granite pinnacles, Bhuddas-filled caverns and sleepy villages. Very few tourists make it till here so the place still holds plenty of atmosphere.

The railway line between Mandalay and Lashio sways for 240km through the countryside. From the window youl’ll spot farmers with the typical pointed hat and children walking to school wearing the traditional lonji (the local sarong). Misty mountains are crossed by the massive Goteik viaduct, where the train slows down at a crawl.

Absolutely not to miss are the tribal villages of the Golden Triangle, on the border with Laos and northern Thailand. Here time seems to have stopped a hundred years ago. Akha women still wear elaborate hats decorated with silver coins, while Ann women wear garments as black as their smile, darkened by the spices they mix with betel.

4. Making new friends

Myanmar ain’t no backpacker paradise. Actually, most of the time you can count tourists on one hand. This plus the scarcity of areas where you can actually go means that you’ll easily meet the same people everywhere. When I spent a day alone at Inle Lake (Andrea was back to Bagan to see the temples he hadn’t seen due to fever) I met more people then than during the previous month. I had a bike ride, I crossed the lake with other people loading five bikes on a longtail boat, I swam, climbed up to a mountain monastery, and attended an unlikely wine tasting on the hills at sunset. I even had an Italian dinner prepared by a local chef who learned the art from a passing italian. Everything was priceless.

 

Thus said, there are also many reasons
why I don’t recommend Myanmar
to Asia first timers or glampackers:

1. Moneywise it’s a mess

Theoretically, you shall enter Burma with all the cash you’ll need for your trip. No credit cards, no traveler’s checks, no ATMs. (Disclaimer: this is outdated, apparently ATMs are now present in big cities and locals accept also warned-out dollars)

The wad has to be equally divided in brand new US dollars and in Kyat, the local currency. Which can be tricky if you’re not coming from home but from Thailand, and you have just one credit card left between the two of you (This is another story, but just in case you are in the same situation: raise the card withdrawal limit, find a big bank like Bank of Thailand that allows cash back operations, withdrawl in bahts, change the bahts in dollars and then change half of it into Kyat on the black market of the border: swift and easy).

2. Constant travel discomfort

Like when we spent two days and one night on the local boat from Bagan to Mandalay, without any book, playing cards, food (or at least edible food), toilets (apart from a hole in the floor in the back of the boat), nor sleep. As if deck sleeping wasn’t sweet enough, the village where the boat was docked transmitted three hours of super loud Buddhist prayers in the middle of the night. A gem.

Be prepared for the sleepless nights. There will be many. Night buses arrive at destination in middle of the night, so you’ll spend the wee hours staring at roadside bonfires (bless the tea houses) waiting for guesthouses to open and eventually check you in. Continuous changes of plan due to travel complications, illness, rain or generalized desperation. I remember spending long hours wandering in Mandalay in search of something edible between dense traffic, the darkness of blackouts, and the constant terror of falling in the open sewage strategically placed where a sidewalk should be. Or to undertake a 200km train journey to go on an off-the-beaten-track hiking trip just to be bounced off to marvellous Mandalay again because of the non-stop rain (in the middle of the dry season!)

3. Sound pollution on public transport

On long distance buses, the ubiquitous TV-set broadcasts loud local soap operas with actors donning longjis and tanaka. Or super lame shows that include songs, dances, traditional costumes and very sad jokes highlighted by laugh track. Or even pop song karaoke videos. With the singers that look like faded photocopies of Western pop stars who struggle with love triangles. For some obscure reason aircon is always adjusted on level “arctic breeze”. Not that the rest of South East Asia is any better on the matter. So, as a general rule, wear your warmest clothes and for god sake put on a beanie. Buy one at the bus station if need to. You’ll thank me later. You’re welcome.

 

In short, Myanmar is a mess. If you choose to go, be ready. And if you’re ready, be more ready! Try to avoid the beaten track (the coasts of the south and the north-western territories just opened) and for the love of God keep away from the boats!

Want more?
Browse my Burma Photogallery:

BURMESE DAYS