Expert Interview with Marcus Allender on Visiting Myanmar on a Budgetfor Mint

We asked Marcus Allender, founder of travel site Go-Myanmar.com, what the country has to offer travelers, and he got a bit poetic.

"The greatest scenic and cultural diversity that Southeast Asia has to offer," Marcus says. "From the mountains of Chin and Kachin states in the north to the pristine and undiscovered beaches of the south, and the plethora of ethnic groups and religions that make up the population, Myanmar offers immense variety."

Luckily, now that Marcus has sold you on a trip to Myanmar, he's also happy to offer you advice about visiting on a budget. Read on to learn more about what to see, where to stay, how to get around, and why you can do it all without spending a...well...Mint.

Tell us about Go-Myanmar.com...when and why was the site started? Who should be reading it?

Go-Myanmar.com was started in December 2012.

I spent a month traveling in Myanmar in 2010 and fell in love with the place. As the reform process gathered steam in early 2012 and tourists started going to Myanmar in larger numbers, I was living in London and I noted that it was still really difficult to find comprehensive and up-to-date information on destinations and travel in the country - you had to search a blog here and a forum there to find scarce bits of information, and all print guides were hopelessly out of date.

Myanmar remains a fast-changing place, and I thought that if I created an online guide that was continually updated and added to as information becomes available, then that would be of value to people looking to visit the country.

What are some of the must-see destinations or experiences in country?

Most visitors follow the "tourist triangle" of Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake. Yangon, the largest city and former capital, is the arrival point for most international flights, although Mandalay has an increasing number of options and is a good starting point for exploring central and northern Myanmar.

Yangon is a fascinating and bustling place and has the largest number of surviving colonial-era buildings of any large city in Southeast Asia. Some people pass it by, but it's definitely worth spending a few days to explore.

Bagan is on virtually every visitor's itinerary, and with good reason: The thousands of ancient temples that are littered across this enormous plain make for a truly unique and jaw-dropping experience. And exploring the fishing villages built on the waters of Inle Lake is also a must-do for many.

As great as these spots are, however, the Myanmar experience is best defined by its hidden gems. Myanmar is a large country - bigger than France - and has a huge amount to offer that most people are simply not aware of. And as the reform and peace processes continue, more and more of Myanmar is becoming accessible to foreigners.

On of my personal favorites is Mrauk U in Rakhine State. The capital of the powerful Arakan Kingdom from the 15th to 18th centuries, in many ways it is the equal of the more celebrated Bagan. Both places feature hundreds of pagodas and temples scattered across beautiful landscapes, but the scenery in Mrauk U and Bagan are very different, and the structures themselves, being from separate dynasties, have styles that are very distinct from each other.

The train journey from Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin and on to Hsipaw takes in the scenic delights of the Shan hills and the dramatic Gokteik Gorge, which is home to a railway viaduct that, when completed in 1900, was the largest steel trestle in the world. And Hsipaw itself is a laid-back trekking mecca.

How affordable is Myanmar to visit?

In the largest city, Yangon, and other major tourist spots, hotels are more expensive than they should be; due to the recent surge in tourist numbers, demand is currently outstripping supply. But things are getting better as more accommodation options open up, and in places further off the beaten track, hotels and guest houses are generally cheaper.

By developed-country standards, food and land transport in Myanmar generally remain cheap.

What are some budget-friendly air travel options?

Along with accommodation, air travel in Myanmar has suffered over the years from a lack of proper competition and poor management - timetables are unreliable, particularly to smaller destinations, and paper tickets are still issued by some airlines. But as with accommodation, things are gradually changing and new operators like Golden Myanmar Airlines are offering online booking and services that are more like you would expect in developed markets.

What advice do you have for saving money on...

...Lodging?

There are a small but growing number of hostels in Yangon, and a number of people are now offering rooms on Airbnb - although Yangon is the only place you are likely to find this. But as a general rule, there's no real trick to finding cheap accommodation - if you pay less, you tend to get less.

...Transportation?

Taking overnight buses will save you a lot of time and money. "VIP" or "Express" buses are available to most major destinations - they are comfortable and allow you to get decent sleep, with big reclining seats in a 2+1 layout.

...Dining?

Street food can be found all around Myanmar from the smallest roadside stops to the largest cities. You will get a variety of dishes depending on where you are in the country, and you shouldn't normally pay more than US$2-$3 per head.

...Entertainment/excursions?

River travel, mainly on the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers, is a relatively inexpensive way to get around and provides a fun and different perspective on the country. The Mandalay to Bagan route is particularly popular with tourists.

What are some unexpected costs you think visitors to Myanmar should budget for?

As mentioned, accommodation is more expensive than in neighboring Asian countries. Most popular tourist spots, including places like Bagan, Inle Lake, and the sights in and around Mandalay, are designated tourist zones for which you have to pay a fee to enter. The cost is around $5 to $10, depending on where you are - but the tickets can be used indefinitely.

What things do you think visitors often spend too much money on?

Taxis. There are no metered taxis in Myanmar, and you should always negotiate the price. More information can be found hereand on individual destination pages on Go-Myanmar.com.

Where do you think visitors don't spend enough money? What's worth investing a bit more in when visiting?

You will find high-quality handicrafts, from lacquerware to rattan furniture, all around Myanmar - and it is worth investing in. They can make for a great gift or memento, and are usually made to the highest standards with many hours of handcrafted effort put in. And when you spend the money on these items from local tradespeople, you know that the money you are spending is going directly into the hands of the people of this developing country.

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