Myanmar FAQs

When we were researching for our visit to Myanmar, we had a few questions that we wanted the latest answers to. So, in case anyone researching for their own trip has these same questions, we thought we’d make sure our answers were available!

How Did You Get Your Visas?

We had originally planned to get them at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok during the few days we spent there before flying to Myanmar. However, we then heard about the new e-visa service being offered and decided that it might be simpler. We applied online while still in Denver, got a confirmation of payment within an hour, and then got our visas within three days, so it worked quite smoothly. The printed copy of the visa was accepted at the Mandalay airport without issues. From what we heard from other travelers, it would have been cheaper to get the visa in person in Bangkok ($20 vs $50 online), but it would also have taken up to 7 hours, so we think that was a good tradeoff.

Were You Able to Use the ATMs in Myanmar?

Yes! Although, we only ended up using them twice: once at the Mandalay Airport and once in downtown Mandalay at a bank. In both cases we used the ATMs from CB Bank. Both our Charles Schwab and Fidelity debit cards worked without issue. The ATM at the airport was a little scary though – it would randomly fail when giving the money. But we just tried again, and then it worked.

IMG_4228_edt

The ATMs dispense only 5000s which is the equivalent of a $5 bill. You end up with a LARGE stack of cash!

 

Do You Call The Country Myanmar or Burma?

Back home in the US, we knew the country as Burma. But once we arrived in the country, it was clear that all of the locals we met referred to the country as Myanmar, so that is what we stuck with. We’re aware that there is a political angle to which name you choose to use, but we didn’t ever hear enough of a debate on that to take sides.

Can You Drink the Water?

No, not even the locals drink it. But every one of our accommodations actually had a freely available jug or bottles of spring water for their guests.

How Is the Internet Connection?

Everywhere we stayed had at least some Internet connection. Some places it was surprisingly fast (Bagan) while others it was frustratingly slow (Inle Lake). But we were almost always able to get a small connection.

San Ignacio Overview

We will try to give an overview of the cities that we stay in on our travels. Our first stay in Belize was in San Ignacio. It is probably the best place to stay in the Cayo District of Belize (where the majority of the Mayan ruins of Belize are).

Where we slept: Hi-Et Guesthouse. We choose to spent all 6 nights of our stay in San Ignacio here. We enjoyed a very small double room with a shared bathroom for BZ$ 25/night. Our room had a small balcony overlooking the town which we loved and ate breakfast on every morning. Hi-Et is not a hostel, so we did not have use of any common area, though there was a shared refrigerator. We were there in low season so we did not have many people staying with us. It was quiet and comfortable.

Favorite Place to Eat: Our favorite place was a small Belizean place right across the street from the Hi-Et Guesthouse: Cenaida’s. We returned here twice because of the good, affordable Belizean food and the friendly service. It was never too crowded and did not feel as touristy as some of the restaurants/bars on the main drag.

Things to Do: (Note that these are in the order that we did them, not ranked in any way!)

  • Cahal Pech (Our Mayan Ruin #1): This ruin is within easy walking distance from the center of San Ignacio. We walked south of town up some rather large hills. We did need to ask for directions a couple of times. Cahal Pech is the oldest ruin in Belize and looked a bit different than several of the others we visited. It was generally smaller and more covered by jungle.
  • Branch Mouth Swimming Hole: We heard about this from our Lonely Planet guidebook. It touted it as a beautiful swimming hole at the confluence of the Mopan and Macal Rivers, just outside of town. The walk was definitely longer and we expected, and the swimming hole a little less nice. But, the great benefit was that we felt like we were completely outside the tourist zone of San Ignacio. We walked for a long way down a less used dirt road beside large plots of farm land. When we reached the confluence, it was definitely nice to take a quick dip in the river. We were the only ones there! There was also a hanging rope bridge across the Mopan. We enjoyed walking over and briefly exploring the other side. There would be a lot of cool stuff to see on that side, though we did not feel like we had the time to explore too much more.
  • Saturday Market: We enjoyed wandering through the market on Saturday morning.  There were many stalls selling local foods and crafts. We enjoyed some freshly made empanadas and burritos. There is nothing quite like watching them make the tortillas right in front of you. Yum! We also really enjoyed buying some fresh cheese from a Mennonite. There are many Mennonites in Belize, but it is always a surprise to see them. They definitely stand out, often being tall, blond, blue-eyed, and speaking low German. They also drive horse-drawn buggies. It definitely reminded us of being in Amish country a little bit.
  • Xunatunich. See Post.
  • Music in Town Square: There were several nights were we experienced free music in the town square. There was multiple performances by local groups which we quite enjoyed.
  • ATM Tour. See Post.
  • Caracol Tours. See Post.
  • Tikal Tours. See Post.

Overall, we really enjoyed San Ignacio. It is a great place to stay to really get a feel of the Belizean Mayan ruins. We definitely recommend it!

Cave Adventure: Actun Tunichil Muknal

One of the activities we were most looking forward to in our time in San Ignacio was a visit to the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave (called ATM for short). This cave is undeveloped so it is quite an adventure just to explore. Plus, there are also Mayan artifacts and skeletons in a large chamber inside. We enjoy cave formations and we enjoy Mayan ruins, so this was an excellent activity for us!

Because of the unique nature of the cave and its artifacts, you have to go there as part of a guided tour. The tours were quite expensive, but we decided it was a unique opportunity. We evaluated a few different tour guides and eventually chose Mayawalk because their offering was slightly cheaper. (We were warned their their tour would be rushed and impersonal, but that would turn out to be far from the truth).

Our ATM tour was composed of us and 6 other people. We drove out to the trailhead with our guide Martin and started the mile-long walk to the cave.

By the way, we don’t have any pictures from this adventure. A few years ago, a tourist dropped a camera on an ancient Maya skull, leaving a giant crack. So, the powers that be decided to ban cameras altogether.

The walk out to the cave turned out to be pretty interesting just on its own. Martin would stop frequently to show us something interesting, such as leafcutter ants or cohune nuts (which we ate). There were also three river crossings which we had to ford. After some recent rains, the water was moving pretty swiftly!

After a quick snack break, it was time to go into the cave itself. We put on our hard hats and headed for the cave. The entrance to the cave is pretty unique-you have to swim 20 feet across a deep pool of water! Some people indicated it was going to be difficult to get across, but it turned out to be easy.

The first mile of the cave was definitely a pretty wild experience. This is not a calm path with a handrail – you are walking into an undeveloped area. The cave has water running through it which you are walking against most of the time ankle deep but in some cases chest deep!

At one point Martin had us stop so he could look at our neck size, We were a little confused, but after going through the obstacle it made sense – you had to go through some chest deep water between two boulders.The best way is to go through with your neck between the skinniest part!

Martin had us walk one calmer stretch without flashlights – only being guided by placing our hand on the person in front of us. Here is a re-creation of what that looked like:

Pitch Black Darkness

After about a mile of spelunking,we got to the chamber with the Mayan artifacts. We took off our shoes because the artifacts are just lying on the ground right next to you, so they really didn’t want us stepping on them.

First, we looked at many different examples of Mayan pottery. It seemed as if they were arranged into ceremonial offering sites. Martin had us as a group try and interpret what the layout might symbolize. We weren’t ever sure if we got it “right,” but that might have been the point.

Then, we got to see actual skeletons of the Mayans that are still in the cave today. Over time, they have been calcified by the elements and almost look like part of the cave. It was pretty amazing to be able to observe them from a few feet away with nothing separating us. The most impressive remains are what they call the “Crystal Maiden,” a well-preserved female skeleton whose calcification causes the bones to sparkle.

Crystal Maiden - from Wikipedia

Crystal Maiden – from Wikipedia

Because our group spent so long doing various interpretations, we were the last of the various tour groups that day out of the cave. At this point we were also starting to get pretty cold – our clothes were still wet from going through the water, and there isn’t any warm sunlight to dry us off underground! Therefore, we walked out of the cave and then down the trail much faster than we did one the way in. We had a late provided “lunch” back at the van, and then headed back to San Ignacio.

Overall, we really enjoyed the trip and would highly recommend seeing ATM if you are in San Ignacio. It is worth the cost if you have any interest in caves or ancient artifacts. It certainly does not feel like something that you would be allowed to do in the US without filling out extensive paperwork!