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Two and a half weeks removed from a memorable trip in Burma (Myanmar), and it’s time to reflect. What does a trip to this complicated country mean for your tech?
Burma / Myanmar Travel Resources
In my first post titled “Ditching The Guidebook, The Burma Challenge,” I talked about the internet challenges I expected to face while traveling in the country, and how realistic it was to use the web resources I typically refer to.
I came away with a new found respect for the guidebook. The challenges traveling in Burma / Myanmar are many, but two that stick out are time and money. Since there are no ATMs in the country, and tourist visas are limited to 28 days, it’s hard to justify figuring things out when you get there as your time and money dwindles away.
The $25 paperback Lonely Planet Myanmar guidebook ($16 on Amazon.com) gave a good overview of the places you could travel to, and a little bit about them. This was a major factor in deciding where to spend our limited time while in the country. The guide also gave a decent overview of things to do, which when paired with local advice and chance kept us busy. The PDF digital-download version I had was too inconvenient to refer to.
Internet Access in Burma / Myanmar
In “The Unlikely Life of a Digital Nomad,” I wrote about the challenges of internet access in the country. I knew it was going to be tough to work while I was there, and without a doubt it was. If not for TMA co-editor Dave Dean, it would have been nearly impossible to get anything posted here (including that article).
As I mentioned in the article, the internet infrastructure in the country is poor. Places away from the center of the country rely on slow satellite connections that become nearly useless once they are shared by even a couple of other computers, let alone 20.
Even in Burma’s / Myanmar’s largest city Yangon, the DSL connections were slow and painful. Required proxy servers in many locations made my VPN unable to connect reliably.
Though wifi was fairly sparse where I traveled, it was improving. Traveling with my own laptop was of little issue, and I was only turned away by one internet cafe who wouldn’t let me plug into their network. Only about 1/5 of the internet cafes I visited offered wifi as an option so keep that in mind if you have no ethernet port.
Recommendation: Bring your own laptop (or travel with a just a smartphone), and use a VPN when possible for security, accessing your online banking, and to bypass censorship. Stock up on patience.
Update, July 2014: Internet access and speeds have improved somewhat since this article was published, but still aren’t great.
Mobile Phone Access in Burma / Myanmar
In “Finding Fun Mobile Phone Fakes in Burma,” I wrote about many of the Chinese knock-offs you can find in the country. I’ve received quite a few e-mails and tweets about picking up a SIM card in Burma / Myanmar for your own use.
Firstly, there are currently no roaming agreements with outside providers, so your SIM card from outside the country will not work while traveling inside Burma / Myanmar. While you can purchase a temporary SIM card for the country for approx $30USD when you arrive, it may or may not work with a phone you bring in, so you may be required to purchase a cheap phone.
Lastly, the coverage isn’t great (especially for their GSM network) and there is currently no EDGE/3G available, though I’m told that could be changing within months.
Recommendation: Skip the SIM card and just use the landline phones at your hotel / guesthouse.
Power in Burma / Myanmar
I found that access to power was about what I expected. Most places will have power available through 1/2 the day or more, and higher end guesthouses and hotels will have generators running 24/7. Power plug adapters were only required once, as most plugs were fitted for North American & Euro type prongs.
Recommendation: Keep an eye on the status of your camera battery to make sure you don’t run out while shooting in this photogenic country. Sadly. my DSLR battery died during an incredible Hindu celebration…
On Disconnecting in Burma / Myanmar
While I was in Burma / Myanmar, Dave wrote an excellent piece asking “Can Technology Ruin the Travel Experience?”
It was timely for me, as I was forced to essentially eliminate the tech part of my life during the beginning of the trip. Though I usually read news feeds on my smartphone at night, I had also placed a self-imposed “no screens in bed” rule on myself.
And it was pretty great.
While my occupation requires technology, and it affords me the ability to work nearly anywhere in the world, that first week or so without internet access, was really great. The internet in itself is almost a job for many, and there is no better place to unplug than technology-frustrated Burma / Myanmar.
I only wish I could have gone the entire 6 weeks without using the computer and frustratingly slow internet.
Recommendation: Don’t bother with the internet unless you NEED it. Your time is better spent outside.
In many ways, Burma / Myanmar is a country in the midst of major changes, and technologically speaking, this is more visible than ever. Mobile phones, internet cafes, and an increasingly more reliable power grid are helping to shape this country that has been left in the dark for quite some time.
Citizens are slowing gaining access to the outside world through internet access, and as citizens of the rest of the planet, we use the same internet access to see how their country is slowly changing on a political level. Both sides of the border, breaking down barriers through the internet.
Just watch your step as you walk down the cracked sidewalks of Yangon staring at your smartphone. There aren’t many street lights at night, and you might just fall through…