Technology & Travel in Burma / Myanmar – A Wrap Up

In Opinion by Dustin Main8 Comments


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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.

Web resources such as TripAdvisor & WikiTravel were lacking and near useless, and active internet access was hard to come by anyways.

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.

Recommendation:  Buy the Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma) Guidebook (and Burmese Phrasebook)

Internet Access in Burma / Myanmar

dustinmain-1-14In “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.

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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

dustinmain-1-13_2Keeping your camera and gadgets can be a chore in the best of circumstances, and a nightmare in the worst.

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.

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Wrapup

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…

About the Author

Dustin Main

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Dustin just can't get enough travel or technology, but when he's not directly feeding one of those insatiable habits, you can probably find him at some far away ice cream shop taking pictures of empty cups. That, or on top of a mountain somewhere shooting photos and finding adventures to share on his website "A Skinny Escape".

Comments

  1. Dustin, you’re a travel writer… Ditch the Lonely Planet… Discover new places and things, and write about them so we too can get another perspective.

    Patrick

    1. Author

      It’s a fine line between just going where things lead, and a bit of planning help. I think it’s especially true in Burma / Myanmar where you don’t have absolute freedom to explore everywhere, travel times are excessive, and time is limited.

      In the end, the guidebook was a good reference to have IMO. If not for the guidebook suggesting alternate areas, I may have fell into some of the usual places. Keep in mind, that of the main attractions in Burma / Myanmar, I’ve only been to Shwedagon Pagoda in the ~8 weeks I’ve spent in the country.

      Now the bigger issue is finding the time to share all the amazing finds!

  2. Fantastic post, Dustin. Think I’ll grab that Lonely Planet Guide!

  3. Thanks
    You’ve convinced me..
    Going to leave all techno behind.
    Take the lumex….for photo’s is all.
    And Keep my eyes open….

  4. Very useful post for our trip next year! I’ll get the guidebook and be careful about monitoring our charge levels.

    Ps–I need to implement your no screens in bed rule! (as I write this from my phone. In bed.)

    1. Author

      “Screens in bed” is perfectly acceptable if it involves reading Too Many Adapters 🙂

  5. Dustin, I’m curious why you found the PDF version of the LP guide too inconvenient as opposed to the book. And particular reason?

    1. Author

      Hot, sunny, dusty Myanmar isn’t much of a friend to tablets or Kindles in my opinion. Nearly impossible to read a tablet in the hot sun.

      I don’t think straight-copy PDF guidebooks are great as it is. Companies need to make the experience fit the device, and some companies are doing that with their location-specific apps at least.

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