Burma, or Myanmar, as it is called these days, has a rather troubled recent history, with a military dictatorship running the country more or less continuously for the last fifty odd years. Only recently has it begun opening up. In the media, this was marked as the ruling party started freeing some of the many political prisoners that were languishing in jails, or in the infamous case of Aung San Suu Kyi, its most famous daughter, under perpetual house arrest. The reform is slow and there is a strained relationship between the majority and the myriad of minority groups and tribes that make up the country.
Burma is different, as Rudyard Kipling already observed in his day, though it wasn’t always as troubled. It has a rich and imposing history, and a trip to Burma is like a trip back in time, to an era when Southeast Asia was blissfully free from the modern blight of mass tourism. Burma is what Southeast Asia once was, what it should be, what it still is like in our dreams.
Forget the many stereotypes and images associated with traveling in Southeast Asian countries such as malls, drug-induced full moon parties, backpacker streets full of bars and nightclubs, and, instead, take the famous road to Mandalay.
This is the country where Yangon (Rangoon), Burma’s capital, still feels like the British only left yesterday. This is the land of golden stupas, Buddhas and even rocks! Of Bagan (aka Pagan) with its endless temple filled plains, some say more impressive than Angkor Wat. The country can boast of Mandalay and its royal cities, Inle Lake with its floating villages, exotic tribes rarely visited by Westerners, empty beaches, and friendly locals and a diversity of food only rivaled by Malaysia.
Highlights from Burma
- Yangon, is a pleasant start to any trip in Myanmar with its crumbling British architecture, and the not to be missed Shwedagon Paya, the gilded stupa visible from miles away
- The road to Mandalay will most likely lead you past Bagan, a temple strewn plain for as far as the eye can see. A sunset or sunrise on one of the temples is an unforgettable experience
- While Mandalay itself is rather non-descript, it has the Mahamuni Paya, housing Myanmar’s most venerated Buddha image (covered in gold leaf), and a visit to Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a teak monastery in the monk district, is also a must
- More interesting than Mandalay itself are the ancient cities scattered around it, so take a bicycle or hire a rickshaw and visit Amarapura with U Bein’s Bridge, Inwa with its teak monastery, the stupa-studded hilltops of Sagaing, and Mingun if you have time
- Visit the floating gardens, villages and markets of Inle Lake and gape at the one-legged rowers that call this watery dream their home
- Hike the Shan hills around Kalaw or Hsipaw, meeting the various tribes that live there
- Feel like Indiana Jones in far flung Mrauk-U near the border with Bangladesh
- Contemplate gravity at Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, the Golden Rock perched precariously on the edge of a cliff
- Dash down to the Mergui Archipelago and explore the myriad of islands, and meet the enigmatic sea-gypsies. If you find it too hard to get to try Ngwesaung Beach or Ngapali Beach
Hints and Tips for Burma
- Travel is still restricted in Burma, with loads of regions totally off-limits to tourists due to ongoing insurgencies and other problems.
- ATMs are becoming more readily available, but it is still wise to take dollars or euros with you into the country, with dollars being the preferred choice.
- You can exchange money at the banks at the same rate as on the streets these days, so there is no need to make use of the black market. However, if you plan on exchanging dollars anywhere, or paying with them, make sure your dollar bills are pristine! No marks, no creases, no old bills, no bills with a serial number starting with CB . . . Though things have become slightly better since the easing up of sanctions, it is still a good policy to keep them as neat as possible. You get the best rates with 100 dollar bills, but keep a mix of bills handy (including one, five and ten dollar bills) for paying at some hotels and tourist sites, which only except dollars.
- Roads are steadily improving and so are the buses, but the more remote you go, the worse the transport. Trains are slow, expensive and uncomfortable.
- There is a lack of accommodation due to the influx of tourists, this means that prices have risen and booking in advance is advisable.
- Myanmar is safe country to visit, and people are very friendly and helpful.
- Visas are only valid for 28 days and can’t be extended, something to keep in mind when planning your trip.