Марионетки в мандалайской мастерской

Myanmar (Burma)

Visited December 2016

Myanmar is a fascinating place and I think it remains the least touristed destination in South East Asia. When the country was ruled by a military junta, Western governments discouraged their citizens from coming here.  And until recently, large travel guide publishers, like Rough Guides, did not offer guidebooks for Myanmar. Even its domestic opposition asked foreign travelers to stay away, to avoid supporting a military dictatorship.

With the ongoing transition to a civilian government, this is rapidly changing and the tourist numbers are growing every year. So if you have an interest in coming here – do it soon. You will love Myanmar, no matter how you arrange your trip here, but more people benefit if you come as an independent traveler, instead of a package tour, including yourself. 

Former prominent opposition figure and current State Counselor Ayung San Sui Kyi (only known to some due to a recent Luc Besson film) used to call for a tourism boycott against Myanmar in the junta years. As a government member she has reversed her position on this and called for responsible tourism to the country.

What is responsible tourism? Aside from the usual “leave only footprints, take only pictures” approach, the best thing you can do is  come to Myanmar independently, instead of on a package tour. According to some guidebooks, most large local tour operators are owned by people with family and other ties to the former regime. This makes sense as they would be the ones with the means to start a large business. I am sure many of these businesses are very well run. In fact, I have friends who came here on package tours and have had a terrific time. But if you come on your own, you are directly hiring different people in the area you visit and your money reaches a wider group of people. And, believe me, your tourist dollar goes a long way for many of the people here.

I realize that going to a new country without the help of a professional tour guide can be intimidating. Don’t let it be. Get a good guide book, plan the stops on your itinerary and read up on them, book your tickets and hotels you are good to go. You will be amazed how easy Myanmar is to get around. English is widely spoken in all the areas I have visited and the people are extremely welcoming and hospitable, and as you will see below, seeing the country without a guide was very easy.

I spent a week in Myanmar and during my short visit I had time to:

  • Watch the sun rise over Bagan from an ancient stupa after touring the area the day before.
  • Ride a motorbike around the fascinating sights of Mandalay and tour the surrounding towns.
  • Take a motorboat around Inle Lake to see the lives of the Intha people and explore Pindaya Caves.
  • Wander the streets of Yangon’s colonial district and watch life go by at Shwedagon Pagoda.

There is, of course, much more I want to do when I come back. I’d love to see Mount Popa and learn about the culture of Nat worship. There are many more interesting sites at Inle, than I have had a chance to visit, like Kakku. I also want to come back and visit Mrauk U in Western Myanmar and the precariously balanced Golden Rock Pagoda in the Southeast. The new capital Naypyidaw might also be worth a visit, if only to see what happens when you build a capital city and no one comes.

Visas. Visitors from pretty much anywhere require a visa to come to Myanmar. Tourists who enter the country via designated  international airports or land border control posts, can do it with an electronic visa. Other points of entry require a paper visa obtained at a diplomatic mission in the travelers’ home country or other location. You can apply for a visa here. Mine took a day to process and it was so easy, I think the only reason the visa requirement has not been abolished is because it’s a source of public revenue.

Getting in and around. Myanmar has three international airports (Yangon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw) and a fourth under construction. There are many domestic airlines and if you’re pressed for time, getting around by airplane is relatively inexpensive and easy. That is what I did. I booked all my domestic flights online in advance via local travel agent Oway and was very happy with their service. Having said that, none of the domestic flights I took left at the original scheduled time, with some flights drastically rescheduled. This cost me the chance to go ballooning in Bagan, as my new scheduled flight left too early to afford me this opportunity. This, of course, is not the travel agent’s fault. I think the domestic airlines just combine and cancel flight if ticket sales don’t meet their initial projections. Just keep this in mind, when you plan your trip and give yourself enough time, if you can, to make sure a change of flight schedules doesn’t put some activity you really want to do at risk. But if something does go wrong- don’t stress. It will all work out in the end. It did for me. 

If you want to see more of the country, buses are also an option and can be booked through the same agency. I have talked to fellow travelers about their bus experiences and the only complaint I had heard was that the night buses were all too cold with air conditioning going full blast, despite the fact that it was fairly brisk outside.

Airport taxis are very reasonably priced and your hotel will always help you book a tour, guide or taxi when you arrive. And most cases, your travel agent, tour guide or driver will find you. For example, in Bagan my airport taxi driver was complaining how little new business he and his colleagues were getting despite the increase in tourist numbers. When I asked him what it would cost to drive me around Bagan’s highlights for a day, he quoted $35 and the deal was made on the spot. Linn, the driver spoke pretty good English and knew all of Bagan’s highlights that were worth seeing in a day. We hit it off and hiring him was one of the smarter things I did. Give him a shout out on his Facebook page if you want a good driver to take you around the area.

Before coming here, I read how Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure was stretched with demand far out pacing supply, resulting in higher hotel prices than you would see elsewhere in the region. I think this applies mostly to luxury hotels. I had no problem getting reasonably priced tourist-class rooms anywhere, despite coming here at the start of peak season.

And speaking of peak season – the winter months are generally considered the best time to visit, as it is not too hot. My advice would be to come in December before the holiday season, as the temperatures are the best, but most tourists don’t start coming until after Christmas.

Money. The local currency is kyat (pronounced “chat”). ATMs are everywhere in tourist areas, so getting cash is not a problem at all and I would recommend getting a small amount either at the ATM or the currency exchange when you arrive. Dollars are gladly accepted everywhere, but be sure to have crisp clean new bills. Even minor tears and stains can result in merchants refusing to take your bills, because they will have a tough time depositing them with the local banks.

Etiquette. Here’s a good article listing some simple etiquette rules to follow in Myanmar, which is a fairly conservative society. I would add a few things to this.  According to people I’ve met, if you need to apologize, it is a good idea to say “sorry, sorry” – saying the word just once can be taken as a sign of insincerity.  Also, be prepared to do a lot of barefoot walking. Shoes are not allowed at Buddhist temples, shrines and monasteries and you will be asked to take them off in the walkways leading to the major temples. Some temples also don’t allow visitors in shorts, so if you don’t want to wear long pants in Myanmar’s hot climate, consider buying a longyi (a long cylindrical cloth to wear like a skirt) to carry with you.

Security. In general, the most touristed parts of Myanmar are very safe and although I had read that petty crime is rising before coming here, I didn’t see any evidence of this in my travels. There are still occasional ethnic insurgencies in some parts of the country, and I believe permits are required to travel to these at-risk areas. For someone doing a standard highlights tour of the country this is not a concern.

 

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