Myanmar or Burma? Yangon or Rangoon? Either the new names or the old are acceptable and widely used for this beautiful, off the beaten track country. An outcast of the international community, Myanmar, occupies a strange space in the world of tourism.
Ruled by a harsh military regime, many believe the country should be boycotted, but there are also plenty of arguments that tourism can have a positive impact on the everyday Burmese people, especially if visitors avoid government-operated attractions.
Why? Lost in time, Myanmar is a place where adventure travel of days gone by is still possible today. There are plenty of amazing sites to see; the 2500 year old, gold-gilded Shewdagon Pagoda is a must. Inle Lake, the second largest in Myanmar with its floating vegetable gardens, lakeside villages and numerous festivals is another popular tourist destination and Bagan, a land of more than 4000 Buddhist temples on the shore of the Ayeyarwady River, is a truly impressive place to watch the sun rise over the misty spires.
Myanmar is also safe, has friendly locals who are only too pleased to meet and greet foreign visitors, has great weather (although it’s very hot and humid during the summer) and delicious, healthy food.
Danger and Difficulty: Some areas of the Myanmar (both rural and in the cities) are out of bounds to foreigners, including the new recently built capital – Pyinmana. Understanding who to pay/bribe and how much to pay is a useful skill to pick up – typically $1 US does it but if you hire a guide for one day of your visit you soon get the hang of it.
Be careful about talking politics. Any criticism of the government should certainly be avoided as you may get locals (as well as yourself) into trouble.
The roads can be dangerous outside of the two main cities that tourists are allowed in (Yangon, formerly Rangoon and Mandalay). All the vehicles are right hand drive (a hang up from colonial days), but the government changed the road traffic laws making all cars drive on the right (because of their disdain for the British). This makes overtaking hazardous on what are quite pot holed roads. Having said that, there is very little traffic on the roads anyway.
Currency is a bit of a conundrum; the official currency is Kyat (pronounced chat). 1,000 Kyat is the largest note, so be prepared to a carry a wad! US Dollars are widely accepted but you have to change them on the black market; the official exchange rate is 14 Kyat to the USD but you get 1,000 on the black market. There are no bank machines in Myanmar and you cannot use credit cards or travellers cheques anywhere, so make sure you take enough cash.
Mobile phones do not work In Myanmar and the cost of using a landline to phone abroad is unbelievably high so be prepared to be cut off from the outside world whilst you are there. There are only two TV channels, one government and one military; both broadcast only in Burmese.
Should I visit Burma? This is a heavily debated issue and as always there are two sides to every story. We recommend doing some research on the arguments for and against visiting Myanmar before you make a decision. If you do decide to go, try to avoid putting too much money in the Military Junta’s coffers; avoid government-owned hotels and restaurants and be careful what you buy and from whom, particularly gem stones (Burma is famous for its rubies).
Getting there and around – a visa is required, but are easy and cheap to obtain. Fly in from Kolkata (Calcutta) on Indian Airways, or on Thai Airways from Bangkok. NOTE: you must leave Myanmar by the same port you entered by. Domestic flights are frequent and inexpensive and there are river cruises between Mandalay and Yangon (Rangoon). Hiring a guide and driver is also inexpensive.
For more information on visiting Burma visit:
Lonely Planet Burma
The Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, an illustrated account of a year spent in Burma
Read more from the Hidden Countries series