Myanmar (Burma) 101
How long have the borders of Myanmar (Burma) been open to tourists?
Burma has always been open to tourists. It was a voluntary move by the majority of travel companies and independent travellers not to visit Burma. This was down to Aung San Suu Kyi’s (long-time pro-democracy activist and head of the National League for Democracy) wish that alongside economic sanctions, all leisure travel to the country should also be halted. However, a few operators continued to run arrangements in Burma and independent travellers continued to visit. So travel is not an entirely new industry within Burma. Travel Indochina recommenced escorted tours to Burma in November 2011 after Aung San Suu Kyi’s release and her subsequent statement on welcoming responsible tourism to the country.
Is it a safe country to travel in?
Yes. Burma is a safe country to travel in with instances of crime relatively low. However, there are regions of the country that are politically unstable which are not recommend for tourists, the most prominent of which are the Rakhine and Rahine regions and some border areas between Thailand and China. Always follow best travel practise and consult www.smarttraveller.gov.au for up to the minute advice.
Is the government/military presence very obvious?
Not any more so than other South East Asian nations. Yes, there are police on the streets but nothing like the Orwellian police state some imagine.
Where are the ‘must see’ places in Burma (Myanmar) that every traveller should visit?
Yangon is Burma’s largest city – once served as the country’s capital before it was (oddly) moved to the specially built city Naypyidaw in 2006 – and is the starting point for most journeys in Burma.
In Yangon you can look forward to some authentic shopping at the Scott Market, the incredible golden Schwedagon Pagoda(must be seen at night!)and the British colonial buildings including Government Telegraph Office and the High Court, which were built in the early 20th century. Most of the colonial buildings can be found in and around the Sule Pagoda.
Bagan if you were to pick an image to represent Burma this would be it. Spread over 100’s km’s of open land you’ll see thousands of ‘spiked’ temples and pagoda’s dotting the skyline, interspersed with ancient trees and low lying scrub. Bagan is best viewed at sunrise and sunset and explored on a bicycle.Inle Lake – at over 44 miles square miles – dominates the landscape and is a primary source of food and industry for Burma’s people. Interspersed with hundreds of ‘floating’ communities the lake has a vibrant fishing industry and is home to the famed ‘leg rowing’ fishermen.
Not forgetting Mandalay with is vibrant markets, hundreds of pagodas, the world’s biggest book, a thriving arts scene and emerging café culture.
What is the local food like? Are there any local delicacies?
Burmese food is a fusion of Chinese, Indian and South East Asia flavours and it’s the former two which dominate most menus. Rice is the staple and the spices of choice are ginger and garlic.
Dishes to try are Lethok Son, a spicy vegetarian rice salad and Oh-no Khauk Swe or noodles which are cooked with chicken and coconut in a deliciously spicy sauce. Surprisingly Burma is one of South East Asia’s pricier destinations with a local meal will costing upwards of US $10pp.There are a plethora of local and Western beers (mostly pilsener’s of European descent) available in Burma’s few up and coming bars and restaurants. Local favourites are Mandalay Beer and ABC Stout. Local brews will cost around US $4 and foreign brand like Heineken and Tiger around US $6 a bottle.
Burma also has a centuries old tea industry and it is still a dominant beverage amongst locals, served in thousands of charming tea house across the country. Be warned, this is not Tetley or Twining’s. Unless you state otherwise Burmese tea can be exceptionally strong and exceptionally sweet (not sweet from sugar but condensed milk). A cup will cost less than US $2 and once you’ve paid you can drink all you want.
What are Burmese (Myanmar) people like? Do they welcome tourists?
Tourists are broadly welcomed in Burma, often with total intrigue and fascination. Over the decades the only connection to the outside world has been a few TV channels, a handful of tourists and the BBC Radio Burmese Service.
They know little about us and we know so little about the Burmese. This mutual naivety makes for some warm and eye opening cultural exchanges which is arguably the best thing about travel. For first timers two great phrases that will work wonders in social scenarios across the country are Min-gala-ba meaning hello and jeh zu beh meaning thank you.Our customer feedback for Burma has been incredible (satisfaction ratings consistently above 98%) and this has really taken us by surprise. Most of the travellers on our early journeys were clients who’d travelled with us before and many were seasoned travellers to Asia. With a few exceptions all of our travellers commented on how friendly the people were and, wherever you were, they were almost always greeted with a smile and welcome; and the tradition of trying to sell and service or good was rarely mentioned!
Our tour leaders who’ve spent years traversing Asia with Travel Indochina, have also been equally awe-struck with Burma and the country has becoming a firm favourite amongst the fraternity.
Where are the good beaches?
Yes, Burma does have some good beach options. Although still very much an emerging industry the most popular and well serviced beach options are around Ngapli Beach. Although nothing we’d consider uber decadent there are some solid 4 and 5 star options on the beach front. The Sandaway Resort has been quite popular throughout 2012.
As with many South East Asia nations you can expect warm water and expansive white sandy beaches with some delectable seafood to be had. Due to the recent surge in travellers you’ll need to book at least 6 months in advance and ensure your dates fall between October and April to avoid most of the rainy reason and searing temperatures, moreover, most hotels close outside of these months.
Are there any famous hotels in the country?
Despite the decades long sanctions Burma has some recognisable hoteliers that have an established reputation. The Strand in Yangon was built in 1901 and boasts beautiful colonial architecture and great location in the heart of town. Another hotel of note is the Governor’s Residence which was built in the 1920’s as a residential mansion. Set in the Yangon’s prestigious embassy quarter the property has beautifully appointed rooms and luscious gardens set around a good sized pool – a rarity in central Yangon.
Can you visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house?
Aung San Suu Kyi still uses the houses as a residence so it remains off limits to visitors.
What tours does Travel Indochina offer to Myanmar (Burma)?
We have two small group tours to Burma, our 9 day Highlights of Burma and 13 day Burma Revealed. These use comfortable 3 star hotels, local guides, a Western tour leader and have oodles of unique experiences throughout. The most popular of these is lunch at a local Nunnery that is loved by the local nuns and our travellers in equal measure!For independent travellers we have a large portfolio of tailor-made holiday options with some really innovative touring options. Due to popularity we always recommend booking at least 6 months in advance.
Any tips for travelling comfortably in Burma?
Avoiding the road system is a good place to start. Burma’s infrastructure has lacked any serious investment for decades so the road system is hard travelling. There are domestic airports in Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon which are a much easier way to travel.
Burma can get hot so try and secure air-conditioned accommodation or hotels with access to a pool. Temperatures are at their most amiable from October to April. Another top tip which will help you travel comfortably is to take $US bills that are in perfect condition. These are still a commodity in the country. If you’re not a fan of the heat then avoid travel between May and September as the temperatures rise well into the 30s and 40s, especially around Bagan and Mandalay.
Special thanks to Kian from Travel Indochina for helping us out with this story – a true expert.