Myanmar, also known as Burma, is in the long-term business of establishing itself as a serious tourist destination. Located in South East Asia on the Andaman Sea and bordering Thailand, India, China, Laos and Bangladesh, it has only been open to tourists for the past four years, after the oppressive political regime had thawed. Since, the number of visitors has been steadily increasing, and now that is possible to apply for a visa online, the tourism industry expects even more favourable prospects for growth.
The downside of travelling in Myanmar is that it is not a cheap destination, although first ‘backpacker-villes’ have tentatively started making an appearance. However, accommodation and getting around are still expensive, especially that a lot of places can only be reached by air.
Myanmar shocks at first glance: men in longyis (type of sarong) sporting blood-like betel-stained mouths, and women and children with yellow thanaka-smudged faces is the first sight that visitors encounter on arrival. Then stomach-churning sounds complete the picture: hearty throat clearing and spitting is commonplace for both men and women, as is belching and burping.
And then there are the overpowering smells: the aforesaid betel, and some local foods: the infamous fish paste, marinated bamboo shoots, and durian the fruit. The odour of durian can be safely compared to something in the advanced stage of rotting, and many hotels declared durian the forbidden fruit: durian is not allowed in hotel rooms.
In general, people are lovely: genuinely curious without being too intrusive, hospitable but not overwhelming, and generally affable and respectful.
What is also important is that on the street level people are honest and not particularly interested in ripping you off – maybe apart from taxi drivers in Bagan. English is not widely spoken, especially in the south, but in any case, understanding Myanmarese English can be a challenge.
In addition, Myanmar is considered a safe destination – and therefore suitable for single women travellers.
Myanmar’s tourist season is defined by the weather: the impossibly hot summer (March to May), the rainy season (June to October), and ‘winter’ (November to February) – when the oppressive heat subsides, and it is finally possible to go out and enjoy this fascinating country. The central and northern parts of Myanmar are cooler and drier, and receive less rainfall during the rainy season.
Although more and more destinations are now open to tourists, first-time visitors to Myanmar usually do ‘the big four’: the former capital Yangon, Myanmar’s second city Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan – the ancient capital and now sister city to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Many start their visit with Yangon (previously known as Rangoon), with its golden-plated pagodas and impressive but very neglected colonial-era buildings. Yangon is a very green city and, unlike other Asian capitals, its skyline has not yet been spoiled with glass sky scrapers.
Mandalay is located in the centre of Myanmar – in the so-called Dry Zone, which makes it possible to visit the city during the rainy season. Bagan continues to charm visitors with its many thousand ancient temples – some of them serving as sunrise or sunset spots. It is also possible to welcome the day from a hot air balloon – that is if you’re willing to splash about 350 USD for a three-hour escapade.
And then the Inle Lake in the southern Shan offers unforgettable views: unique leg-rowers, fishing canoes, floating gardens and plantations. Other spots on Inle that make the visit so unique include the Jumping Cat Monastery, the Heritage House, and various workshops: silversmith, cheroot, boat, parasol, and silk and lotus weaving workshops.
If time and money are not an issue, the following destinations and activities are worth adding to your itinerary: climbing Mount Victoria in the Chin state, visiting parasol workshop in Patthein (the Delta region), relaxing on the pristine Ngapali beach in the Rakhine state, trekking in Kachin, or discovering the southern archipelago – that has very recently opened to foreign tourists. Finally, a visit to the world’s youngest capital should complete the trip: Naypyidaw was established only in 2008, and has already won a reputation as one of the most eerie places in Myanmar.
Plush overnight ‘VIP’ buses (air-con, comfy seats with generous legroom) departing from Yangon serve most of the key destinations – Bagan (9-10 hours), Mandalay (13-14 hours) and Inle Lake (12 hours). It may not be the most comfortable way of getting around, but it’s doable by all means. The only alternative to an overnight bus ride is flying – but expect to pay at least 200 USD for a short return flight.
There are, of course, trains and daytime buses too, but these are only for the most adventurous. Some destinations like the Chin state can only be reached by a hired 4 x 4, and other – like the country’s south east – only by plane. Daily cruises (11-12 hours) connect Bagan and Mandalay.
In Bagan, rechargeable electric bikes is the next big thing – they are easy to drive, quiet and obviously environment-friendly. Taxis within the city limits are in the region of 2-3 USD for a short ride, and taxis from the airport can be anything between seven and 20 USD – depending on your negotiation skills. Beware though – local English speakers often confuse the words ‘hundred’ and ‘thousand’.
Food and Drink
In short, Myanmar food is chili-hot and oily. Rice is the main staple, often eaten with fried or marinated vegetables, seafood or meat. Marinated tealeaf and bean salad is a must, and so are the aforesaid bamboo shoots and durian – which actually taste much better than they smell.
Myanmar food is served with a knife and spoon or chopsticks. In rural areas people often eat with their hands. In big cities and tourist destinations Western food is widely available, often in Western-owned restaurants and shops – for a price.
Myanmar beer, green tea and coffee are by all means drinkable, as is Myanmar’s very own avocado juice. Shops offer a selection of locally produced isotonic drinks perfect to quench the tropical thirst.
In sum, don’t wait! Apply for the visa online, book your flights and help this new tourism destination reach its target – 10 billion USD by 2020!