Thousands of pagodas, some of the friendliest people in Asia (and that is saying a lot), peaceful beaches with few other tourists around: Burma (Myanmar) still makes you feel like it is possible to get away from the beaten track. Yet the Lonely Planet guidebook publisher chose Burma as one of the top ten countries to visit in 2012. The country, once boycotted by many foreign tourists, is becoming a popular destination for independent travellers in Asia. Many first-time visitors to Burma travel to the four main destinations: Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake.
1. The Shwedagon Paya in Yangon (Rangoon)
International flights to Burma arrive in Yangon (Rangoon), the biggest city in Burma. (The military junta that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011 changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar and also changed the names of many of its cities: Rangoon became Yangon. Many countries and foreign media still use the name Burma.)
The Shwedagon Paya is the biggest attraction in Yangon and one of the main sights in the whole country. This stunning pagoda is almost 100 metres tall and it is covered in gold. The giant pagoda contains important Buddhist relics including Buddha’s hairs. The best times to visit the Shwedagon are early in the morning or around sunset. Foreign visitors pay a US$5.00 entrance fee.
2. Mandalay, Amarapura and the U Bein Bridge
Burma’s second largest city, Mandalay, is a modern city with traffic jams and shopping centres. If you arrive from a more peaceful destination, such as Inle Lake, Mandalay can seem shockingly busy. The most interesting attractions in Mandalay are the nearby ancient cities of Amarapura, Inwa (Ava), Sagaing and Mingun. They can be visited in one (long) daytrip. Make sure to stop by the U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge, in Amarapura. You can walk the length of the 1.2 km bridge or take a boat trip on the lake.
3. Boat Trips on Inle Lake
Foreign tourists can visit only a small part of the beautiful Shan State and the most popular destination in the state is Inle Lake, the second largest lake in Burma. The predominantly Intha population lives in lakeshore villages characterized by wooden houses on stilts. The Intha boatmen are famous for leg rowing, a technique still seen on the lake.
There are floating vegetable gardens, handicraft markets and quiet pagodas around the lake and a boat trip is the most popular way to go sightseeing. Inle Lake is located at an altitude of 880 metres and has a pleasant climate, and the surrounding hills have good trekking routes. Foreigners pay a US$5.00 entrance fee to the Inle Lake Zone.
4. The Temples of Bagan (Pagan)
The more than 2200 temples in Bagan were built between the 11th and the 13th century. The sheer amount of temples makes Bagan one of the most stunning archaeological sites in Asia. The temples are scattered around the Bagan Archaeological Zone and visitors can tour the area by horse cart, by taxi or by bicycle. All foreign visitors pay a US$10.00 entrance fee to Bagan’s temple zone.
5. Travel around Burma
Most international flights land in Yangon (Rangoon). Daily flights connect Yangon to Bangkok, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. A direct flight from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Yangon operates twice weekly. For travel around Burma the options are buses, trains and flights. It is also possible to hire a car with a driver but rising fuel costs make this the most expensive option. Flights operate between the main destinations including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Heho (for Inle Lake).
Private buses are affordable and the new highway between Yangon and Mandalay has made bus travel more comfortable than before. Government-owned trains are slower than buses and cost more: foreigners pay much more than locals for their train tickets. Boats connect a few destinations including Mandalay and Bagan.
6. Visas, Costs and Travel Money
Foreign visitors need a visa to enter Burma and you need to apply for your visa in advance. The standard tourist visa allows for 28 days in the country. If you have not applied for a visa in your own country, Bangkok is a good place to arrange it.
Burma does not have any cashpoints (ATMs) that accept foreign cards. Credit cards are only accepted in a few luxury hotels mainly in Yangon. You will need to bring all your travel money in cash and the best currency to bring is the US dollar. Many banks also change Euros and some banks change Singapore dollars. US$100 bills get the best exchange rate in Burma.
Dollars can be exchanged to the local currency, kyat, at banks and with unofficial money changers (who may offer a slightly better rate, but have been known to trick customers). Hotel rooms, train tickets, flights and all government sightseeing fees are paid in dollars. Bring new, uncreased and unstained dollar bills; moneychangers and banks will refuse torn, creased and old notes and notes that have a serial number starting with CB. Bring enough cash to last the whole trip and enough extra cash for emergencies.
7. Responsible Travel
In the past Burma’s opposition party National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, urged foreign visitors to stay away. Visitors’ money would inevitably end up in the military generals’ pockets, a visit to the country could be seen as a sign of support to the military junta, and some tourist projects involved the use of forced labour.
The NLD has relaxed its policy and cautiously welcomes independent travellers. International Burma campaigns now focus on their tourism boycotts on package tourism. Visiting Burma still involves many ethical questions, but there are ways to make sure that at least a part of your money benefits the local population and not the military generals. Use private buses or private airlines for travel around the country, stay in privately owned small hotels and family guesthouses, eat in locally owned restaurants and shop at local markets or private stores.
Visitors should also be aware that while Burma may be moving towards democracy, its people have lived under a repressive military government for decades. While many people will be happy to discuss politics with you in private situations if they feel comfortable and safe to do so, you should always leave it up to each person to decide whether they want to talk politics with you.