holiday in Myanmar/Burma:
This divinely backward, beautiful country
known officially as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar but also Burma, offers sunshine to excess (in winter) and tranquilising landscapes of rice fields and palm trees, a rural idyll studded
with gold and white pagodas and peopled by calm, friendly, no-hassle
Some locations are both gorgeous and bizarrely interesting - Lake Inle, Mandalay, Golden Rock for example, but the ancient site of Bagan - 16 sq. miles
of sesame fields crammed with 2,500 temples and pagodas - is sensational.
Burmese food is fine (mainly Chinese/Indian style), local beer is cold and excellent, prices are cheap and crime of any sort (other than that committed by the authorities) is very, very rare.
Where is Burma?
Basically it's on the edge of Southeast Asia, sandwiched by Thailand, China and India but also shares short borders with Laos and Bangla Desh. Burma Map.
ruling militocracy are exceedingly unpleasant and unpopular both inside and outside the country. More.
- Roads outside towns are as wrinkled and pitted as a buffalo's backside
- built by the Brits pre1940 and sporadically patched by hand ever
since, so be prepared for a rattling good time.
- Colourful local garb is fast disappearing in favour of tatty T shirts,
though most men still wear the wrap-around longyi 'skirt'.
- Myanmar food offered to tourists leans towards good Chinese/Indian but gets unappetising after 20 identical meals in 10 days.
Wine is only available at silly prices.
Best season: November- February. Often 30C+ except in the highlands, such as Lake Inle, where nights can fall to 10C.
Worst: April-May; extreme heat. e.g. 35C+.
June-October: the rainy season, especially wet in the far south around Yangon.
Minimum worthwhile stay, not including flights:
Yangon - Lake Inle - Bagan , 6 days
Recommended: 2/3 weeks, Yangon- (Golden Rock?) - Lake Inle - Mandalay
- (Ngapali beach?) - Bagan - Yangon.
p.s. Mandalay Airways and Yangon Airways are quite reliable. The
government airline, Myanma Airways is not.
Myanmar's main attractions:
**Yangon (Rangoon). You can't
really avoid this busy city, but street life is moderately interesting and Myanmar's
#1 pagoda complex, the great gold Shwedagon is fantastic and well worth
a few hours.
Yangon is good for souvenir shopping too.
**Bago, (aka Pegu) a small uncrowded town not far from Yangon that is home to a magnificent gold temple not unlike Yangon's Shwedagon and plenty of glittering Buddhist artefacts. But...if you've already overdosed on the Shwedagon Pagoda then Bago's is hardly vital.
**Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo
Zedi), a gold-leafed balancing boulder. A tough though picturesque 7
hour drive from Yangon (via Bago and its huge, reclining
Buddha and impressive gold pagoda) followed by an hour's uphill
hike. The Rock is strange, spectacular and a monk magnet. Stay at
the top at the one hotel if you can.
***Bagan(Pagan). Incredibly picturesque
rural area, packed with stupas and temples, one of the world's best ancient wonders, bordered by the Irrawaddy River. Bagan Guide.
***Mandalay. A big city but plenty
of trees, trishaws to get you around and some worthy sights, especially
the teak monasteries and three old cities within a day trip. Mandalay Guide.
*Pyin U Lwin (aka Maymyo). A cool (or cold in winter) and attractive colonial hill station.
***Lake Inle. A 20km long lake with
floating tomato fields, leg rowers, stilt villages, and strange
fishing techniques. Lake Inle Guide.
**Mrauk U, a compact group of 70
chunky temples in a green and hilly site on Burma's west coast.
A comfortable, untouristy (for the moment) place though difficult
**Beaches: Ngapali is the best beach in
Burma, a long, wide stretch of sand and warm sea backed by palms,
with good accommodation facilities and few other visitors. Get there
by air or choose a hellish overnight bus journey.
Another good, long, white sand beach with clear waters is Ngwe Saung.
Nearer Yangon is Letkhokkon, with fine sand and palms but Muddy Waters.
On Myanmar's far southern tip is the Thai-ish beach resort town of Kawthaung.
Great shopping at ridiculous prices, except for hotels and the airport!
There's a wide selection of goodies in Bogyoke Aung San market,
Yangon, but also in most touristy places - and there you'll be closer
to the workshop or artist responsible.
Especially good souvenirs are lacquerware (bowls,
mats, pots etc.), tapestries, wood carvings (take a Buddha home
with you!), silk cloth.
Take $, preferably clean $100 bills for changing to Myanmar currency - the Kyat (pronounced chat). Small
$ bills are acceptable in most places instead of Kyat, but you'll
need much smaller currency than $1, and foreign coins are not acceptable.
Changing $ in shops in Bogyoke Aung San market, Yangon, seems safe
and a good rate, but beware street changers.
See Travel Safety page.
Other currencies = big trouble!
Walking: a great way to get around
Bagan, and the hills and paddy fields surrounding Lake Inle though boats are a more obvious way around Inle. Who knows, maybe kayaks will be available soon?
Hiking: popular serious hikes leave
from Nyaungshwe, Kalaw, Pindaya (near Inle) or Kentung (difficult
to get to), though you'll have to do a multi-day trip - and require
a guide - to see any really colourful villages.
Biking: cheap hire available
in tourist areas, but often they are very big, very old, very crappy machines.
Some bikers fly in their own bikes for extended trips. Go-zones
are a little restricted and roads are narrow with poor surfaces,
though vehicle drivers are very careful of bikes because punishment
for hitting one is draconian.
Bird watching: Moyingi wetlands, near
Bago. Thousands of species of birds in a lake/swamp area, but only
for dedicated twitchers.
Mainly a sort of Chinese or a sort of Indian or fusion of both, the local cooking
is brilliant, especially if you abandon your hotel restaurant -
where their customers are captive and chefs don't try very
hard - for a local place.
First class hotels should be excluded from this generalisation!
a tradition here, but service personnel in any area with tourist
connections will be a) generous themselves and supportive of large
families and b) hoping for a tip. They know it happens.
What can you do? Especially since costs are so minimal - a good
tip can be as little as 10p/15c.
Go on, spoil them!
Some dates are based on the moon so are only approximate.
January, Independence Day, fairs nationwide.
March, Armed Forces day, parades and
Mid April, Water Festival, wild
and very, very wet, tho' hot. 3 days nationwide.
late September - early October, boat races (it's
the rainy season) nationwide, but especially on Lake Inle.
late September - early October, Festival of Lights celebrating the end of Buddhist lent. 3 days of lights and parties,
nationwide, especially in Mandalay.
An easy entry system is now in place in Burma.
On arrival at Yangon or Mandalay airports a 28 day visa can be purchased for and handful of dollars.
Arrivals will need to provide 2 recent passport pictures (4cm x 6 cm), show a return air ticket and possibly a reservation for a hotel or guest house and some spending cash. Check latest visa information.
By Air - the most common route, with several daily flights is via Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Yangon. Flights also arrive in Yangon from Hanoi (Vietnam), Guangzhou (China), Taipei (Taiwan), Kolkata (India).Mandalay gets weekly flights from Kunming in China.
By Land - this is not a good option at the moment as visas are problematical whichever country you come from, while if you do get a visa it will almost certainly limit you to remote edges of Burma, thus missing out on all the country's high points.
Many areas of Myanmar are closed to foreigners and others are accessible only by air or with a government guide.
- Roads are frequently narrow and in sickeningly (carefully chosen word) bad condition so avoid very long road journeys if the wallet is willing. Otherwise...
- Buses are the best low cost transport option and some of them are reaching for luxury status. Tips: do not sit at the back of the bus unless you enjoy big-dippers. Do not sit on the aisle jump-seat unless you're schooled in Zen. Do book a seat in advance.
- Pickup trucks are commonly used as short range transport; they wait till they're full before departing. Not comfortable at all, but cheap and convenient on short routes that lack buses. For considerably more comfort for a little extra cash, buy the window seat next to the driver.
- Hire Car plus Driver is not very expensive but the roads are still narrow, poorly surfaced and less-than-safe. The trip from Yangon to Bagan will take two days if you're lucky.
- Domestic Flights are popular, privatised and reasonably reliable apart from the state-owned Myanma Airways which is catastrophic. Flights leave from Yangon's old terminal 200m away from the new International terminal.
- Trains go to some useful places but take a ridiculously long time to get there. The only viable run is Yangon - Mandalay, 15 hours for the 385 kms, overnight and not comfy.