Zonked. A buddha in Bagan, what could be better.
Vacations in Myanmar
Kids selling bananas, Myanmar
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 tranquillising landscapes of rice fields and palm trees, a rural idyll studded with gold and white pagodas and peopled by calm, friendly Burmese folk.
Locations are both gorgeous and bizarrely interesting, local food is tasty, beer is good and cold, prices are cheap and crime of any sort – other than that committed by the military authorities – is very, very rare.
However, with large aid programs from EU and USA incoming the whole landscape of the country is about to change. As far as tourism is concerned this is a BAD thing! More
Myanmar has an electronic Visa system in operation to apply for visas online but only for entry at Yangon Airport, and only for 43 countries – including USA, Canada, UK, EU citizens, Australia and New Zealand. The e-visa is valid for 90 days and once used will be for a 28 day visit.
Arriving in Myanmar by land is a problem, not only with visas but also if you do get a visa it will almost certainly limit you to remote edges of Burma, missing out on all the country’s best destinations.
Best Myanmar attractions
Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.
You can’t avoid busy Yangon (which is, btw, no longer the capital of Myanmar. Naypyidaw is the new capital) as most tourists arrive/leave there by plane not to mention catching domestic flights from there too so a few days there are inevitable. Street life is moderately interesting and Myanmar’s #1 pagoda complex, the great gold Shwedagon is a glittering fantasy and well worth a few hours. Yangon is good for souvenir shopping too.
Road trips out from Yangon could go to Bago, Golden Rock or Letkhokkon beach.
Bago, (aka Pegu) a small uncrowded town 2 hours drive from Yangon (127 kms) is home to a magnificent gold pagoda 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 3. 5 hour drive hour drive from Yangon (211 kms 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.
Letkhokkon beach’s muddy waters are 2 hours south of Yangon (105 kms).
Bagan sunset by Christopher Michel from a hot-air balloon.
Few ancient sites in the world have such incredible panoramic views or great sunrises and sunsets as Bagan(formerly Pagan). Bagan is set in a peaceful rural location and is one of the three best Buddhist archaeological sites in the world, along with Angkor (Cambodia) and Borobudur (Indonesia).
Thousands of tourists still come here every year but quickly disappear into this 40 sq km (16 sq miles) mass of 2, 500 pagodas and stupas built between the 11th and 13th centuries, surrounded by the Irrawaddy River (aka Ayeyarwaddy), peanut and sesame fields.
A Lake Inle fisherman with traditional vertical fish net, bamboo hat and cheroot.
Inle is an attractive, tranquil 20km long lake in Burma’s Shan Hills, awash with interesting characters, such as leg-rowing fishermen and ethnic tribes trawling the markets, as well as floating tomato fields and cats jumping through hoops, but not much in the way of ancient pagodas, though a side trip to Kakku will provide a stupendous overdose of stupas if required.
Mahagandhayon Monastery in Amarapura, near Mandalay.
Mandalay was the last great capital of Burma, is now Burma’s second city and at the core of their culture and religion. It’s a city of over one million people, but leafy, flat and a haven for winging flocks of bicycles – and just like birds, none have lights!
There’s no shortage of things to see and do in and around the city – teak monasteries, Hill shrines and three old cities within tripping distance. Getting to them in the comfort of a trishaw is one of the tourist’s special pleasures, though a lot of the city is relatively modern.
Mrauk U is a compact group of 70 chunky temples in a green and hilly site on Burma’s west coast. A comfortable, untouristy place though difficult to reach.
Pyin U Lwin (aka Maymyo). A cool (or cold in winter) and attractive colonial hill station where taxis are stagecoaches.
Some dates are based on the moon so are only approximate.
January, Independence Day, fairs nationwide.
March, Armed Forces day, parades and fireworks.
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.
A Bagan woman “a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot“. Great hat!
Burmese people – apart from army personnel, politicians and perhaps Rangoon city slickers – are charming, simple, relaxed farming folk with little English language but ready to offer help and friendship to individual travellers who are not being trucked around in buses or staying at government owned ‘luxury’ hotels.
The best months in Burma are winter November – February though it’s often 30C+ (84F+) except in the highlands, such as Lake Inle, where nights can fall to 10C.
Worst: April-May; extreme heat. e. g. 35C+ (95F+).
June-October: the rainy season when it’s especially wet in the far south around Yangon.
Myanmar’s Political Situation
President Obama of the USA on a visit to Yangon in 2012. Photo by Pete Souza.
Myanmar is one of Asia’s poorest countries due to its large and undeveloped rural economy, but it’s beginning emerge from international isolation.
The first general election in Burma in 20 years was held in 2010 but widespread fraud was claimed by opposition groups and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) was not allowed to govern. ￼
A supposedly civilian government arrived in 2011 led by President Thein Sein (once a general in the army, who would guess? ) but according to a new constitution a quarter of all parliamentary seats are reserved for military personnel and three top ministerial posts – interior, defence and border controls – must be held by serving generals.
However some useful reforms have been made and consequently the government is now recognised by the USA, with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making baby steps on a visit in 2011 followed by President Obama’s bigger steps on a visit to Yangon in late 2012.
The EU lifted non-military sanctions in April 2012 and offered Myanmar more than $100m in development aid.
Good news for Burmese people, bad news for tourism as the wonderfully tranquil sights will soon be overcome by tractors, buses, 4x4s, plastic bags, traffic jams (already in Yangon) and all the other delights of newly modernised developing countries, including mass tourism.
Get to Burma soon before it modernises!