Aung San Suu Kyi’s intrepid struggle against the military junta which ultimately led to the ushering in of civilian government rule is probably the only thing we know about Burma. What many of us don’t know is that this ancient land of pagodas and stupas steeped in history, with vestiges of the British colonial era, has a lot to offer to the unconventional tourist looking for a satiating travel experience minus the comforts typical of places topping the must-see lists of all well-known travel guides.
Unlike its more developed neighbor Thailand, Myanmar— or Burma as it is alternatively known —is yet to be deracinated from its firm hold on its primordial culture and heritage. Gird up your loins and prepare for a fusillade of pleasant surprises when in Burma. After all, where else in the world can you gad about along a crowd comprising of Chin women flaunting their tattooed faces, Buddhist monks in their flowing red ochre robes, and betel leaf-chewing septuagenarians!
While in Burma for your not-a-regular-sun-soaking-cocktail-sipping vacation, you just cannot afford to miss the following –
- Bagan, the moonstone in the diadem of scenic splendor that Myanmar epitomizes, is a treasure trove of Buddhist architecture par excellence. The ancient Burmese city’s skyline is dappled with thousands of monasteries, stupas, and temples.
- Mandalay, the economic hub of Burma, shows the other side of the country – the modern one. Here you can still find some semblance of antiquity in its not so antique structures, such as the eponymous Mandalay Palace, the Shwenandaw and Atumashi monasteries, and the Maha Muni and Kathudow pagodas.
- Yangon (Rangoon) offers a glimpse of the British colonial architecture. It shows the symbiotic existence of old-world charm in the form of the dazzling Shwedagon Paya with the controlled chaos of the modern-day urban setting.
- The aqua world of Inle Lake will enchant you with its rustic huts built on stilts, floating gardens, smiling faces topped by conical hats fishing and selling their prized catch, and the ubiquitous stupas.
After giving you a quick one on what to see in Myanmar, here are some tips that will help you enjoy your trip to the fullest.
If you are an American citizen, then you need to have a passport with a validity of at least 6 months remaining. You also need a visa to enter Myanmar which you can apply for at a Burmese consulate or embassy serving your country. Conventional travelers on a sojourn of Southwest and Southeast Asia as well as medical travelers after undergoing procedures such as liposuction in India and who have a wiggle room to include sightseeing in their healthcare trip should keep in mind that land-crossing into Burma from Moren in the Indian state of Manipur can be quite cumbersome because of the elaborate paperwork involved. The US State Department website states that the Burmese government usually does not permit land crossings unless tourists are a part of a package tour group which has received prior permission from the Burmese authorities.
Taking an indirect flight via Bangkok will be cheaper than taking a direct flight to Yangon. The Yangon airport is the point of arrival of international flights. Another option is to take a flight from Kunming in China to Mandalay (runs on a weekly basis).
By Bus – There are a number of buses (AC, deluxe, semi-deluxe, and ordinary) plying between the major cities such as Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan. Nevertheless, Burma is a large country and traveling from one city to another can mean one long bumpy overnight ride. Check for morning bus schedules if nocturnal traveling is not your cup of tea.
By Boats – A very romantic way of reliving the glory days of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), boats and ferries are another medium of traipsing through the country which has nearly 5000 miles of navigable river waterways. From rundown ferries to charming luxurious cruises, you’ll find a lot of alternatives to cover the Yangon-Pyay-Mandalay circuit. Most of the jetties are serviced by Inland Water Transportation (IWT) offices from where tickets can be bought. The IWTs accept only US dollars and Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC).
By Rail – A legacy of the Britishers, the Myanmar railways with their horse carriage-like speed are bound to take you back to the days of yore and are certainly not for those used to vrooming about on the modern mechanized beasts. Some of the rail routes, such as the Yangon-Mandalay route, are quite popular with foreign tourists though. To cut down on intermittent delays, make sure you choose an express train. Make your reservations a couple of days in advance if you wish to park yourself on a sleeper berth. In the on-season (November through March), you will have to make reservations a few weeks in advance.
Local Transportation – Cycle rickshaws and three wheelers are convenient ways of zipping through the cities. Do keep in mind that their fares might be substantially inflated for foreigners; so do not forget to haggle.
Say goodbye to plastic money
Yes, you read it right. We know it well that debit and credit cards are mere specks in the vast canvass of bounties bestowed on us by the modern banking system. Not so in Myanmar though. If you are “banking” on an ATM to get over your money matters, then you’ll be in for some disappointment. There are no ATMs in Myanmar. You might come across a few in large cities but these are exclusively for servicing the locals. The local currency is the Burmese Kyat. However, US dollars are widely accepted. Do make it a point to carry American dollars in all denominations on you. You might not have faced any “kaching” problems while holidaying in Thailand or India, which is because these two countries abound in ATMs dispensing cash 24*7. We have told you before – Burma is not your average touristy destination. Hence, load up your wallets with good ol’ albeit crisp dollar bills!
Shun meat; embrace veggies instead
In Burma, meat is not one of the best things to go inside your tummy. To keep gastric troubles at bay, it is suggested that you stick to veggies. And because of the brimming Buddhist population, you won’t find vegetarian options difficult to come by. Satisfy your taste buds slurping on noodle soups full of beans and vegetables and noshing on boiled or roasted danyin thi, grilled okra, and stirred fries. The famous Restaurant Street in Bagan offers a wide variety of fusion foods – from fried chilli tofu and pea paranthas to Burmese versions of samosas and biryani.
On staying connected
As international GSM roaming facility is not available, the only option is to either rent a CDMA phone or make international calls from hotels. The obscenely expensive international phone calls might force you to go incommunicado for some time though. However, the major Burmese cities are dotted with cyber cafés offering cheap Internet services. You’ll have to shell anything from 300 to 3000 Kyat for an hour of surfing the net. Do not expect surfing at speeds that you are used to back home.
Life is in a complete never-ending flux in Burma. From the towering stupas to glimpses of cheerful locals attired in clothes of all hues, Burma will offer you a lot of material to add to your travel journal. Heart surgeries; dental treatment; cosmetic work; hip, shoulder or knee replacement, are all available at a fraction of their cost in the West and many medical tourists travel to this Asian country for health benefits. However, for the ones keen to explore an unconventional place, Burma would be a treat!