MINGALABA, MYAN­MAR

Cap­ti­vat­ing rea­sons to visit a com­pli­cated desti­na­tion

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS MYANMAR - KRISTIE KELLAHAN

Myan­mar be­came the dar­ling of the tourism world a few years ago when it be­gan to emerge from a half-cen­tury of iso­la­tion and op­pres­sive govern­ment poli­cies. For­merly known as Burma, the least vis­ited coun­try in South­east Asia was named one of 2016’s hottest new des­ti­na­tions. It be­came the place to see “be­fore it changed”. Tour op­er­a­tors put to­gether itin­er­ar­ies, cruise lines dropped an­chor, ATMs mush­roomed where there had been none and the first Burmese KFC fried its in­au­gu­ral batch of the Colonel’s chicken.

Vis­i­tors came home rav­ing about an ex­otic place that seemed to have barely changed in 50 years. Golden pago­das and thou­sands of Bud­dhist tem­ples were tended to by monks in blood red-hued robes. The sun­sets along the Ir­rawaddy River were so beau­ti­ful, they had in­spired gen­er­a­tions of po­ets. Colo­nial-era ar­chi­tec­ture spoke in proper British vow­els of an­other time and place.

Re­cently, Myan­mar has hit the news head­lines for more som­bre rea­sons. A se­ries of vi­o­lent clashes be­tween govern­ment forces and Ro­hingya Mus­lims in Rakhine State is tan­ta­mount to eth­nic cleans­ing, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions. Some are say­ing it’s time for tourists to again boy­cott the desti­na­tion.

So is it eth­i­cal to visit? That’s a de­ci­sion ev­ery trav­eller must make for them­selves. Does trav­el­ling to a

IS IT SAFE?

desti­na­tion con­done the poli­cies of that coun­try’s govern­ment? It could be ar­gued boy­cotts hurt the peo­ple who most need tourism. Lo­cals who work as tour guides and sou­venir sell­ers see their in­comes evap­o­rate when tourists go else­where. It could also be said travel is one of the best forms of back­door diplo­macy and that go­ing to con­tro­ver­sial des­ti­na­tions to in­ter­act with lo­cals en­ables an ex­change of ideas and in­for­ma­tion not pos­si­ble in iso­lated coun­tries.

Myan­mar is one of the most com­pli­cated, and most cap­ti­vat­ing, des­ti­na­tions you’ll ever visit.

Travel to al­most all parts of Myan­mar is safe. Smar­trav­eller.gov.au ad­vice says vis­i­tors to Yan­gon, Ba­gan, Mandalay and Inle Lake should use nor­mal safety pre­cau­tions. Any­one think­ing about vis­it­ing Rakhine State should re­con­sider their need for travel. The over­all rat­ing for the coun­try is “high de­gree of cau­tion”. It’s worth not­ing that’s the same ad­vice given for Thai­land and Bali.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT AUNG SAN SUU KYI

Nick­named The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burmese politi­cian and No­bel Peace Prize-win­ning au­thor. She is the Na­tional League for Democ­racy (NLD) party leader and is now the State Coun­sel­lor of Myan­mar, a po­si­tion sim­i­lar to a prime min­is­ter.

The daugh­ter of Aung San, an as­sas­si­nated rev­o­lu­tion­ary leader, she co-founded the NLD af­ter the 1988 anti-govern­ment up­ris­ings. Placed un­der house ar­rest for 15 years by the rul­ing mil­i­tary junta, she be­came one of the world’s most ar­tic­u­late and prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers, draw­ing at­ten­tion to Burma’s plight through her es­says and in­ter­views. Her re­lease from de­ten­tion and as­cen­sion to pub­lic of­fice in 2015 was seen by many as the sign that things had changed and it was time for tourists to re­turn.

In re­cent years, Aung San Suu Kyi has at­tracted crit­i­cism for her han­dling of the Ro­hingya cri­sis.

TOP THINGS NOT TO MISS IN MYAN­MAR?

Ba­gan is Myan­mar’s most vis­ited spot. Marco Polo once called it the gilded city for its sur­feit of Bud­dhist tem­ples and pago­das. To­day, many thou­sands still re­main; a sun­rise bal­loon ride over them is un­for­get­table.

In Mandalay, the last royal cap­i­tal of Myan­mar, catch a pup­pet show, en­joy Mandalay Hill’s panoramic views and marvel at the world’s largest book at Kutho­daw Pagoda.

At the Inle Lake re­gion, ex­plore float­ing vil­lages and stay in over­wa­ter bun­ga­lows. More than 200 monas­ter­ies dot the lake.

U-Bein Bridge, near Amara­pura, is one of the old­est and long­est teak­wood bridges in the world. Time your ar­rival for just be­fore sun­set and nab a prime photo-tak­ing po­si­tion on the south side of the river it spans. Golden Rock is an­other breath­tak­ing sight: Kyaik­tiyo Pagoda is perched atop a huge boul­der, both tee­ter­ing on the edge of a cliff. It’s about a five-hour drive from Yan­gon (also known as Ran­goon), Myan­mar’s for­mer cap­i­tal.

While in Yan­gon, you can’t miss Sh­wedagon Pagoda. We mean it, you re­ally can’t miss it – the 100m gilded stupa sits atop Singut­tara Hill and dom­i­nates the skyline. It’s the most sa­cred Bud­dhist place in Myan­mar. Leg­end claims it was built more than 2500 years ago.

If you want a fancy ho­tel, five-star Sule Shangri-la Yan­gon is it. For a taste of Vic­to­rian-era priv­i­lege and ar­chi­tec­ture, stay at The Strand Ho­tel, one of South­east Asia’s most fa­mous.

For only-in-Myan­mar ex­pe­ri­ences, try some thanaka, the yel­low­ish cos­metic paste that lo­cals ap­ply to their faces as sun­screen and makeup; smoke a che­root cigar, if you’re so in­clined; and ask to join a pick-up game of Chin­lone, or caneball.

CAN I CRUISE THERE?

Yes, and it’s a great op­tion. The road to Mandalay was re­ally the Ir­rawaddy River; cruis­ing along this leg­endary wa­ter­way is a vis­ual delight. River cruise op­er­a­tors in­clud­ing Scenic and APT am­ble along Ir­rawaddy River on mod­ern luxe-plus ves­sels with but­ler ser­vice and splash pools. For smaller ves­sels that evoke the ro­mance of the cen­tury-old steamship flotilla, look no fur­ther than Pan­daw. Ships decked out in teak and brass, with pe­ri­odin­spired chairs and decor, will give ship buffs plenty to In­sta­gram.

THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO GO?

Myan­mar’s mon­soonal cli­mate has three main sea­sons. The dry, cool months of Novem­ber to Fe­bru­ary are the most pleas­ant, and the busiest. The temps shoot up from March un­til May, be­fore the rainy sea­son of JuneOc­to­ber ramps up the hu­mid­ity.

WHAT SHOULD I BUY THERE?

Plenty of orig­i­nal hand­i­crafts for mod­est prices. In Ba­gan, the del­i­cate tech­nique of sand paint­ing pro­duces fram­able works of art de­pict­ing but­ter­flies, birds, land­scapes, por­traits and more. Ta­pes­try and lac­quer­ware are both pop­u­lar in these parts, as are hand­crafted wooden pup­pets. Colour­ful longyi, the wrap­around long skirts worn by men and women, are a low-cost sou­venir.

Some hand­i­crafts are spe­cific to cer­tain towns or re­gions, so if you see some­thing you love, buy it.

Gor­geous ru­bies, jade and pearls can be bought in Yan­gon and Mandalay but don’t fall for a fake glass im­i­ta­tion. Ask the ho­tel concierge or cruise direc­tor for rec­om­men­da­tions.

HOW DO I DEAL WITH MONEY MAT­TERS?

While in Myan­mar you will use a com­bi­na­tion of the lo­cal cur­rency, the kyat (pro­nounced “chat”) and US dol­lars. In­ter­na­tional ho­tels, cruise lines and air­lines ac­cept credit cards. Ar­ti­cles you’ll read on­line will advise the US dol­lar is pre­ferred above the kyat, but this is out­dated ad­vice and the kyat is ac­cepted most places. Be aware it’s a closed cur­rency – it’s not used any­where else in the world – so ex­change or spend left­over notes at the air­port be­fore leav­ing the coun­try.

Be­fore 2013, there were vir­tu­ally no ATMs in Myan­mar due to eco­nomic sanc­tions in place. Now you’ll find more than 3000 ATMs at air­ports, in ho­tels, banks and shop­ping cen­tres. You no longer need to ar­rive with all the money you in­tend to spend. Don’t bother with trav­ellers cheques.

WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO GET AROUND?

Uber has ar­rived in Yan­gon. Many taxis dou­ble as Uber ve­hi­cles; the app negates the need to hag­gle or deal with lan­guage road­blocks. Ex­pect to pay just a few dol­lars for short rides.

The ma­jor cities of Yan­gon, Mandalay and Ba­gan are con­nected by do­mes­tic flight paths op­er­ated by Air Ba­gan, FMI Air, Air KBZ and other air­lines you’ve never heard of.

KRISTIE KELLAHAN TRAV­ELLED AS A GUEST OF PAN­DAW

PIC­TURES: ISTOCK

A bal­loon ride over Ba­gan tem­ples and pago­das is un­for­get­table; fish­er­men at Inle Lake start early; young monks climb Hs­in­byume Pagoda; and Sh­wedagon Pagoda can’t be missed. SH­WEDAGON PAGODA

STUN­NING AR­CHI­TEC­TURE

INLE LAKE

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