Captivating reasons to visit a complicated destination
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
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