Burma: On the verge of a Tourism Boom

Photo by Yvette Jong

Photo by Yvette Jong

Before delving into tips on traveling through Burma (Myanmar), I feel it's my responsibility to briefly discuss its history first. Although the country is rich in culture and has many of the world's most beautiful pagodas, strict control by the military regime over the past half century almost completely removed Burma from the tourist map. Human rights abuses, highly publicized crackdowns and murders of peace seeking protesters and monks, as well as the long-term house arrest of the country's rightful leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi, were only a few of the reasons travelers boycotted the country as a form of protest against human rights abuses.

But after 21 years of on-again-off again house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released in 2011. Hilary Clinton was the first US Secretary of State to visit the country since the military regime took over in '62, and talks of political reform mean Burma will ultimately become more welcoming to curious travelers.  Most noticeable, however, is that Burmese are openly talking about their want for democracy and the changes they want to build a better country.

I just came back from a brief 10 day trip and admit that while some things have to change, it was an easy place to travel through and should be well on its way to accommodate a burgeoning tourism industry.

The goods and greats:

  • People are easygoing and honest. Perhaps it's just a matter of time before they become spoiled by tourism, but it's refreshing to walk around a foreign country and not be hounded to buy unnecessary trinkets and the like.
  • People care about their country. Given the recent changes in the political climate, people are openly talking about how they would love for outsiders to see the beauty of their country. But they also understand development should happen slowly and sustainably.
  • The country's huge and while we initially planned to take ground transport, we just didn't have enough time. Luckily flights are cheap and for $50 to $90 you can skip from one city to another to avoid long 12-18 hour bus or train rides.
  • Infrastructure is moderately ok. Airports are brand new and have decent runways, roads in Yangon are generally good and you can get around by plane, train, bus, boat, motorbike, rickshaw, trishaw, horse cart, bicycle. You name it.
  • Budgets - you can go on any budget. I spent anywhere from $7 for a bed to sleep in to $7 for a beer.

What I wish was better:

  • Internet is not readily available.
  • International phone calls are a fortune.
  • Food isn't fantastic, but is much better than I was expecting. Friends all said it was bland and limited to clear fish broths, but I must've been eating somewhere else because we had curries, spices, rich broths, fresh fish, and chapati at the chapati stalls in Mandalay!
  • We all got sick at least once on the trip, but not from the same meal...
  • It isn't as affordable for backpackers as Thailand or Cambodia. It seems like the lowest price in Yangon was about $7 for a shady room with no windows, light or hot water...
  • Even high-end hotels like the Strand (which cost $400) still has power outages.

What I found frustrating:

  • There aren't any ATMs. Without banks and ATMs, you’re stuck counting your pennies since you can’t get any more money that what you brought in.
  • There's almost zero flexibility with currency exchange. They only accept USD that are in immaculate condition. One pen mark, fold, staple hole and it's as good as toilet paper.  The only exception was in Bagan where craft vendors were willing to take any foreign currency, lipsticks, cosmetics, clothes, anything that they couldn't get readily in Burma.
  • Their phone network doesn't work with oversees mobiles. We made the mistake of saying we’d reach one another by text once we arrived. Days later, we finally found each other.

What they need in the future:

  • Political Reform: They've made strides but have a ways to go.
  • Transparency. At the moment, areas you're allowed to visit are highly restricted and foreigners aren't allowed to stay anywhere that isn't legally registered to accept foreign guests. So while it's possible to do a homestay or get off the beaten track, it isn't recommended.
  • A skilled workforce. Although it was amazing how many multilingual tour guides the country has. We heard Italian, French, Russian, Chinese, etc. You name it and they were there. But the country will need trained line level employees down the line.
  • More hotels. December is their busiest year and I'm guessing this was the busiest December they've had in years. We were lucky to find last minute rooms, but the process was almost painful. With Burma listed in all the "Must-See destination lists" for 2012, you better book now if you want a place to stay in December.

What you should do:

Most travelers do the typical circuit which includes Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan and back to Yangon in one direction or the other.

  • Yangon - Yangon has a hectic, but quiet air about it. Think colonial Indian or Sri Lankan architecture that hasn't been restored, roads that are motorbike free and pockets of deserted streets. When there, you wonder where all the locals are - and then you realize they're all in Dalla across the river. Shwedagon Paya is a must even if you're a bit jaded by pagodas like I am. If you have the money, get a guide for $5 and participate in a number of rituals based on the day you're born.  If you're on a tight budget, catch someone on their way out and ask if you can take their ticket and sticker.  These give the holders full day access to the paya which will save you $5.
  • Dalla - Dalla, on the other side of Yangon River, is well worth it if you want to see how people really live. The boat leaves from the pier across Strand Road and you'll have to go through a painless registration process as a foreigner before buying a ticket. Stand on the boat, or grab a chair and pay the vendor a nominal fee. If you're feeling lazy when you get off the ferry, hire a trishaw for a quick tour around the town. The further away from the pier you walk, the more you save. To skip the ride altogether, walk straight and pass all the trishaws and head straight down the main road.  Turn right down any village road and start exploring. Bring some kyat along and enjoy a cup of tea while you people watch, and don't forget to engage.
  • Moustache Brothers - The Moustache Brothers in Mandalay are 2 brothers and a cousin who perform political satire about Burma's military regime. While they've been heavily scrutinized by the military government and have been arrested as a result, these guys won't stop because every dollar raised goes to support political prisoners who are still in jail. While their content is a little more slapstick than it is satire, they admit to change the material over the years since tourists were generally unaware of the political situation in the country and couldn't understand what was being said. Tickets are $8 and support a great cause. If you don't have the money, I'm sure they won't say no as long as you promise to spread the word.  To further support them, purchase a t-shirt after the show. They also have stacks of old currency with images of Aung San Suu Kyi's father, which they'll trade for any magazines or books you might have.  The story with the money is that the military regime decided to declare it worthless one day, which left the local people with worthless currency.
  • Rent a motorcycle in Mandalay - Mandalay's got some great culture but all the guide books describe it as an ugly and new city. True, it's dusty, but I found it to be much more real than Yangon. Rent a motorbike for a few bucks and explore.  It'll be far cheaper than renting taxis or rickshaws and will be far more fun. Some of the attractions require a city pass entrance ticket that costs about $10. They say it gives you access to a bunch of attractions but I avoided buying it since most of the ones I wanted to see were free anyhow.
  • Take the boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan - The 8-9 hour ride is worth the $40 and the views are fantastic. Save a few bucks by taking the slower boat which is $10 and takes twice as long.  Be sure to arrange for a guesthouse on the other side.  They'll usually provide pickup from the ferry which saves you the time, trouble and transport cost involved with finding something on your own.  Plus, it'll be dark when you arrive.  One thing you can't really avoid is a $10 fee upon entry to Bagan which helps support the restoration and management of Bagan (I think...).
  • Cycle in Bagan - it's the most relaxing way to see the pagodas. Leave at the crack of dawn and take your time. And there's really no need to worry about locking your bike or leaving your purchased items unattended when you visit pagodas.