South by Southeast: Who goes to Myanmar?

Who does visit Myanmar these days? For Southeast Asia travelers exposed to a daily diet of CNN, Myanmar is literal no-fly zone, a destination with an infamous reputation for unrest, opium and political repression. Even as other “notorious” Asia destinations like Cambodia and Vietnam emerge into adolescence on the global tourist stage, Myanmar remains largely hidden from view – a mysterious actor shrouded in myth and secrecy.

It’s been nearly two years since Gadling’s Leif Pettersen first visited Myanmar, lifting the curtain on a country of sacred Buddhist shrines, Betel chewing and nary a fast food chain in sight. Not surprisingly, in the years since Leif’s visit, not much has changed. As I soon discovered, everything moves more slowly in Myanmar, from the masochistic 15-hour bus rides to the condensed milk that slowly oozes into your cup of Burmese tea. This “slowness” is further exaggerated by Myanmar’s isolation from the international community and the devastating Cyclone Nargis which hammered the country in 2008. The country’s already-meager tourist industry is still reeling from the shock.

But while Myanmar is indeed a tough place to visit, it rewards persistence. For Southeast Asia travelers willing to move beyond the media reports, one of the most incredible destinations on earth awaits your discovery: deserted temple ruins, gorgeous beaches, awe-inspiring festivals and most importantly, some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on earth. And despite what you’ve heard, Myanmar is actually one of the safest places to visit in Southeast Asia. Intrigued? Let’s start with a look at the details (and ethics) of visiting below…

The Boycott
Let me dispense with the “elephant in the room” of Myanmar travel: the travel boycott. In short, the government of Myanmar has a long history of human rights abuses and political repression. This fact has long kept many travelers away, and many governments and organizations continue to urge travelers not to visit.

The pros and cons of visiting Myanmar could make up an article by itself, and there’s no simple answer to this question. Every traveler considering a trip should get the facts on the situation and answer this question for themselves. In writing about the country, my aim is to give potential visitors the information to help make that decision. A great place to start your investigation is over at Lonely Planet, which has a special section devoted to the debate surrounding travel to Myanmar.

Getting In

So what exactly is involved in entering Myanmar? Will you be strip-searched at airport? Taken hostage by balaclava-wearing rebels? Despite my initial misgivings, entering Myanmar was a relatively painless process. All that’s required is 30-day tourist visa available at most Myanmar embassies abroad for around U.S. $24. Any number of travel agencies, particularly those in Bangkok, can also guide you through the process if you’re willing to pay a little extra and/or don’t want to visit the embassy.

Getting Around

Traveling in Myanmar can be (literally) painful. Transportation options are slow, roads are poor and getting anywhere takes time. That said, the main transport options include:

  • Buses – Frequent buses connect the main tourist destinations in Myanmar. Buses are also the option most preferred by independent travelers, due to the fact they are privately (not government) owned.
  • Flights – if you’re not ready to tough it out for 15 hours on a stifling hot bus while your seat mate vomits out the window, flights are a good, if more expensive, alternative. Daily trips on Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways connect Myanmar’s major tourist sights. The state-run airline Myanmar Airways is to be avoided, both for safety and political reasons.
  • Taxis – another potential alternative to bus service hiring a private taxi, which can drive travelers between most destinations in Myanmar.
  • Trains – like much of the country’s infrastructure, Myanmar’s rail system is downright ancient. That said, daily trains are another (potentially) more comfortable alternative to the buses.
  • Boats – the most popular boat service runs between Bagan and Mandalay, with both a “fast” and “slow” boat service. Don’t let the world “fast” fool you: boat trips take anywhere from 9-15 hours.

For a complete rundown of options, refer to Lonely Planet’s excellent transportation overview.

What to See
The vast majority of Myanmar visitors spend their trip at “the big four” – a group that includes Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan. The majority of these attractions, despite their supposed popularity, were relatively empty at the time of our visit. If you’re looking to get off the beaten track however, there’s plenty of small towns beyond these four main sights, begging to be explored. Here’s a quick roundup:

  • Yangon – Myanmar’s capital city until 2006, Yangon (Rangoon) remains the cultural and economic heart of Myanmar. Many visitors spend time getting lost in the city’s chaotic street culture and make a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist shrines.
  • Mandalay – the country’s second largest city, Mandalay is home to an intriguing patchwork of Chinese and Indian immigrants, royal palaces and plenty of good day trips, including the famous U Bein teak bridge in nearby Amarapura.
  • Bagan – if you think Angkor Wat is Southeast Asia’s most impressive temple complex, think again. The temple ruins of ancient Bagan are among the world’s most incredible archaeological sights. Spend your day biking among more than 2,000 deserted ruins, dating back over 800 years.
  • Inle Lake – arguably one of Myanmar’s most popular natural wonders, Inle Lake offers visitors an aquatic wonderland of floating vegetable gardens, jumping cats, and picturesque houses on stilts. A popular way to get around is by hiring your own boat for the day, visiting Buddhist temples and handicraft vendors.
  • Kalaw – the city of Kalaw is a popular starting point for treks, taking visitors past remote hill tribe villages and secluded Buddhist monasteries. Many travelers like to hike the short distance between Kalaw and nearby Inle Lake (around 2-3 days).

Hungry to learn more about Myanmar? Stay tuned…I’ll be sharing impressions and stories from my trip over the coming days.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.