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.

Hyatt’s problems increase as chain is boycotted

The Hyatt hotel chain is facing more trouble after firing nearly 100 housekeepers and replacing them with contract workers. Though a rep for Hyatt has denied that the fired workers were “tricked” into training their replacements and were not given severance, it seems the public isn’t buying it.

Union officials at the Boston Taxi Drivers Association have said that the 1700 drivers in the union will boycott Hyatt Boston locations, refusing to pick-up or drop-off fares there, unless the housekeepers are reinstated. The Massachusetts Governor has even gotten in on the action, saying that unless Hyatt rehires the fired workers, he’ll direct all state employees to stay at other hotels.

In a letter he sent to the CEO of Hyatt, the Governor said that while he understood that tough economic times meant making tough decisions, he thought that the manner in which the staff was let go was “so inconsistent with the expressed values of the Hyatt organization and basic fairness” that he did not think that “any other remedy other than full reinstatement” was appropriate. He also said he didn’t wish to instate a boycott but that the workers were treated so unfairly that he had no choice but to do so.

Of course, Hyatt fired back, saying “We do not understand why the Governor is putting more Massachusetts jobs at risk instead of working with us to find jobs for employees affected by the realities of these unprecedented economic challenges.” Looks like neither side will be backing down, and the only people who’ll suffer will be the workers.




Scottish Tourist Board not worried about travel boycott

Last week’s controversial release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi from a Scottish prison has sparked calls for a travel boycott of Scotland. Al-Megrahi was convicted of involvement in the plot to blow up Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. A total of 270 people died. He was given a life sentence but released on compassionate grounds and allowed to return to Libya because he’s dying of prostate cancer and has less than three months to live. Coming off the plane in Libya he was given a hero’s welcome, with some in the crowd waving Scottish flags.

Now websites are springing up like Boycott Scotland and there are online petitions, including a Scottish one, protesting the terrorist’s release. The Scottish Tourist Board, however, doesn’t appear worried. Americans made 340,000 trips to Scotland last year, spending £260 million, and officials have seen no sign of a significant numbers of people canceling their trips.

Al-Megrahi’s release caused widespread condemnation in Scotland, the United States, and other countries. The Scottish parliament has been recalled for an emergency meeting as many ministers openly criticized the move and said the will of the Scottish people was not carried out.

I’m in England at the moment, and spent the last seven days on the border with Scotland, and everyone I’ve spoken to about this, English and Scottish, opposed his release. Will this move hurt Scottish tourism? Probably a bit. A few people will cancel trips, hurting the owners of hotels and B&Bs where they had reserved rooms, but the amount probably won’t be enough to hurt the Scottish government, which was responsible for this decision.

Instead of boycotting Utah, here’s an opposite idea. If you’re gay, head there in droves

Although the boycott of Utah could cost the state a bundle in tourism dollars if it’s a success–and if it’s happening–here’s another idea to make an impact. Scott McCoy, an openly gay senator in Utah, has suggested that people who are gay should head to Utah in droves. I read about McCoy’s views in this Seattle Times article.

The idea McCoy had when he heard about the ban is to show folks in Utah that gay people and gay families are genuine and wonderful people. By showing up in Utah and doing vacation like things, these families would in essence be educating people about the need gay families have for equal rights under the law just like other families.

Reading McCoy’s take on the boycott reminded me about my experience at Kings Island this past August during Gay Pride Night. I went with my brother, his friend and my daughter. As I stood in line to ride the Firehawk, the roller coaster you ride mostly on your stomach, and looked at the other people in line, I thought how utterly common a scene it was. Shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, middle-aged paunches on some, better haircuts on others, talking, laughing, smiling, and visiting. When it stopped raining and all the rides were a go, the joy felt exactly the same on any other day when I’ve been to an amusement park in the rain. For some reason, give me a summer and I’ll go on the rainy day. It’s not planned that way, it just happens.

If I hadn’t known we were there on Gay Pride Night, I really wouldn’t have been able to tell. Maybe McCoy has a point. On the other hand, Colorado lost millions of dollars in the 80s when there was a similar boycott.

Peter Greenburg , the Today show’s travel guru, pointed out earlier this year before Prop 8 passed [see article] that with gay people being allowed to tie the knot in California, that state was going to be able to pull in serious bucks. I imagine these days, it’s good-bye dough to some extent.

Regardless of ones political or religious opinions, tourism is a powerful playmate when it comes to a state’s financial health.

Activists suggest boycott of “Air Kevorkian”

To say it’s been a rough couple weeks for Southwest Airlines is like saying Eliot Spitzer had a minor lapse in judgment. Women are claiming that they’re being thrown off flights for just being too damn good-lookin’; the airline was fined over $10 million by the FAA for flying unsafe planes; and now they’ve voluntarily grounded about forty planes because of “safety-related issues.”

So what’s a disgruntled consumer to do? One aero-activist group thinks it has the answer: hop in your time machine, set it for the 1960s, and stage a BOYCOTT!

The lawyer for Quiet Rockland, a New York-based activist organization, thinks that a boycott, combined with more hyperbole than you’ll see anywhere this side of the “War on Christmas,” will send Southwest the message.

From a recent press release announcing the boycott, with original random commas left intact:

  • “The persons that should be flying Southwest at this point, should be only those referred by Doctor Kevorkian.”
  • “Irrespective of what forensic lesser charge might technically ultimately apply once further Congressional investigation concludes, the acts and omissions of Southwest and collaborator FAA were tantamount to attempted murder, on a massive scale. This WILL not stand.” [Shouldn’t the “not” be capitalized in that last sentence instead of the “will”?]
  • “Quiet Rockland asks and encourages those Southwest employees tired of subscribing to their company tombstone culture, to leave their sinking airship now to find other and better employ at a responsible airline that actually acknowledges the dignity of the individual human traveler.”
  • “[B]oycott the airline which we today re-name “Air Kevorkian” – and just say “No” to Southwest.

There are more, but I’ve gotta go. My Southwest “Ding” bell just went off. Check out the press release in full after the jump.



Rockland County, NY – March 12, 2008:

Aero-activist group Quiet Rockland of Rockland County, New York, enraged over “callous criminal disregard for safety and human life” demonstrated by Southwest Airlines (NYSE: “LUV”) and the FAA, today called for: (1) a nationwide traveler and consumer boycott of Southwest, and (2) a federal criminal investigation of Southwest and “failed regulator” FAA to be spear-headed by the United States Attorney General and a special prosecutor.

Said John J. Tormey III, Esq., attorney and Quiet Rockland co-founder: “The persons that should be flying Southwest at this point, should be only those referred by Doctor Kevorkian. Although the depraved Southwest spin-machine audaciously ‘assures’ us Southwest’s six (6) cracked-fuselage aircraft were “never a safety problem”, Southwest should tell that to the victims of the 1988 Aloha Airlines disaster. There, metal fatigue on an aging Boeing 737 caused 18 feet of fuselage to be ripped off the plane causing grievous injuries and loss of life. House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar in his press conference Saturday, posted on “”, presented detailed evidence incriminating Southwest and “Bobby” Sturgell’s failed FAA. The incriminating events occurred while “Bobby” Sturgell was Deputy Administrator and Acting Administrator of the FAA. On Saturday, Representative Oberstar thereupon rightfully excoriated the aero-perps for their long-standing “tombstone mentality”. Although criminal and morally reprehensible, and now apparent after a many-month detailed Congressional investigation, Southwest and FAA are clearly in the insalubrious business of making those tombstones happen, in addition to simply reacting to those tombstones post facto.

“As recently as last year, Southwest Airlines, with the complicity of supposed federal regulator FAA, on at least 47 of Southwest’s Boeing 737 aircraft, on between 1,451 and 60,000 flights, over a period of two-and-one-half years, deliberately put approximately 200,000 or more unsuspecting travelers in harm’s way – making them fly in un-inspected, non-compliant, aged, and in some cases fuselage-cracked commercial aircraft. Southwest knew the names and faces of their potential victims. Southwest gladly took their money, and for that matter at this point Southwest owes each of them at least a rebate in full of their ticket prices. This was not mere negligence. Irrespective of what forensic lesser charge might technically ultimately apply once further Congressional investigation concludes, the acts and omissions of Southwest and collaborator FAA were tantamount to attempted murder, on a massive scale.

This WILL not stand.

“Quiet Rockland asks and encourages those Southwest employees tired of subscribing to their company’s tombstone culture, to leave their sinking airship now to find other and better employ at a responsible airline that actually acknowledges the dignity of the individual human traveler. We further ask every American consumer to now act in solidarity – cancel all flights and other business with Southwest – boycott the airline which we today re-name “Air Kevorkian” – and just say “No” to Southwest, to FAA, and to the greed of the aeromercantile complex that continually and habitually puts profits over people’s lives. And, as to Southwest stockholders? Vote your conscience”. #