Burma in a Nutshell

An Introduction to Burma

Introduction to Burma
Introduction to Burma
Introduction to Burma

Often still referred to by its former name of Burma, Myanmar is a beautiful diamond-shaped country spanning roughly 575 miles (925 kilometres) from east to west and 1300 miles (2100 kilometres from north to south.

Myanmar is part of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. This is a country rich with natural beauty, culture, wildlife, forests, coastal resorts and temples and in many ways is the perfect tourist destination.

However, Myanmar is ruled by a brutal military regime, and many people avoid visiting Myanmar in order to avoid supporting this regime. However, the sad truth is that most tourist services such as guesthouses, restaurants and tours are run by the people themselves and not the government. The recent reduction in tourism has simply meant that the people of Myanmar are forced to suffer from lost earnings in addition to the numerous hardships and constraints imposed by the government. As long as you are careful to avoid government run hotels, buses and other services, it is possible to experience the most of this captivating country and possibly make a bit of a difference at the same time.

Although various parts of Myanmar are currently closed to tourists, the tourist numbers have been rising over the last couple of years, allowing many resorts to reopen. The Irrawaddy River runs through the centre of the country and this is a great way to travel and see the countryside.

Travelling through Myanmar feels like stepping into the past. Even though the capital city is fairly modern compared with the rest of the country it is still perhaps half a century behind many modern Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, while the country’s remote villages have changed little of the last few centuries.

This is a large part of Myanmar’s charm and as you explore you will discover ancient marvels such as the 4000 sacred stupas which are scattered across the plains of Bagan and the mysterious golden rock that somehow manages to balance on the edge of a chasm. As you ride in a Wild West stagecoach you will pass grand British mansions and men wearing traditional long skirt-like cloths around their waists.

Despite their years of suffering, the people of Myanmar are friendly, gentle and have a unique sense of humour. As you wander through villages and small towns you will probably be invited to get to know these people and share a part of their lives, an incomparable experience.

One of the best things about Myanmar is that it hasn’t been inflicted by the blight of Starbucks, McDonalds and other chain outlets that cover most Asian countries. Myanmar’s charms are subtle but they are authentically Asian and this is one of the few places in the world where you can experience true Asian culture without the integration of Western consumerism.

Location and History of Burma

Location and History of Burma
Location and History of Burma
Location and History of Burma

Covering an area of 676,552 square kilometres, Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the west, China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. The capital city is Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and Myanmar’s population is around 49 million.

Although the official language is Myanmar, there are over 100 dialects spoken in this diverse country and English is generally used when conducting business. The majority of people (around 87%) are Buddhist, with other people being Hindu, Muslim, Christian and animist.

The history of Myanmar is turbulent to stay the least. Originally named Burma, the country’s proximity to so many dominant nations has mean that wars and land right disputes have been going on for centuries and the territory wasn’t reunified until the middle of the 16th century. Years of war followed as this now unified nation invaded first the Mon people and then Thailand in an attempt to gain more land. 

Burma became part of British India towards the end of the 19th century, during which time the British helped develop the country and establish trade relations. The British were driven out of the country during WW II and Burma became independent in 1948. However, the hill tribes, communists, Muslims and Mons within Burma all revolted, causing chaos.

General Ne Win led a revolt in 1962 and basically seized control of the country, eliminating the democratic government. The economy crumbled over the years that followed and people started to demonstrate in 1987 and 1988 in order to get Ne Win to resign. The general resisted and conflicts between the between pro-democracy demonstrators and the military ended in around 3,000 deaths in just six weeks.

General Saw Maung and his State Law & Order Council (SLORC) took control of the government after a military coup and there was an election. However, despite the fact that the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi scored a massive victory, the party leaders were prevented from taking office and were actually arrested under very dubious circumstances while a know drug baron took over the running of the country.

During her years of imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi has attempted to spread the world of Myanmar’s dictatorship government and her illegal house arrest, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and finally her freedom in 2002.

The state of affairs in Myanmar was finally put into the spotlight in 2007 when thousands of monks marched in protest at the unfair beating of three of their fellow monks were beaten at a protest march. Although the government tried to suppress the march by firing on the crowds and closing communications, the word was already out and people around the globe are becoming aware of the conditions opposed on the people of Myanmar.

Although things are still tightly controlled in Myanmar there seems to be hope on the horizon and many are optimistic that the situation will soon improve.

Types of Transport in Burma

Types of Transport in Burma
Types of Transport in Burma
Types of Transport in Burma

Although a lot of Myanmar is off limits to foreigners, there are still plenty of areas to visit and you are free to explore the towns and villages within these areas.

Plane
There are more than sixty airstrips located within Myanmar and this is by far the easiest way to travel. There are four domestic airlines, although many people prefer to avoid Myanma Airlines as it is run by the government. The three private airlines are Air Bagan, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways. One-way tickets need to be bought at least a day in advance and are cheaper at travel agencies than airline offices. Unfortunately, flights tend to be irregular and the safety record is not the best, so it might be better to consider other options.

Boat
There is an extensive river network running through Myanmar and travelling by boat is by far the best way to see the country. The service between Mandalay and Bagan is particularly popular with travellers and you can choose between the ferry or speedboat service. Boats can sail along the Irrawaddy River even in the dry season and places such as Bhamo and Myitkyina are easy to get to, while Yangon can be reached via the Twante Canal. However, boat trips can only be arranged as part of an organized tour group, which limits your options and the journey takes a lot longer than by road or air. 

Bus
Bus travel is cheap and the buses run regularly, making this a convenient form of transport. While it is better to avoid the old, crowded buses, the newer long distance buses are quite comfortable. The older buses break down frequently and are often delayed by several hours. Try to buy you ticket in advance to snag a good seat. Bus fares are priced in Kyat and can sometimes be bought from guesthouses as well as the chaotic bus station. The front of the bus is always the best as the back is usually crowded and uncomfortable.

Train
Myanmar Railways is owned by the government and it is best to avoid travelling by train. In addition, foreigners are forced to pay at least six times the standard fare, and train travel is slow and quite dangerous as the trains regularly derail.

Car and Motorcycle
Although it is possible to hire a car or motorbike in places such as Mandalay, International Driving Licences and British licences are not accepted and you must apply for a Myanmar licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Yangon first. 

Around Town
Local transport options include bicycle rickshaws or trishaws known as sai-kaa, horse carts -myint hlei – ancient taxis and modern Japanese pick-up trucks. Fares are negotiable and it is essential to agree on the fee before getting in. 

When to Visit Burma

When to visit Burma
When to visit Burma
When to visit Burma

Like much of Southeast Asia, Myanmar has a tropical monsoon climate with three distinct seasons. The hottest season is from February to May, and this is also the driest time of the year. The monsoon or rainy season lasts from May to October, while there is a cool season between October and February. The weather also tends to be quite dry in the cool season.

Most people prefer to visit Myanmar in the cool season, probably arriving around November and heading out by the time the weather starts to turn at the end of January. Temperatures start to climb dramatically in the middle of February and April is scorching hot, peaking at around 45?C. The rains arrive in the middle of May and cool things down considerably, although this time of year can also be rather humid.

You can expect rain showers pretty much every day during the monsoon season, although in many places such as Yangon the rain tends to fall in two short showers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. In other parts of Myanmar such as Bagan and Mandalay the rainfall is rather low.

If you are visiting Myanmar in the summer head to the hills as temperatures tend to be much lower here than in the rest of the country, meaning that you will need warm clothes if you are visiting during the cool or wet seasons.

Staying Safe in Burma

Staying safe in Burma
Staying safe in Burma
Staying safe in Burma

Although it is only common sense to be careful with your belongings while you travel, theft is virtually unheard of in Myanmar and you don’t have to keep looking over your shoulder here. Of course, there are people who will try to make an easy dollar and the main scams involve dishonest money changers and drivers and guides who take you to certain shops in order to receive a commission.

Local people can get in serious trouble for discussing politics so avoid bringing up the topic. If you are keen to find out local opinion be discrete and wait for the subject to be raised by others.

Power cuts are frequent and although most places have their own generator it is best to check before paying for a room in a guesthouse as it can get pretty hot at night without an electric fan to cool things down.

Although the local people are honest, Myanmar is one of the world’s most corrupt countries and it is common for officials and other civil servants to discreetly ask travellers for bribes. These requests are rarely reinforced however and refusing to understand generally does the trick. 

Although there have been bombings in Myanmar in the past these have now stopped and the main danger zones are off limits to tourists anyway. The situation in Myanmar is constantly changing and tourists and banned from several areas. Make sure you get the latest information before you go to avoid problems. It is possible to apply in Yangon for a permit to enter restricted areas, although such requests are seldom granted.

 

Money Matters in Burma

Money matters in Burma
Money matters in Burma
Money matters in Burma

Myanmar’s official currency is Kyat, pronounced “Chat” and usually written as K. The Kyat comes in K1, K5, K10, K15, K20, K45, K50, K90, K100, K200, K500, and K1000 notes and is the best way to pay for small items. US Dollars are also accepted throughout Myanmar and larger fees such as hotel rooms and transport are quoted and paid for in US Dollars.

Changing your Money
Plenty of people will offer to change your money for you as you travel around Myanmar, although the best places to change money are guesthouses, shops and travel agencies. Of course, exchange rates fluctuate between places, so make sure you take a good look around before handing over your cash.

You can only exchange US Dollars and Euros, and rates tend to be slightly better in Yangon than in the rest of Myanmar. Check the serial number on your bank notes carefully as US Dollars that start with AB or BC are often refused.

ATMs
There are no ATMs at all in Myanmar, so it is a good idea to stock up with cash or traveller’s cheques before entering the country. Traveller’s cheques can be changed at a few chic hotels in Yangon for a commission of between 3% and 10%.

Credit Cards
Although not widely accepted, some major hotels, airlines, international shops and restaurants will accept credit cards, but Master Card is not currently accepted in Myanmar.

Tipping
It is common practice to add 5 to 10 per cent to hotel and restaurant bills as a tip.

It is important to remember that the import and export of local currency is strictly prohibited.

Food and Drink in Burma

Food and Drink in Burma
Food and Drink in Burma

The people of Myanmar love their food to be hot and spicy, with most dishes liberally dosed with plenty of chilli, garlic and ginger. Local food is actually a blend of traditional dishes with influences of Chinese, Indian and Mon culinary styles. Characteristic dishes are curry-based with chicken, seafood and mutton as pork and beef tend to be avoided. Rice is the staple dish and vegetarian food is widely available throughout the country.

Food in Myanmar tends to be cheap and tasty, making this a great place to experiment. There is plenty of fresh fruit available in the markets and food stalls can be found on practically every corner in the towns.

Although coffee can be hard to find, tea is popular, served with brightly hued spices. Most bars and select restaurants sell locally produced beer, whiskey and gin. Toddy juice is made from fermented palm sugar and tastes a lot like rum.

There are a large number of Chinese and Indian restaurants throughout Myanmar and Western food can be found in most hotels and an increasingly growing number of independent restaurants, although there are no fast food chains in Myanmar, which is probably a very good thing.

It is not safe to drink the tap water in Myanmar, but bottled water is cheap. It is also best to avoid ice as this may be made with tap water.

Here is a selection of the dishes you are likely to discover in Myanmar:

Lethok son – a very spicy salad using rice and vegetables.

Mohinga – filling fish curry soup with thin noodles.

Onnokauswe – a slightly sweet and creamy dish of rice noodles, chicken and coconut milk. This curry is strong and pungent.

Mee swan – noodles in a thick broth served with herbs and meat.

Palata – known as paratha in India, this thin bread is fried and served with sugar for breakfast and curried meat at lunch and dinnertime.

Festivals and Holidays in Burma

Festivals and Holidays in Burma
Festivals and Holidays in Burma
Festivals and Holidays in Burma

The people of Myanmar like to celebrate and attending their festivals is a good way to get an idea of the country’s traditional songs, dances and costume. Most Buddhist holidays are set according to the phases of the moon rather than standard calendars, so dates tend to vary from year to year.

Here is a list of some of the most prominent festivals with details of what you can expect to experience.

Independence Day
This national holiday is celebrated on January 4th. Most businesses close for the day and foreigners are not permitted to join the ceremonies.

Ananda Pagoda Festival
Held between January 10th and February 1st in the city of Bagan, this lively festival features singing, dancing, plays, and film screenings. A large number of stalls set up and this is a good time to purchase local produce.

Mahamuni Ceremony
Celebrated in Mandalay in the second week of February, monks gather here to chant and the festival is also full of singing, dancing and traditional theatre.

Union Day
On February 12th people gather and the hill tribes dance in their traditional dress.

Shwe Saryan Pagoda Festival
Take a boat along the river from Mandalay to witness this colourful festival and buy traditional products such as toys, boxes, baskets and mats.

Pindaya Cave Festival
Held on March 16th in Pindaya, this two day festival features much singing and dancing.

Water Festival
Similar to Songkran is Laos and Thailand, people throw water during this festival in mid April and most things are closed as everyone joins in the fun.

Sand Stupa Festival
In Mandalay in the middle of April intriguing sand stupas are built in different parts of the city using traditional techniques.

Waso Full Moon Day
Buddhist Lent begins in the middle of July and people gather at the temples and stupas to donate good to the monks.


Martyr’s Day

On July 19th ceremonies are held to mark the assassination of General Aung San.

Taung Byone Festival
Travel to the village of Matara near Mandalay on August 8th to witness the traditional Nat dance.

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival
During this 2 week festival Buddhist images are placed in decorated barges and floated on Lake Inle.

Elephant Dance Festival
This vibrant festival is held on October 9th and 1oth near Mandalay.

Tadingyut Festival
On October 11th the whole country celebrates the end of Buddhist Lent

Fire Balloon Festival
This special three-day festival starts on November 16th in Taunggyi. Taunggyi the festival is celebrated with competitions of decorated hot-air balloons in different shapes and forms of animals such as elephants, cattle, the mythical Hintha bird and hens as well as with fireworks and firecrackers in the evening.

Robe Weaving Contest
Held in all major cities on November 7th, teams of women compete against each other to gain recognition as the best robe weavers.

Do’s and Don’ts in Burma

Do's and Don'ts in Burma
Do's and Don'ts in Burma
Dos and Don'ts in Burma

Paying attention to the social norms and cultural practices can make a big difference to the reception you will receive in Myanmar and your overall travel experience.  Most things are common sense and can be easily observed, while others are subtle and based on years of traditional.

Greetings
People usually shake hands when they meet and use full names with U (pronounced oo) at the front for older and respected people, Aung in the case of younger men, Ko for adult males and Daw when you are greeting women. People often give small presents to each other when they meet. 

Respectful Dress
People always cover their arms and legs in public so you should avoid wearing shorts and miniskirts, especially around sacred places. Shoes and socks must be removed before entering any religious building and often private houses as well. If you want to keep cool, don the traditional long skirt known as a longyi, which is worn by both men and women.

Religion
Dress respectfully around the temple and make sure you take off your socks before entering. Showing the soles of the feet is considered disrespectful, so make sure you sit with your feet tucked underneath you and never point to things with your feet. Women are not allowed to enter certain areas of the temple and everyone should avoid touching relics within the temple.

General
There are severe penalties for drug taking and trafficking, which range from five years’ imprisonment to a death sentence and homosexuality is also illegal in Myanmar.
Make sure you know which parts of Myanmar are out of bounds to foreigners and regularly check for updates.