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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.

Yangon, Burma

Yangon, Burma
Yangon, Burma
Yangon, Burma

Formerly known as Rangoon, this large, vibrant city is full of gleaming temples, markets and interesting buildings. The focal point of any visit to Yangon will probably be the much photographed Shwedagon Paya. This ancient Buddhist shrine is said to be more than 2,500 years old and gigantic golden stupa can be seen from all over the city, much like the Taj Mahal in Agra. 

There are many sides to this fascinating city. Wander along the waterfront and you will discover aged streets full of British colonial-era architecture, while other streets such as the Strand or Pansodan Street have been renovated and have an ultra-modern feel.

In many ways Yangon feels like a Western city with tree-lined avenues, picturesque lakes and colonial architecture. A trip to Chinatown offers a different dimension to the city and this is a particularly good place to get an evening meal and wander through the bright lights and colourful decorations.

Most tours of the city will start with its temples and pagodas and there are certainly plenty to see. Top of the list should be the ancient Sule Pagoda, the mirrored maze inside the Botataung Pagoda and the Maha Pasan Guha.

Despite its often chaotic feel, there are plenty of places to relax in Yangon. Take a walk through the Mahabandoola Garden and you will find a beautiful rose garden, while there is a water fountain and informative museum in People’s Park.

Take a boat trip on the large Inya Lake before viewing the traditional Burmese royal boat at Kandawgyi Lake.

Those interested in the city’s history can visit Aung San’s house, which has been turned into a museum of sorts, before visiting the place where Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for so many years. 

There is plenty to see just outside Yangon such as the Naga-Yone enclosure near Myinkaba. Here you will find a large Buddhist statue, while the Golden Rock Pagoda at Kyaik Tyo is an 18 foot high shrine built on a gold-plated boulder on top of a cliff.

Take the The Dallah Ferry across the river to visit the pretty village of Dallah. The ride itself is beautiful and provides an interesting inside into country life as people try hard to sell their ways and compete for attention.

Pyay, Burma

Pyay, Burma
Pyay, Burma
Pyay, Burma

Formerly known as Prome, the town of Pyay has plenty of places to look at for those who take the time to stop and explore. For many, this is simply a place to refuel on the way to places such as Yangon, Ngapali Beach and Bagan, but there is plenty of good food and comfortable accommodation here, making it a good place to stop for a while.

If you arrive in Pyay by bus you will first notice the statue of Aung San on horseback near the bus station and as you wander around the town you will come across a number of striking pagodas. The Bebegyi Pagoda is the town’s oldest religious structure, while the 45 meter high Bawbawgyi Pagoda is the oldest stupa and a pretty impressive sight.

Also worth visiting are the Payagyi and Payama Stupas, which predate the stupas of Bagan, and the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is constructed in the Mon style. Nearby, the Se Htat Gyi is a magnificent 10 level Gigantic Buddha Image. This Buddha image was built in 1919 and people travel from all over the country to visit it.

This pretty town was a major trading town due to its excellent roads and also the capital of the Pyu Kingdom from the 5th to the 9th century. To find out more about the interesting history of this area pay a visit to the Hwa Za Archaeological Museum. Here you will discover a large number of Pyu artifacts such as terracotta pots and stone Buddha images.

For those wanting to sample the traditional food of this region, head to the night market, which opens around dusk. Here you will find a fantastic range of dishes served fresh and hot at a number of small stalls. This is also a good place to pick up a bargain or two and indulge in a little people watching.

Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma

Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma
Ngwe Saung Beach, Burma

With more than 10 miles of pure white sand and clear blue sea, Ngwe Saung Beach is a great place to recharge for a day or two after travelling around Myanmar. One of the cleanest beaches in Southeast Asia, you can guarantee rest and relaxation in picturesque surroundings where the hot air is moderated by cool sea breezes blowing through the palm trees.

Ngwe Saung Beach has only recently opened to tourism, so now is the perfect time to visit. Although you won’t find many cheap places to stay, this is a good place for those with a little extra to spend who appreciate beauty and luxury.

Although relaxation is key here, there is also plenty to do for those with energy to spare. Beach volley ball is a popular past time, and are water sports such as kayaking, wind surfing and fishing.

After a busy day of sunbathing and swimming, you can soothe aching muscles in one of the beauty spas located along the beach, or ride in a bullock cart as the sun sets. Hiring a bicycle is also a good way to explore and the narrow lanes and roads around Ngwe Saung Beach are in good condition.

Another great way to see the area is by going on a boat trip, while thrill seekers will enjoy the speed boat rides. The tropical rain forests and the towering Rakhine mountain range make an excellent backdrop to this beautiful resort and are also good places to explore.

This is a great place to eat fresh seafood and a large number of beach front restaurants have delicious seafood BBQs in the evening where you can simply choose from the catch of the day and eat at a candlelit table on the sand.

A great way to reach Ngwe Saung Beach is by taking the tourist ferry from Yangon. The ferry goes at night and the trip takes around six hours, giving you plenty of time to catch some shut eye or look at the stars as you sail.

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.