A beautiful and culturally rich country cursed for decades with a brutally oppressive regime, Myanmar (Burma) has in recent years been making headlines for its tentative steps towards democracy. Following the softening and then removal of a fifteen-year tourism boycott led by the National League for Democracy – Myanmar’s leading political opposition party – tourist numbers have swollen but the infrastructure has not yet grown to accommodate them all. Although this means that finding a cheap bed is harder than before, it does make this a fascinating time to discover Myanmar’s glittering golden stupas, bountiful rice fields, enigmatic ruined temples and picturesque mountain paths. Most memorable of all, though, are the encounters with people eager to introduce foreigners to their country and their culture. What remains to be seen is whether today’s modest political reforms translate into lasting change.
Although there are now affordable flights from Bangkok to Mandalay, most people still start their visit in Yangon (Rangoon). This former capital makes a great introduction to the country, with evocative colonial-era buildings, some of the country’s best restaurants and the unmissable Shwedagon Paya – the holiest Buddhist site in the country. Relatively few tourists head southeast from Yangon, other than to the precariously balanced Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo, but Mawlamyine and Hpa-an are great places to hang out, whether you’re exploring caves full of Buddhist art, sleeping at a mountain-top monastery or visiting home-based workshops.
West of Yangon are a handful of beaches, with Ngapali the most highly regarded, but Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung much more affordable. Most travellers instead hasten north to Mandalay, the hub for ‘Upper Burma’ and the base for visiting the remains of several former capital cities, or to Bagan further west for its stunning temple-strewn plains. East of Mandalay is Kalaw, the starting point for some great walks. A trek from Kalaw is one way to reach the magnificent Inle Lake, with its stilt villages and famous leg-rowing fishermen. If time allows, a trip on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River around Katha and Bhamo offers a great chance to meet locals, as do the hiking routes around Hsipaw in Shan State, which pass through ethnic minority villages.
The question of whether to visit Myanmar – and if so, how to minimize any negative impact of that decision – has long been a complicated one. For many years, the official position of the National League for Democracy (NLD), the opposition political party of which Aung San Suu Kyi is the Chairperson and General Secretary, was to urge foreigners not to visit the country as it put money directly into the pockets of the regime. Still, some tourists did visit each year, arguing that the majority of their money was actually going to individuals and private businesses. Similarly, many people within Myanmar felt it was important that foreigners visited to see the truth of what was happening. In 2010, the NLD softened its stance, saying that it only opposed package and cruise tourism. Then, in May 2012, in the wake of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urging an easing of international sanctions against Myanmar, the NLD dropped the boycott entirely.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think that the ethical dilemma has completely gone away. Although the new government is nominally civilian, in reality the same military figures are still largely in charge. In addition the prominent business leaders commonly described as cronies – who became rich through dealing with the regime, and in some cases allegedly through trading in arms or drugs – still own many of the country’s largest businesses, including hotel groups, banks and airlines. And although the government is praised internationally for reforms such as the release of some (but not all) political prisoners and a reduction in censorship (so that NLD posters are now a common sight), some people within the country see these as surface changes intended to please foreigners – particularly the US, which hopes to lure Myanmar away from its main trading partner, China – rather than anything more fundamental.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that the suppression of dissent and suspension of the democratic process were not the military junta’s only crimes. It was also fighting what has been described as the world’s longest-running civil war, with policies that amounted to ethnic cleansing and – in the eyes of some observers – attempted genocide. Although ceasefires have been signed with some of the ethnic militias, vast swathes of the country – particularly in northern Kachin State – remain off-limits to tourists while the new government continues to fight with rebel armies (some of which, it must be admitted, are motivated as much by profit from the drug trade as they are by a thirst for democracy). If free and fair elections are held in 2015 then the NLD is expected to win a landslide victory, but it remains to be seen how they propose to keep the peace with ethnic minority groups who consider the NLD to represent only the Bamar majority – particularly if the military’s stranglehold is weakened as democracy takes root. Already the NLD has been accused of becoming too close to the generals and their cronies as it seeks their political support and funding for social projects. Some compromise is inevitable, not least because the military can veto a proposed change to the constitution to allow Aung San Suu Kyi (as someone who married a foreign national) to run for President.
Bearing all this in mind, travellers should consider limiting the amount of their money that makes it to the government and its associates. Some expenses are unavoidable, including visa fees, while others are hard to avoid if you want to see some of the main tourist attractions, such as the $10 multi-site fee in Mandalay. It can also be difficult to know exactly which businesses in Myanmar are affiliated with the government or its cronies. On the other hand, by staying in budget accommodation your money is already more likely to be going to ordinary individuals or small family businesses than to companies with strong government links (and in this guide we have tried to avoid recommending such places). The same goes for services such as vehicle hire or trekking guides – there are plenty of opportunities to use small companies and freelancers, which often leads to a better experience anyway. Some visitors also consider avoiding planes and even trains (which are operated by the government).
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Population 55 million
Language Burmese (Myanmar)
Currency Kyat (K)
Capital Nay Pyi Taw
International phone code +95
Time zone GMT + 6hr 30min
Top image: Mount Popa © Boyloso/Shutterstock
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