Burma is truly an extraordinary country – its people, its landscapes and its culture are all unique. Travellers who visit Burma are welcomed by gentle, smiling people and some of the world’s most impressive monuments.
Yangon (Rangoon) is Burma’s main city. This is where you'll find the grand colonial buildings of the colonial age, charmingly neglected in a part of Asia that hasn't joined the rush to modernise. The people look instead to the Shwedagon Paya, the ‘Golden Pagoda’, a huge hill-top temple at the heart of the city that's always thronged with devotees.
Mandalay, upcountry in Burma's north, is a low-rise, slow-moving outpost where bicycles set the pace and every hill is topped with a pagoda: it feels more town than city. This is the launching point for visits to ancient temples and the cool hill station of Pyin U Lwin, where stagecoaches trundle around town.
Bagan is Burma’s Angkor, the site of hundreds of Buddhist temples scattered across a vast plain, all that remain of a long-vanished ancient capital where the wooden houses have long since disappeared and only the stone-built holy monuments remain.
Inle Lake in central Burma is the perfect place to explore the rural side of the country, with boat rides to lively markets and floating villages and hikes to tribal settlements. For some relaxation on the coast, the southern destinations - they can't really be called resorts - of Ngapali and Ngwe Saung offer sweeping beaches.
Burma’s recent past has been tragically overshadowed by long-term repression and isolation created by the military junta who ruled for so long. Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party had called for a tourism boycott. However, things are beginning to change: elections were held in 2010, and there is now a civilian government in place. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, and both she and the NLD have now sanctioned "responsible" travel to Burma.There is still a long way to go before the country is truly democratic, but things are definitely changing.
Carry plenty of low denomination US dollar bills as well as kyat for smaller outlays. To avoid your money reaching the military – at least, as much as possible – steer clear of large businesses and transport companies. Don't tempt local guides/drivers/boatmen to disobey government travel restrictions: they'll be left to face the consequences long after you've flown home.
Winter (November-February) is the dry season, when temperatures and rainfall are lowest; it’s also the prime tourist season. March-May is the most oppressively hot period, followed by the monsoon (late May or June to September or October).
Festivals, many connected with Buddhist traditions and timed according to the lunar calendar, are generously scattered throughout the year and across Burma. Thingyan, the Water Festival (mid April), is the Burmese New Year, a three-day event involving much throwing of water.
Yangon International Airport (RGN) is 15km north of the city. Mandalay Airport (MDL) is 45km south of the city.
Domestic airlines serve Burma’s main tourist centres (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Heho for Inle Lake). Relatively comfortable buses serve the main destinations, though road conditions are variable – potholes are common – and journey times can be long. Hiring a car and driver is a popular alternative, particularly for exploring countryside around cities or delving off the beaten track. Most railway services are operated by the government, though a few private services run; the most popular route is between Yangon and Mandalay. Ferries and boats ply the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) and Chindwin Rivers.
In Burma’s main tourist destinations, accommodation options range from budget guesthouses to upmarket hotels. Off the beaten track, options for luxury stays are more limited, though a few colonial heritage hotels are dotted around.
Burma’s cuisine shares influences with India, Thailand, China and Malaysia, but is truly distinctive. Fish, tamarind, chilli and dried shrimp are key ingredients; a typical breakfast dish is mohinga, a spicy fish noodle soup, and curries are common mainstays. Muslim Chinese restaurants are frequently found. Strawberries are superb around Pyin U Lwin, while Inle Lake is known for avocados. Myanmar Beer is a tasty brew - though their idea of 'draught' means served from a jerrycan. Sweet milk tea and Chinese tea are the most common drinks.
Burma is a very safe destination. Consult your GP or travel clinic for the latest advice on vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis. Avoid mosquito bites, especially during the day: dengue fever is a problem. Don’t drink untreated tap water.
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