Burma/Myanmar


Overview

Burma travel guide, including map of Burma, top Burma travel experiences, tips for travel in Burma, plus where to see the most jaw-dropping temples of Bagan

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.

Wanderlust recommends

  1. Take in a Temple. Cradled by the Irrawaddy River the plain of Bagan is strewn with temples dating back to the birth of the Hindu religion, the stone-built relics of a long-lost city. Atmospherically mouldering in the tropical heat this is Burma's answer to Angkor Wat
  2. Meet the Leg-Boatmen. On the still waters of Inle Lake the fishermen propel their narrow dugout canoes by paddling an oar with one leg. Catch them throwing their nets at dawn, framed by stilted monasteries and the surrounding hills
  3. Join the Pilgrims. Rangoon's Schwedagon Pagoda is the spiritual heart of the country, and always busy with devotees offering alms. Light your own candle and pray for change to come to Burma
  4. Return to Mandalay. The low-rise, low-key capital of Mandalay is a charming, slow-moving city, where local cafes are furnished with tiny child-sized stools, imported goods are rarely seen and everything is hand-made. The cracked stupa at Mingun is a short boat-ride up the river
  5. Climb Rock Mountain. The temple at Kyaiktyo is perched on top of a rock outcrop that towers over the surrounging plain. Steep steps gain access to a holy place where fine views make contemplation easy
  6. Chill on the beach. Burma's beaches on the Bay of Bengal have scarcely been developed. Visit Ngapali and find white-sand beaches more used to drying shrimp than sun-loungers, with fishy snacks fresh from the sea

Wanderlust tips

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. 

Further Reading

Travel in Burma vital stats

 

  • Capital of Burma: Naypyidaw (since 2005)
  • Population of Burma: 55 million
  • Languages in Burma: Burmese, around 100 tribal languages and dialects. Some English is spoken in towns and tourist sites.
  • Time in Burma: GMT+6.5
  • International dialling code for Burma: +95
  • Voltage in Burma: 230V 50Hz AC
  • Visas for Burma: Burmese visas are required by UK nationals.
  • Money in Burma: Kyat (MMK). US dollars cash are widely accepted (and usually required by hotels). They must be in pristine condition, without tears, pen-marks etc. There used to be a huge discrepancy – a factor of around 150 – between official exchange rates and actual exchange rates (what you got changing US$ for kyat with hotels and money-changers), but this changed at the end of 2011, and the two are now very similar. Higher denomination notes tend to be exchanged at a higher rate. Currency exchange counters have now opened at most of the airports.ATMs have now been introduced (early 2013) in major centres but credit/debit cards are still rarely accepted.
  • Burma travel advice: Foreign & Commonwealth Office

 

When to go to Burma

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.

International airports

Yangon International Airport (RGN) is 15km north of the city. Mandalay Airport (MDL) is 45km south of the city.  

Getting around in Burma

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.

Burma accommodation

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 food & drink

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.

Health & safety in Burma

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.