The political landscape of Burma – arguably now more widely known by its new name, Myanmar – has been increasingly prettified since the National League for Democracy (NLD) took power as the governing party last year, and this week it underwent further improvement. A law designed to allow the nation’s previous military rulers to detain people without charge, and impose death sentences for offences considered treason, was gleefully scrapped by the new parliament.
It’s just one more way in which Burma, once a pariah of the international community – subject to economic sanctions and renowned for human rights abuses – is working to become more palatable. After the NLD won the 2015 general election, and Aung San Suu Kyi – who spent 15 years under house arrest for her attempts to bring democracy to the country – took up her post as the head of government, Burma has swiftly and impressively reopened for business.
Only last month, the US announced it was lifting economic sanctions against the country, three years after the EU. And where trade begins, flights follow – Emirates launched a brand new route from Dubai to Burma’s largest city, Yangon (colonially known as Rangoon), in August, and Jetstar Asia is adding three new flights to Yangon from Singapore in December.
So, yes, it’s undoubtedly a new era for Burma – and one that will in all probability bring an end to the country’s “final frontier” feel. While reasons for caution remain – ranging from armed conflicts between rebels and military in both northern and south-eastern Burma, to the case of a Dutch tourist currently facing two years in jail for pulling the plug on a speaker broadcasting Buddhist prayers in Mandalay – there’s probably never been a better time to visit Burma, as it now balances the twin draws of being both intriguingly alien and easily accessible.
Here are five different ways to see the best of it.
Cities: Yangon and Mandalay
Bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, Burma is a heady meeting point between the typically Indian and South-east Asian. Yangon is a city every bit as otherworldly-chaotic as Mumbai or Hanoi; cheap eats crackle on street-side stovetops, junk and rubble piles up on betelnut-juice-streaked pavements, and the local men wear longyis (chequered sarongs). It’s the sort of place best enjoyed via aimless wandering to soak it all in. Though there is, of course, one sight you can’t miss – the skyline-stealing Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most sacred Buddhist monument. The golden stupa is crowned with diamonds and jewels donated by pilgrims.
Burma’s second-largest city, Mandalay, is an equally scrappy number: a slap-dash scramble of motor scooters, chapatti stands and tea houses. Don’t miss taking your tea with condensed milk (a sort of chai-meets-Vietnamese-coffee mash-up) – it’s surprisingly addictive. Many visitors here also take the opportunity to catch a show by the Moustache Brothers, a comedy trio known for sticking it to the military regime. Though Burma is now free of military rule, the brothers have vowed to continue satirising the country's politics from the small stage in the garage of their home.
Best in: January and February are a good time to be in both Yangon and Mandalay, when it’s dry but not too hot.
Most stops in Burma will entail visiting temples – it’s one of the world’s most pious Buddhist nations, and even on a bus juddering over ravaged rural roads, you’ll spot golden stupas glittering in distant scrubland. But by far the most impressive bout of temple-spotting is at Bagan, where literally thousands of red-brick pagodas are scattered across grassy, green plains. It’s an extraordinary sight easily on a par with other great wonders like Machu Picchu or Petra, but be prepared for world-class hawker hassle, too. Crowds of ladies daubed in thanaka – a yellow paste made from ground bark, worn as a natural sunscreen – chase tired tourists with trinkets and precious “gems”. The local Weather Spoon’s Restaurant [sic] wipes a little shine off the exoticism, too.
Best in: Bagan is stifling year-round, making winter (November to February) the most comfortable time to visit (the mercury hovers around 30C).
Water: Inle Lake and Irrawaddy River
Burma’s most-hyped destination next to Bagan, Inle Lake is undoubtedly a special experience. The vast freshwater spectacle is encircled by near neon-green rice paddies, while the Shan Hills crouch darkly in the distance. Leg-rowing fishermen – entailing a unique technique where one leg wrapped around an oar is used to propel the vessel – are happily photographed (remember to pay a tip). Exploring by boat takes you into exotic little clusters of rickety overwater stilt-houses, and the fact you’ll be dragged into more shops than is ordinarily decent doesn’t matter too much if you’re taking the scenery in.
To the west, the Irrawaddy River is Burma's longest, and a languid cruise along this waterway from Mandalay to Bagan is a popular tick off the to-do list. Spotting rural life along the riverbanks is the primary highlight, and provides welcome respite from the more chaotic aspects of more touristy areas. Here, rasping motor scooters are replaced by cow-pulled wooden carts.
Best in: Inle Lake is generally wetter and cooler than the rest of Burma, and can be positively chilly in winter. For that reason, prime time would be late September and early October, as the rainy season has ended but temperatures remain warm.
You can get up close with rural Burma on a trip to Kalaw, a former British hill station. The air is much cooler up here, making it a popular spot for a day or two’s trekking among hill tribes, and back in town you can kick back with tea and cake at any one of the makeshift roadside cafés (think al fresco, on plastic stools). The colours around here seem more vivid than ever – rust-red earth, mint-green fields – and the more laid-back vibe makes dining at Kalaw’s convivial neighbourhood restaurants an all-evening-long pleasure.
Best in: Avoid the wet season (June to September) as trekking is less fun with heavy rainfall and slippery paths. The coolest – but busiest – months are October to February.
Pilgrimages: Popa Taungkalat and the Golden Rock
Burma certainly isn’t short on pilgrimage sites, but besides the mighty Shwedagon, these two are probably the most visually arresting. Perched atop a volcanic plug near Mount Popa, around 50km south-east of Bagan, the Popa Taungkalat monastery is a popular spot from which to admire a 360-degree view of the surrounding plains. However, it’s not the 777 steps to the summit that proves most challenging – but, rather, running the gauntlet of aggressive macaques lining the stairway. Take it from us: don’t allow anything – hair, cameras, food – to dangle from anywhere.
Legend has it the Golden Rock balances on a strand of the Buddha’s hair. The gravity-defying spectacle certainly looks like a miracle: a huge boulder teetering off the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo, with a pagoda built on top for good measure, the whole lot has been plastered with gold leaf. Surreal, yes, but also a major pilgrimage site busy with monks, candles and incense, adding some proper magic to the illusion.
Best in: Pilgrimage season is November to March. Rainy season is best avoided because of the mists. Photographers will of course capture the rock in the best light at sunrise and sunset.
Independent travel is by no means impossible in Burma, but owing to poor infrastructure and bureaucracy around tourist accommodation, it’s more of a slog than elsewhere in South-east Asia. For that reason, many people will elect to go with a tour group. Itineraries span the adventurous (Intrepid Travel; intrepidtravel.com) to the luxurious (Black Tomato; blacktomato.com).
It’s generally better to use cash in Burma as finding ATMs can be tricky. You’ll need to exchange US dollars into Myanmar kyat (pronounced “chat”) once inside the country; exchange counters accept only pristine notes and will reject anything even slightly creased or marked.
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