The obsessive traveller

The Independent travel desk's panel of experts answer your queries

Burma update I have been planning to visit Burma for several years and, because it has been out of the news for a long time, could you tell me something about the current situation. What are the best ways of getting there?
John Masters, Hayes, Middlesex

Burma update I have been planning to visit Burma for several years and, because it has been out of the news for a long time, could you tell me something about the current situation. What are the best ways of getting there? John Masters, Hayes, Middlesex

Phil Haines replies: Tourism is the world's fastest-growing industry, representing about 7.5 per cent of total world trade. Consequently, it has an ever-growing responsibility. Travel to Burma is a controversial issue, with the key debate being whether to exercise the freedom to travel, or to eschew the country on political grounds.

The question of tourism to Burma is as hotly disputed as its name. The ruling military dictatorship changed the name to Myanmar in May 1989, but, although recognised by the UN, it is rejected by the elected government, that of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The Nobel Peace Prize winner said as recently as January 1999: "I still think that people should not come to Burma because the bulk of the money goes straight into the pockets of the generals. They seem to look on the influx of tourists as proof that their actions are accepted by the world. It's not good enough to suggest that by visiting Burma tourists will understand more. If tourists really wanted to find out what's happening in Burma, it's better to stay at home and read some of the many human rights reports there are."

Indeed, the notion of "going and seeing for yourself" is arguably irrelevant in a state that has moved villagers from tourist areas, including the capital. You will neither see where your expenditure ends up nor how forced labour is used for tourism and tourism-related projects. Furthermore, if you decide to travel independently, hoping to stay in people's homes and use local restaurants, you will still be obliged to exchange $300 on arrival and use domestic airlines, hotels and "dollar-only" retail outlets owned by the regime and its associates.

The British government and European Union have taken the unprecedented position that tourism to Burma is inappropriate under the current regime. Last May, the Foreign minister John Battle stated: "The Government wishes to draw attention to the views of Aung San Suu Kyi, and other pro-democracy leaders in Burma, that it is inappropriate for tourists to visit Burma at present. We think it right that those considering a visit to Burma, and travel guide publishers promoting the country, should be aware that Aung San Suu Kyi and others have urged tourists to postpone their trips to Burma."

I visited Burma in 1984 and feel sad and frustrated to be unable to return; not because of the culturally fascinating and breathtakingly beautiful gilded pagodas of Rangoon, the 4,000-plus temples and pagodas of Pagan and Kipling's Irrawaddy at Mandalay, but because of the violent repression.

To obtain more detailed information that may help your decision contact The Burma Campaign (tel: 020-7281 7377; email: bagp@gn.apc.org), which will send you a copy of its Alternative Guide to Burma. More background on responsible tourism can be obtained from Tourism Concern (tel: 020-7753 3330; net: www.tourismconcern.org).

Latvia bound Could you give me information about travel companies that deal with Latvia. I wish to go there to see where my father came from. David and Diane, Leeds, West Yorkshire

Phil Haines replies: Latvia, like the other Baltic States, Lithuania and Estonia, does not require British passport holders to hold a visa. Most other Western nationals can obtain them on arrival at the airport. The Latvia embassy is at 45 Nottingham Place, London W1M 3FE (tel: 020-7312 0040). It can help with tourist information and supply a full list of British travel agents who specialise in everything from music tours to straightforward city breaks.

Latvia is cheap, compact and quite easy to travel around, with the long-distance buses preferable to the slower trains. There have been incidents of tourists being targeted by pickpockets on the crowded Riga buses and you should agree taxi fares in advance. Otherwise it is a safe and welcoming country, with Riga itself a charming city with few foreign visitors. Indeed, having the place to yourself is a common sensation for those rare visitors to Latvia.

The Rundale Palace, one hour from town, has an impressive regal splendour, but without the hordes found in similar palaces throughout Europe. Its quirky motor museum features the car that Breshnev crashed and the Eastern bloc presidential monsters formerly owned by the likes of Hoeneker and Khrushchev.

British Airways flies four times per week from London Gatwick to Riga. Fares in February, for example, cost £171 plus £44.30 taxes through Airline Travel Network (tel: 0800 727747). You could also fly from Manchester with Lufthansa, via Frankfurt, for about £228 plus £57.20 taxes. Scandinavian Airlines flies daily from most British provincial airports for a similar fare, from £255 including taxes, through Regent Holidays (tel: 0117-921 1711; email: regent@regent-holidays.co.uk).

Phil Haines, the youngest person to have visited every country in the world, runs a travel company, Live Limited (tel: 020-8737 3725; email: phil.haines@live-travel.com), that "specialises in travel to special places".

Leprosy threat I am going to India but have heard stories about street beggars having leprosy. Is it possible to catch this disease from them or is it quite safe? I am hoping to do some charity work out there and direct contact with sufferers is a strong possibility. Charlotte Wetton, Yalding, Kent

Dr Jules Eden replies: Your fears, you will be glad to hear, are not well founded. Leprosy - or to give it its other name of Hansen's Disease, after its discoverer - is not transmitted by direct contact with the skin of a sufferer.

Current figures show that this disease afflicts more than 15 million people worldwide. These cases are found mainly around Africa and India, among the poorer members of society. But it is a hard disease to contract and an easy one to get rid of.

Leprosy is caused by bacteria that live both in the lining of the nose and in the nerves of sufferers, and it is because of the latter that the effects of the disease are seen. The nerves that transmit sensations to various parts of the body become inflamed, so they then cease to function properly. This then results in what we call painless injury. People with this problem can easily cut themselves, pick up objects that are too hot, and even break bones without realising. Because of this deformities arise all too easily. But the idea that parts of limbs fall off with this illness is a myth.

The sad thing about leprosy is that it is easy to diagnose and treat in the early stages with simple antibiotics, but the problem goes unchecked in the developing world due to lack of resources and the disease's stigma.

It is spread via respiratory droplets being sneezed and then inhaled by the recipient. Early symptoms include a non-itchy rash and a blood-stained nasal discharge, and if you are diagnosed at this stage a course of dapsone will cure it.

But this is a hard disease to catch and you wouldn't get it from passing contact but by sharing a room with a sufferer for some time. It is definitely not passed on by touching a patient. If you are doing charitable work in India and are spending a lot of time among sufferers then I suggest you take surgical masks with you as these will prevent any droplets containing bacteria from being inhaled.

Interestingly, the leprosy bacterium is only able to infect humans and one other animal species, the nine-banded armadillo, which is now blamed for the spread of disease in parts of the Americas.

Dr Jules Eden runs www.e-med.co.uk, the online GP consultation service, can advise, diagnose and treat travellers at home or abroad. Call for information (tel: 020-7350 2079; email doctor@e-med.co.uk).

Africa budget I will be graduating from university next summer but before I try to find a permanent job I would like to go to Africa for a couple of months. Ideally I want to travel as part of a group and see as many countries as possible, but, of course, I am on a budget. My parents gave me some money for my 21st birthday specifically for this trip and I have been saving. I will have about £3,000, including spending money. What would you suggest? Jennifer Bradley, Newcastle

The Travel Desk replies: Your best option would be an overland expedition travelling with a group on a large converted truck. Numerous companies offer this kind of trip, all varying in cost and length.

You should start by requesting a pile of brochures from Dragoman (tel: 01728 861133; net: www.dragoman.co.uk), Exodus (tel: 020-8675 5550; net: www.exodus.co.uk), Encounter (tel: 020-7370 6845; net: www.encounter-overland.com), Kumuka (tel: 020-7937 8855; net: www.kumuka.com), Acacia (tel: 020-7706 4700; net: www.acacia-africa.com) and Bukima (tel: 01234 871329; net: www.bukima.com). Study the different itineraries.

There is so much choice that you shouldn't have any trouble finding a trip that suits your requirements and budget. You can choose between travelling in an expedition vehicle or on local public transport and there is even some flexibility when it comes to accommodation. Most overland trips are camping-based but if you don't like roughing it, there are some cushier options with overnight accommodation in lodges or huts.

As a taster, Acacia has a 65-day Great African Adventure, which covers Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. As well as the great variety of African wildlife, culture and scenery that this trip takes in, there are also various adventure options, such as a Kilimanjaro climb, rafting at Victoria Falls and snorkelling at Lake Malawi. Fifteen tours are being run in 2001 and the cost is from £1,795 (although there is an additional local payment of £380 for the group kitty). This includes most accommodation, camping equipment, all vehicle costs and a driver. Flights, visas, travel insurance and accommodation in Zanzibar and Nairobi are excluded.

Bukima's nine-week Grand African Explorer from Nairobi to Cape Town also takes in the above countries with the addition of Uganda, but it costs only £995, plus US$670 truck kitty.

Alternatively, you could look at a company such as Explore Worldwide (tel: 01252 760000; net: www.exploreworldwide.com) which classes itself as running small-group exploratory holidays rather than overland expeditions.

Explore offers a 27-day holiday around south-west Africa, taking in Cape Town, the Namib Desert, the Kalahari Desert, the Victoria Falls and Johannesburg. Most of the trip is in a safari truck, although trekking is involved. In 2001, this trip leaves every month, with prices starting from £1,605, including return flights, accommodation, travel and food. Airport taxes and insurance are not included.

Send your questions to: Travel Desk, Independent on Sunday, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS. Or email: sundaytravel@independent.co.uk.

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