MYANMAR (BURMA) ESSENTIAL GUIDE
In the three years since Aung San Suu Kyi announced that she would welcome “responsible tourism”, Burma, a country that many avoided at her request, has become one that everyone wants to see. There are some extraordinary sights: the wonder of Pagan’s plain of a thousand temples, the leg-rowing fishermen of Inle Lake, and the glittering gold stupa of Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.
But what really draws tourists is the chance to visit a place where the 21st-century world has barely intruded. In Burma there is a sense of an old Orient where following the precepts of Buddhism is still a way of life.
I first went there in 1984 and have returned regularly since, all through the dark days when the arrival of a foreigner could clear a teahouse in Mandalay, such was the level of fear induced by the military junta that ruled the country for almost 50 years. While Burma may now claim to have an elected civilian government, this is hardly a country free of oppression. Most large “private” businesses are owned or controlled by military men and their cronies and people must still take care over what they say in public.
The difference now is that the Burmese are hopeful that the changes they have witnessed cannot be reversed: the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi; access to the worldwide web, including sites critical of the government; and the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Western tourists with dollars to spend in the local community.
Chronic temple fatigue is a big danger for the first-time visitor. Plan your itinerary to go beyond the main tourist draws and spend time in the neat teak villages, local teahouses and small-town markets getting to know some of the most endearing people you will meet anywhere in the world.
When to go
The best time to visit is during the cool, dry season between November and February when it can be chilly at night in the hills. In March the thermometer leaps from daytime highs of around 28C in central Burma to 40C, with debilitating levels of humidity. The monsoon rains start in late May and often continue into October, though the wettest month is August.
Try to time your visit to include a full moon as this is a popular time to put on traditional festivals.
Given the potholed state of the main roads, flying is the only way to cover the main sights in two weeks. Trains are slow and unreliable.
Know before you go
A tourist visa costs £14 and is valid for three months from the date of issue. You can apply direct to the Myanmar Embassy in London (020 7499 4340;myanmarembassylondon.com). Make postal orders out to Myanmar Embassy London. Postal processing takes around four weeks but you can apply in person at the Embassy at 19a Charles Street, London W1J 5DX.
It is quicker to use a visa agent. Travcour (020 8543 1846; travcour.com) charges a £35 service fee and says applications are taking seven working days.
For online advice consult Fit for Travel (fitfortravel.nhs.uk) or NATHNAC (nathnac.org), which is used by GPs to assess health risk abroad. Make sure your hepatitis A, typhoid, diphtheria and tetanus immunisations are up to date. Malaria is prevalent outside Yangon and Mandalay in all areas below 3,000 feet, so antimalarial tablets are essential.
The US dollar is king in Burma, but notes (larger denominations preferred) will be refused that have folds, tears or marks of any kind. The exchange rate is around 980 kyat to the dollar. The best rates are given by money shops in Bogkoye Aung San Market in Yangon. Tourist hotels will also exchange notes.
Both Visa and Mastercard have signed agreements with Burmese banks to accept card payments. Over the past year ATMs have been installed in the main cities but there are teething problems. Some do not accept international cards and others simply don't work. Most five-star hotels will accept credit cards but add large fees to cover transaction costs.
I would continue to rely on cash dollars. Allow at least $100 (£60) a day for extras such as meals, drinks, souvenirs and entrance fees if you are on a b&b package based in four-star hotels.
How to dress
The Burmese dress conservatively: both men and women wear the longyi, a floor-length tube of cloth and regard sleeveless T-shirts and shorts as underwear.
Visitors should wear loose casual clothes (no cleavage, no bare shoulders, no see-through skirts, no leggings). A few urban Burmese have started copying Western singers by wearing shorts, leggings and micro-minis, but outside Yangon and Mandalay this is seen as very disrespectful.
Tourists wearing “spaghetti-strap” tops and shorts will not be admitted to temples as shoulders and knees must be covered. Shoes and socks must be removed to enter temples and Burmese homes.
We arrange some of the best package holidays to Burma.
Booking a package combining the flight with a hotel can often work out cheaper than booking the flight and accommodation separately. It can also save hassle - amongst other things, the tour operator can sort out airport-to-hotel transfers - and you get back up if things go wrong.
Let us arrange your package holiday to Myanmar (Burma) Far East Tours and Rail Journeys