Burma (Myanmar) is still very much a work in progress as far as tourism goes. Vast swathes of the country are still off limits to travellers for security reasons or simply very hard to access due to bad transport and road infrastructure. When it's "finished" it's going to be quite a destination -- and there's already plenty to keep you busy.
The largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, Burma really does have it all. More than 2,100 kilometres separates the far north of the country, a sharp point thrusting into the foothills of the Himalayas between Yunnan and Assam, and the extreme south, where the thin coastal strip along the Malay Peninsula finally runs out amid a confusion of tropical islands.
In between are snow-capped mountains, lush jungles, pine forests, mighty rivers such as the Salween and Ayeyarwady, the steamy Delta, myriad hilltribe peoples of the Kachin Hills and Shan Plateau -- the heart of the former "Golden Triangle" -- the spectacular ruined cities of Mrauk U and Bagan, vibrant Yangon with its fantastic colonial heritage and spectacular temples and last but not least – nearly 2,000 kilometres of coastline!
The names –- though many towns have since lost their colonial appellations -- are evocative of adventure, the "Orient" and the nation's incredible history: Mandalay, Arakan, Moulmein, Tavoy, Mergui, Maymo, Myitkyina. Think of Kipling, Orwell, Conrad or the Burma Road, the Chindits and Merill's Marauders -- well, now you can go there.
Burma borders Bangladesh, India and China to the north, Laos and Thailand to the east, with the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea forming the western limits. It really is the heart of Asia and all these neighbours have influenced the ethnic make-up, history, culture and of course cuisine, creating a heady and rich mix.
Ethnic Burmese (the Bamar), make up a mere 60 percent of the population (though estimates vary), with the remainder composed of well over a hundred different ethnic groups. Elderly Chin women in the northwest still sport tattooed faces, while in the northeastern hills you'll find the Kachin, Shan, Lisu, Akha, Lahu, Pa-O, Palaung, famous "long neck" Padaung, the formerly fierce warrior race of the Wa and dozens more minority groups; further south you enter Kayah, Karen and Mon States. The far northern coastal areas are inhabited by the predominantly Muslim Rakhine, while the islands of the south are still home to many animist Moken ("Sea Gypsy") people.
The food is varied and original; the people friendly with a far superior level of English than in some neighbouring countries; and safety in tourist areas is comparable to other regional destinations as tourism increases rapidly. The new flow of foreign investment as well as the increase in visitors means the country is changing fast and opening up to the outside world after years of isolation.
Yes, serious security issues afflict certain parts of the country and the political situation is still far from perfect. But new roads are under construction, new flight destinations are opening up all the time, land crossings by foreigners have just been permitted, towns now have WiFi, ATMs and banana pancakes (it's not all good!) and with the recent political detente, ongoing peace talks and profile of Aung San Suu Kyi, optimism infuses the air.
The sudden influx of visitors however is causing some problems, as the infrastructure struggles in vain to keep pace. Popular destinations such as Mandalay, Bagan, Ngapali and Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake are already packed during high season and certain local markets now see more tourists than locals. Hotel rooms can be near impossible to find in high season and certain hoteliers have taken advantage by whacking up prices.
Many previously remote regions are now open for business and these lesser-known destinations and sites will be far less crowded – try off the beaten track places such as Hsipaw, Mawlamyine, Hpa-an, Pathein, Kengtung -- you'll get a great reception. Or you could consider visiting the key, more popular destinations outside of high season.
New areas are opening up all the time, but new visitors are flocking there in increasing numbers. Our recommendation -- do your research and if you decide to go, go there soon!
The Kalaw to Inle Lake trek
"About one hour," says our guide, navigator and companion over the last three days, Aung Myu Htoo. This time, he blurts it out with a half-cocked smile, knowing that his rubbery time estimates have become a bit of a running joke for our group of seven as we walk from Kalaw to to the base of Inle Lake in Shan State, Northern Burma (Myanmar).... Read full story
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