By the old Moulmein pagoda...
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 ethnic minority 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, 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 Karen, 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 are now 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 -- and the upswing in tourism will only quicken after the historic 2015 elections saw a sweeping victory by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party. Our recommendation -- do your research and if you decide to go, go there soon!
Explore the ruins of Bagan or the exhilaratingly chaotic streets of Yangon -- arguably Southeast Asia's last remaining classic metropolis. Go trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake and visit the markets by the lakeshore. Head to the northern capital of Mandalay and spend your days exploring markets and temples.
Burma has a very hot hot season and a very wet wet season and, for the first time visitor to Southeast Asia, both of these periods are best avoided. The sweet spot to visit is after the rains (which generally are at their heaviest from June to October) and before the mercury goes through the roof (April and May). Unfortunately this period, roughly November to March, is also Burma's busiest and hotel rates in particular can jump up a notch or three. Want to dodge the crowds? We'd suggest wet season before hot season as the latter can be blistering.