Note: I wrote this after a couple of people on Twitter asked me about Burma. Thanks for inspiring me to write again! ~Aloha
Should you go to Burma?
Like Lonely Planet, I would caution the traveler to decide for themselves, given all the arguments. LP has an excellent summary of both sides of the argument in their guide. Why did I go? Burma to me remains one of the most fascinating and beautiful cultures in Southeast Asia, and the two times I have gone leave me wanting to stay indefinitely.
There are two sides to Burma, or Myanmar. One side is the powerful military complex that has been growing stronger since 1962 when a coup by Ne Win plunged the country into a dictatorship that has endured despite economic boycotts, political sanctions, and a broken economy.Â The other side of Burma you will experience if you follow Aung San Suu Kyiâ€™s advice not to â€œgo around in air-conditioned taxisâ€ (in The Voice of Hope by Alan Clements,Â 1997) and actually engage with locals. Burmese are friendly, with a quiet dignity that belies the decades of suffering they have endured under an oppressive regime.
According to some people I met, 350,000 tourists visit Burma annually. Evidence of some tourism is now visible with the beggars at the temples. When I visited in April 2007, there were no touts at any of the major temples I visited. Returning in 2010, I was shocked at how many postcard sellers flock to the handful of tourists visiting those same temples. A chorus of â€œBuy from me, buy from meâ€ follow the traveler at these temples, including a woman with a baby who wanted money if you took her photo.
Where your money goes is the question. Injecting money into a dictatorship is not why any one wants to go to Burma; but it is a concern you definitely have to seriously consider if you want to travel responsibly. You must accept that up to 20 percent of your money will go to the government; but you can spread the other 80 percent around to local, family owned businesses and benefit the people.
Getting a Visa
There are Myanmar embassies and consulates in numerous countries where you could apply and get a visa. But the disadvantage of getting a visa at a consulate is that you may have to provide a detailed itinerary including hotels you stay during your travels. In the Myanmar Consulate in Bangkok, you do not need to provide a detailed itinerary, and it only takes three days to get your visa.
For more information on itinerary requirements before travel, you can email the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism at firstname.lastname@example.org or send snail mail to 77/91 Sule Pagoda Road , Yangon.
A convenient way is to get a visa on arrival. International flights to Myanmar land in Yangon, the former capital city. At the shiny newly renovated airport in Yangon, you will see a counter to the left of the immigration bays with two or three officials. Submit the visa application at the rightmost window with a color photo of 1â€by 1.5â€ where the official will review it. Make sure you have a hotel booked in Yangon because you will be asked to write its address and contact numbers in the application. Then you are called at some point and have to pay the U$30 visa fee. Visas run for 28 days, and you can only extend the visa by exiting the country and entering again. If you want to stay longer, you can overstay your visa and upon your departure, pay the $3 per day of overstay fee at the airport.
What to Pack
Research the climate before you go; but also note that the weather in Yangon could be vastly different from the weather in the Shan State in the same week. In May-June, which is low season for tourism because of the sporadic storms, it may be humid an raining in Yangon, and hot (up to 40 degrees C) in Bagan and Mandalay, and cool (around mid-20s C) in the lake region of the Shan State.
Burmese are modest, and only very few (in Yangon) wear clothes other than the traditional Burmese dress: a shirt and longyi for the men and three-quarter sleeved blouses and long tamein for the women. The longyi is a single piece of cloth which the men wrap around their waist, tuck into the middle to secure it, and reaches to a few inches above the ankle. The tamein is a long single piece of cloth, usually with beautiful designs, which the women wrap around their waist and tuck into the side.
Although it may be hot and humid, I would advise the traveler to dress modestly. Perhaps save the tank top and short shorts for Boracay Island, Philippines or Krabi, Thailand, and bring light linen or cotton trousers/skirts and tee-shirts for Burma. Especially for women traveling alone, being very conspicuously differently dressed than the locals may result in unwanted attention. That being said, I find that at the Inle Lake area and Shan State and beyond, I wore Bermuda shorts comfortably without attracting too much attention.
Mosquito repellant is at the top of the list. There are areas in Burma which are notorious for malaria and dengue, especially in areas below the altitude of 1000 meters. Although Yangon, Mandalay and Inle Lake are not high risk areas for malaria and dengue, mozzie bites are no fun. Spray your clothes with repellant, even in the daytime, a favorite time for dengue carrying mosquitos, and reapply every three hours. Also: do not wear black. Black holds heat and this heat attracts mozzies.
Sunblock is another must. Traveling in a sampan, a dugout boat, around the Samkar area in Shan State for a couple days, I developed heat rashes on my
Monks in sampan, Shan State. Photo by Aloha Lavina.
arms. I didnâ€™t want the oily sunblock to get on my camera and applied sunblock only once in the morning. Serves me right, but good lesson for you: apply sunblock every couple of hours, and bring a light long-sleeved shirt if you are going to be out all day, which is what I did the day after. After your long days in the sun, itâ€™s good to have soothing after-sun lotion to moisturizeâ€”this is essential for golfers (me) and travelers (you and me) in Southeast Asia.
Not only for Burma, but also for traveling in general, you need to pack your own first aid kit. Bring essentials like band aids and medicine for headaches, diarrhea, and antihistamines against dust-induced sinus colds. Also in your first aid kit should be iodine or rubbing alcohol, and I always carry around a 50ml bottle of antiseptic handwash for times when I do not have access to clean water and soap and know my hands are icky. In addition, your feet will gather dust at every place you visit: everyone must take off their shoes at the temples and pagodas, not at the temple entrance but at the gate, and walk on dirt around the temple or pagoda grounds.
Because there is a lot of taking off of shoes, it is advisable to pack a pair of rubber sandals that are comfortable to walk in. I would recommend sandals that surfers wear: light, easy to wash, dries overnight when you wash them, and slips on and off easily.
Carry a day pack that is small and light enough to be easy on your back, but is able to contain your guidebook (I recommend Lonely Planet and Burma: The Alternative Guide by Jotow and Ganz. Read before hand and choose which one to leave at the hotel, which one goes in your daypack, depending on where your itinerary takes you), tissues, mosquito repellant, sunblock, a folded umbrella in case of sudden rains, antiseptic handwash and drinking water. If you wear shorts at any time, buy and pack in your day pack a tamein or sarong, in case you have to hurriedly put it on because you are entering holy sites such as pagodas and temples. I also recommend bringing a clean plastic garbage bag and a few rubber bands, in case you are caught in the rain and have a camera in your bag. I went to Myanmar during their water festival in April, and was doused with water from a fire truck hoseâ€”but my camera equipment stayed dry inside a garbage bag I tied together with rubber bands.
Lastly, I recommend a good mapâ€”if you are going to be traveling without a human guide. A good one is the Periplus Myanmar map.
Other than these items, you need to look at climate, geography, and possible activities you might do at the places you visit, and pack accordingly.
Eating and Drinking
Jodi over at Legalnomads, who is a much more sophisticated foodie than I am, has written excellent articles on her eating experiences in Burma, and I would recommend you go over to her site and learn about the delicious Burmese soups and other dishes you have to try. (In fact, I live in Bangkok and she gives me advice on which street here has the best duck.)
All I will stress here is that street food is definitely better than restaurant food, but that when you choose the stalls you go to buy your dinner, check first that the dish you will purchase and eat is cooked then and there. Hot soups with noodles and a la carte dishes that the vendor cooks in front of you are better than food that was cooked a few hours before and has been sitting in the hot temperatures for a while. Eating street food cooked immediately in front of you helps you avoid the â€œtravelerâ€™s tummyâ€ that many travelers to Southeast Asia get from bacteria that proliferate with heat and time.
Drink only bottled water and avoid the ice is the simple rule. Tap water and ice in Burma and in many countries in Asia has stuff in it your stomach is not used to, and you will risk amoebic dysentery (trust me, this is something you do not want to get, especially as a traveler somewhere you do not know anyone or speak the language).
When you are in Burma, do not engage in political conversations with locals you have just met. You are leaving the country; they are not. If the government finds out you discussed politics with someone, that person will get into trouble. Seven years of jail is common for having the wrong conversation.
You will see people working on roads in some villagesâ€”carrying baskets of broken stones on their heads and working in the heat. They are villagers who have been forced without pay to work for the government. Usually there are police (blue uniform) or soldiers (bright olive green uniform) around to watch them. Do not take photos of them, or of any police or soldiers. This will get you in trouble.
Tourist taxis and tourists have special laws. That is why cars carrying tourists merge at the most illogical times in the most hair-raising ways because locals know they have to avoid getting hit by or hitting them. Tourists who are robbed usually get to the top of the police priority list. Stealing gets a person seven years in a Burmese jail.
There may be a lot more questions you have, and you do want to read a lot on Burma before you go. I recommend careful research before you go. (NOTE: There is a government ban on books that the government considers containing views â€œharmfulâ€ to the Tatmadaw, the military, so you might meet trouble in case your luggage is hand-checked and it contains these titles.) Hereâ€™s my essential reading list:
Perfect Hostage by Justin Wintle (Arrow Books, 2007) is a good start for someone who is unfamiliar with Burmaâ€™s history. This book frames Burmese history through the life of Aung San, Burmaâ€™s most revered hero, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese generalsâ€™ most formidable political enemy alive because the people love her.
Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi (Penguin, 1995). Although it is dated, this book has lyrical vignettes of Burmese culture from the Ladyâ€™s point of view.
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin (Penguin, 2004) is a quick read, but insightful. Emma Larkin goes undercover and travels Burma accompanied and guided by Orwellâ€™s prophetic ideas.
The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint U (Faber and Faber, 2007) is Burmese history through a personal lens. I find this book comprehensive and sophisticated in the way it interprets Burmese history and the links between events in Burmaâ€™s past and the present.
Living Silence in Burma by Christina Fink (Silkworm, 2009) is a comprehensive look into the Burmese psyche and what itâ€™s like to live under military rule for so long. The most recent and second edition includes recent events.
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