Myanmar? You mean Burma, right?
I think it was the name “Myanmar” that really seemed to throw people for a loop when we announced we would be traveling there at the end of the year. They would politely nod and say, “Oh, ok, good for you guys! … Where exactly is Myanmar?” We can’t really blame our friends and family for feeling a bit confused. After all, we ourselves knew little to nothing about this mysterious nation before we visited at the end of December. We didn’t know how beautiful it was. We didn’t know how rich the culture and history were. We didn’t know it had ancient cultural sites that could rival Angkor Wat in their beauty and vastness. We just didn’t know how amazing it was; if we had, we would have gone there sooner!
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), is one of the lesser-known countries in Southeast Asia and lies to the west of Thailand. It has remained off limits to many travels and backpackers over the past several years because it has been ruled by a military junta for the past few decades, leading to economic instability and violent conflict. But over the past few years, the situation has begun to change. Just under two years ago, the government held the first free elections in decades. Although there are still areas of the country that continue to experience conflict, the majority of the country is safe to travel. As the country opens up to outside investment, more and more global companies are doing business there and advertisements for international products, including smart phones and Coca-Cola, are plastered on billboards throughout Yangon. I do not mean to imply there is not progress still to be made in Myanmar, but the growth of the country — politically and economically — gives us great hope for the future of the country.
Although we spent most of our time volunteering on this last trip, there are plenty of places across this gorgeous country that we would explore if we could. So to help inspire you to plan your own trip there, we thought we would share five reasons why you, too, should go to Myanmar — and soon!
1.) Schwedagon Pagoda
At over 325 feet tall, Schwedagon Pagoda is the largest Buddhist pagoda in the world. Burmese legend holds that the pagoda is over 2,500 years old, which if true, would make it the oldest in the world. It is the most sacred site in Myanmar for Burmese Buddhists. Visitors must remove their shoes before embarking on the climb up the 200+ steps to the top, where you enter the pagoda complex. The large golden stupa adorns the center of the complex, with dozens of other stupas adoring the rest of the pagoda. Hundreds of Buddha statues are found throughout the pagoda. Visitors will see male and female monks (which, incidentally, multiple people have now informed me are actually called “monk-ettes” – seriously?!) praying throughout the pagoda. Male monks in Myanmar wear a maroon robe, while the females wear a light pink. It is truly a spectacular sight and a must-see for those who like to visit religious sites throughout the world. It is among the most photogenic religious sites I have seen, and it’s gold exterior can been seen aglow, towering above Yangon.
2.) Friendly, generous people
The kids we volunteered with were certainly a blast to be around, but the people of Myanmar in general were extremely friendly and welcoming. It’s one of the more friendly countries we’ve visited.
3.) The temples at Bagan
I had never heard of Bagan until about a year ago … when I heard it touted as the next Angkor Wat. Wow. That’s a pretty bold title, and now that I’ve actually visited Angkor Wat, I’m not sure Bagan would quite live up to the impressive temples at Angkor. But nonetheless, this expansive complex of ancient temples looks impressive — and certainly worth a visit to Myanmar just to see it. The plains of Bagan are surrounded by picturesque mountains, making the scene all the more dramatic. During the 11th – 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas were constructed in this area. Today, over 2,200 remain and serve as the country’s main tourist attraction. Although they are not as ornately decorated as the temples at Angkor, they are certainly impressive … and much less crowded!
4.) It’s not over-run by tourists … yet.
In 2012, the number of tourists visiting Myanmar spiked by more than 30% to over one million. Although it sounds like a lot, you really can’t tell from looking around. Sure, you’ll see a few westerners every now and then, but nothing like other places throughout Southeast Asia. But this will not be the case for much longer. As we were preparing to leave for our trip, I came across article after article touting Myanmar as one of the top destinations to visit in 2013. Word of this great country is spreading and travelers are listening. There are major concerns, however, that the infrastructure of the country, still fairly primitive, cannot accommodate such rapid growth and demand for services. Go while you can!
5.) Stunning landscapes
From the rice paddies in the south to the mountains in the north, Myanmar boasts some stunning landscapes. Whether your heading down the Andaman coast for some fun in the sun or inland toward the famous Mandalay region, Myanmar will impress. Perhaps the most beautiful landscape — and the one I’d most like to see — is Inle Lake. Although it’s popularity has given way to more “staged” tourist attractions like local shops and market, it is nonetheless a gorgeous setting where traditional fishing persists, as fisherman balance themselves with one foot and paddle with the other.
Things you should know before traveling to Myanmar:
– Bring all the cash you think you will need. ATMs have only recently been introduced in the country and they are few and far between. You will need to carry US dollars and exchange them upon arrival for Burmese kyats. Your dollars must be fairly new — 2006 or newer, if possible — and must NOT contain CB, BC, or AB in the serial number.
– Internet access is available, but may be limited or slow. We were surprised, our hotel actually had computers available to use. You can also find some internet cafes, but in general, the internet can be more difficult to access in the more remote regions of the country than you may be used to in other parts of Southeast Asia. It may be available, but incredibly slow.
– Apply for and obtain your visa prior to your arrival in the country. Allow yourself at least a month to get the visa. The typical tourist stay is for 28 days, although I did notice a sign that advertised minimal fees if you overstay.
– The best time to visit is between mid-November through mid-February, if you want to avoid the incredibly hot and humid weather. We went in January, and although it was very hot, it was not unbearable. The rainy season starts around late-May.
– Dress respectfully. Myanmar is still a very conservative country. Women should not wear tank tops and should wear pants that do not go above the knee if possible. Keep in mind that if you plan to visit any religious sites, you will need to wear a shirt that covers your shoulders and pants or a skirt that cover your knees.
Have you visited Myanmar? Why do you think our readers should start planning their visit now?