Burma – Travel Review
A Road Less Travelled
Following a long tourism boycott, Burma is now firmly back on travellers’ radars. Nicola Frame discovers a country that is welcoming visitors with open arms…
Burma is an almost mythical land of Buddhist temples gilded in gold, tranquil mountain villages and ancient traditions. Visitors are warmly greeted by local villagers and readily invited into their homes to drink tea, or even share a meal. There are picturesque lakes, unspoiled beaches and thousands of ruined temples at Bagan. This location could even rival Angkor Wat in Cambodia for splendour, if not scale. Yet while tourist numbers to other parts of south-east Asia booms, visitors to Burma remain decidedly scarce.
Most travellers and tour companies have stayed away since 1996, when Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically-elected leader, was denied the right to govern by the military junta. She was held under house arrest for a total of 15 years until her release in October 2010. She called for tourists to boycott the country. The year 1996 had been designated ‘Visit Myanmar Year’ by the country’s generals, but forced labour was reportedly being used to build and repair the roads and the infrastructure that would support the expected influx of tourists. The world listened to Aung San Suu Kyi, or ‘The Lady’ as she is affectionately called by locals. Most travellers have considered Burma off-limits ever since.
“Remote villages are now accustomed to tourists”
But big changes are currently taking place in Burma. The pro-democracy party that Aung San Suu Kyi leads is now encouraging people to visit. Especially if they come to see the country in a way that supports local people, rather than the government. Responsible tour operators are ensuring that their passengers stay in locally-run hotels and guesthouses. That they eat in local restaurants, travel with local guides and use local transport. Although some money from tourism will still go to the government, such as entrance fees to some historical sights and the taxes that are paid by local businesses,. But a responsible approach ensures that as much as possible goes into locals’ pockets.
Since the boycott was lifted, Burma’s popularity as a holiday destination has soared. It has appeared on almost every list of ‘hot destinations’ to visit in 2012. Tourist numbers are estimated to grow to one million this year.
“When we see tourists, we eat well,” the mother of a village chief in a small mountain settlement close to Kalaw tells me. She is referring not to the income they bring – although some of the villagers welcome the opportunity to sell embroidery, tea and oranges – but to the fact that seeing tourists puts them at ease. Why? Because tourists signify peace in a country that has long been under military rule. Where rebel uprisings are all too common. Even in remote villages they are now become accustomed to seeing tourists every day.
“The Burmese will say they have little interest in politics”
It’s possible to take a tour in the Kalaw mountain range with local guides from the Rural Development Society. This is a non-governmental organisation whose projects include building schools, libraries, water filtration plants and bridges in a number of remote villages in the Shan state. They also sell goods made by the villagers in their shop in Kalaw. Tommy Aung Edzani, one of the group’s leaders, is a former political prisoner but is now determined to stay politically neutral. It enables him to “get things done” for his people. The villagers treat him with great respect, thankful that he supports them in establishing vital services that government officials often promise, but do not deliver.
Most of the people you meet in Burma will say they have no interest in politics,. They will change the subject if asked what they think of the momentous changes that seem to be taking place. But ask about the increase in tourist numbers, they are unanimously positive. At the Four Sisters Guesthouse in Nyaungshwe beside Inle Lake, Ma Gi, the oldest of the four sisters, delights that business is improving. Although she knows that there could be a downside to the tourist boom. The lake could lose its sense of tranquillity and charm if big hotels, bars and nightclubs move into the area. Although she is not wealthy, with more tourists staying at her guesthouse she is able to make donations to local schools and to help others less fortunate than her.
“Cigar-makers ply their trade and sell their handicrafts”
One of the most captivating sights on Inle Lake – and one of the highlights of a visit to Burma – is watching the traditional leg-rowers that fish on the lake in late afternoon. Standing on the prow of their boats and rowing with one leg wrapped around an oar, their hands are left free to cast their nets. Although tourists are not permitted to ride in the leg-rowers’ boats any more, there are several companies that offer motorised boat rides on the lake and politely tout for business at Nyaungshwe’s pier.
Along the banks of the lake are villages consisting of wooden houses on stilts. Here you can find silversmiths, weavers and cigar-makers plying their trade and selling their handicrafts. The Padaung tribe, famous for the gold rings that their women wear around their necks are happy to pose for photographs as they weave cottons and silks. This might feel like cultural voyeurism to some people, but my Burmese guide said the Paudaung people believe this custom makes their women more beautiful. So they are proud to show off their long necks.
“Changing money is almost farcically difficult”
Part of Burma’s magic is that its traditions and customs continue to thrive. There’s a sense that it is cut off from the modern world. Westerners will find that even with international roaming, their mobile phones won’t roam here. It’s almost impossible to use a credit card unless you’re staying in one of the country’s few five star hotels. To make matters more difficult, changing money is almost farcically difficult. You need to bring pristine US dollars, without folds or marks, and even then they might be turned down because the money-changer doesn’t like their serial number. There’s also a limit to how much you can change and official places to change money are few and far between.
Although Burma wants more tourists to visit, the current infrastructure will require rapid development to cope with the number of arrivals. The country’s major road from Yangon to Mandalay, known colloquially as ‘the great road of China’ because it was built by the Chinese in return for gas and oil pipelines, is in a good state. Elsewhere the condition of the roads is variable. But there are many road works taking place to improve them. Internal flights are approaching capacity. The airlines’ circular flight routes mean that when you fly from one city to another, you often need to stop at several other airports en route.
“Quintessential views of paddy fields”
There are nearly as many tourists as locals strolling on the U Bien Bridge in Amapura. At 1.2km it is the longest teak bridge in the world. Walking across it, you can enjoy quintessential views of paddy fields and traditional fishing boats bobbing on the lake. There are groups of local girls selling jade necklaces and wearing tanaka. This is a white-gold, shimmery paste made from ground bark. It protects their skin from the sun. At sunset, it’s an ideal place to photograph monks as they take an evening stroll. However it’s easy to imagine that in a year or two from now, U Bien Bridge could be uncomfortably crowded as more tourists come to enjoy the views, and more locals are attracted there to sell their wares.
The rapid pace of political change has created a buzz around Burma. Just six months ago, locals say they would be under arrest for carrying a small photo of Aung San Suu Kyi. Now there are posters and trinkets bearing her photo for sale at market stalls on the streets of Yangon. International websites such as BBC and CNN, which were previously blocked, can now be accessed by locals in the internet cafes that are springing up across urban and tourist centres.
“Go soon, before the hordes arrive”
Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and in recent weeks Aung San Suu Kyi has confirmed she will stand for by-election this year. Burma is a fascinating and beautiful country. The sights rival the top tourist destinations in the world. There is significant movement towards democracy. The Burmese people want greater numbers of travellers to visit their country so that they can benefit from the income it will bring. Despite this, some travellers will not yet be comfortable travelling to Burma. Those that do would be well advised to check that their tour is designed to support local people so far as possible. And go soon – before the hordes arrive.
The world-renowned holy site of Shwedagon Paya will dazzle you in every sense, and it’s the ambition of many Burmese to visit at least once in their lifetime.
Explore Burma’s crowning glory, which spans some 42 sq km and comprises more than 2,000 brick and gold-gilded stupas and timeworn remnants from Burma’s ‘Golden Period’.
Set sail on a riverboat cruise past lush teak plantations and rice fields, before sleeping out on deck under a canopy of stars.
Wander the city immortalised in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, and mingle with monks on the world’s longest teak bridge.
Take a hike through pine forests to rarely visited mountain villages, where the locals will invite you to share a cup of tea in their homes.
Visit the floating markets and shop for handicrafts from local weavers and cigar-makers, before enjoying a traditional Shan banquet back on shore.
Small group travel specialist Intrepid Travel (0844 4998487, intrepidtravel.com) offers a 15-day Best of Burma trip from £1,230 excluding flights. You can stay in locally-run hotels and guesthouses, with one night aboard a boat on the Ayeyarwaddy River. There are no direct flights from the UK, . But Intrepid Travel can arrange flights via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and other cities. UK citizens need to obtain a visa in advance of their visit to Burma, from the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar in London.