After the British Empire gave Myanmar (formerly Burma) its independence in 1948, the nation sunk under an oppressive military regime from 1962 to 2010, and was effectively closed to foreigners.
But following the 2010 democratic election, Myanmar began slowly opening its borders. That year, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation reported 790,000 international arrivals, and 7 million are projected to land in 2020.[related_articles] 42590, 33363[/related_articles]
Its tourism industry is new, but rapidly growing. But the country is still gripped by political unrest, with government forces clashing with Rohingya Muslims in the western Rakhine state in an attempt to “ethically cleanse” the region. In 2017, the military was responsible for the genocide of over 1000 Rohingyas, and the displacement of almost half a million.
So is it ethical to travel there? It’s something every tourist must seriously consider. According to Smart Traveller, the majority of Myanmar – especially the main tourist route – is safe, and if you do decide to visit, it’s easy to fall in love.
It’s a complicated country, but it’s also deeply fascinating and enchanting.
Here are eight reasons to visit.
#1 The people
Despite the difficult past, present and foreseeable future for 55 million Burmese people, they are some of the most welcoming, warm and happy on the planet. Whether it’s on one of the huge main roads in the old capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon), or in a remote village that’s yet to get access to electricity, the locals are always smiling.
They ask to take photos with you, offer you a free bottle of water or a free meal, and local women pull foreign women aside to paint Thanaka (a pale yellow paste make from bark, used as cosmetic sunscreen) on their faces.
Don’t be surprised if older women kiss you on the cheek either. The people are the best reason to visit and return to Myanmar, again and again.
#2 Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and monasteries
The country’s packed with them. From the grand, glistening gold Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest in Yangon, to the UNESCO heritage-protected town of Bagan, whose “Archaeological Zone” is home to more than 2500 religious sites scattered across a grassy plain that’s just 13 km by 8 km, seeking out these stunning monuments could fill months of travel.
#3 Sunrises and sunsets
Myanmar’s vast rocky landscapes look best when the sun is near the horizon. In the dry season, that’s also the most bearable time to be outside. When visiting Bagan, prepare for early mornings. Rent an electric scooter (they’re everywhere and cost about AUD $5 a day solo, or organise a guide, and explore the Archaeological Zone at dawn. The sun rising over hundreds of temples and pagodas poking up out of the land is nothing short of breathtaking.
#4 Huge cities without McDonald’s
Unlike other South East Asian countries, there’s no Maccas in Myanmar. With 20 per cent of the country living below the poverty line, retail is left to small business. The cities are frozen in the middle of last century, filled with pastel buildings, tiny shops and street vendors.[related_articles]74046,61597[/related_articles]
The absence of global chains means Myanmar is cheap, with street snacks costing between 100 and 1000 kyat (AUD10s-$1) and meals in shops around 1000-3000 kyat (AUD$1-3). After your free breakfast (every hotel and hostel does it), hit the street and eat all day.
Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago stretch on its southern tip is home to over 800 islands. Unlike next-door Thailand, the beaches are mostly untouched. This means it’s not the easiest place to get around – accommodation is limited to bed and breakfasts and a few hotels – no hostels or large resorts – so it might be a little more costly to travel solo, but still cheaper than any resort on Koh Samui.
Myanmar’s diverse landscape, from desert to mountains, is home to spectacular treks. The most-walked are in the hills of Hsipaw in the country’s north, and the route between small city Kalaw and tourist hot-spot Inle Lake.
These treks must be taken with guides and are easily organised through plenty of local operators. Three or two day treks cost around AUD$15 per day, including meals and accommodation in homestays or monasteries in tiny, remote villages. The residents will cook for you over fire pits in their homes (gas stoves and hot water do not exist out here). One of the best things you’ll do in Myanmar.
Myanmar shares borders with Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, so the food is highly regional and varied. The most typical dishes include tea leaf salad (made from fermented tea leaves, cabbage, tomatoes, deep-fried beans, peanuts and garlic and chilli oil), and Shan noodles (usually thin rice noodles served in a garlicky broth topped with pork mince and pickles) but you’ll find foods like deep-fried spring rolls, samosas, chapatti, daal, vegetable curries and fish soups all over the country.
#8 Myanmar New Year, or Thingyan, or the Water Festival
For five days in April (officially April 13-16, 2020 but the festivities usually extend beyond the official dates), the entire country breaks out into one giant water fight to celebrate the Lunar New Year. During this holiday, most shops are closed and travelling between cities is practically impossible, so settle in.
First step: get a waterproof cover for you phone and cash and leave everything else at home. Step two: wear sandals, not thongs. You’ll lose them in the flooded street. Locals spray each other with hoses and water pistols and douse passers by in buckets of iced water. Music blasts in the streets from sunup to sundown.[related_articles]69098,43834[/related_articles]
Major cities like Yangon and Mandalay are overrun with people from nearby towns; the roads are clogged; and crowds of thousands of people will dance to live music in the city centres– prepare to be randomly hugged and spun around. Everyone is so unfathomably happy for five joyful days, it’s impossible not to immerse yourself. Accept that you’ll be belted with water from every direction. You can’t escape it, so surrender. It’s the experience of a lifetime.[qantas_widget code=RGN]Check out Qantas flights to Myanmar to begin your next adventure.[/qantas_widget]
(Lead image: larry_hallam / Flickr CC)