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Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, changed its name in 1989, a time marked by massive civil upheaval. The military dictatorship which had ensured its own control over the past twenty five years found its power challenged by the popular National League for Democracy (NLD). The NLD won the election that year; but the military government refused to let go of its power and now, almost fifteen years on, Myanmar remains under their control.
All of which makes travel to Myanmar a questionable proposition. While travel isn't particularly dangerous, some people recommend boycotting tourism as a way of opposing the government. But if special care is taken to stay in locally owned hotels and use government services as little as possible, travel can support the pro-democracy movement. This is because many people that don't want to work for the government own and operate the small independent guesthouses and restaurants. Plus, the country's fascinating traditional culture, emphatic landscape and charming capital make it a destination most of us will not want to miss out on.
Humans lived in the region that is now Myanmar (or Burma, as it's mostly called throughout history, hence that name here) as early as 11,000 years ago, but the first identifiable civilisation is that of the Pyu although both Burman and Mon tradition claim that the fabled Suvarnabhumi mentioned in ancient Pali and Sanskrit texts was a Mon kingdom centred on Thaton in present day Mon state. The Pyu arrived in Burma in the 1st century BC and established city kingdoms at Binnaka, Mongamo, Sri Ksetra, Peikthanomyo, and Halingyi. During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India.
The 6th century Mon kingdom of Dvaravati in the lower Chao Phraya valley in present day Thailand extended its frontiers to the Tenasserim Yoma (mountains). With subjugation by the Khmer Empire from Angkor in the 11th century the Mon shifted further west deeper into present day Myanmar. Oral tradition suggests that they had contact with Buddhism via seafaring as early as the 3rd century BC and had received an envoy of monks from Ashoka in the 2nd century BC. To the north another group of people, the Bamar (Mranma/Myanma), also began to settle in the area. By 849, they had founded a powerful kingdom centred on the city of Pagan (spelled Bagan today) filling the void left by the Pyu. The Pagan Kingdom officially ruled between 1044 and 1278. From that time onwards to the late 18th century, there were several periods of smaller kingdoms, including Ava, Hanthawaddy Pegu, Rakhine Kingdom, Arakan and several Shan States. Ava, Pegu and sometimes the Shan States were almost constantly in war durning this centuries.
Soon after the fall of Ava in 1752, a new dynasty rose in Shwebo to challenge the power of Hanthawaddy. Over the next 70 years, the highly militaristic Konbaung dynasty went on to create the largest Burmese empire, second only to the empire of Bayinnaung. From 1760 to 1776, Burma and Siam were involved in continuous warfare. In 1760, Alaungpaya captured the Tenasserim coast. King Hsinbyushin sacked Ayutthaya in 1767, and successfully defended against China's invasions between 1765 and 1770. The Siamese used the Burmese preoccupation with China to recover their lost territories by 1770, and in addition, went on to capture Lan Na in 1776, ending over two centuries of Burmese suzerainty over the region.
The British began conquering Burma in 1824. For a period of sixty-two years, Burma was under British control. Burma was administered as a province of British India until 1937 when it became a separate, self-governing colony.
During World War II, Burma became a major frontline in the Southeast Asian Theatre. The British administration collapsed ahead of the advancing Japanese troops, jails and asylums were opened and Rangoon was deserted except for the many Anglo-Burmese and Indians who remained at their posts. By July 1945, the British had retaken the country. Although many Burmese fought initially for the Japanese, some Burmese, mostly from the ethnic minorities, also served in the British Burma Army.
On 4 January 1948, the nation became an independent republic, named the Union of Burma, with Sao Shwe Thaik as its first President and U Nu as its first Prime Minister. Unlike most other former British colonies and overseas territories, it did not become a member of the Commonwealth. Democratic rule ended in 1962 when General Ne Win led a military coup d'état. He ruled for nearly 26 years and pursued policies under the rubric of the Burmese Way to Socialism. Between 1962 and 1974, Burma was ruled by a revolutionary council headed by the general, and almost all aspects of society (business, media, production) were nationalized or brought under government control.
The name of the country changed from the official English name from the "Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma" to the "Union of Myanmar" in 1989. Constant social, economical, political and natural problems have occured throughout the last tens of years and there seem to few, if any, changes at all.
Myanmar's geography is very diverse. Most people live along or near the Irrawaddy River Valley that flows roughly down the centre of the country. The problem is Myanmar is much larger than just the Irrawaddy River Valley. In the far mountainous north, the climate is similar to Tibet though less severe/cold, while the south is covered by dense jungle. The centre is a large plain, much like the savannah of Africa. On the far eastern and western sides of the country there are dense mountainous jungles where remote minority groups live. Then there is a long part of land going much further south then Yangon, where there are still island nomads living a traditional life. Myanmar shares international borders with Thailand, India, Laos, China and Bangladesh. Crossing overland in and out of Myanmar is a head ache. Check the 'Getting There' section for more information.
Myanmar is organised into seven states and seven divisions.
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Bagan is a stunning ancient temple city on the Irrawaddy River that rivals almost all other ancient cities in Asia. Bagan sits on the banks of the Ayerwaddy River and is home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world many of which dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. Although 'only' 2,200 remain today, there once were an estimated 13,000! Ananda is Bagan's holiest temple and dates back to 1091.
Inle Lake is one of the best sights in Myanmar. It is the second largest lake in Myanmar and is framed on both sides with stunning mountains. It is a great place to enjoy hikes and the sights of village life on the water. Read more about this stunning place in the Inle Lake article.
Although not as popular compared to many other South East Asian countries regarding its beachlife, there are some fine long and white beaches like the ones around Ngapali in western Rakhine State. It is still relatively low key with a good choice of budget and midrange places. Recently though, several more upmarket hotels cater to the more wealthy people. Getting there either requires flying or taking a long bumpy busride. Still, it is worth the effort because it still is quiet compared to other countries and has excellent seafood.
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Travelling by boat along the mighty Irrawaddy River is a travel experience which is one of a kind. The best and most travelled part is between Mandalay and Bhamo more to the north. Another experience is to take the train between Mandalay and Lashio, Hsipaw, and Pwin U Lwin. The trains are slow, crowded but very fascinating and like the boat trip gives you an insight into the everyday local life of people travelling. The Pyin U Lwin - Hsipaw section includes the famous Gokteik Viaduct.
Most of Myanmar (except the mountains in the north) have a hot and humid tropical climate. Temperatures are well above 30 °C during the day and mostly around 20 °C at night. Temperatures from mid March to May can reach 40 °C and even a bit more in Mandalay, making this time rather unpleasant for visiting most places except the mountains. This time is often called the hot dry season. From June to October is rainy season. There is massive amounts of rainfall this time of year which can make travel unpleasant. At the same time most of the more popular sights will be empty and hotels will have plenty of vacancies. If someone is hardcore loner this would their time to travel. The wettest places along the coast receive a massive 1,400 mm during the wettest months. The best time to visit is during the cool dry season which is December to February. During this period there is still warm and pleasant weather. It usually is dry and rather sunny during these months. Some places even can get chilly at night, especially more inland or in the mountains. On long bus rides bring some warm cloths for the night.
Yangon International Airport (RGN) is where most travellers start their trip in Myanmar. It has good connections in the region but does not have direct flights from North America or Australia, but a few direct flights from Milan in Europe.
Myanmar Airways International, the international airline of Myanmar, flies to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. While they do not operate any aircraft, they are on code share with Jetstar Asia, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Thai Airways. The Bangkok-Yangon route, the most commonly used one, is serviced by Thai Airways and AirAsia.
Other international airlines flying into this airport include Air India, Air Bagan, Air China, Air Mandalay, Bangkok Airways, China Airlines, China Southern Airlines, Hong Kong Express Airways, Singapore Airlines and Vietnam Airlines.
There are also connections to Mandalay, for example from Chiang Mai in Thailand and Kunming in China.
It is possible to enter Myanmar by land from China and Thailand.
It is only possible to enter Myanmar from the border at Ruili in the southwest of the Chinese province of Yunnan. However, you can not travel by yourself; you have to arrange all transport and a guide including permits. This can be done either in Ruili or in Kunming. If arranging in Ruili, be sure you have your visa for Myanmar because you can only arrange this in Kunming! After travelling across the border you will be guided to the town of Lashio in Myanamar, from where you are free to travel by yourself to the rest of the country. Travelling the other way around (entering China from Myanmar) should be possible, but requires lots of money and patience, as you have to arrange very expensive permits, as it seems directly from the military regime!
Although every now and then there seems to be some news of new borders opening, most of the time this is only the case for local people from either side of that border.
There are four border posts opened for travellers from Thailand. Out of these, only two have are possible for travellers to travel further into the country. The other two are for day-trips only.
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There are four domestic carriers; three private ones and one government-owned, with the latter being Myanma Airways (not to be confused with Myanmar Airways International). This one has a poor safety record and is better avoided. The other three airlines are Air Bagan, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways. They all offer flights between the main airports of Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Heho (for Inle Lake) as well as flying to more remote places like Sittwe at the west coast, Kawthoung in the south (for onward travel to and from Thailand) and Kengtung (also for onward travel to and from Thailand).
Although buses are often more reliable and faster, the train is more comfortable and for some people more fun as well. The most often used train ride is the one between Yangon and Mandalay with many overnight trains and one train during the day as well. The journey takes between 12 and 15 hours.
Renting a car with a driver is just a bit more expensive than renting one yourself (if you would like that at all with roads and road signs being poor) and thus a good way to see lots of the country if time is your main concern. The costs of hiring a car and driver may fluctuate wildly according to the prices of black market gasoline, since it is officially rationed and queues snake over kilometres overnight just to buy limited amounts of government gasoline.
Myanmar has an extensive bus network. Although buses are usually faster than trains, they are not more comfortable and roads can be in a poor condition on some routes. If you are travelling in a small group, you can choose to take shared taxis or even rent a car for one or more days, which in the latter case means more freedom of stopping anywhere you want and usually faster transport as well.
The most popular route for travellers is over the Ayerwaddy river from Mandalay to Bagan, which lasts between 10 and 15 hours, depending on the water levels and choice of boats. Remember that it is over 10 dollars cheaper to take the ferry from Bagan to Mandalay on the exact same boat.
Many people believe that the red tape to get into Myanmar would be very difficult. This is only true if an international crisis is occurring. The majority of the time one can visit Myanmar pretty hassle free from the red tape point of view. The easiest way to obtain a visa is to fly into Bangkok and then purchase a visa. This can be done easily by going to the Myanmar Embassy before 11:00am and then pick up a passport with a visa after 3:00pm. The visa office remains open till around 6 pm, even though the rest of the embassy has shut down.
If a traveller does not have the time to do this, then they can arrange a visa on a arrival. This can be done with a travel agent over the internet. The agent will send the traveller a proof of purchase and when the traveller arrives in the country he or she will get a special stamp in their passport. This is not cheaper or less of a hassle then just arriving in Bangkok a few days early and buying a visa there.
See also Money Matters
The official currency is the kyat (pronounced ch-at), subdivided into 100 pya. Exchanging FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates) is no longer necessary on arrival. When paying for tickets for trains, buses, planes and hotel rooms most people want US dollars instead of local currency. Many people will refuse to take local currency for those purchases.
Coins are K1, K5, K10, K50, K100, Banknotes come in denominations of 50 pyas, K1, K5, K10, K20, K50, K100, K200, K500, K1,000, K5,000.
When making purchases on the street or in smaller non-tourist shops people always want kyat. Therefore keep some kyat with you at all times while travelling in the country. Remember that kyat is a non tradable currency meaning that once you leave the country it is next to impossible to exchange it. Even if you could exchange kyat in another country the vendors would most likely give you the horrible official government rate.
The official exchange rate for kyat is set by the federal government and it does not reflect inflation. The official rate moves around 7 kyat to US$1. The black market rate moves around 1,500 to 2,500 kyat to US$1. Never exchange your money at banks or the airport because you will get very bad rate of 450 kyat to US$1 to 1,000 kyat to US$1. It is best to change money in Yangon because the rates get worse the further one travels from the largest city in the country. Try to change money at hotels and guesthouses or the Yangon jewelry market. Remember to check and count all bills. Some cities in the north give very good rates for Chinese RMB and not for USD. In general US$ are preferred over the EURO.
At this time it is almost impossible to study as a foreigner in Myanmar. This is because the government does not trust foreign students interacting with their students.
Eating in Myanmar is an interesting experience. The food is a blend Indian, Thai, Chinese and local cuisine. Many smaller restaurants will serve either curry or noodles. If at a curry restaurant a metal tray will be brought to you with many small servings of different kinds of curry plus some bread and rice. Noodle restaurants will serve different kinds of noodle soup and more common the further north one travels. Many minority groups have there own cuisine that is very good and different from the traditional. Groups like the Shan are known throughout Myanmar for having amazing food.
There has always been a Chinese population in Myanmar and Chinese restaurants can be found in almost ever city in Myanmar, although there tends to more of them north of Mandalay. Most of the Chinese food is like southern Chinese food, although some spicier and saltier versions of Chinese food can be found as well. Chinese food can be a good switch after eating curry for several weeks straight.
If in one of the major cities or a tourist centre it always possible to find western food. Although not great it can be a good break and chance to remember home. The western food is almost always more expensive then the local food.
On the streets of any Myanmar town there will always be something cooking or being deep fried. Most of this is different kinds of snack food is extremely cheap. Some of the snack is very good. Make sure to try many different kinds of street snack food while in the country.
The major tourist areas have plenty of cheap hotels that range from US$7 to US$15. Due to hotels having to pay a government charge per person sharing a room with another person does not save lots of money. Therefore a US$15 room for a single will become a US$20 room for a double. If looking for luxury style lodging only the largest cities and largest tourist areas will have hotels for that market.
In many towns a few budget guesthouses will be very popular, with good reason, while the others will be unpopular for good reasons. It can be difficult to get a room at the more popular guesthouses. In smaller towns there might be only one hotel, but usually this hotel will have many different kinds of rooms to service all kinds of costumers. Almost all guesthouses include breakfast every morning, which is a nice bonus.
It will be hard to find any kind of international brand of spirits. Luckily for the boozer in all of us Myanmar has plenty of cheap domestic varieties of all kinds of beer and spirits. There is cheap local rum, whisky and vodka.
Although the cheapest bottles of spirits go for about 600 kyat they taste there value. These liquids might actually make you go blind. Some of the stuff that is a little more expensive, maybe around 1,000 to 2,000 kyat, are actually pretty good. The beer on the other hand is pretty good. There are a few brands that can be bought nationally such as Myanmar Beer and Mandalay Beer, which are pretty good. A 850 ml bottle will cost between 500 to 1,000 kyat depending on how far into the countryside one has travelled. There are also many local beers, which are cheaper and can be pretty good.
Do not drink the tap water ever! Only drink tea if it has been boiled and even then be hesitant. Bottle water is easy to buy and everywhere in the country.
Although it is possible to buy international soda brands like Coke and Pepsi they can be quite expensive because they have to be imported from Thailand. Luckily there are many domestic copy cat brands of soda to drink while in Myanmar, like Star Cola. Give these different kinds of drinks a chance and maybe a few them might grow on you. In general the local soda is extremely cheap and is served in the glass bottle that the restaurant will keep.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Myanmar. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Myanmar) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Myanmar. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country below 1,000 metres. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue sometimes occurs as well.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
There are no western level hospitals in Myanmar. For any emergency requiring surgery the only option is to evacuated to Bangkok. Do not trust the local hospitals with anything more then a minor problem.
See also Travel Safety
In areas that travellers around allowed in Myanmar are very safe. There is very little crime and the traffic although crazy is not as wild as some neighboring countries. There are still some areas with active insurgents, especially in the north eastern part of the country. These areas of Myanmar are closed to all foreigners.
See also International Telephone Calls
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