Featured Post

Sunday, November 18, 2012

9 Things to Know About Visiting Burma

The temples of Bagan

I traveled to Myanmar/Burma* in the 1990s, thus preceding President Obama by 15 years. But the country I experienced in 1997 is likely quite different from the one the President will be experiencing today.  Back then, a military dictatorship known as the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) was at the height of its power. The country was completely cut off from the West, and ubiquitous billboards  headlined "The People's Desire" warned citizens to:

--oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views 
--oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the state and progress of the nation 
--oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the state and 
--crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy.

Needless to say, journalists entering the country were well-advised to list another profession on their visa applications.

The only English news came in the form of "The New Light of Myanmar", a government propaganda rag highlighting the various accomplishments of the generals illegitimately in charge. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was in the midst of a long-term house arrest, punishment for her party's win in a 1990 national election. The locals were extremely paranoid, with reason, as the government encouraged spying on thy neighbor (shades of Communist Europe). Talking politics with the Burmese meant first gaining their trust and then finding a quiet corner where one was not likely to be overheard.

Despite the intrigue and the political turmoil (or maybe because of it), I found Myanmar/Burma to be one of the most fascinating and complex places I had ever been. The people were gentle, the roads to Mandalay and Yangon and Bagan were captivating, and the countryside felt like something out of a Zen painting, complete with monks clad in orange, walking in front of hazy, watery horizons.

Thanks to new government policies, most travel publications are naming Myanmar/Burma* as one of next year's hot destinations. If you decide to go, remember, this is a country that has been closed off  to modernity for some time. Khiri Travel, which specializes in Asia, offers some helpful tips for those considering a visit.

*For an explanation of what to call the country, click here.

These tips courtesy of Khiri Travel Myanmar, with minor edits courtesy of Daily Suitcase.

Get Your Visa and Book Accommodation Before Arrival 
Get your Myanmar visa before arrival in the country.  It takes (at least) two weeks advance application. Demand for Myanmar hotel rooms during high season (November to March) outstrips supply. Rooms are not cheap. If you don't pre-book, you'll end up paying over the odds for a mediocre room -- if you can find one.

Bring Cash 
There are no ATM cash points in Myanmar. Bring dollars -- preferably hundred dollar bills. But not old ones, as vendors won't accept notes that are torn, shabby, have a stamp on it, or a fold in the middle. They may not accept ones with "CB" in the serial number either.

Forget Your Mobile Phone 
There are no roaming mobile phone agreements with other countries. Daily Suitcase adds: So go old school and just enjoy your holiday. Instead of being distracted by incoming messages, or constantly fidgeting with your phone cam, look around you for a change.

Your Credit Card is Useless
Fewer than five places accept credit cards in Myanmar. It will take a while before credit card acceptance and ATM access is possible. Until then, avoid hassles by pre-paying for accommodation, tours and transfers before you go.

Behave Like a House Guest 
In Myanmar, there is no word for tourist, only for guest. So behave like a guest when visiting. Be polite, smile, and don't yell when things don't go according to plan. 

Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon

Dress Appropriately 
When you visit places like Shwedagon Pagoda or Bagan, dress appropriately. You are, after all, entering places of Buddhist worship. 
 Modesty is key for both women and men.  Ladies, despite the heat, no plunging necklines or uncovered shoulders. Best to wear a long sarong and a lightweight shawl. 

Know a Few Words 
Mingalaba -- hello/greetings! (used any time of the day); nà-mǎleh-ba-bù - I don't understand; diha balao leh?-- how much is this? cè-zù tin-ba-deh -- thank you.Ta-ta -- goodbye!

Barter When Shopping 
The objective is not to relentlessly chase the cheapest price, but to secure a fair price. A bit of good-natured back and forth on the price of lacquerware, marionettes, or a longyi in a market is certainly acceptable, indeed expected -- but always with a smile. Both parties should finish the transaction happy and grateful.

Mohingar, Not McDonalds 
There are no McDonalds, Starbucks, or other international fast food or drink outlets in Myanmar (Daily Suitcase adds--for now). Go local. Support local vendors. Try mohingar (delicious thick fish soup often eaten for breakfast), ohne kyaukswe (coconut noodle soup), or leh pet thauk (pickled tea leaf salad).
Daily Suitcase Reading List: For a good historical perspective of post-colonial Burma, read Aung San Suu Kyi's Freedom from Fear. For a feel of Burma under British rule, read George Orwell's Burmese Days.

No comments: