Lay of the Land
Bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, Myanmar is one of southeast Asia’s largest countries, stretching from the white beaches surrounding Ngapali in the southwest to the Himalayan foothills in the north. Larger than Thailand, Vietnam or Laos, Myanmar actually has every climate zone except for desert. There are 21 different states and divisions, some of which are only accessible to tourists by special permission.
Even though most first-timers probably won’t stray beyond the classic Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay-Inle Lake itinerary, it’s fascinating to read about Myanmar’s ethnic groups (there are 135 recognized ones, which are organized into eight official ethnic races, including Chin, Karen, Mon and Sha, and each with its own traditions, languages and culture. Interesting reads about Myanmar’s multicultural side include: The Trouser People ; Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West ; and From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Oddyssey.
Yangon: The county’s largest city is a buzzing, relentless southeast Asian metropolis, with all the traffic, people and street commerce this conjures. Old Colonial buildings can be seen everywhere, their stunning, pastel-colored facades crumbling. In her beautiful book Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin describes: “Indeed, parts of the city look as if London had been transplanted into a tropical landscape and left to moulder for a century or two.”
The airport, in the north of the city, is about a 30-minute drive from the two top hotel options, the gorgeous, serene Governor’s Residence and the classic, colonial Strand. The most-renowned site is the massive, golden Shwedagon Pagoda, where many of the country’s most significant political dramas unfolded, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s first major political speech in 1988 and the place where the monks gathered during 2007’s so-called Saffron Revolution.
When to Go
The best time to visit Myanmar is December through early March. Mid-March through April is the hottest time, with temperatures well into the 100s, so this time should be avoided. July through August is the rainy season, but Bagan is less effected than lower-lying Yangon, so the Road to Mandalay cruises are an option. The company’s 11-day journey, which cruises all the way up to northern Bhamo, with incredible access to remote areas, has three departures during this time.
Myanmar’s infrastructure is bound to improve in the coming years but right now, the only comfortable option is to fly between destinations. All airlines are based in Yangon. Due to the fact that each airline has limited aircrafts and since planes cannot fly at night, the flights depart Yangon very early in the morning to start their circuits (Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Ngapali, Bhamo). Flight schedules have a tendency to change frequently, depending on weather, so travelers are advised to check in with the airlines the morning of their trip.
1. Dress according to your day’s sights; in temples, visitors must cover their shoulders and shorts are not permitted. You will also have to take your shoes off and when sitting in front of the Buddha or a monk, make sure the soles of your feet are not pointing at them.
2. The best hotels and tour operators will be involved with social projects, like schools, monasteries, orphanages and mobile clinics, so ask what you can bring. Children’s books, crayons, notepads etc. are always welcome, especially in rural areas.