Myanmar is arguably the most enigmatic country in all of Southeast Asia. Following a coup d’état in 1962 in which the military seized total control of the government, Myanmar (formerly Burma) became a country closed off to the world, shunned and embargoed by Western nations, a pariah state known for its flagrant human rights abuses, and impossible to enter.
During this time, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Laureate and de facto leader of the grassroots movement for democracy in Myanmar, was placed under house arrest, and encouraged tourists to boycott her country. But in the years since the worst abuses of power – and especially in the very recent past – Myanmar has shown signs of backing down from its hard-line stance. In 2010, Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest, and more recently, the government has eased decades-long restrictions on foreign investment.
The result of such “glasnost” policies has been a tourism boom, with the number of visitors increasing from 300,000 in 2010 to over one million last year. But despite Myanmar’s ostensible “changing of the guard,” it remains as important as ever that travelers to the country remain conscientious of where and how they spend their money. By remaining vigilant and aware, you can make sure that most of your cash goes into the hands of actual Burmese people, rather than simply being handed over to government-owned hotels and travel companies. Luckily, this kind of savvy is a win-win for both local proprietors and for your wallet, for traveling, sleeping, and eating locally is almost always cheaper than the inflated government alternatives.
The following is a quick guide for getting started in Myanmar, in the place where all roads lead to – the golden and sultry former capital of Yangon (Rangoon).
“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”
So wrote Rudyard Kipling, famously describing his first sight of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda back in 1889. Structurally, it has not changed much since then: a 368 foot tall spire of shimmering gold, it sits atop Yangon like the sun itself, a flaming yellow orb presiding over the city’s grime and must. It must be seen to be believed. It is best at dawn or sunset when the city’s devout come to pray, burn joss sticks, and pay respects to the Lord Buddha. As impressive as the Shwedagon is, it is impossible to view it as something separate from the Burmese people themselves, and the surrounding courtyard carries an atmosphere of religious devotion, as well as the informality of the local teahouse: monks kneel in prayer, while women in beautiful colored longyi dresses chat demurely with one another, making small talk, smiling and laughing. Children run and play. It’s possible to spend hours here, seeing the sights, but also taking it all in. The Shwedagon Pagoda is open from 6:00 AM to 10:30 PM, and the entrance fee is $8.
Sule Pagoda is a smaller golden stupa located in the center of downtown Yangon’s busiest intersection. According to legend, it is over 2,500 years old, making it even more ancient than the Shwedagon. Perhaps what is most striking about the pagoda is that its gilded dome rises up out of a swirling traffic circle, dense with dilapidated Toyota taxis and smog-belching trucks – a surreal juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern that, while strange, is characteristic of much of the “new” Burma. The pagoda itself was allegedly built to house a strand of hair of the original Buddha. Inside, visitors will find traditional Buddha images, shrines and painted galleries. Admission for foreigners is $3 US.
For those looking for unique souvenirs and shopping, the Bogyoke Aung San Market is worth visiting. The largest market in Yangon, its two floors are lined with jewelers selling precious stones including Burmese rubies and jade, as well as local art galleries, handicraft shops and clothing stores.
Yangon offers a range of accommodations, from $10 dorm rooms in and around Sule Pagonda with shared baths (White House Hotel, Mahabandoola Guesthouse) to top end options such as a $450 per night stay at the famous Strand Hotel.
69/71 Konzaydan Street, Pabedan Township, website
Doubles from $25 – $45, free Wi-Fi and buffet breakfast
93 32nd Street, Room 453/459 2nd Floor, Pabedan Township, +95 (0)1 248104
Hostel with bare bones décor, doubles $10
For travelers looking for hotel accommodation with a few more amenities, the Clover Hotel (website) opposite the Japanese embassy on Wingabar Road features clean rooms with hot water, 24 hour electricity and air conditioning, with rooms ranging from $90 – $100 per night. A modern building t.hat recently opened in 2011, the top floors of the Clover feature great views of the Shwedagon Pagoda at night.
As with any major Asian city, there are no shortage of food stalls and restaurants lining Yangon’s colonial-era boulevards, with plenty of options located along Anawratha and Mahabandoola Roads. The local Bamar cuisine is a distinctive mélange of the various culinary traditions of the region, and the Chinese, Indian and Thai influences are especially pronounced. The result, however, is something that you won’t find in any of the neighboring countries. Mohinga, a delicious soup made with rice noodles and fish, is considered the national dish, and is typically eaten for breakfast. A bowl will run you no more than $1.
Also of note are the various local teahouses near the Sule Pagoda intersection. Featuring low-sitting tables and footstools that serve as chairs, Burmese teahouses are informal settings where locals gather to relax and enjoy a few small pastries or snacks, in addition to the tea (often prepared sweetened with condensed milk) that is served in old kettles with fresh leaves. Historically, the teahouses have assumed a political importance, serving as community centers where locals have, in hushed tones, been able to voice their grievances with one another about the government. (It is not recommended, however, that you do so – or to ask any local people their opinions on such matters, as you never know who might be listening. In more private settings, you may find the Burmese may speak freely without your having to ask.)
In terms of nightlife, Yangon is a far cry from Bangkok, but there are still some options. Curbside “beer stations” abound along the city streets, selling mugs of local Myanmar Beer for around 600 kyat (less than $1). Nightclubs with dancing and music can be found in many of the city’s five-star hotels ($5 – $6 entrance fee, which often includes a drink). Unlike in Bangkok, however, where the richness of the nightlife truly rivals the splendors of its palaces and temples, there is no contest in Yangon. The popular spots – Juhu beach, Chowpatty, Gorai beach, Band Stand, Worli Sea Face and Carter Road- are packed to the hilt throughout the year and best avoided.
Getting There: It used to be that flying into and out of Yangon was the only way in or out of Myanmar. While this has changed recently, with flights into and out of Mandalay in the north, and overland border crossing from Thailand now open, travel into and out of Yangon still remains the most common and convenient, with daily flights from Hong Kong, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Kuala Lumpur.
Getting Around: Upon landing, you’ll need to hire a taxi to take you from the airport to the central downtown area, where most lodging options are, as well as all the major sights. For the cab, expect to pay around 8000 kyat or about $10. The best way to get around is by taxi, which can easily be hailed along the city’s busy thoroughfares. Don’t expect meters when you get in – rates are negotiable with the drivers, who, unlike in many neighboring countries, will quote you a reasonable fare to get where you’re going. Expect to pay about 2000-3000 kyat to get anywhere within downtown Yangon, or about $2 – $4; perhaps slightly higher if you’re going to the Shwedagon Pagoda. If you’re going a shorter distance, you can hail a trishaw – a bicycle with a sidecar for a passenger – for about 500 kyat for up to a ten minute ride.
Currency: The kyat. US dollars are widely accepted throughout the country, both for payment and for exchange into kyat, but they must be in good to pristine condition. Higher denominations ($100) will fetch better exchange rates than lower ones.
Visas: Americans need a visa prior to arriving in Myanmar – you can download an applications here. A tourist visa is good for 28 days and the fee is $20.
Weather: The best time of year to visit is November – March when it is driest and not too hot. March – May can be very hot. The monsoon season starts in May and you can expect downpours especially from July – September.
In recent years, Aung San Suu Kyi has not reiterated her former call for a boycott of Myanmar. While she has not explicitly encouraged it, she did mention in 2011, “individuals coming in to see, to study the situation in the country might be a good idea.” Underlying her message is the importance, mentioned here, of traveling with a social conscience, patronizing private businesses, and interacting with the locals. The Burmese themselves tend to be smart, literate, well-versed in English, and are often eager to speak with foreigners. Half the fun of traveling to their country is hearing the stories of the local people – which, of course, is the only way to discover what life is like in this unique country, where the richness of the culture is only matched by the horrors of its recent history. For, as Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”