Myanmar, formerly Burma, was until recently known as the second most closed off nation in the world after North Korea. Although accessible to tourists since 2012, Myanmar’s infrastructure is struggling to keep pace. On the other hand, Myanmar is just waiting to be discovered. Myanmar is authentic and only just becoming truly known to the Western world. Its landscapes appear frozen in time and are mostly unexplored. If you want to submerge yourself in a realm that genuinely mesmerizes, then Myanmar is for you. Before getting into the details, I’ll provide some travel information.
Myanmar lies in Southeast Asia and is bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. It is larger than France and has a population of nearly 54 million people. The best way to fly into Myanmar is Yangon, its former capital and largest city. Out of many airlines I chose Korean Airlines (KE) because of hassle-free options arriving from San Francisco or New York City with just one stop in Seoul, South Korea. No visa is needed for South Korea for Dutch nationals. However, the Dutch need to apply online for an Evisa before traveling. You’ll need a recent digital passport and 50 USD. Use the official site http://www.evisa.moip.gov.mm and steer away from other more expensive and who knows, less reliable sources. You must provide a Myanmar hotel address (a private address will not be accepted) on your application, so be sure to make your choice before applying. The government of Myanmar promises a reply in 3 days, but I got a positive reply in less than 24 hours. When you arrive in Yangon, do not go to the ‘visa booth’, but straight to the immigration officer. Ask for a taxi at booth of the Ministry of Transportation inside the airport which costs about 8,000 Kyat (more or less 11 USD). Of course do change some money at an official exchange counter. Bring crisp, clean 100 USD bills or they will not accept them. No kidding! Now you are almost ready to be amazed. Here are some practical advise I would like to give first. Take pictures with your phone of useful words or names of places – in the Burmese alphabet – you want to visit. Not many people understand even very basic English. Second. The major cities are safe. Be aware though that in the Western part of the country there is an enduring bloody battle between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist majority. As the United Nations Special Rapporteur in Myanmar put it recently: “I would not say that Myanmar is a democracy yet”, so I would advise to use this as a guide for your actions in Myanmar.
Interesting things to do in Myanmar.
According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world and one of the most scared ones. The base is made of bricks covered with gold plates. The crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.
The Sule Pagoda sits in the center city of Yangon. This building has served as rallying point for uprisings against dictatorship and pro-democracy rallies. Sadly it has also witnessed the bloody reaction of the Burmese military junta against the protesters.
In downtown Yangon, “street food” takes on a whole other meaning, as makeshift restaurants spill from sidewalks onto the roads. With more than 135 ethnic groups and borders shared with China, Bangladesh, India, Laos, and Thailand, it’s safe to say that the street cuisine of Myanmar is diverse and tasty. By all means, make it a point to eat and drink on the street.
The chinthe, a lion-like creature is often seen at temples in Myanmar. Legend has it that a princess had a son through her marriage to a lion, but later abandoned the lion who then became enraged and set out on a road of terror throughout the lands. The son then went out to slay this terrorizing lion. He came back home and found out that he killed his own father. The son later constructed a statue of the lion as a guardian of a temple to atone for his sin.
The gravity–defying rock, sometimes referred to as Kyaiktiyo, is believed to have one single strand of hair of Buddha (Prince Siddharta Gautama) preventing it from toppling over. Only male visitors can come close to the rock. Females have to admire it from behind a barrier. The rock weighs about 546 tons. It is a mystery why the rock stays in place, reportedly for more than 2,500 years.
Bagan is an ancient city that was the imperial capital of the first Burmese empire. Bagan boasts more or less 3,000 Buddhist pagodas and temples. Bagan lies 630 km north of Yangon or 270 km northwest of the Burmese capital, Nay Pyi Taw.
Climb aboard a comfortable train for less than 0.25 USD and enjoy a half a day scenic ride and spend the day exploring Myanmar via a 39-station loop system connecting Yangon and satellites cities as well as suburban areas. Marvel at the pastoral landscapes, scenic towns, bustling markets and quiet villages.
The Chauk Htat Gyi temple in central Yangon houses the 66 meters long and 17 meters high reclining Buddha. It is the second largest reclining Buddha in Myanmar. The place is always full of locals who come to do communal worship and meditation.
People watching. Let’s be honest, what is travel without people watching. One of the first things that you will notice is people chew betel (a special kind of nut) incessantly. But that is not the problem. It is the constant spitting associated with chewing. It may be difficult not to be put off by this custom. The longer the person chews betel, the more dark red stained teeth he will have. Also, do not be surprised that more than half of the people you sea wears big light brown patches of powder, called thanaka, on their face and body. It is a special kind of all natural sunblock. Most men do not wear pants but a long skirt-like garment called. Myanmar people are very religious. Not only are there Buddhist stupas and temples everywhere, but most stores have at least three Buddha statues. When possible, talk to the locals, but steer away from politics