Burma or Myanmar, you can call the country by either name. However due to the fact that I first visited this incredible country in 1998, I’m still attached to the name Burma. It used to mean something to use Burma instead of Myanmar, it meant you didn’t support the repressive military regime, known as the Tatmadaw that ruled the country from 1962 to 2011. The history of Burma is gut wrenching, yet very fascinating and I highly suggest knowing as much as you can about Myanmar before you visit. This is one destination in which understanding the history can deeply enrich your experiences as a traveler.
I highly suggest knowing as much as you can about Myanmar before you visit. This is one destination in which understanding the history can deeply enrich your experience as a traveler.
To begin, let’s start with the politics of the name change. Burma is what the country has been called since the 18th Century, and the repressive military junta renamed the country to Myanmar in 1989, as well as changing the names of a number of cities, including renaming Rangoon to Yangon. I will continue to call Burma/Burma. Yet, one of the things I noticed during this trip through the country is that most people in the country have started to accept the name change. When I first visited in 1998/1999 everyone called the country Burma. This change is symbolic of a number of big changes I noticed since 1998. The regime’s dumbing down of the society and their manipulation of history has succeeded in altering the youth in particular. It’s difficult to discuss Burma without getting emotionally worked up about the regimes use of Buddhism to manipulate and control the masses. It is also difficult to ignore the extreme addiction to beetlejuice, alcohol, & cheroots as a coping mechanism.
It's difficult to discuss Burma without getting emotionally worked up about the regimes use of Buddhism to manipulate and control the masses. It is also difficult to ignore the extreme addiction to beetlejuice, alcohol, & cheroots as a coping mechanism.
Traveling in Burma is an immersive experience…emotionally, physically and visually. It is hands down my favorite country in the world to travel in. The people are the kindest people in the world, they love you like your Mom loves you, unconditionally. It is an odd feeling to be treated with so much love for no particular reason. It is one of those incredibly strange experiences, the most repressed people, exude the most incredible kindness. They are happy, but not in some phony way, because on the inside you sense the pain they have experienced.
Since I keep getting contacted for advice, I’m going to write a short guide to the country and my favorite places to both stay and visit. This guide is just a rough outline of how I suggest seeing as much as you can within the 30 day visa. Note: You can overstay your Visa for only $5 per day, payable when you exit the country at the airport. They are very lax about this, because frankly, they want your tourist dollars!
This guide is just a rough outline of how I suggest seeing as much as you can within the 30 day visa.
So the first time I visited Burma, the area that I was allowed to visit was much smaller than what is now allowed. Although the country still has some strange laws regarding where you can travel and hotel permits, which increases the costs of traveling in the country substantially. It’s also pretty annoying to stay in a room for $20 a night with mold growing on the walls and nasty bathrooms which you share with 15 other people. Especially when in Vietnam, Thailand or Laos for $20 a night you can have luxury. The thing is that the Burmese people actually don’t seem to know this. They think they are offering you luxury, because to them, these hotel rooms are luxurious. Burma is an extremely poor country. So please keep this in mind before you complain & also – DO trust other travelers reviews of places to stay – BUT NOT ON TRIPADVISOR. Connect with people on the road and always ASK THEM IF THEY LIKED WHERE THEY STAYED IN PERSON. Things are changing so quickly in this country, much of the information online is completely outdated. All the places I have suggested to stay we found through asking other travelers we met on the road. Our first couple nights we stayed in places we found through booking.com or agoda.com & well they were bloody awful.
Connect with people on the road and always ASK THEM IF THEY LIKED WHERE THEY STAYED IN PERSON.
So like I’ve already mentioned, Burma is incredible – I suggest 3 weeks at least, there is so much to see & it’s such a beautiful country. But THIS COUNTRY IS NOT FOR NEWBIE TRAVELERS OR PEOPLE THAT LIKE EASY TRAVEL, traveling in Burma takes energy, patience, flexibility and it will challenge you. Just the kind of traveling I absolutely love!
The following is my suggested itinerary, of course you can always see more, but these are my must sees:
Flying into Yangon – I would suggest staying there a night or two max, unless you love old architecture & big dirty cities ;). Fact is, there is just so much to see, the cities in Burma aren’t really worth too much time, unless you have a lot of it. From there you can take a bus/train to Hpa An – 3 days is perfect for this lovely town, then make your way by boat or bus down to Malwyamine – 2-3 days.
From here you can either take the train/bus/flight to Mandalay or Bagan – you could jump out & do the 3 hour tour in Bago if you wanted & I think it’s worth it, this town has a lot of incredible Buddhist relics from the bygone heyday of Burma. Onward to incredible Bagan, where I think you should stay a minimum of 2 days. Then you can go to Kalaw & I suggest spending a night or two, we loved this little town, and def do the trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw – 3 days. I think Inle is worth 3 days, make sure to see the ancient temples of Indein on the lake.
If you had more time, I loved Pyin oo Lwin & the area around there when I went in 1999 & I also loved Kyaitiko Pagoda in 1999, but on this visit it was terribly depressing, in fact I believe that Kyaitiko now represents the greed of the military Junta and the cronies that control the tourist industry more than anywhere else in the country. However, you might have a very different experience there. JUST DO NOT GO ON XMAS DAY. Remember that hotels are overpriced and tend to be dirty in Burma, and more so at Kyaitiko than anywhere.
...traveling in Burma takes energy, patience, flexibility and it will challenge you.
My favorite places on this trip were Kalaw, Malwyamine & Hpa An – but they were also all new to me, I went everywhere else in 1998/99. We absolutely loved Indawgyi Lake north of Mandalay, no one goes there, reason being it’s very difficult & a very long journey…although it’s magic, we spent 4 nights & didn’t want to leave – the town is amazing, the people – the lake – the romance of it, it’s just so far from everything. Also note: we heard great things about Sittwe, but we didn’t make it that far West, it is also a very long journey for one town.
The following is a list of worthy places to stay – this list is valid from January 2016:
Yangon – Shangri la is a very nice hostel, book in advance. Lots of really overpriced crappy places there & this ones great.
Hpa-An – the best & most popular is the Soe Brothers (it’s awesome) & we walked up & got a room, but we saw others turned away…maybe book in advance if possible.
Mawlaymine – I stayed at OK hotel, there’s a more popular hostel – the rooms suck, but its more social. OK hotel has rooms that overlook the river & those are really nice, more expensive though. The rest of the rooms are literally OK. I did like the manager, I had a terrible flu while here & she was super kind to me!
Inle lake – Shwe Pauk Pin is the loveliest & the people are amazing that own it, this place made Inle awesome for us. It has the most lovely view of a field from the balcony, the food is super yummy, the rooms are beautiful, it’s clean & it is out of the way of the major tourist scene, great value at $18-20 per night.
In Kalaw, we stayed at the Seven Sisters & loved our room, the owners are a bit odd. Trekked with them & didn’t like our guide much. Try to get a younger guide.
Mandalay – my favorite hostel in all of Burma – Dreamland Guesthouse, Mandalay is pretty much a post-apocalyptic mess & yet staying at Dreamland made it much less so. It is family owned and filled with beautiful artwork. The sunsets from the roof are also beautiful.
If you have the stamina to get to Indawgyi Lake, we stayed at the guesthouse right behind the local beauty salon with a picket fence, but the lovely owner only has two rooms, however we LOVED staying there. The other place to stay looks like it jumped out of Wes Anderson movie…so I’m sure it’s just fine too!
If you are serious about visiting Burma, I highly suggest a reading list & start with the incredible books by Emma Larkin, ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’, ‘Everything is Broken: The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma’s Military Regime’ & I also suggest reading ‘Burma Behind the Mask’ by Jan Donkers & Minka Nijhuis.
NOTE: You must get a VISA to visit Burma, there are restrictions on where you can fly into & out of, you need to carry a lot of fresh clean American $$$ bills, this is one country where you need to do research to make sure you are benefitting locals as much as possible with your money – not the government cronies. One last thing – the internet doesn’t work much in most places, therefore it’s an awesome break from tech, but def not a good country to work, unless you’re a photographer – for shooting it’s a dream!