My first real exposure to Burma (Myanmar) was from watching the Emmy award-winning travel focused show of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. It was featured in the very first episode of the long running TV series. Watching the episode immediately excited my travel senses and curiosity about the country that has been isolated from the world for 60 years. I wanted to get a first hand experience of the country.
Luckily I was in Kuala Lumpur when I planned a visit to Burma. I visited the Burmese consulate and I received my tourist visa on the same day. Burma is still a hidden gem in South East Asia. You can tell that from the number of people applying for the visa.
After its independence from Britain, Burma briefly experimented with democracy before falling under a long spell of military rule that lasted almost 50 years. Much of the country’s population is still in poverty. The nominal GDP of the country is 74 Billion USD which is about the size of Delaware’s economy. Population is close to 53 million per 2014 census with a population density of 76/sq km compared to a more populated country like India with 390/sq km. With the recent elections and the winning of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, there is a glimmering hope for real democracy to get a foothold in Burma.
The upside of Burma not having democracy and lack of any industrialization of its economy is that its natural landscapes are still untouched and well preserved.
After spending two weeks in Burma I would say it is my favorite place in south east Asia. Burmese people are the friendliest people you will ever come across in your travels. They genuinely try to help you (as supposed to people in Egypt thanks to their flailing tourism dependent economy) and always have a smile on their face. The countryside of Burma is gorgeous with rice paddies, pagodas, nature and happy people. Some cities are dusty but that is because the country’s infrastructure is still not developed.
I recommend that you visit Burma before it gets the full democracy and the inevitable Capitalism that will follow and turn the country into a industrialized nation and a touristy mecca like Thailand.
If you want to get a better understanding of Burma and it’s disturbing times under British Colonial rule you must read George Orwell’s Burmese days. You will understand the worst kind of bigotry and corruption that Burma faced under the British rule.
How do you plan your travels in Burma?
I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon by plane (thanks to the pressure I got from my travel partner). Looking back I feel that I should have taken the land route from Thailand to Burma instead of flying directly to Yangon.
I would recommend crossing the Thailand/Burmese border via Mae Sot (on Thai border) and Myawaddy (on Burma border). You need to take a 5-hour bus from Chiang Mai to Mae Sot and then crossed the border and get another bus to Yangon (largest city and former capital) in Burma. Instead of going straight to Yangon I would go to Hpa-an (pronounced Paa-han) first to see the pagodas and golden rock. Then take a slow boat from Hpa-an to Mawlamyine. This boat ride is great as you can see many interesting things along the way – fishermen, little transport boats, pagodas and villages along the way. Once you are in Mawlamyine you must go to the biggest pagoda, Kyaikthanlan Pagoda in the town which is not too far from the town’s center.
Bagan and Inle Lake are a must see, but skip Mandalay if you are short on time.
I was more spiritually connected in Bagan (see the pictures below) than when I was in Angkor Wat. Waking up early in the morning to see the sunrise was more rewarding in Bagan than in Angkor Wat (I am sure others will disagree on this one). You can rent an e-bike in Bagan and ride to various pagodas in the Old town. Bagan is a city with 4000 pagodas (literally). You can visit a few main ones in the center of Old Bagan like the Ananda(most beautiful), Dhammayangi (biggest), Thatbyinyu (tallest) and Shwegugyi (for sunrise).
Inle Lake – You can take a boat ride across the Inle Lake to visit different interesting sites (cheaper if you share the boat with others) like floating market, long necked women, lotus weaving loom, Cigar shop, temples and leg rowing performance. Riding the bike along the lake is fun and adventurous.
Make sure to take the most interesting train ride ever in your life. The trains in Burma literally shake so much so you feel like you are riding a roller coaster. We took the train from Hpa-an to Yangon. It was a long 8 hour journey (get the Upper class seat) but it was worth the experience.
Hope you plan your travel to Burma soon and enjoy as much as I did in my visit.
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