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Myanmar

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With dense forests, beautiful mountain trails, friendly people, rich cultures (including those of numerous ethnic minorities) and relatively underdeveloped coastal resorts, Myanmar – previously known as Burma – is certainly an appealing corner of Asia.

The hundreds of magnificent temples dotting the plains of Bagan are an obvious highlight, superbly photogenic and rewarding when explored over several days by bicycle or horse and cart. Other popular tourist stops include the large and placid Inle Lake, where you can take a boat out to visit local markets, workshops and stilt villages, and the collection of former capitals around Mandalay – itself a good place to see traditional cultural performances. The former capital Yangon is the main point of entry to the country and has an engaging mix of ill-maintained colonial buildings, magnificent Buddhist temples and animated markets.

Fewer people make it to towns like Hsipaw and Kengtung, each of them the jumping off points for great hikes to minority villages, or to the southeastern town of Hpa-an where the surrounding countryside is full of easily-accessible attractions such as Buddhist cave art. With the rivers, particularly the Irrawaddy, so important to the life of the country, river trips are a great way to get around: options range from luxury cruises to multi-day journeys aboard local ferries, with regular tourist boats between Bagan and Mandalay coming somewhere in between.

It’s fair to say that there’s enough in Myanmar for the standard 28-day visa to seem far too short. Historically, however, the unstable political situation has detracted from Myanmar's credentials as an alluring tourist destination and for a long time would-be tourists faced a difficult choice. On the one hand, Myanmar has many attractions and tourists were welcomed with open arms by locals hungry for news of the outside world as well as for their economic contribution. On the other hand the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, advocated a boycott on all tourism since it gave funds to the military regime which had suspended the democratic process and was engaged in violent oppression of the country’s ethnic minorities.

Since 2012 the nominally civilian government has been making tentative steps towards democracy, and Myanmar has become a rising star among Asian tourist destinations. Foreign investors have been given the go-ahead since most sanctions have been dropped, despite ongoing abuses of human rights particularly in minority areas.

Tourist numbers have rocketed, to the extent that – particularly at the budget and mid-range levels – there are simply not enough hotel beds to go around during the peak season (November to February) in major tourist centres. This is one country where even backpackers should consider booking ahead. In fact it’s a country where preparation is essential in a variety of ways, whether it’s sorting out money (since ATMs are only just starting to work with foreign cards, and cannot be relied upon) or planning a route.

The latter is important since large areas of Myanmar are out of bounds owing either to their sensitive border status or to ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups. Some of these restricted areas can be visited with permits, although these are typically difficult to obtain and few visitors attempt to do so. Rules change regularly and without warning, so it’s a good idea to check before travelling if you hope to visit anywhere off the normal tourist routes.

In the end, only individual travellers can decide whether or not to visit Myanmar. Certainly some of your money will end up with the government and its cronies, some of whom are still subject to international sanctions. On the other hand, by doing your research and spending accordingly you can make sure that as much as possible goes to the ordinary people who wish to welcome you to their country.

  • Capital:

    Nay Pyi Taw.

    Geography:

    Myanmar is roughly diamond-shaped – with a long southeastern ‘tail’ – and extends 925km (575 miles) from east to west and 2,100km (1,300 miles) from north to south. It is bounded by China, Laos and Thailand in the east, by Bangladesh and India in the north and by the Indian Ocean in the west and south. The Irrawaddy River runs through the centre of the country and fans out to form a delta on the south coast; Yangon stands beside one of its many mouths.

    North of the delta lies the Irrawaddy basin and the arid plains of central Myanmar, which are protected by a horseshoe of mountains rising to over 3,000m (10,000ft). To the west are the Arakan mountains and the Chin, Naga and Patkai Hills; the Kachin Hills are to the north; to the east lies the Shan Plateau, which extends to the Tenasserim coastal ranges. The Kachin range includes Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi which reaches 5881m (19,295ft).

    Intensive irrigated farming is practised throughout central Myanmar, and fruit, vegetables and citrus crops thrive on the Shan Plateau. Much of the land and mountains are covered by subtropical forest, although this coverage has been reduced by extensive logging particularly for teak.

    Government:

    Republic.

    Head Of State:

    President Thein Sein since 2011.

    Head Of Government:

    President Thein Sein since 2011.

    Electricity:

    220-230 volts AC, 50Hz. Round two- and three-pin and square three-pin plugs are used; some hotel sockets can accept multiple types.

    Timezone:
  • Currency Information:

    Kyat (MMK; symbol K) = 100 pyas. Notes are in denominations of K10,000, 5,000, K1,000, 500, 200, 100, 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1. Notes below K50 are very uncommon.

    Credit Cards:

    Credit cards can be used only in a handful of top-end hotels in Yangon and Mandalay, although this situation is changing quickly as sanctions are eased and international companies seek to do business in Myanmar.
    There are around 90 ATMs throughout Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, Taungoo and Pyinmana accepting Visa-, MasterCard-, Maestro- and Cirrus-branded cards. Two of these are situated in Yangon International airport. In rural areas it is unlikely that credit or debit cards will be accepted; it is best to check with your card company prior to travel.

    ATMs:

    Until late 2012 there were few ATMs in Myanmar and it was impossible for foreigners to use them. This is changing and there are now ATMs accepting foreign Mastercard and Visa cards in Yangon, Mandalay and a few other locations. Only kyat can be withdrawn, however, which means that it is still necessary for visitors to bring dollars to pay for trains, planes, museum entry and (for the best rates) hotels. It is generally unwise to rely entirely on ATMs since if your card does not work then you may be unable to obtain money in any other way. It is also recommended to carry small change as large notes may be difficult to change. Euros are now also accepted in banks, but exchange can be time consuming.

    Travellers Cheques:

    Not currently accepted, although this may change. Check with your tour agency prior to travel, and bring plenty of US dollars in cash.

    Banking Hours:

    Mon-Fri 1000-1400, and sometimes Saturday mornings.

    Currency Restrictions:

    The import and export of local currency is prohibited. However, amounts of foreign currency exceeding $10,000 or equivalent must be declared on arrival and must be converted within one month of arrival and the declaration certificate kept for departure.

    Currency Exchange:

    The local currency is used by tourists to pay for everyday expenses such as restaurant meals, bus travel, taxis and shopping. Other expenses, such train tickets and museum entry fees, must be paid for in US dollars (although, in some cases, euro are also acceptable). In some situations, notably paying for hotel rooms, prices are quoted in dollars although kyat are accepted at a poor exchange rate.

    It is essential to ensure that any US dollars brought for use in the country – whether to be exchanged or spent – are recent issues (2006 or later) and absolutely pristine: any tears, folds or marks may lead to a note being rejected. High-value dollar notes usually receive the best exchange rate, but it’s also useful to have lower denominations to spend as hotels etc. may not have change. Euros are also exchanged at banks, and may be accepted at government-run museums, but are less useful when paying for hotel rooms or other expenses.

    Currencies: Exchange Rates:

    • 1 EUR = 1259.61 MMK
    • 1 GBP = 1617.29 MMK
    • 1 USD = 997.50 MMK

  • Best Time To Visit:

    Myanmar has a monsoon climate with three main seasons. The hottest period is between February and May, when there is little or no rain and temperatures can rise above 40°C (104°F). The rainy season is generally from May to October, giving way to dry, cooler weather from October to February. The coast and the mountains see significantly more rainfall than the arid central plains, which include Mandalay and Bagan, and roads can become impassable during the rainy season in those areas.

    Overall, the best months to visit are from November to February. The only notable downside (other than the fact that places are busy with other tourists) is that river travel can be slow as water levels are low, meaning that boats have to travel more slowly; this is particularly notable on long journeys as ferries cannot travel overnight for fear of being grounded on sandbanks.

    Required Clothing:

    Lightweight cottons and linens are recommended throughout most of the year. A light raincoat or umbrella is needed during the rainy season. Warmer clothes are advised for cooler season and some evenings, particularly in hilly areas, on ferries or for trips on Inle Lake. It's also a good idea to wrap up when travelling on buses, as the drivers tend to overuse the air-conditioning.