Having lived in Burma (Myanmar) during the late 1980’s, and spent the 1990’s in Thailand, traveling between the two countries frequently and spending a lot of time in the border areas, it must be noted that Myanmar can be a wonderful place to visit, but it is not for those who want luxurious hotels, exceptional customer service, or normal western amenities. Although being there now is much different than the touch-and-go days of the 1980’s, the Myanmar government is finally making headway on the democracy front, which opens the doors for many improvements in its tourism trade. Be that as it may, Burma is still no destination for the novice traveler.
To give a quick idea as to what to expect, many hotels still experience power outages on a regular basis. This has improved over the years when power was out more than it was on. Some hotels have air conditioning and some do not. If you are the backpacker type of traveler who is not concerned about such things, Burma makes a wonderful destination. If you can, travel by river boat. Roads are bumpy and buses are antiquated to say the least. Train travel is not too bad if no river transportation is available. Burmese domestic air travel, at least in 2009, was problematic at best, with schedules being changed at the last minute and rides bumpier than some of the roads. You can also hire a car and driver for a reasonable rate.
Myanmar is rich in sights that you will never see anywhere else. The author’s favorite places to explore were:
Pagan – A broad plain along the Irrawaddy River south of Mandalay. This area contains thousands of ruins of pagodas and temples dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries A.D. There is no sight more awe-inspiring that either sunset or sunrise in Pagan.
Kyaiktiyo – This mountain top contains a balancing rock that is truly spectacular. The boulder is immense, and is gilded in gold leaf, with a small stupa on top. Legend has it that it was placed there by spirits. Looking at the base of the boulder, there is no sign of anything holding to the mountain. The top of the mountain contains several temples, a main plaza and shops. There is also a hotel there, or you can rent a sleeping platform for next to nothing. On the author’s last trip, it was possible to rent an elephant and explore the ridgeline north of Kyaiktiyo. Getting to the top of Kyaiktiyo is also not for the faint of heart, unless you rent a sedan chair.
Mandalay and Sagaing – The “spiritual capital” of Myanmar, there is the old palace and numerous Buddhist temples to explore.
Inya Lake – This beautiful lake in Shan State is a big attraction. You can see how people actually live on the lake, and see the famed leg-rowers. This is quite an education.
In Yangon (Rangoon) itself, there are numerous temples, the most famous of which is Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a huge stupa which houses hairs of the Buddha.
Again, visiting Myanmar is a life-changing experience, but one cannot expect the western-style amenities. Be prepared for a little more primitive conditions, but an experience that you will remember for a lifetime.