Figures in local garb at dusk

If you'd love to read all about Myanmar before travelling, we wrote this for you.

If you'd like to read all about Myanmar before travelling, we wrote this for you. This is why we love it.

Arriving in Myanmar isn’t exactly like stepping back in time, but it’s close. In many ways it reminds us of Thailand in the 1980s, before the backpackers, beach resorts and tour buses stripped it of its innocence. It’s not just that you’ll still see farmers driving oxcarts to market, or street-side tailors working on old Singer sewing machines. And it’s not just the rickety old trains, or the intermittent power cuts. Those are things you can find elsewhere in Southeast Asia (albeit not as frequently). But there’s something deeper and more ineffable that’s different about Myanmar.

A woman in Yangon Myanmar
A woman wearing natural sunblock, Yangon

People here are devout and overtly religious in a way that you won’t find in neighbouring countries. It’s a place where tradition still governs daily life — and not just out of habit, but out of a real sense of the power of ritual. It’s a place where foreign tourism is still a novelty, and where welcomes range from smiles (in the major tourist hotspots) to delighted curiosity (in lesser-visited regions). It’s this relaxed and unguarded friendliness that makes travelling in Myanmar such an unmitigated joy.

Myanmar is undeniably rough around the edges.

Nothing runs on time, there are very few streetlights, the internet coverage is patchy, and you might find yourself having to wake up barmen to get a drink. But this makes exploring a real adventure, where the unexpected is just around the corner.

Myanmar’s geography is vast and varied. Bagan has semi-desert plains, Kachin State touches snow-capped Himalayan peaks, and there's 1,900km of coastline stretching from Bangladesh in the northwest to the untouched Mergui Archipelago in the far south. Slicing Myanmar vertically in two, is the great Irrawaddy River. A major trading route since the 6th century, it still connects remote villages inaccessible by road. Today, it’s still a joy to cruise ‘The road to Mandalay’, as Kipling dubbed it, watching golden pagodas, thatched-roof houses and fishing communities drift by.

A farmer working an ox pulled cart beneath a teample in Bagan
Bagan rises above a patchwork of tended farm fields

Journeys by road can be less joyous. Driving is on the right, and up north, left-hand drive cars are imported from China. In the south, cars come from Japan and are right-hand drive, which means you’re forced to exit a taxi or bus into a lane of oncoming traffic.

The Burmese take this kind of chaos in their stride.

The majority practice Theravada, the oldest, most traditional school of Buddhism. It emphasises meditation as the path to enlightenment, and certainly gives the Burmese an endearing sense of calm. It’s one of the things we love most about the people; nothing is hurried or too much trouble, and they are very gracious hosts. This is most visible in the monks and nuns that you are bound to meet wherever you travel in Myanmar. At least one percent of the population are in holy orders, and almost all men spend time as a monk in childhood, a way for boys to get an education where access is otherwise limited.

Monks walking through a market in Myanmar
Monks going about their daily lives

Travel off the beaten path and you’re bound to meet members of Myanmar’s 135 distinct ethnic groups, like the Paduang in Kayah State. Here, animist rituals are practiced as they have been for centuries, such as reading fortunes in the bones of a freshly slaughtered chicken. The Intha, another group over on Inle Lake, spend their whole lives on the water in houses, schools and temples built on stilts, tending floating gardens and fishing from longtail boats.

But what’s best about all the ethnic minority groups, and what they all share, is the palpable sense of community.

Woman wearing traditional neck rings, Loikaw Myanmar
Woman wearing traditional neck braces, Loikaw Myanmar

Farming, fishing and family responsibilities are divided between members of the village. Grandmothers rock babies in baskets and tend cooking pots over fires. Men drive water buffalo to market, while young boys herd pigs into pens. Women sit in the shade of banyan trees weaving baskets from palm leaves.

It’s easy to romanticise a rural, agricultural existence, but Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world. In Yangon, the average person earns three US dollars a day. In the countryside it’s far less. For more than 50 years, the country suffered at the hands of an oppressive military regime who deliberately kept the population poor and blocked education. The junta also controlled much of the tourist infrastructure, and so we, like the rest of the world, stayed away.

This all changed in 2010, when Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, ushering a new dawn in Myanmar’s history. The following year, her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), declared they "would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment, and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country." 

We took this as our cue and rushed to see Myanmar for ourselves, soon falling in love with the scenery and the people.

Having been isolated for so long, the Burmese are often as curious about us as we are about them. Their openness and warm-hearted generosity is quite unlike anything we’ve experienced elsewhere.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at dusk
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, at dusk

Sadly, ten years since the tourism boycott was lifted, life’s not all rosy in Myanmar. The country still faces a catalogue of problems from a non-democratically elected government to corruption, human rights abuses and violent regional clashes. Most shocking is the persecution of the Rohingya people, Muslims who migrated from the 15th century. Brutal massacres near the border with Bangladesh have made headlines around the world, with the UN describing it as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.

Many are upset that Aung San Suu Kyi hasn’t decried the genocide. If she did speak out, she’d certainly risk inflaming ultra-nationalist Buddhists and the Chinese-backed military, two powerful political forces in Myanmar. All this considered, there is ongoing debate over how ethical travelling to Myanmar is.

We’ve long held the view that tourism can play a positive role.

Not just by providing jobs and income for local businesses, but also by raising international awareness and putting pressure on the country’s military rulers to conform to international standards. Another tourism boycott would make an already impoverished country all the poorer.

We’ve handpicked the very best accommodation and experience providers in Myanmar, those who are ethically run and directly benefit the local community. The Burmese guides we work with are some of the best we have encountered in Asia, they know their regions intimately and their stories will bring you that much closer to the local culture.

But is travelling in Myanmar safe? In a word, yes. It's s a large country, nearly three times the size of the UK, and conflicts are localised, occurring only in regions that are closely controlled or off-limits to tourists. Most of the country is no more dangerous than anywhere else in Southeast Asia, and there have been no instances of foreign tourists getting caught in sectarian violence.

There will never be a better time to travel to Myanmar, go while the country remains so beautifully distinct from the rest of Southeast Asia. Thanks to its unspoiled scenery, generous people and exotic culture, Myanmar’s quite unlike anywhere we’ve ever been. Long may it stay that way.

The InsideAsia team in Bristol

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