The magical, mysterious and magnificent country of Burma remains an enigma to most of the world. It is well known by now that significant changes have occurred and more are certainly in the works, but for the average tourist, the signals are mixed.
Call it Myanmar if you insist, but from all reports the people who live there prefer to call it Burma, and they are Burmese, not Myanmarans, Myanmarese or what-have-you.
With its incredible wealth of natural beauty plus marvels of the man-made variety – a fabulous array of pagodas, temples and shrines from small and simple to gigantic gold-plated extravaganzas – Burma has a world of wonders for visitors to experience and enjoy. There is definitely no lack of attractions, but there is still a big question about how they should be approached.
According to many observers, tourism may be the best way for Burma/Myanmar to advance from its former isolation and the severe repression of its citizens that, to a large extent is still going on. That said, the necessity of ‘responsible tourism’ should be very obvious. Burma’s almost mystical allure owes a great deal to the fact that it is still undeveloped in terms of the modern world; visitors must be aware that many of the modern comforts they have come to expect will not be found here.
This awareness is one of the keys to a rewarding journey that ultimately benefits not just the traveller or the travel agents, but the people who live, work, pray and play in this predominantly Buddhist country. From all reports offered by those with first hand experience, Burma’s people are as kindly and gentle as its former, partially dismantled but still powerful military government is harsh and unforgiving.
That attitude of guileless friendship will inevitably change – in fact it is changing already in places like Bagan and other highly promoted tourist attractions. Still, it seems to be in the nature of this culture and its people to befriend outsiders who have not proven to be their enemies.
Ideally, it would be part of every visitor’s agenda to learn as much as possible about the things they see and the people they meet, and to behave as considerate guests rather than aloof sightseers. The rewards for everyone concerned can be boundless.
The only event that comes to mind as a comparison is the Rose Bowl Parade with its enormous floats decorated with millions and millions of flowers, leaves and all sorts of other floral offerings, but the dancing elephants at Kyaukse in Myanmar are in a class of their own, and a magnificent class it is.
Each year Kyaukse, a small town about 48km south of Mandalay is host to an amazing festival centered around a great pagoda built about 2,000 years ago by Anawrahta, King of Bagan. At that time Bagan, with its fertile lands, was the ‘breadbasket’ for the mighty Bagan kingdom, and Anawrahta wanted a suitable place for his subjects to worship.
The story goes that the King placed holy relics on an elephant’s back and set it free with the vow of building a pagoda where the elephant stopped to rest. This elephant climbed the Kyaukse hill and there he stopped, so there Shwe Tharlyaung, or the Reclining Buddha Pagoda, was built, and the Kyaukse Elephant Festival was born.
Each year at the full moon in October, Kyaukse and all the surrounding towns and villages celebrate the event, partly in homage to Buddha, partly in honor of Uttay Na, the patron spirit of elephants. Six months earlier, preparations begin on construction of the elephants, an undertaking that is incredibly pain-staking, full of trade secrets that are jealously guarded, and marvelous in its artistry.
As the elephants are taking form, teams of villagers are practicing with last year’s elephant on the intricate steps of the dances they will perform during the Festival’s competition. Some teams with their elephants will not compete but instead entertain pilgrims and visitors in the streets with acrobatics and antics that any tourist has to see to believe.
In fact the entire Festival must be seen to be believed; it starts in the early morning and goes on ’til after dark, and the winner of the competition performs a final exuberant dance at the foot of the hill next morning. Travellers should be aware that there are very few accommodations available, but Kyaukse is only an hour’s drive from Mandalay.
If you are one of the huge and growing number of adventurers with a fascination for the long-forbidden wonders of Myanmar, you’re probably also aware that the country is in the throes of some major changes. Politically the situation is still unstable but reports from recent visitors indicate that the trend is towards opening up rather than restricting various avenues of access to the ‘real’ Myanmar.
Probably the most important thing a potential visitor can do, aside from deciding on an (adjustable) itinerary is a bit of pre-flight research. Myanmar’s only international airports are in Yangon and Mandalay, with the majority of flights in and out of Yangon, so your journeying in the country will almost certainly begin from one or the other.
One aspect that is emphasized by all the reputable travel sites is the importance of investing your travel dollars/pounds/euros in local businesses. This means hiring local tour guides rather than booking tours through government-supported travel agents, and taking public transport, including horse carts and paddle boats, and eating in local family-run restaurants. These are just a few of the ways you can make a positive difference to the country’s citizens.
There is a visa fee and tax on purchases applied to all visitors, which goes to the government and skips the individual service provider entirely. Thus if you can pay for services directly to the provider, it helps to insure that they see some of the profits. If you make a charitable donation, always do it in person.
Another warning: do not ask local residents about the government’s policies – they can get into trouble for criticizing, and you could be asking the wrong person anyway. Unlike the still quite repressive regime that governs Myanmar, the people you will meet are unfailingly friendly, helpful and eager to show you the wonders of their country and learn about yours. Take time to learn as much as you can beforehand, go with an open mind, and you will be richly rewarded.
Myanmar’s busiest airport – that in former capital Yangon – will once again be served by Qatar Airways, after a recent announcement told of plans to restore regular flights serving the city. These will be the first since the airline suspended the service in January 2008, and will fly from Qatar Airways’ main hub in Doha into Yangon three times a week, via an Airbus 319 aircraft.
During a flight on this very route, just last Thursday, company CEO, Akbar Al Baker, conducted a delegation. During the discussion, he noted the timing of the restoration of the service, recognising both Myanmar’s ‘rich natural resources’ as well as its location amidst some of the world’s most ‘dynamic’ economies.
The CEO also reiterated Qatar Airways’ commitment to expanding the number of locations more accessible via air travel, noting the absence of major international airlines operating in areas with noteworthy ‘market potential’. Yangon airport serves approximately 2.5 million people each year and a large fraction of these customers are international visitors.
The resumption of the service makes Yangon the 119th destination served by the airline worldwide, and is the 10th in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), joining services to and from Bali, Bangkok, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Manila, Phuket and Singapore.
The restoration of the service is excellent news for the region, from both a travel and economic perspective, and expands the presence of Qatar Airways in Asia and the South Pacific. This represents just under a third of Qatar Airways’ destinations worldwide; the carrier already provides services to cities in the area including Beijing, Delhi, Hong Kong, Osaka, and Perth.
At the museum in Bagan there are many display rooms. The ground floor certainly has one of the most impressive rooms in the entire museum and it is large enough to hold a significant conference.
Instead of being used for this purpose however, it houses many different artefacts from Myanmar’s history, that are significant to the Bagan Period. You will find woodcarvings, stucco works, terracotta, metal works, stone sculptures, and lacquer works among others.
There is also a showroom here which displays some of the clothes that were worn during this period in the country’s history and there are also [...]
From the time of its earliest civilisation, the country still known to many as Burma, now officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, has evolved around three major rivers.
The longest and by far the most famous is the Ayeyarwaddy, better known to most of the modern world as the Irrawaddy River. This great river has been a source of livelihood and a vital transportation and communications link from time immemorial.
Commercial and military craft have plied the river for centuries; the headwaters of the Irrawaddy represent a gateway to the overland trade route to China, where the [...]
The long isolation of Myanmar, still known to many as Burma, may be coming to an end, but there is still a long way to go.
Western sanctions prohibiting commerce with the country have been suspended or lifted in some cases, and over the past year or so the word has gone out that foreign tourists are welcomed by the Parliamentary government, and certainly by the majority of Myanmar’s people.
Lonely Planet placed Myanmar at Number 2 on its list of the top ten countries for adventure travel in 2012, and the tourist board is scrambling to meet the challenge [...]
Burma is becoming a destination that is growing in popularity but despite this almost all of the international traffic into the country is coming through its old airport; Yangon International. This airport is five decades old and its age is certainly beginning to show.
The government have announced that they are currently seeking out investors to help fund a new airport which will be built around 50 miles from the current airport. It is thought that it will be constructed on the site of an airport that was built during the Second World War by the Japanese.
On the state [...]
Until recent years, Burma was a country that was largely shielded from the world’s eyes as there was military rule in the country which largely prevented any visitors from entering.
Things have changed however and for the first time in decades tourists are being welcomed to the country.
That said, they might not feel particularly welcome; hotels are either booked up or far too expensive. Even if you have found somewhere to stay you are going to find it difficult to pay for it as credit cards are not widely accepted and dollars bills that are not in immaculate condition [...]
It has been called the Ghost Road, the Ledo Road and and Stillwell Road, but the old track wending its way for more than 1,000 miles from India to China is also known as the Burma Road. Originally built during the second World War as a supply link for the Allies to send troops and equipment to China, the Burmese part of the road is fairly short, about 458 miles connecting Lashio and the border town of Ruili.
After the war, the road fell into disrepair until it was almost completely overtaken by the jungles from which it was arduously [...]