“Quite unlike any land you know about” – Rudyard Kipling.

Next to North Korea, Burma, or Myanmar as it is called by the country’s military junta, is the second most isolated country in the world. Because tourism in Myanmar was not encouraged for the past fifty years and the culture has been virtually untouched by the outside world, travelers to this fascinating destination must realize that the best expectations are no expectations. Flexibility is the key — the experience can be unique — the people with their wide smiles and gentle nature will touch your heart, and the “off the beaten track” adventure can be exciting.myanmar one

It is a fact that Myanmar is one of the most undiscovered destinations with a culture that is both mysterious and enchanting, with unspoiled beauty and charm. From the “one-legged” fishermen who row their boats with one leg while standing on the vessel’s edge, to the long-necked ladies in the Padung tribe that wear heavy brass rings around their necks, to the gleaming gold pagodas that sparkle in the intense sun, this country offers many wonders. It is a land of stunning beauty and unusual charm — best to be enjoyed before the mega changes which are taking place as hotels race to build large international chains and tourism explodes in a country not yet ready to handle the demands of luxury travelers.

In 1996 Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest for many years by the military junta, encouraged visitors to stay away from Myanmar thereby not endorsing the military. However, once she was released from house arrest in 2010, her party, the NLD (National League for Democracy), has welcomed tourists. The country is now inundated with travelers wishing to experience the culture before it becomes modernized and loses some of its unique charm.

Situated at the crossroads of Asia’s great civilizations of India and China Myanmar is a land of exotic glamour. The Burmese people are very myanmar2calm, without a desire to grow wealthy. When they have money, they spend it on pious works with the belief that in doing so there will be a reward in the next life. A devoutly Buddhist nation, the Burmese people believe that pain and suffering exists from birth to death. They are a tolerant and forgiving people who shun hatred. Monks in their saffron robes line the streets early in the mornings to collect rice and fruit for their morning meal. An interesting experience is to visit a monastery and enjoy breakfast with the monks who reside there.

The typical dress in Myanmar, called the longyi, is worn by both men and women. These long skirts are tied at the waist in one way for men and a different way for women. Cool and comfortable, they can be found in a variety of textures and colors. Women use thanaka cream on their faces applied in many designs, the most common being a circular patch on each cheek. This cream is made from bark and has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years. It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood. In addition to being a popular cosmetic for beauty, thanaka offers protection from sunburn, cools the skin, and helps to promote smooth skin. The effects are evident in the lovely and virtually wrinkle-free skin seen on most women.

Cuisine in Myanmar consists mostly of chicken, fish, pork, and lamb prepared with a variety of spices which result in a unique blend of flavors. Generic Asian dishes as well as Western food can be found in many hotel restaurants. There are two vineyards located in the Inle Lake region that produce relatively presentable red and white wines. One winery was started by a German and another by a French national. Myanmar beer is also served in the restaurants.

Astrology is important in daily life and superstition is still prevalent. The day of the week on which a Burmese is born affects many decisions in daily life. Pagodas have posts for each day of the week where worshippers bring their offerings. Festivals and celebrations are a highlight in the life of Burmese people, with Tingyan, the water festival held in March or April at a time determined by astrologers, finds the entire country halting work and enjoying drenching each other with buckets, pots, and balloons filled with water.

myanmar3Most travelers visit Yangon (formerly Rangoon), home of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda which is covered in gold leaf with a finial full of jewels at the top. As the British explorer, Ralph Fitch once said when he viewed Shwedagon for the first time, “the fairest place I suppose, that is in the world.” Families that basically have only a meager existence give their jewels and purchase gold for the many pagodas that dot the landscape.

Bagan, a World Heritage site famous for more than 2,000 old pagodas is another favorite destination. Comparable to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, it is the former center of Buddhist spirituality and learning. A popular activity in this historic city, also known for its beautiful lacquerware, is a hot air balloon ride over the many pagodas that dominate the horizon. It is a sight to behold!

The beauty and tranquility of Inle Lake and the unusual culture of the Intha people who fish on the lake is a scene not to be missed. Transportation is by boat as residents go to market or work and houses are built on stilts along the river.

balloonsMandalay, the last capital of the Burmese kings, offers the opportunity to cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. If luxury is preferred, Orient Express provides The Road to Mandalay — a 42-cabin boat with 3- and 4-night itineraries. In July, the Orcaella, a new 50 passenger boat will operate from January –April and July –December with 11-night itineraries from Mandalay to Bhamo, 7 nights from Yangon to Bagan, and 11 nights on the Chindwin River in northwest Myanmar.

When visiting temples, shoes and socks are not allowed so it is a good idea to have an ample supply of bacterial wipes on hand. Clothing must cover the shoulders and legs. If men want to wear shorts a practical solution is to purchase a longyi (the long skirt worn by both men and ladies) to be easily put on to cover the legs before entering a temple.

Shopping in Myanmar can be a fascinating experience. Visiting the local markets where one can see a variety of fruits, vegetables and spices myanmar5along with textiles, longyis, baskets, and trinkets is fun. Whether a daily or five-day market where people from the hill tribes sell their wares in five different locations over a five day period, the markets are colorful and bustling. For more luxury items there are locations to purchase lovely weaving and lacquer ware — both of which are favorites to take home as gifts. Silver, woodcraft and other handicrafts are also popular with tourists. Although Myanmar has been famous for gems, most mines are owned by the military and based on reports of the deplorable working conditions in the mines, many US and European companies refuse to import the stones. Human Rights Watch has encouraged a ban on the purchase of Burmese gems for this same reason.

Myanmar6A country that abounds in rich culture, fascinating history, breathtaking beauty and charming people, Myanmar offers the tourist an unforgettable experience in one of the world’s most mysterious and undiscovered destinations. For the traveler interested in adventure and the road less traveled, Myanmar is a must on the list of places to visit before tourism changes the culture.

Planning to Travel in Myanmar? Here are some tips:

The climate in Myanmar has three seasons. The optimal time to travel in Myanmar is from September to February when the daytime temperature is about 80 degrees and the evenings are cool. March to May is the dry season, but extremely hot. The rainy season lasts from June to September.

Passports must be valid for six months after the last date of travel and visas are required by all visitors. To secure a visa, a package tour letter is required along with two pictures, a completed application, and a valid passport to be presented to the nearest Consulate prior to travel. The visa is good for 28 days.

The local currency is Myanmar is the Kyat. There are currently no ATMs for foreign visitors and credit cards are rarely accepted. New, crisp US dollars are required.It is suggested that travelers take denominations of 100, 20, 10, 5, and 1 dollar bills.


Gayle Howard is co-owner and Co-President of New Canaan TravelWorld, a Virtuoso agency located in New Canaan, CT.


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