Burma, or officially Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is a Southeast Asian country famous for jade, rubies, the Irrawaddy River and Aung San Suu Kyi. There have been surprising political changes in Myanmar in the last five years. The two most significant are the end of a half-century military rule in 2011 following the 2010 elections and the release of democratic party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, 21 years after she was put under house arrest. Military influence is still felt in Myanmar but ease in overly strict policies is starting to come about such as ending press censorship and release of some political prisoners. Human rights violations still haunt Myanmar like the displacement of various ethnic groups and child and forced labor.
Three Capital Cities
In 2006, the nation’s capital was moved from Yangon to Naypyidaw in central Myanmar, about 320 km north of the old capital. Officially, the reason for the move was because Yangon has become too congested, leaving no room for expansion. However, speculations continue to swirl that Naypyidaw was built only out of paranoia over foreign attacks and/or regime change.
Naypyidaw, or literally Abode of Kings, is a well-planned city but a rather desolate one, owing it largely to its location in the middle of nowhere. Almost everything in Naypyidaw is grand—hotels, ministry buildings, museums, houses and even the flowery roundabouts. The roads are wide. Its four- (or five-) lane streets could land a commercial aircraft and would make a great stage for mass demonstrations.
Situated in the south, between two rivers, Yangon and Bago, the former capital, Yangon, is Myanmar’s largest city. Its streets are always packed—locals everywhere walking or on bikes, Buddhist monks in saffron robes roaming about. To a curious tourist, the terrible rush hour traffic could be one of the best opportunities to observe life in the city known during the colonial times as Rangoon.
Yangon is a lot like Manila—old. Only there are more abandoned colonial infrastructures in Yangon than in the Philippine capital. But not all will remain abandoned as there are plans to renovate these colonial buildings and turn it into hotels and commercial centers. Meanwhile, some of the urban poor are already putting these abandoned buildings into good use as free commercial and residential space.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar, about 700 km north of Yangon. It is a little known fact that the famous hotel-casino and Manny Pacquiao boxing venue Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas was named after this city. There is no actual bay in Mandalay but a hill called Mandalay Hill. It is a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site that also offers a commanding view of the last royal capital of Burma.
Though tagged as the center of Burmese culture, Mandalay has been largely influenced by the Chinese. Its proximity to China and it being the center of trade between India, China and Burma invited many Chinese traders to settle there. Thus, locals jokingly describe Mandalay as more Chinese than Burmese.
Almost everything in Myanmar is state-owned—mineral claims, transportation services, radio and television stations and the list goes on. Foreign travelers must be warned that mobile phones, even on roaming, would not work outside Yangon. And even within Yangon, only phone calls can be made, text messages would not go through.
Mass media are state-controlled. Cable TV only has news channels, a few movie and sports channels, a Burmese channel and another Burmese channel. In some (or most) areas, no English channels can be viewed but there is a wide variety of Burmese, Thai, Chinese, Lao and Nepalese channels to choose from.
The Internet can only be accessed in major hotels in big cities.
Transportation is no different. Bus lines are mostly state-run as are ferry and train services. Cars are far too expensive for most citizens hence the streets of Myanmar are teeming with bicycles and motorcycles.
One thing that the state must be focusing on is the safety of Burmese motorists on the road, like passing a seatbelt law, imposing speed limits or a strict implementation of driving on the right (or left) side of the road. Vehicles in Myanmar have been driven on the right side of the road since the 1970s, however, imported vehicles which are mostly right-hand drives, are never converted to left-hand drive. The result is a confusing and dangerous driving style that almost always gets passengers on the edge of their seats.
The Social Structure
As abrupt as the Sagaing Fault changes the relief of Myanmar, the Burmese way of life changes past the city limits. Many third world countries face the same issue of a widening gap between its rich and poor citizens. The middle class is a disappearing member of Myanmar’s society. And while the upper class continues to prosper from the country’s riches and the loosening of sanctions from first world countries, the lower class doesn’t seem to benefit from Myanmar’s positive changes.
A huge chunk of the Burmese population is in the countryside. And the people from these marginalized communities have limited access to information, decent health care and quality education as these needs have been made expensive and for them.
After being isolated for years, thanks to the military junta and economic sanctions, Myanmar is now reintroducing itself to the world. And what better way to do that than through tourism. From food trips to meditation retreats to sightseeing and bike tours, there sure is something for every type of tourist or traveler in Myanmar.
Flights to Myanmar are not hard to come by anymore. There are no direct flights from Manila to Yangon yet but budget carriers such as Jetstar and AirAsia fly direct to Myanmar from other Southeast Asian cities such as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
Taxis are also available as are rental cars for exploring the country but for the budget traveler taking buses, motorcycles and rickshaws is the best way to get around Myanmar.
Accommodation in big cities shouldn’t be a problem. It is important to know that the number of tourists in Myanmar peaks during November to February therefore hotel rates skyrocket, double to triple the regular rates.
Credit cards are only accepted in major establishments, so expect that outside the big cities credit cards are useless. It might also be good to bring a long wallet to keep US dollar bills uncreased as establishments and money changers do favor new and clean banknotes. Also, make sure to have enough kyats (Burmese currency pronounced as chats) if travelling to the countryside or even shopping/bargain-hunting in cities. A bag is necessary after exchanging clean and crisp dollars into kyats because kyats come in bundles. A US dollar is about 1,030 kyats as of January 2015.
My top five destinations in Myanmar are:
- Mandalay. Experience Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem here. Dine in riverside restaurants along the Irrawaddy and daydream of the old times while sipping tea. Also prepare bundles of kyats as silk fabric, various tapestries, traditional skirts (called longyi) are sold here at a relatively low price.
- Yangon. Colonial buildings evoking nostalgia. The bustling street life. The Shwedagon Pagoda dominating the city skyline. Never skip the chance to explore the old capital for a feel of the true Burmese city life.
- Bagan. Go pagoda-hopping or take a hot air balloon ride at dawn and watch the rising sun gently light up thousands of pagodas scattered on the plains of this ancient city.
- Ngapali Beach. Best to bask in the sun along Myanmar’s west coast before hotel chains start staking claims on its white sand beach. Pick a spot along its two-mile beach for a dramatic view of the sun setting over the Andaman Sea.
- Mt. Popa. How about a pilgrimage to a monastery atop a 737-m high volcanic plug called Taungkalat? Alternatively, conquer the Mother Hill, or Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano standing at 1,518m above sea level in central Myanmar.
Originally written in 2012 as part of a geologic report on central and northern Myanmar.