With dense forests, beautiful mountain trails, friendly people, rich cultures (including those of numerous ethnic minorities) and relatively underdeveloped coastal resorts, Myanmar – previously known as Burma – is certainly an appealing corner of Asia.
The hundreds of magnificent temples dotting the plains of Bagan are an obvious highlight, superbly photogenic and rewarding when explored over several days by bicycle or horse and cart. Other popular tourist stops include the large and placid Inle Lake, where you can take a boat out to visit local markets, workshops and stilt villages, and the collection of former capitals around Mandalay – itself a good place to see traditional cultural performances. The former capital Yangon is the main point of entry to the country and has an engaging mix of ill-maintained colonial buildings, magnificent Buddhist temples and animated markets.
Fewer people make it to towns like Hsipaw and Kengtung, each of them the jumping off points for great hikes to minority villages, or to the southeastern town of Hpa-an where the surrounding countryside is full of easily-accessible attractions such as Buddhist cave art. With the rivers, particularly the Irrawaddy, so important to the life of the country, river trips are a great way to get around: options range from luxury cruises to multi-day journeys aboard local ferries, with regular tourist boats between Bagan and Mandalay coming somewhere in between.
It’s fair to say that there’s enough in Myanmar for the standard 28-day visa to seem far too short. Historically, however, the unstable political situation has detracted from Myanmar's credentials as an alluring tourist destination and for a long time would-be tourists faced a difficult choice. On the one hand, Myanmar has many attractions and tourists were welcomed with open arms by locals hungry for news of the outside world as well as for their economic contribution. On the other hand the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy, advocated a boycott on all tourism since it gave funds to the military regime which had suspended the democratic process and was engaged in violent oppression of the country’s ethnic minorities.
Since 2012 the nominally civilian government has been making tentative steps towards democracy, and Myanmar has become a rising star among Asian tourist destinations. Foreign investors have been given the go-ahead since most sanctions have been dropped, despite ongoing abuses of human rights particularly in minority areas.
Tourist numbers have rocketed, to the extent that – particularly at the budget and mid-range levels – there are simply not enough hotel beds to go around during the peak season (November to February) in major tourist centres. This is one country where even backpackers should consider booking ahead. In fact it’s a country where preparation is essential in a variety of ways, whether it’s sorting out money (since ATMs are only just starting to work with foreign cards, and cannot be relied upon) or planning a route.
The latter is important since large areas of Myanmar are out of bounds owing either to their sensitive border status or to ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority groups. Some of these restricted areas can be visited with permits, although these are typically difficult to obtain and few visitors attempt to do so. Rules change regularly and without warning, so it’s a good idea to check before travelling if you hope to visit anywhere off the normal tourist routes.
In the end, only individual travellers can decide whether or not to visit Myanmar. Certainly some of your money will end up with the government and its cronies, some of whom are still subject to international sanctions. On the other hand, by doing your research and spending accordingly you can make sure that as much as possible goes to the ordinary people who wish to welcome you to their country.