Until just a few years ago, the idea of travelling to Burma for a holiday would have been almost unthinkable. Decades of rule by a secretive military dictatorship had isolated the country from the wider world, there had been little investment in tourism infrastructure and human rights campaigners had called for foreign tourists to boycott the country altogether.
However, the political situation in Burma is beginning to change and in the county’s recent general election, the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory. Burma is now opening up to foreign travellers, and increasing numbers of tourists are discovering the unspoiled charm of this beautiful country each year. Home to more than 130 distinct ethnic groups, lush rainforests, white sandy beaches and countless Buddhist temples and pagodas, it’s the epitome of the exotic Orient.
Most visitors arrive in Yangon, or Rangoon as it’s also known. It’s Burma’s biggest city, though no longer the capital, which moved to Naypyidaw in 2005. Dominating the city is the 99-metre high Shwedagon Pagoda, covered with gold and adorned with thousands of diamonds. The building holds a number of sacred treasures, including strands of the Buddha’s hair. Rangoon is said to have the greatest concentration of British Raj-era architecture in Southeast Asia, and although these once grand buildings have been neglected for many years, there are efforts being made to preserve these historical landmarks. One of the best preserved is the Strand Hotel, dating from 1901. Once declared ‘the finest hostelry east of Suez’, today, it is once again operating as a luxury hotel.
Resting on a bend of the Irrawaddy River, the city of Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire, which unified many of the lands which constitute modern day Burma some 800 years ago. It’s an important religious centre, and more than 2,200 temples and pagodas, many dating back to the 11th century, still stand here. Marco Polo wrote that Bagan was ‘one of the finest sights in the world’, and you may well find yourself agreeing with him as you admire these impressive structures with their elaborate carvings and statues, which are now among Burma’s biggest tourist draws.
Another of Burma’s most popular attractions is tranquil Inle Lake, ringed by the traditional stilt-houses of the local fishermen, who are known for their unique leg-rowing technique. There are opportunities to cruise across the lake and visit villages, markets, workshops and temples and of course, to sample delicious regional specialities.
Due to its long isolation from outside influences, social attitudes in Burma are much more conservative than in nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Many Burmese men and women still wear the traditional longyi sarong, and you will rarely see people with bare knees or shoulders. To avoid causing offence, visitors should refrain from wearing revealing clothing, especially around religious sites. It is also considered impolite to take people’s photographs without first asking permission. Public displays of affection are frowned upon, as is pointing at anyone (or anything) with your feet. And of course, trying a few words of Burmese will always be appreciated by your hosts.