Travel to Myanmar (Burma) is hot. In fact, it is so in demand that hotel accommodations are have to be wrangled by tour operators far in advance. New luxury hotels and river cruises are on the rise, however, in an effort to reach growing demand. Three new Hilton hotels will be opening by 2020 (Bagan in 2019 and Inle Lake in 2020), and as soon as November of this year in Mandalay. Statistics on travel to Myanmar show a 23 per cent increase in tourist arrivals from April to July 2017, over last year, bringing the total number of visitors to 1.06 million over the first four months of fiscal year 2017-18.
Sunrise balloon ride over Pagan
No Burma tour would be complete without seeing the myriad pagodas and temples of Pagan and what better way than in a hot air balloon at sunrise. The Pagan Archaeological Zone is one of the country’s top attractions, covering an area of 67 sq km. Tea and coffee are served while the crew prepare the balloons and a light champagne breakfast is served on landing. Now, balloon rides over Inle Lake are also available, depending on what tours operators you choose.
Morning in Moulmein
The country’s third largest city was once a busy seaport and the administrative capital of British Lower Burma known as ‘Little England’. Today it is a pleasant and quiet town with a rich history lying off the normal tourist trail. Plenty of colonial-style architecture can still be seen, along with brilliantly colored mosques, built for Indian immigrant workers decades ago. Moulmein is also home to Burma’s first Baptist church.
Kicking Back in Kalaw
Located between Mandalay and Inle lake, Kalaw was a popular hill station during the British rule and remains a peaceful place to relax and explore the surrounding countryside for those that travel Myanmar. At an altitude of 4,330 feet, temperatures are pleasantly cooler offering wonderful hiking opportunities through rugged mountains and bamboo groves to remote hill tribe villages. Kalaw has a charming and quaint atmosphere created by its unique mix of ethnic tribal minorities, Burmese, Nepalese and Indians.
Lingering at Ngapali Beach
If you are going to travel to Myanmar, don’t miss the beach. Burma’s most famous beach, on the shores of the Bay of Bengal, has two miles of palm-fringed white sand. Still maintaining its fishing community, there are charming villages nearby that are waiting to be explored, and almost deserted offshore islands that can be visited. Rumor has it the beach was named many years ago by a homesick Italian sailor from Napoli.
Precarious Perch at the Golden Rock Pagoda, Kyaiktiyo
According to legend, the golden rock is precariously perched on a strand of the Buddha’s hair, seemingly defying gravity in its permanently precarious perch in position to be rolling down the hill. Situated at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo, it is the third most important Buddhist pilgrimage site in Burma after the Shwedagon Pagoda and the Mahamuni Pagoda. The Golden Rock Pagoda is built on the top of the granite boulder and covered with gold leaves, which are pasted on by the flow of devoted pilgrims. A glimpse of the ‘gravity defying’ golden rock is believed to be enough of an inspiration to turn anyone to Buddhism.
Slow Boat to Mandalay by River Cruise
Lined with ancient palaces and pagodas, the fascinating Irrawaddy river has stirred the imagination of some of the world’s greatest writers including George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling. There are a variety of boats that cruise the river, ranging from smaller traditional Burmese boats to the two luxurious Orient-Express boats, which sail to the remote villages and ancient monasteries in the north of Burma.
Don’t Do This in Burma
The road to Mandalay may be lined with heavenly beauty but travel to Myanmar is also fraught with hellish peril if you do not obey the rules when you travel to Myanmar – and the rules are mostly this simple: Do Not Do Anything to Disrespect the Religion.
That religion is Buddhism. And while the nature of the Buddha is to be tolerant, patient and forgiving, the Burmese people will demonstrate anything but those qualities if they perceive transgression or disrespect, not matter what color passport an offender is holding.
As recently as this year, a Russian woman was arrested and sentenced to six months of hard labor in a Myanmar prison for wearing shoes inside sacred shrines. Now it must be noted that patience was tested. She was given ample warning and asked to remove her shoes at these pagodas. Eventually the Burmese police had to get involve and inform her she was in violation of Section 295 of the country’s penal code: remove the shoes or else. According to Australian news reports, she chose the “or else.”
The charge can warrant a jail term of up to two years plus a fine. When the perp refused to pay the fine, the judge sentenced her to only a month in prison. But that term did not take in to consideration that she was also in violation of Section 13(1) of the Immigration Act, which lists the customs and traditions tourists must follow while in Myanmar. For that, she received the minimum sentence of six months in prison with hard labor. A maximum sentence is five years.
Other tourist violators have met with equally harsh consequences in the past few years. In 2016, it was reported that a Dutch tourist trying to sleep off jetlag in a hostel in Mandalay, took action when a nearby Buddhist center began broadcasting devotionals from a loud speaker. The tourist found the speaker and unplugged it so he could get some rest and was quickly apprehended, found in violation of one of the country’s move coveted laws and sentenced to three months of hard labor in a local prison.
In 2015, a New Zealander was sentenced to six months of hard labor for distributing flyer of a psychedelic Buddha wearing headphones in an effort to promote drinks and tapas at a local bar and lounge. That means covering up the Buddha tats and hiding offensive cartoons.
Other words of advice: don’t point with your foot; don’t touch anyone on the head; don’t call out for someone while pointing your finger upward; don’t disturb a person in prayer or meditation; never touch a monk’s robe; and don’t kiss in public.
Finally, Myanmar is breeding a new kind of extreme political fervor. Extremist Buddhist monks are calling on the elimination and decimation of Muslim populations, called the Rohingya in the north. In recent weeks, villages have emptied out and set a course on foot (and barefoot) for Bangladesh. It is not clear how this conflict will be resolved.
Myanmar Official Website – Moip.gov.mm
Best of Burma: Not to be Missed List – Tours.com