Planning a trip to Burma
Since opening up to tourism a few years ago, Burma – or Myanmar* – has been one of the hottest travel destinations around. It’s not surprising. Fascinating culture and temples galore, stunning white sand beaches, historic towns, beautiful scenery and little-known tribes make it feel as if you’re discovering somewhere truly off the beaten track.
I had planned my trip in 2011 until the discovery I was pregnant scuppered the plan. With my mini travelling companion in tow for the past three years, I’ve only now been able to rearrange it – look out for the blog posts to come.
Things have already changed in those few short years, so if you’d love to visit, here’s what you need to know if you’re planning a trip to Burma, especially Burma with kids.
All tourists need a visa to enter the country and UK citizens currently have to arrange these in advance. There have been plans for online applications or visa on arrival but for now, you need to apply to the Embassy of Myanmar in London, either in person (10am-12pm only) or by registered post. The visa costs £14 and you’ll need to send a postal order if you’re posting it. You also need two standard passport photos. Find more details and download the visa form here. The embassy asks you to allow three to five days, longer by post, and mine was back in less than a week.
Vaccinations and malaria tablets
If you’re planning to travel outside Yangon and Mandalay, you’ll need antimalarials. Check NHS Fit for Travel for the malaria map and details of immunisations needed but they’re the fairly standard list for this part of the world – diphtheria; Hepatitis A; poliomyelitis; tetanus and typhoid. Malarone (atovaquone and proguanil) is currently the only recommended antimalarial option for children.
The dry season runs from October to May and the rainy season from May/June to early October. October to December are the coolest of the dry months, although still expect heat, while from February temperatures rise until they’re hitting 40C in around April. Although it is possible to travel during the wet months, some internal flights are limited and beach resorts may close. Equally, bear in mind you’ll be restricted by the heat when exploring with younger children during the dry months.
Don’t expect to be able to use your credit or debit cards much here. There are limited ATMs accepting foreign cards in the bigger cities and some tourist centres but it’s still best to bring all the money you’ll need in cash, which means pristine crisp dollar bills, including a mix of demonimations (the larger they are, the better the rates but you don’t want too many big wodges of kyat, the local currency). US dollars are also widely accepted although it’s worth changing some for smaller purchases.
There are no direct flights from the UK to Burma but there are plenty of major airlines to take you there with one stopover, without it costing a fortune. You can fly via Thailand with Thai Airways as well as via the Middle East with Etihad/Emirates. If you’re on a budget, Vietnam Airlines and Air China are among the cheapest, or Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Korean Air cost a little more, if you fancy a stopover there.
If you’re planning to explore widely when you arrive, you’ll need to factor in time for long journeys by road, consider organised tours including cruises on the Ayeyarwady or take internal flights. Burma has several domestic airlines with varying safety records and only a few are recommended, including Air Bagan and AirKBZ. The planes tend to hop around the country’s most popular destinations in a rough circle so a lot of routes will have one flight per day at the same time and it can be worth planning your itinerary to make sure you’re not travelling against the flow. All the airlines are fairly basic although flight times are rarely more than an hour.
If you’re travelling with younger kids, it’s worth looking at private transfers between airports and hotels. Most bigger hotels can arrange these, sometimes complimentary, others for a fee depending how far the airport is from the town. Alternatively companies like Tour Mandalay (who helped arrange part of my trip in conjunction with Insider Journeys) can arrange drivers and guides. None of these are likely to provide car seats but should have air con and seat belts, if you bring travel booster seats. Buses and taxis are a cheaper and more interesting option with older kids (or if you’re happy with smaller ones on your knee/their own seat). Don’t expect seatbelts.
Tourists are only supposed to stay in licensed hotels and guesthouses, so homestays and camping are both technically illegal – if you’re going right off the beaten track, you might find it’s tolerated. Some areas of the country are still off limits to tourists though so if you’re travelling outside the main destinations, doublecheck the latest advice.
Where to go
Entire guidebooks can and have been written about the country, so I’m not attempting to duplicate those – but if you’re looking to see the highlights, this is my pick.
Yangon – you’ll almost certainly start here (or Mandalay) and it’s worth spending at least a couple of days in the city. Don’t miss the magnificent golden Shwedagon pagoda, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, especially at sunset and after dark. The covered Bogyoke Aung San Market, also known as Scott Market, has 2,000 stalls to explore, wander around Kandawgyi Lake, and take the circular train around the city to see some more of local life.
Bagan – over 2,000 temples still stand here, and the image of the stupas in the mist or stretching off into the distance is one of the country’s best-known. You can’t see them all but you shouldn’t miss a few of the best-known or the famous sunset views. If you can’t get enough temples, the historic capital Mrauk U is another great stop. You need to pay a fee to enter the Bagan archaeological zone, costing from $20, and many temples charge smaller camera fees.
Inle Lake – the second of Burma’s best-known sites, you’ll find fisherman rowing with one leg, stilt houses, floating gardens, a travelling market and island temples in this atmospheric spot. There’s also a fee for Inle Lake of $10.
Mandalay – most visitors to this sprawling city are just passing through or spending the day, and while there’s a multicultural flavour in the churches, temples and mosques among the churches, plus craft workshops, it doesn’t demand a long stay.
Pyin oo lwin – founded by the British as the summer capital, an equivalent to India’s hill stations, the town was originally called Maymyo. It’s still a cooler break in the hotter months, with colonial architecture and botanic gardens to discover. For hiking and trekking, the hill town of Kalaw has its own colonial past.
Mount Kyaiktiyo – realistically this is probably only one if you have plenty of time, older kids or are Buddhist as you’ll need a couple of days to divert to the huge golden rock that’s the big attractio. The gilded boulder, which seems precariously balanced on the mountain top, is a major pilgrimage site and one of the country’s most unexpected sights.
Ngapali Beach – the most ‘developed’ stretch of coast, Ngapali is still far more unspoiled and laid-back than most beach destinations on the beautiful Bay of Bengal. It’s also one of the few places you’ll find anything close to a resort or bigger name hotel chain, with the Hilton opening in January 2015.
Ngwe Saung – slightly further down the coast from Ngapali, this slice of beach is even less developed. Perfect if you’re looking for a proper escape, and to sit and do nothing on the sand – which is pretty much all you can do.
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*My sister-in-law, who comes from the country, calls it Burma so I do the same.
Images courtesy of Pixabay