Hidden Burma opens the doors to travellers

With the the travel boycott lifted, tourists are being encouraged to explore hidden Burma for the first time in 15 years. It’s also one of Lonely Planet’s Top 10 country destinations for 2012.

The opposition-inspired tourism boycott of Burma – backed by many Western countries – was lifted late 2010. The party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured below) said last November it would now welcome foreign travellers. Suu Kyi, under house arrest for about 17 of the past 20 years, is able to move around her country with some degree of freedom.

Pro-democracy activists now encourage tourism as a way to get money into the hands of locals, as long as you avoid the government-run hotels and eat in local restaurants instead.  Which isn’t as easy as it sounds, as travel within Burma is restricted to officially designated tourist areas. Activists feel the government might reduce its ugly side, such as child labour and other human rights abuses, if tourist eyes are seeing the country up close and personal.

Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the punitive regime that has now loosened its grip, but this name is not widely recognised abroad.The country is on the Bay of Bengal in South-East Asia, with Bangladesh and India to the west.  Burma was once one of the richest countries in Asia, but constant political turmoil caused it to slide into poverty due to widespread corruption.

What is there to see and do in Burma? The cultural influence is Indian, with a bit of Chinese, and the Theravada Buddhist temples are a major attraction. No matter how poor a village is, it will still have a beautiful temple.

Venerable travel company Cox & Kings has a Golden Land of Burma tour. This 11-day escorted small group journey is priced from $A2059 per person twin share. Highlights include the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the monasteries of Mandalay, former British hill station Maymyo, Ananda Temple in ancient Pagan and beautiful Inle Lake, which is famous for its floating villages and leg-rowing Intha people.

If you’re already in Asia and planning to visit, a same-day visa can be issued at the Burmese (Myanmar) embassy in Bangkok. Tell the visa office you are leaving the following day.  You’ll get your visa later that same day by 4:30pm. Burma was once a British colony and English is still widely spoken.

This is the Australian government’s travel check list for Burma, which is probably similar to those issued by most countries:

  •    Avoid all demonstrations and street rallies as they may turn violent. Avoid taking photographs of demonstrations, the military or police as this may not be tolerated by the Burmese authorities.
  • The frequency of bomb attacks in Burma has increased, including in Rangoon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. Attacks have occurred or have been planned in areas frequented by tourists and expatriates, including shopping centres, supermarkets, markets, hotels, transportation hubs, on public transport and other public venues. Further attacks could occur at any time.
  • Don’t travel to the areas near the border with China, Laos and Thailand because of the risk of ethnic conflict, banditry and unmarked landmines.
  • Travel within Burma is restricted to officially designated tourist areas. You can minimise delays and disruption by obtaining permission from the Burmese tourist authorities before travelling outside Rangoon.
  • It is illegal to drive in Burma without a valid Burmese driver’s licence. Driving in Burma may be dangerous because of aggressive driving practices, poorly maintained vehicles and roads, livestock and pedestrians on the road and the lack of street lighting.
  • Public transport within Burma, including air and rail travel, often does not meet international safety standards.
  • Internet service is unreliable and not readily available in Burma, particularly outside Rangoon. Access to the internet is expensive, heavily restricted. Telephone network is unreliable and limited to cities and large towns. It is difficult to make international calls from Burma. International GSM roaming is not available and only Burmese SIM cards will work.

More info on the Burma tour:  reservations@coxandkings.com.au or visit coxandkings.com.au.

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