Myanmar (Burma), Myanmar
Once a pariah state, Myanmar – previously known as Burma – is fast becoming the must-see destination in Southeast Asia, helped by an incredible array of tourist sights: golden stupas as tall as skyscrapers, ancient ruins, fascinating hill tribes, unexplored jungles, peaceful beach resorts, legions of monks, and mesmerising cities made legendary by writers like Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
Ruled by a secretive military junta, Burma was closed for decades to the outside world. When it finally opened, travellers were initially restricted to a handful of locations: the magnificent temples of Bagan, the floating villages of Inle Lake, the monasteries of Mandalay, and Yangon, the former capital, with its colonial relics and towering pagodas.
That was then. With the end of the travel boycott called by Aung San Suu Kyi, travellers are queuing up to visit Myanmar, captivated by the idea of seeing what Asia was like before the tourists arrived. Nevertheless, the government still controls where visitors can go and what they can see, and many people have qualms that their tourist dollars help fund the military regime, which stands accused of widespread abuses.
Those who do visit discover a fascinating, and famously friendly culture on the threshold between tradition and modernity. Monasteries are the foundation of Burmese society and even in rapidly expanding Yangon life is focused on Buddhist rituals. The sense of devotion is tangible at the awe-inspiring Shwedagon Paya, which towers over Yangon like an enormous golden pillar.
As Myanmar has opened up to the outside world, travellers have pushed beyond the Bagan-Inle-Mandalay triangle, visiting peaceful outposts like Kalaw, Hsipaw and Kengtung and trekking to remote tribal villages. Smaller numbers make it to the jungles of northern Myanmar or the rain-drenched ports of the far south and west. Myanmar even has its own patch of the Himalaya, accessed from remote Putao in the far north.
Through it all, the mighty Irrawaddy River snakes like a twisting Burmese python, offering some of the most atmospheric river journeys in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, Myanmar remains a controversial destination, promising significant challenges as well as rewarding experiences.
Since the appointment of the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in March 2011, headed by President Thein Sein, there have been encouraging political reforms. The National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was able to re-register as an official political party in late 2011. The NLD took part in largely free and fair by-elections in April 2012, winning the majority of the seats contested. Several hundred political prisoners have been released, though many still remain in jail. The government has signed initial peace agreements with a number of ethnic armed groups.
Burma has suffered from prolonged internal conflicts, involving a number of non-state armed groups from Burma’s ethnic States. Most of these groups have now signed ceasefires with the Burmese government. There is no formal ceasefire as yet in Kachin State. The possibility of violent clashes remains in ethnic States including Shan, Rakhine, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Karen, and Mon.
Censorship has been significantly eased. New legislation passed by Parliament offers greater freedoms of assembly and movement, and the right to form trade unions.
However, the political situation remains potentially unsettled. Restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, religion, and political activity remain, and foreign nationals have been arrested, imprisoned and deported in the past for criticising the government in public. Parliamentary elections were held on 8 November. There is potential for heightened political tension and unrest following election day. Avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings. Don’t take photographs or videos of the police, any demonstrations, military installations or military personnel.
In the past, there have been acts of politically motivated violence around public holidays like Armed Forces Day (27 March) and Martyrs Day (19 July). On other anniversaries, like the 8 August 1988 uprising against the government and the September 2007 protests, you can expect to see an increase in security forces in Rangoon and elsewhere in Burma.
There are no accurate crime statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there have been occasional instances of violent crime against foreigners, including muggings, burglaries and petty thefts. Homes occupied by foreigners and hotels have been targeted in the past. You should take extra care of your belongings and take sensible security precautions at all times.
Local travel - Rakhine State
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Rakhine State, except the tourist resort of Ngapali only and travel to/from the resort via Thandwe airport. This is due to continued tension following serious civil unrest in 2012. There were outbreaks of violence in late 2013 and early 2014. There remains a risk that the situation could worsen without warning. A night-time curfew in parts of Rakhine State was lifted in September. Curfews may be re-imposed at short notice. Seek local advice and follow any official instructions.
If you’re travelling to Ngapali you should only access the resort via Thandwe airport which is located next to the resort itself. You should monitor local developments and keep in close contact with your tour operator in case the security situation changes. British nationals working for NGOs and other companies should keep in close contact with their organisations.
Local travel - Kachin State
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to Kachin State (except the towns of Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao) due to a continued risk of armed conflict there. If you are travelling to Myitkyina, Bhamo and Putao, you should monitor local developments and keep in close contact with your tour operator in case the security situation there changes. The Burmese authorities are currently restricting travel between Myitkyina and Bhamo: travel to and between these two towns is permitted by air only.
Local travel - Shan State
The FCO advises against all but essential travel to the Kokang Self Administered Zone in the northern part of Shan State. A state of emergency, declared after heavy fighting broke out in February, was lifted on 17 November, but the situation remains unpredictable.
There are frequent outbursts of fighting in central Shan State and the north of South Shan State. If you’re travelling in the area, you should monitor local developments and keep in close contact with your tour operator. There have been unconfirmed reports of explosive devices being placed close to the Mandalay-Lashio road between Kyaukme and Hsipaw.
Local travel - border areas
Be particularly vigilant and exercise caution in border areas. There is ongoing military activity close to borders with Thailand, Laos and China especially in Shan, Karen, Mon and Kachin States. There have been several recent clashes in Karen State (Myawaddy) and Mon State (Kyaik Mayaw), and an armed attack on a passenger bus in Karen State. Two Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) were found in Myawaddy, Karen State in September 2014. Land mines also pose a threat in conflict areas. The Burmese government restricts travel to most border areas.
There are a limited number of legal crossing points, but these could close without notice: Tachilek (Burma Shan State) - Mae Sai (northern Thailand border), KawThoung (Burma Tanintharyi) - Ranong-Kawthoung (southern Thailand border), Muse (Burma Shan State) - Ruili (China border), Tamu (Burma Chin State) - Morei (India border), Myawaddy (Burma Karen State) - Mae Sot (western Thailand border).
Burmese immigration officers may ask to hold your passport until your visit is complete. Don’t attempt to cross any border illegally or enter restricted areas without the appropriate permissions from the Burmese authorities. Even after getting permission, you may experience difficulties with the local authorities.
Local travel - destinations subject to limitations
The Ministry of Hotels, Tourism and Sport maintains a list of approved destinations. Tourists can visit Rangoon, Mandalay, Bago and Irrawaddy regions without restrictions. Other destinations are subject to limitations (eg access by air or train but not by road). For more information, contact the Burmese Ministry of Tourism.
There are concerns over safety standards of some airlines operating within Burma. The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes a list of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices. This list is not exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unsafe.
In 2010 the International Civil Aviation Organisation carried out an audit of the level of implementation of the critical elements of safety oversight in Burma.
A domestic flight carrying a number of tourists crashed in December 2012. A list of recent incidents and accidents can be found on the website of the Aviation Safety Network.
Airlines routinely share flight codes, meaning that airlines sometimes use aircraft from outside their own fleet. Passengers aren’t always advised in advance where this is the case.
Local flight schedules are subject to change without warning. Leave sufficient time in your travel itinerary to accommodate this.
Railway equipment is poorly maintained. Fatal rail crashes occur, although they may not always be reported.
You can’t use a UK licence or an International Driving Permit to drive in Burma. You must apply for a Myanmar Driving Licence at the Department for Road Transport and Administration in Rangoon.
Overland travel can be hazardous, particularly in the rainy season (May to October). Roads can become impassable and bridges damaged. Travel by road between many areas outside the key destinations of Rangoon, Mandalay, Bago and Irrawaddy regions is restricted. Check with your tour operator or the Ministry of Hotels, Tourism and Sport before travelling.
Under Burmese law, the driver of a car involved in an accident with a pedestrian is always at fault. Many vehicles, including taxis and buses, are in a poor mechanical state, and serious road traffic accidents are common. Although Burma drives on the right, the majority of cars are right hand drive, which can make driving hazardous.
FCO staff are advised to avoid travel where possible on the main Mandalay-Naypyitaw-Rangoon road at night, due to bad lighting and poor road surfacing.
Many buses and taxis in Burma run on compressed natural gas. There have been reports of injuries to passengers caused by exploding gas cylinders.
Sea and river travel
Seek local advice about where it is safe to swim or dive in the sea. River transport may not meet internationally recognised safety standards and search and rescue facilities may be limited.
During the monsoon season (normally May to October), heavy rains can cause flooding. Check the weather before undertaking any river journey.
International GSM roaming is not available in Burma, and UK SIM cards won’t work. SIM cards from Thailand and Singapore may work on local networks.
Things to do in Myanmar (Burma)