Understanding Burma... past to present
Ever wondered what Burma is like, or why so few people you know have been there? Here we offer insights into a country that is being added to more and more travellers’ wish lists.
Hidden BurmaSouth-east Asian destinations are incredibly popular with tourists, yet Burma has, until recently, remained somewhat far from most tourists' radars. The reason can be largely found in the country's troubled political history, with approximately 50 years of military/junta rule creating critical problems. During the 1990s and early 2000s, this was particularly in the public eye owing to acts such as the displacement of locals and even forced labour – something that, of course, had a direct impact on travellers' willingness to travel, believing that any money they spent would simply fuel a corrupt regime. Supporting travellers' fears was Aung San Suu Kyi, an immensely popular and powerful political figure both in Burma and internationally, who called for a complete boycott of tourism to the country. To a lesser extent, its lack of tourism infrastructure impacted the level of travel to the nation, simply because it made travelling here difficult.
A catalyst for changeAfter approximately 50 years of relative isolation from the rest of the world, Burma is becoming a destination on the tip of everyone's tongue. A major catalyst for change has been the end of military rule and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, who went on to announce that she would welcome responsible tourism.
Together, these factors represented a turning point for Burma in terms of tourism, and since Aung San Suu Kyi's declaration in particular, travellers have been considering Burma more and more. And yet, there is more at play here. While the above landmarks have, undoubtedly, had a massive impact on both life in Burma and how it is perceived by the travel community, other factors have played a role. There is now far less censorship, for example, and greater freedom, while the country is becoming more economically stable, with money starting to filter down to the people, rather than being concentrated in the junta's hands.
A time of transitionHaving undergone significant transformation over the past four years, Burma has made great political and economic strides. However, it is important to recognise that this country is still very much in transition, and has some way to go before it can truly say it is a democratic nation.
What's more, the changes at ground level in the country, while on the whole positive, have had some less welcome side effects. Greater freedom within the country, for instance, has led to conflict between certain religious and ethnic sects. Typically not occurring in destinations travellers would usually explore, these difficulties are nonetheless worth taking note of, simply with a view to better understanding the political and cultural shifts ongoing in Burma today.
The magic of BurmaSo what is behind Burma's seemingly irresistible appeal as a travel destination? Perhaps it is its utter uniqueness and its mystery, the latter of which stems from it having being virtually cut off from the West for almost five decades – people want to see this hidden country for themselves.
There is a diversity of the landscape, with each province having a very distinct look, and the unique culture. Perhaps most interestingly, it possesses qualities which other south-east Asian countries, having become more commercialised over the years, have lost. Burma remains, for the moment, a relatively untouched country. However, you may want to visit Burma sooner rather than later, as the country is likely to become much more modernised as time goes on.
DestinationsBurma possesses a wonderful selection of destinations to choose from, each of which has a unique character. Among the most fascinating and captivating is Pagan, which is one of the country's ancient capitals. Centuries ago, during a period of religious fervour, this city was filled with temples and stupas of all shapes and sizes – and today it is a remarkable experience simply to stroll among them, drinking in the different structural styles and decor, and imagining what it was like in its heyday.
The famous old hill station of Mandalay is another highlight, with its monasteries indicative of the country's Buddhist beliefs. Home to a famous 13 ft high Buddha image, Mahamuni Pagoda is one of the best places to visit in Mandalay. Being an important place of pilgrimage, it draws thousands of visitors each day, making people-watching just as much a part of a trip here as anything else. One of the most beautiful destinations in Burma, Inle Lake is another of its highlights. Surrounded by mountains, this tranquil lake is topped with floating villages and floating markets and can be explored by boat; look out for the unique rowing style of the local residents, which involves balancing on one leg.
ExperiencesOf all the wonderful experiences it is possible to have in Pagan, perhaps one of the most memorable is taking a hot air balloon ride over the spectacular spires of Pagan – something that you can do either at sunrise or sunset. And if this appeals to you, be mindful that this type of activity is usually available between November and February, so you may need to time your visit accordingly. A sunset cruise just off Mandalay's famous U Bein Bridge is another memorable way to see the country from a different perspective - and, of course, to admire this famous landmark.
Over in Rangoon, taking high tea at the Governor's Residence is an excellent way to experience colonial influences. Whatever you decide to do, a visit to the pristine Ngapali Beach is an unbeatable way to round off your holiday. Utterly unspoiled, the clean, peaceful white sands here are the ideal place to unwind and contemplate all you have seen, experienced and discovered before you return home. View Cox & Kings' holidays to Burma > Or call a Far East specialist on 020 7873 5000. Share: