IT’S rare that a country bursts onto the tourism scene with quite as much vigor as Myanmar. After decades of isolation, it is Asia’s newest hot spot, offering richly layered history, spectacular natural beauty and the edginess that comes with a country still in transition.
Since the ruling military junta began to loosen its grip on the government in November 2010, signs of progress — like the release of some political prisoners earlier this year and elections scheduled for April 1, with the opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi running for a seat in Parliament — have led Western nations, including the United States, to consider dropping long-held economic sanctions.
But a visit to the country, also known as Burma, can be a bit tricky. Here, then, is a cheat sheet for a visit.
BEFORE YOU GO
Although it is now possible to get a visa on arrival, travel agents recommend having one in hand before your trip begins. Arrangements take up to three weeks and can be made via travel agents or directly through the Myanmar Embassy in Washington.
Most tourists visit during the dry season, from November to February. Vaccinations are not required, but Myanmar travel experts like Eric Kareus, the Asia destination manager at Asia Transpacific Journeys, recommend making sure your tetanus, typhoid and polio shots are up-to-date, and getting a hepatitis A vaccination. He added that travelers to remote areas, especially during the summer monsoon season, should consider prophylactic malarial medication.
Since Myanmar’s economy is still cash based, plan to pack enough crisp, new dollars (accepted almost everywhere) for expenses, or settle lodging and flights in advance through a travel agent.
Although Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon, is served from most major Asian hubs (there are no direct flights from the United States), the shortest and most convenient connections are from Bangkok. Depending on the season, up to eight flights a day — including service by AirAsia, a regional low-cost carrier — make the 90-minute trip. Well-maintained regional jets link major cities within the country.
Accommodations generally provide excellent value (especially compared with neighboring Thailand) and range from smallish luxury properties in Yangon to friendly family-run hotels and tropical boutique resorts in other key areas. Thanks to the British colonial legacy, English is widely spoken in the major tourist areas.
Karen MacRae, a senior destination expert at Kensington Tours, said Myanmar is safe for families and described it as “a whole country full of gentle people.” However, rebel groups in northern regions of the country, so tourists should stick to the south and central areas. But crime statistics are low specifically mentions that “violent crime against foreigners is rare” — and the Burmese generally welcome visitors.
As in many developing countries, travelers should drink bottled water only and avoid raw food except at tourist-friendly restaurants.
WHAT TO EAT
Which isn’t to say that adventurous eating shouldn’t be high on your agenda. Burmese cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors: India, China, Thailand. Ms. MacRae, who lived in Myanmar for two years, recommended lighter dishes like laphet, a pickled tea-leaf salad, and mohinga, a fish broth-based noodle soup “akin to Vietnamese pho” and best eaten, she said, at a Yangon street stall.
WHERE TO GO
The classic Myanmar itinerary begins in Yangon, where visitors will want to spend at least a day visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda — a towering stupa covered in pure gold — wandering among the colonial-era buildings downtown and bargaining for local crafts at the covered Scott Market.
Bagan, a dusty region 300 miles north of Yangon along the Irrawaddy River, is studded with thousands of bell-shaped stupas, brick temples and castlelike structures that date from the 11th to 13th centuries. Bagan can be reached from Yangon by air or via comfortable cruise boats that ply the Irrawaddy to and from Mandalay, in the central area of the country.
Both Lake Inle, in ethnically diverse Shan State, and Ngapali Beach, along the country’s western Bay of Bengal shoreline, are good places for low-key R & R, with new resorts opening regularly. Emerging destinations include the pristine Mergui Archipelago in the southeast, great for snorkeling, and Mrauk-U, a 15th-century royal capital in the southwestern state of Rakhine.
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