Burma (Myanmar) is an enigmatic land of golden pagodas, natural wonders and smiling faces, but one we've felt unable to promote in the past. The positive announcement, however, of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to end her party's 15-year boycott of tourism has opened once again the widely debated issue of whether or not to take a holiday in Burma. [See Burma itinerary ideas]
Far less controversial is the question over Burmese hospitality. A deep-rooted belief in Buddhism and an - albeit enforced - isolation from Western excesses have helped to preserve a kindliness of spirit in the local Burmese that is truly affecting. With no Burmese word for tourist, visitors are greeted quite sincerely as ‘guests', and if there's only one thing you take with you from your tailor-made holiday in Burma, it will likely be memories of its gentle, friendly people - considerate, inquisitive, humorous and helpful.
You would, of course, have been travelling blind if that really was all you took from the country, for as Kipling once wrote, Burma is ‘unlike any place you know about'. There are towering temples and sacred stupas, untracked jungles and lofty mountains, grandiose ruins of empires past and mile upon mile of emerald rice paddies and empty beaches. From colonial Rangoon to royal Mandalay, the Irrawaddy River to the plains of Pagan, this beautiful yet beleaguered country is one of Asia's finest treasures.
Whether to go
There's no denying that Burma's recent history has been tragically overshadowed by the actions of its military junta, yet many who decide to visit believe the drip-drip effect of tourism will be the factor most likely to bring about change. Among these voices has been opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has declared that the boycott of tourism to Burma should be lifted, provided tourists deal with non-government hotels and companies.
We believe it's not our place to make moral judgments on where individuals choose to travel - on the contrary, our advice would be to make your decisions based on your own informed consideration of the issues at stake.
Currently, none of the hotels we feature have any junta affiliations, but as the situation in Burma is constantly changing, we recommend you speak to one of our Asia specialists for up-to-date advice. They'll be happy to discuss your travel options with you and to direct you to resources where the issues are debated, helping you to make an informed decision.
When to go
"Rainfall in Burma is violent. Before I knew it, I was shut in by a thick spray. I could hardly breathe - I felt as if I were swimming. After a while the rain stopped and the sky cleared. All at once the landscape brightened and a vast rainbow hung across the sky. The mist was gone, as if a curtain had been lifted. And there, under the rainbow, the farmers were singing and ploughing again."
Michio Takeyama, Harp of Burma
Burma has three seasons. In the hot season from March to April, temperatures can reach 36°C in Rangoon. A long rainy from May to October is followed by a 'cool' season from November to February, the peak season for visitors, when noontime temperatures in Rangoon are around 32°C, falling to around 19°C at night. Mandalay is slightly cooler, with temperatures falling as low as 13°C. In the highlands around Inle Lake and Pyin U Lwin, winter temperatures can fall below 10°C at night, and daytimes are mild. Even in the summer, temperatures rarely climb above 32°C. In Kachin on the Indian border are mountains with permanent snow cover.
"I return to Burma often in my dreams and thoughts... I want to take you there too, so you can feel the preciousness of our beautiful culture and singular human experience, so that you recognise in our struggle the struggle of all people for dignity, self-determination and freedom."
Zoya Phan, Little Daughter
Capital - Nay Pyi Taw
Size - 676,552 sq km
Language - Burmese, indigenous ethnic languages
Population - 60 million (2012)
Religion - 89% Buddhist; 4% Christian, 4% Islamic, 1% Hindu, 2% other
Currency - 1 kyat = 100 pyas
Time zone - GMT+ 6 hours 30 minutes
Flight time - London to Rangoon 12-19 hours (via Doha, Bangkok, Singapore)
Burma's national festivals are intertwined with Theravada Buddhist rituals celebrating the ebb and flow of life. The major festivals are:
February/March (moveable) - Full Moon of Tabaung. Merit-making day for Buddhists marking the last month of the year in the traditional Burmese calendar, centred on Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon and temples throughout the country.
13-16 April - Thingyan Festival (Burmese New Year). The most important public holiday throughout Burma and part of the summer holidays at the end of the school year, involving much water throwing and the dousing of revellers.
April/May (moveable) - Full Moon of Kason. Prayers and offerings to the monks to commemorate the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and passing into Nirvana.
June/July (moveable) - Start of Buddhist Lent. Three-month retreat for Theravada practitioners during the rainy season.
September/October (moveable) - End of Buddhist Lent (Festival of Light). Commemorates the return of Buddha to earth, descending at night to be greeted by devotees with lamps and lanterns.
November (moveable) - Full Moon of Tazaungmon. Offerings of new robes, slippers, umbrellas, alms bowls, food and other necessities are presented to monks, and cash offerings are collected by monasteries.
Please note that entry requirements and visa regulations can change often and at short notice. We can provide general information about the passport and visa requirements for your trip and this information may be included after the itinerary section of your quotation. Your specific passport and visa requirements and other immigration requirements are your responsibility and you should confirm these with the relevant Embassies and/or Consulates. Neither we nor the principal(s) or supplier(s) accept any responsibility if you cannot travel because you have not complied with any passport, visa or immigration requirements. Please call your WEXAS specialist if you wish to discuss entry requirements.
Passports must be valid for a minimum of 6 months from the date of entry.
Visitors are required to pay in US dollars for hotels, tourist attractions, rail and air tickets, ferry travel and some bus tickets while kyat are used for most other transactions (trishaws, food, tips, etc.).
Kyat may not be exchanged abroad. Bring enough clean, unfolded US dollars (grubby notes will not be accepted) for the duration of your stay plus emergency funds, and dispose of any remaining kyat before leaving.
Banknotes are circulated in denominations of 50 pya, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 kyat (the latter two introduced in 2009 and 2012, reflecting a general rise in prices). Coins officially in circulation include 1 pya, 5 pya, 10 pya, 25 pya, 50 pya, 1 kyat, 5 kyat, 10 kyat, 50 kyat and 100 kyat pieces, though coins of such low values are rarely in use. The rate of exchange at July 2013 was £1 = 1,460 kyat.
ATMs have only recently been introduced, and only in major tourist destinations, and should not be relied upon.
Cash and EFTPOS
Only a handful of top-end hotels accept credit cards. Transactions are normally processed out of Singapore at the mercy of unreliable internet connections.
Although prices are on the rise, Burma is generally inexpensive. Even in Rangoon and Bagan you can get a plate of excellent street food for under 2,000 kyat. A glass of draft beer is around 600 kyat, and a bottle (650ml) about 1500 kyat.