25 March 2012
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 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. 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.
Although Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, is served from most major Asian hubs, the shortest and most convenient connections are from Bangkok. Depending on the season, up to eight flights a day — including service by AirAsia (airasia.com), a regional low-cost carrier — make the 90-minute trip. Well-maintained regional jets link major cities within the country.
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 continue to be active in northern regions of the country, so tourists should stick to the south and central areas. But crime statistics are low — the State Department website specifically mentions that "violent crime against foreigners is rare" — and the Burmese generally welcome visitors.
What to eat
Burmese cuisine is heavily influenced by its neighbors: India, China, Thailand. 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.
Where to go
The classic Myanmar itinerary begins in Yangon, where visitors will want to spend at least a day visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda, wandering among the colonial-era buildings downtown and bargaining at the covered Scott Market.
Bagan, a dusty region along the Irrawaddy River, is studded with thousands of bell-shaped stupas, brick temples and castle-like structures.
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.
By Ceil Miller-Bouchet
THE NEW YORK TIMES