Is It Burma or Myanmar?

Cool Temples everywhere

Cool Temples everywhere

One of the most fascinating countries in South-East Asia, Burma (or Myanmar if you choose) is also one of the weirdest too. It’s populated by a complete mix-up of settlers and invaders from all over the place. The Mon, the Pyu and Bamar migrated from India and elsewhere while often fighting off attacks from the Chinese and each other. Later Britain conquered Burma and left a very British system in place. It was also a hotbed of activity in World War II. It offers some of the most breathtaking places to visit in all of South-East Asia.

Until recently, it was also not the easiest place to go to. Generally because they didn’t want any journalists posing as travelers to go snooping around. So when I applied for a visa some years ago, I simply wrote “Journalist” where it asked for occupation on the form. That way they wouldn’t suspect I was a journalist. They would think I was a traveler. Plus I tended to be cheeky and sarcastic from a very young age. I doubt anyone even checked anyway. It took a week, and the visa came through.

Floating houses at Inle lake

Floating houses at Inle lake

I arrived in  Yangon with my 14 day visa, which was not nearly long enough to see this amazing place. I chose 3 places that I really wanted to get to in such a short time. Inle Lake, a large shallow lake known for its amazing boat trips and floating villages was on the top of the list. It’s very popular with the backpacker crowd and a great place to buy silk. The other places I had to race to were Bagan, a massive archaeological area that has literally thousands of pagodas  and Pagu, which is an ancient historic city near Yangon chock full of outstanding Buddhist sights.

It is easy enough to arrange these trips, quite another matter actually taking them. Officially, Burma is a right hand drive country (like America) but because it was left hand drive until 1970, there are a lot of old cars on the road built for that. This makes for some really interesting transport. Also, the names of places seem to change all the time, at the whim of the government. Where and when you are allowed to visit also changes quite frequently too.

Bagan or Pagan? The names change with the weather

Bagan or Pagan? The names change with the weather

Burma has had a rough time over the past 50 years or so. With a military dictator, disastrous farming and economic policies and very few civil liberties. They once produced enough rice to feed all of South-East Asia, now they have to import rice. And they even had to stop brewing the national beer for some time in the 80’s because they ran out of bottle caps!

But if you take the time to explore, you will find a country full of wonder and be well rewarded with smiles from locals that are very happy that you came to explore their land. The Burmese are proud of their country, no matter how many problems exist, because the history is rich and they know one day it will all get better. And they are right. It already is.

Visa requirements and permits needed to visit certain areas change frequently. As of April 2015, there were only 6 countries that did not require a visa to visit Burma. However, now the government has instituted an e-visa system, which is very straightforward though most entry points must be an airport and not an overland border crossing.

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