Burma: Nice Spot, But Overrun With Tourists Unless You’re Happy Sweating

Burma seems to be Southeast Asia’s latest hotspot. The ‘opening up’ of Burma’s and talk of it being like Asia 30-years ago (not the first time that one’s been used) has seen tourists flocking to get a piece of the action before it’s overrun with tourists. Unfortunately that’s already happened. In 2012, Burmese tourism soared 43% and its infrastructure is struggling to keep up.

 

Hot Air Ballooning over Bagan

Hot air balloons take to the sky at sunrise in Bagan

 

There’s little wonder tourists are coming to Burma. The people are charming, smile at ease and, unlike some with of its neighbouring countries, you feel comfortable that they’re not going to be ripped off every time you slip your hand into your money belt. There are some big-hitting sites to see too. The scale of Yangon’s crumbling colonial grandeur is matched by few cities in Asia, maybe just Mumbai. The bizarre one-legged-paddling fishermen, floating villages and surrounding vineyards of Inle Lake are cool, although one does get a little souvenir-shop fatigue. And cycling between the 4,000+ temples that dot the grassy paddocks amongst goat herders and ox-pulled ploughs is right up there with Amritsar’s Golden Temple as my favourite things to do in Asia, or pretty much anywhere.

 

Burmese Tourism Peak Season Inundation

We visited Burma during in peak season – the three month window when the weather isn’t stupidly hot and sticky or raining cats and dogs. Although peak times generally need a little more planning and expectations of higher tariffs, Burma is the extreme. Hotels in all of the country’s popular tourist spots were pretty much booked up. It’s not like other SE Asian destinations where you can just show up and wing a room somewhere, there were no rooms available anywhere. Literally. We were lucky, after ringing ahead to about a dozen guest houses, we always managed to be squeezed in somewhere. But everywhere we stayed, there was a constant stream of wary tourists lugging big packs, with a look that was expecting to hear “no vacancy” when asking for a room.

 

Basic ECON101 supply & demand ensured hotel rooms that were $8 or $12 in the 2011 Lonely Planet were $30: rudimentary lodgings where you’d be lucky if you got a dribble of hot water in the shower. While we were staying at one $30 shack ($12 a year earlier), people who called about the following night were offered it for $45.

 

Regardless of the high room rates during peak season, Burma is still worth a visit. I’m sure  the enterprising nature of the locals will mean that the supply will soon catch up with demand and room prices will be more comparable to neighbouring Asian countries. The overnight bus trips and roads will only get more comfortable and the likelihood of a plane crash should diminish.

 

Inle Lake Fishermen

The crazy fishermen from the floating villages on Burma’s Inle Lake

One of the many amazing rooftop-vistas of the temples in Bagan

One of the many amazing rooftop-vistas of the temples in Bagan at dusk

Inside the temples in Bagan

Inside the temples in Bagan

The best way to see Bagan's temples - exploring by bike

The best way to see Bagan’s temples – exploring by bike (well, maybe not quite as good as the hot air balloons, but good for paupers)

Grand British colonial buildings are everywhere in Yangon, some crumbling a little

Grand British colonial buildings are everywhere in Yangon, some crumbling a little

Burma's stunning Aythaya vineyard on the hills above Inle Lake.

Burma’s stunning Aythaya Vineyard on the hills above Inle Lake. Not bad plonk too!

Some Burmese Locals Look a Little Bit Like Rugby Players After a Good, Muddy Game

The Asia-30-years-ago rings true in some regards in Burma, with no signs of the usual global tentacles of McDonalds, KFC or Starbucks. Even Western Union doesn’t have any branches, although they’re coming soon making money supply a little easier. But one of the most eye-catching signals of the little outside influence is thanaka, a bark-sourced, pale earth-coloured paste on many Burmese faces. Even in the big cities, there’s no sign of Nivea, but every second women and child, and a good few males, have what looks like dried dirt smeared across their dials.  It’s used as a facial cosmetic, cooler and sunscreen and looks like a muddy-rugby-player-cum-witch-doctor; all very interesting. Even with the lack of influences from abroad, you’ll still hear Gangnam Style blasted at full noise by enthusiastic locals in the middle of nowhere.

Burma mud face

A Burmese child decorated with Thanaka

Chinese in Burma

It’s an interesting time to be in Burma. It’s pivotal position between two of the world’s hyper economies, China and India, is attracting a interest from all corners. Over the past few years, China has become the biggest foreign investor in Burma sinking tens of billions of dollars into the country. Not all of it has been warmly received with some local animosity to some of the mines and other Chinese-run businesses in the country. Even the souvenir peddlers at the temples complained about Chinese tourists, claiming “they don’t buy anything, all they do is take photos and eat!”

 

And then after all the political support China has given the Communist Government, after all the investment into Burmese infrastructure, Obama rocks into town for 6 hours, and it’s all about the U.S of A. China who? But the Chinese have been in Burma for a long time, make up sizable communities and dominate the restaurant scene where the locals eat out. I’ll be watching with interest to see how things pan out in the future.

 

Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda with one of it's many monks and me

Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda with one of it’s many monks and me

Sunset at Amarapura, just out of Mandalay

Sunset at Amarapura, at 1.2 kilometres in length, the world’s longest teak bridge. Just out of Mandalay

4 Responses to “Burma: Nice Spot, But Overrun With Tourists Unless You’re Happy Sweating”

  • Tanner! Burma has always been top of the list for me, interesting to hear how you got on. Not quite the Burma I’d had in my mind, but obviously still worth the trip? How was the food, any local highlights? Hope you’re well mate.

    • Worth the trip Brendon, but as you’ve seen the rest of SE Asia and India, you may find somewhere else a little more varied. Highlights: Bagan for me, covering a similar area to Angkor Wot, but much more raw. Instead of the huge trees everywhere, it is a lot more open and manageable so you can get a better feel for the whole place. It’s easy to find temples with roof tops offering stunning views and no one else around, even in tourist season. There’s local shepherds/caretakers who have keys to some of the less-visited temples, which are fun to explore. Food: Although we’d heard mixed reviews, overall it was okay – no Thailand though. The Burmese are cool, muddied faces and all

  • Harland:

    Sad that American violent gun culture has penetrated even to monks in Myanmar.

    Oh, and by the way, Burma is its slave name, Myanmar is the correct name.

    • Although it’s not something I can claim to know a lot about, I was amazed how many Burmese still call the land by its ‘slave name’; many would even say it’s more enslaved under the current regime than during the British occupation

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My wife Ellen and I are currently living in China, bumbling our way around this fascinating and fast-changing country. We kicked off our stay with a semester of Intensive Mandarin studies at Beijing Language and Culture University and are now living in Shanghai. These posts cover some of my experiences, views and curious facts in and around the Middle Kingdom. Please let me know what you think!


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