Myanmar is a country of huge variety with a rich history, and to really appreciate what it has to offer you should have some understanding of its background and how it came to its current curious political situation.
But first things first (because if s a questions that’s always going to come up), is it called Myanmar or Burma?
Myanmar or Burma?
When you see Myanmar spoken about in English it is often accompanied by its older English name ‘Burma’: a title leftover from Myanmar’s former history as a British colony.
In the late 80s the government of, then Burma, officially changed its English name to Myanmar. For a variety of reasons governments of the UK and the USA don’t want to recognize this and still insist on officially calling it ‘Burma’. The primary reason being that they don’t feel the government of Myanmar is legitimate, and so don’t believe it has the power to change the name of the country.
This is a difficult position as far as language goes because many of the people in Myanmar are Burmese and the language they speak is also Burmese, and in that language ‘Myanmar’ and ‘Burma’ are closely related words (the words are derived from each other and ‘Myanmar’ is often the written form and ‘Burma’ the spoken).
So what does this mean for you? Not much really, as it turns out the debate about the English name of the country is not as pressing to the locals of Myanmar (even though many are quite fluent in English) and the issue is not felt as strongly on the ground as other naming debates are around the world.
The general consensus is that you should stick to Myanmar but uttering ‘Burma’ aloud won’t get you into trouble. The government of Myanmar, however, is insistent that it is Myanmar.
What’s the political situation like in Myanmar?
One of the questions many tourists will have (and probably should have) is what the political situation is like in Myanmar. After all it has really only been open to outsiders for a decade and you will often hear the phrase ‘military junta’ thrown around when you hear about the government of Myanmar.
The history of this situation is complex but as of 2016, as far as matters to a traveler, the overall feeling is that it’s not too bad and is getting better.
In 1947 following Japanese occupation in World War II (following over one hundred years of British occupation) Burma became an independent country made up of various factions that didn’t necessarily get on that well. During the 1960s a democratically elected leader was overthrown by a military dictatorship which ended up ruling Myanmar in one way or another until 2010 when there was a change in leadership after a national election.
Much of this new leadership is still characterized by corruption and dictatorship and old figures in the military junta still retain huge power but most agree there is a move, albeit a slow one, towards genuine democracy. Early in 2016 the encouragingly named ‘National League for Democracy’ took power after winning a general election.
In the last few years, ceasefires have been agreed to among factions in the country’s longstanding civil war. Borders have opened up with Thailand and for foreign visitors, freedom of speech is slowly being allowed, and many of the human rights abuses the country was once infamous for have ceased.
Despite some of the scarier aspects of Myanmar’s recent history travelling around the country is very safe. Areas with the most conflict are not open to tourists and the real problems are directed entirely at locals.
Apart from some issues with getting transport and getting hold of American dollars in the country things are good for tourists. Prices of goods and accommodations are relatively cheap, crime is surprisingly low (no worse than other parts of South East Asia), and the country is very welcoming thanks to its efforts to shake off the bad image it has on the international stage.
What is Myanmar like?
Myanmar is a diverse country in terms of people, geography and climate. It borders India, China, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Laos. At the Bay of Bengal there is a heavy monsoon climate, to the east the country enters the feet of the Himalayas, and in Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan (the places you will most likely visit) the climate has a milder monsoon climate with hot, wet and cool seasons.
During the hot season (March to April) temperatures in all three of these places can go above 35 Celsius or 95 Fahrenheit. In the cooler season (November to February) the daytime temperatures are in the lower 30s or 90s.
The culture takes in a lot from its surrounding areas with a mix of ethnicities including large populations of Chinese and Shan people, the largest group are the Bamar or native Burmese people.
Like its Thai neighbors it is a largely a Theravada Buddhist country which most of its population follows and can be readily seen in its many beautiful temples and the Buddhist monks on the street. The friendliness and openness typical of many Asian Buddhist nations is to be found in Myanmar as well.
Thanks to its history as a British colony for many years it was ruled as a region alongside India and Bangladesh and the remains of this set-up exist in its culture today. Many of the people are taught English as a second language and the education system is based on an older British model.
Much of the country is quite conservative in nature and this can be seen in the ways local dress and carry themselves. This never goes to extremes though and a respectful traveler shouldn’t find themselves encountering any problems as long as they practice a little modesty.
The advice used to be that you should avoid political discussion at all cost or risk having your taxi driver thrown in prison, but things have changed dramatically recently and you should be open to listening to your hosts’ stories.