Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar)

Burma Myanmar FlagFor more than 50 years Burma (Myanmar) has been ruled mainly by dictators, rebel groups, and by people connected to the drug trade. Because of this, democracy has had a tough time finding a foothold in its society; those who try to introduce it are often faced with brutality and harsh punishment from the government. Slave labor and other inhumane practices have been used in an effort to help Myanmar’s economy, but the country remains very poor.

In 2002 Aung San Suu Kyi–a Nobel Peace Prize winner and leader of Burma’s largest democratic political party, under house arrest through much of the ’80s and ’90s–was allowed to re-enter public life, and democracy is once again on the minds of the Burmese. The economic sanctions placed on the government by countries like the United States has caused the Burmese government to reconsider its politics, and although democracy is still a long way off in Myanmar, hopes of a society without oppression are growing.

As far as traveling in Myanmar, it is not for those who are looking for comfortable, easy (read: “first world”) travel. But the sites are incredible, and the people are generally friendly and nice. Myanmar has had little Western influence, which can make the country seem a bit forgotten compared to other southeast Asian countries, but if the government continues to loosen its reins on popular thought, don’t be surprised to see Myanmar start to catch on quickly.

Traveling in Myanmar
Burma Myanmar Map You need a visa to travel in Myanmar. Visas are valid for one month from the day you enter the country. Once you receive a visa you have to enter the country within three months.

Myanmar is still a military regime and any travel there should be done with caution. The democratic movement there favors a boycott of tourism in Myanmar, saying that the money spent by tourists only ends up supporting the military regime and human rights abuses.

Avoiding government-sponsored tourism is one way to help the populace while not supporting the government. Also, the cultural and political exchange you have with the local populace could do more to help the country than hurt it.

Easy ways to do this include staying at locally owned hotels; avoiding goverment-sponsored tours and transportation; not shopping at the government Myawadi shops; and trying to buy gifts, souvenirs, etc., directly from the local craftsman.

Rebel armies and refugees line the border between Thailand and Mynamar. It is best to avoid the borders areas, as there are occasional skirmishes. The northeastern part of the country near Mandalay is a particularly bad area where the drug trade has given local drug lords the power to build large private armies.

Some areas of travel do require a permit, although more and more are being opened by the government. But travel throughout the Myanmar can sometimes be hindered by the “local authorities” who might make certain sites off limits for no discernible reason, depending on their mood.

Weather in Myanmar
Myanmar only has three distinct seasons, winter, summer and monsoon season.

Winter falls between November to February, and is usually cool and dry. March until May is summer, which is quite hot, with temperatures routinely at or above 90 degrees. From May until October is the monsoon season, where the region can get upward of 25 inches of rain per month.

The optimal time to visit Myanmar is during the winter, when the days are a little cooler and the skies are clear.

Burma a.k.a. Myanmar Information
Population: 44,277,014 (est.1994)
Government: Military council
Square Miles: 261,789 sq mi (678,033 sq km)
Capitol: Yangon (Rangoon, pop 4 million)
Official Language: Burmese, but most ethnic minorities have languages of there own
People: 65% Burmese, 10% Shan, 7% Karen, 4% Rakhine and Chin, Kachin, Mon, Chinese, Indian, and Assamese minorities
Religion:87% Theravada Buddhist, 5% Christian, 4% Muslim, 3% animist
Major products/industries: teak, rice, jute, and illegal opium poppies

Travel Tips – Airports

One of the easiest ways to start your trip off right is to make sure you get to your destination smoothly. Since most people fly it is important to know a few things that will keep you safer and make your experince much more pleasant.

Know Your Airport

I was recounting travel tales, recently, with friends who had flown internationally through San Juan, Puerto Rico’s international airport. The customs area there is inconveniently far away from many of the more-frequented gates, and my friends missed their connecting flight because they hadn’t known to factor in enough layover time to get through customs and still make the long trek to their next gate.

This is a problem in many airports, and there’s a great moral to my friends’ story: know your airport. Particularly if you’re connecting internationally, and thus have to go through customs, always find out in advance the layout of the airport through which you’ll be connecting. This information may be gotten from the airline, your travel agent, or on the Internet (most medium to large airports now have Web sites that offer either a description or a map of their layout), and it could potentially save you the trouble of missing your connecting flight.

Getting through airport security faster

These days, getting through airport security seems like a chore. It behooves all of us (including those in line behind you) to be prepared. Make sure the only things you keep in your pockets are identification and your airline ticket–anything else could set off the metal detector or raise suspicion. This also goes for shoes, belts, or other pieces of clothing that may have metal attachments. Try to wear clothes with plastic buttons, shoes with plastic eyelets, and belts with metals that may not set off the the metal detectors. If this is impossible, be sure to remove your shoes and belt to be scanned along with your carry-on luggage.

Pack a carry-on that’s easy to open and inspect if security needs to check your bag; this way they won’t have to remove everything just to see what’s on the bottom. Make sure to put the contents of your pockets in your carry-on or your jacket. Double check to make sure you don’t have any items like nail files, small scissors, knitting needles, or other things that might set off mental alarms (remember, even the most unthreatening household goods can now seem like a potential weapon in the eyes of airport security, no matter who you are). Be ready when you get to the front of the line: remove your jacket and have your ticket and ID in hand. It’s also a good idea to wear shoes that are easy to remove in case security asks to check them.

With all recent the hold-ups and frustrations at airports, being prepared can make your life exponentially easier and will make the difference in a pleasant flight or a not so pleasant one.

Packing list

It is a good idea to carry a list of expensive items you have packed in your checked luggage. That way, if the airline loses your bag, you have some record of what has been lost.

Likewise, you should never pack any irreplaceable items, such as, medicine or jewelry in your checked luggage; make sure you put it in your carry-on bag, or leave it at home for safe keeping.

Air travel

The air you breathe while on a plane is not pressurized to sea level. Many people don’t realize that this contributes to jet lag: flying long distances can cause mild cases of altitude sickness. Combine this with the fact that the recycled air on planes is very dry, which leads to dehydration, and that people are often traveling across multiple time zones, and it’s easy to understand why we might not feel like ourselves at the end of a long flight.

We cannot eliminate jet lag entirely, but we can limit it. Bring a large bottle of water to drink throughout the trip to stay hydrated, eat well, and try to prepare yourself for the transition into a new time zone (take a nap–adjust your internal clock). If you do these things, you’re sure to be better off when you exit the plane than if you’d done nothing at all.

Flying with infants

Many people know the frustration of taking a long flight with a crying baby nearby. Parents who travel with infants may know this feeling all too well, but surprisingly, very few know what’s causing their child’s discomfort and how to stop it. At the liftoff and descent stages of a flight, cabin pressure in commercial airplanes changes dramatically. This is necessary so that passengers and crew can continue to breathe while in flight. However, the change in pressure has an effect on our inner ear (something like diving too deep in the ocean).

Adults who know this feeling can generally self-adjust the pressure inside their heads to be balanced with the pressure outside: yawning helps, or chewing gum, and some people can simply “flex” their inner ear mechanism to equalize the pressure.

Babies, on the other hand, may not be able automatically equalize the pressure in their ears. This can become extremely uncomfortable for a child, and is the main reason they cry when a plane is taking off or landing. If you’re a parent who thinks this may be occurring with your child, the easiest way to resolve the situation is to give your baby something to suck on–a bottle, or even your finger. The motion caused by this sucking will usually cause your child’s inner ear pressure to equalize with the outside pressure, thus relieving him of the pain inside his head… And relieving all the other passengers of the pain outside theirs.

Airport circuit check-in

To make waiting in lines at airport security posts a quicker easier ordeal, be sure to empty your pockets and put the contents in your carry-on bag, this might include watches and jewelry, a money clip, loose change, and more. It means less beeping at the metal detector, and you won’t have to put your wallet and valuables in the plastic bucket where things could be stolen as you’re getting scanned manually by airport security personal.

Address on luggage tags

Traveling abroad means putting you address on your luggage, which in turn means everyone can see where you live and know that you will be gone. More than one robbery has been perpetrated by shady characters lingering around local airports, scoping out the home addresses of people they see taking outgoing flights. The best way to protect against this is to put your business address on a piece of luggage. This will insure that no one who spots your address will be getting the correct one, and that your bags–if lost–will find their way back to a place you can retrieve them. Another idea is to put your local police station’s address label on the label, but this could lead to complications if your bags are lost. And we’d like to hope that your bags are more likely to be lost in transit, than your house being robbed.