In Myanmar, hurdles for travelers, but also potential

Senior editor Michelle Baran recently returned from Myanmar with Haimark Travel. Her dispatches on traveling in the country, formerly known as Burma, can be found here.

YANGON, Myanmar — As we pulled up in front of democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's housing complex, the simple gray walls and photo of her father Aung San above the driveway seemed anticlimactic, given how symbolic her release from house arrest nearly two years ago was.

Back then, my guide told me, we wouldn't have been able to stop at the house and peer through the gate. Depending on the political situation of the day, we might not have even been able to drive along the street in front of it.

But in the past 18 months, as Myanmar has transitioned from a repressive military junta to a quasi-civilian government, the Southeast Asian nation has inadvertently opened a floodgate of global inbound travelers.

Locals throughout the country noted that one of the most noticeable upticks in foreign visitors has been from the U.S.

Americans have been staying away from Myanmar in part because of economic sanctions the U.S. had in place, some of which have been eased as Myanmar moves away from authoritarian rule, and in part because of an unofficial travel ban.

It is clear, however, that Americans and many others from around the globe are embracing Myanmar's move toward democracy, with tourism increasing at a more rapid rate than the country can keep up with. Many of the top hotels here are overbooked through the end of this year and into next, although Myanmar is rushing to try to add capacity.

Several tourist vans pulled up in front of Aung San Suu Kyi's house while I was there. Travelers hopped out to snap a few photos of the wall and to try to peek through a small, mirrored window in the gate, as their guides gave anecdotes from the Nobel Peace Prize laureate's time under house arrest.

While it has boundless potential as a travel destination, there are still several hurdles the country must overcome as its economy tries to catch up with that of the rest of the world.
High-end accommodations and restaurants intended for foreign leisure and business travelers definitely meet Western standards, but only a handful of them accept credit cards.

And currently there is not a single ATM or bank where foreigners can access their accounts. For the time being, travelers need to bring clean, crisp U.S. currency, preferably hundreds (anything from $1 bills to hundreds are accepted, you just get a better exchange rate for hundreds), dating from no earlier than 1997 — currency-exchange offices will not exchange torn, marked-up or otherwise mangled U.S. bills for kyats.

Domestic flights are another example of an area where Myanmar has some catching up to do. The planes are fine, but the domestic airports' check-in, boarding and baggage-claim systems are disorganized and confusing.

But what the country lacks in some modern-day conveniences it makes up for in incredible cultural charm. The diversity of its people, the wide-ranging flavors and spices of its food, the country's rich Buddhist traditions and temples and a varied landscape that includes lush forests, sandy beaches and soaring mountains give Myanmar a mystical and irresistible appeal.


Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly. 

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