Decades of military rule and self-imposed isolation kept this large and diverse country off most travelers’ lists until a few years ago, when the regime began to loosen its grip. With the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, as well as other cautious reforms, the country is taking its first, halting steps toward democracy.
But many problems remain deeply entrenched. In the past few weeks, thousands of Rohingya — a Muslim minority — have fled persecution in western Myanmar on rickety boats, desperately seeking refuge in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The situation has escalated into an international emergency and underscores Myanmar’s poor record in dealing with ethnic minorities inside its borders.
Tourists are kept away from areas of conflict and strife, so most visitors to Myanmar will not see the entire picture except in newspapers. But the country is now more accessible than ever, making this an interesting time to visit and see for one’s self what life at street level looks and sounds like in this complex nation geographically and culturally wedged between China and the Indian subcontinent. From the crumbling British colonial architecture and bustling Indian neighborhoods of downtown Yangon (as Rangoon, it was the former capital of Burma) to the dizzying array of ethnicities and cultural histories that dot the rest of the country, few places in Southeast Asia offer quite as much diversity of people and experiences within its borders.
For the traveler, entry to this once off-limits nation has never been more straightforward, with online visa applications and flights from the United States via Bangkok. Myanmar’s tourist infrastructure is developing rapidly. The midrange hotels are improving, transportation is fairly easy to arrange and manage, and the people are incredibly helpful and welcoming. But already, some of the top destinations can be overcrowded — at one point, we paid the price for not planning in advance when we were unable to visit a city because its hotels were full.
It’s easy to see how Myanmar’s sudden allure will draw the hordes of tourists that crowd into other Southeast Asian destinations. But with the door newly opened, this is a unique email@example.com