Myanmar (Burma)...an enigma to most of the world...but a rare treat for experienced travelers with a sense of adventure. Some say "I'm going to a place because everyone is going!" The Myanmar types are the exact opposite...and if that describes you...read on. Cyclone Nagris devastated the country killing so many people and galvanized world attention. But memory stretches far back to Kipling's poem Mandalay, when Myanmar was a major center of the British Empire. But Myanmar has not been on the tourist trails for many years. With sanctions against the ruling military junta, tourism has been spotty. It is not an easy place...think Thailand in 1970. You have to use cash, which is a hassle. But your adventure will bring you to the field of jars, pagodas, temples, stupas and monasteries full of worshippers still practicing most of their age-old traditional ceremonies.
Get a visa. You can easily get a visa in Myanmar embassies all over the world. If there is no Myanmar embassy where you live, you can get a visa in Thailand or China, depending on where you fly first. A travel agent can easily arrange this for you in Bangkok. You can fly to Bangkok and catch a plane from there to Myanmar, either Yangon or Mandalay. You can also go to China and travel by road going through the Burma Road of the WWII. Or another option is to take an Orient Express Cruise and enjoy the sunrise and the sunsets in the Irrawaddy and other Myanmar shores in the elegance of the Road to Mandalay decks.
Book your trip with established and experienced operators. Since the tourist infrastructure is still a bit...ahhhh...emergent, it is advisable that you take a tour from established and experienced tour operators so things are arranged for you and most go like clockwork. In this way, there is always someone to take care of whatever may come up. There are several you can review in the Internet. You can also make choices within those tours such as hotels or other arrangements. As an example, you can ask them to have your own car and guide so you have the flexibility of visiting only the places you choose and at more convenient times, as you don't have to wait for anyone. If you don't want to book with tour operators, fly to Yangon or Mandalay, book a hotel in any of these places and make your arrangement once you are there and have better information. You can get a car and, often, your driver may be a good guide, too. Your hotel can also help in this arrangement.
Stay at The Strand in Yangon. Built in 1901, it is centrally located so it is easy to go around from there. If this is too much for your budget, at least have a drink in the bar. The hotel has been refurbished in the 1920's theme and the hotel somehow reminds you of the country's old colonial past. The hotel is not the only reminder. All over Yangon, you will see buildings and houses that are vivid reminders of history. The lakes in Yangon also give it mystery and stillness that you surely don't anymore feel in most big cities.
Experience Theravada Buddhism. Life in Myanmar is strongly centered around Buddhism. In Yangon, visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important holy site in the country. Don't just go around the pagoda and leave. Stay longer and watch the locals do their worship. In some cases, you will see volunteers with their brooms and big smiles. These folks happen to be born on that day of the week so they come to worship and clean the temples. Make sure you know the day of the week you were born so you can worship accordingly. Watch the processions of locals offering gifts to the temple. Go to Bagan where thousands of shrines, mostly constructed before the 13th century fill the skyline. The Buddhists believe that constructing these holy places will bring them Nirvana faster.
Go shopping. Myanmar has a tradition of crafting beautiful things. In Yangon, visit the Bogyoke Aung San Market. Situated in the heart of Yangon, this market houses around 2,000 shops where you can buy folk dolls, coconut masks, gold leaf and gold embroidery, precious stones such as rubies, sapphires and jade, Kalaga embroidered tapestries, lacquerware, leather crafts, stone and wood carvings, silverware, tribal handicrafts such as the Shan style shoulder bags, traditional puppets, hand woven fabrics, and teak furniture. For the jewelry enthusiasts, this place is heaven. Go to the ones authorized by the government, as they will issue you an official receipt required for export. Remember, upon arrival, declare any precious jewelry you have with customs. You can risk paying duties or confiscation if you don't. Better still, don't wear any when you visit Myanmar. Buy some when you get there. Bring loads of cash so you won't regret not being able to get some of those bargains. Study a bit about precious stones before you go so you can choose better or you might end up with stones that spent yesterday as a coke bottle! The design and workmanship may disappoint you a bit but if you have time, you can have some customized for you.
Let the Road to Mandalay beckon you. This is the old royal capital and the second largest city in the country. It is cooler as well. It takes its name from the nearby 240-metre Mandalay Hill, which is dotted with monasteries and pagodas. You can fly from Yangon to Mandalay and of course, vice versa. Or take the road trip (670km). You can see and visit other places on the way. You can rent a car and ask for a guide. Mandalay, being the capital prior to the British rule, is home to traditional artisans and you can watch them in their workshops. While in Mandalay, visit the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung Temple Grounds, which houses the only remaining building of the once sumptuous moated palace.
Try thanaka. All over Myanmar, you will find women and children with painted faces that to a foreigner look like they have smudged their faces with wet yellowish powder. Thanaka is a bark paste that the locals use for protection from the sun and for clear and smooth complexion. They sell these in cosmetic jars and you can paint yourself like a clown and still look normal. Thanaka may be effective as it is said that in the distant the past, Myanmar women were highly sought after as brides.
Wear a lungi. Lungis are sarongs tucked at the waist. It somehow makes you less of a foreigner when you try a local custom and they are much cooler than trousers.
Attend festivals. These festivals bring you Zats, a variety of dance, song, short and long plays and Anyeints in which jokers caricature current situations. Watch regular performances of Pwe, an excellent example of local folk theater. Nat Pwe pays homage to the spirit world and Yok-Thei Pwe uses puppets up to a metre high. You will not only enjoy watching the expertise of the local puppeteers but gain respect for their talent and support traditions that we will all be the poorer for if they are lost.