From global travelers to world leaders, it seems everyone's talking about Myanmar these days. Since the country's government relaxed travel restrictions for foreign visitors last year, Myanmar has hovered near the top of numerous tourism industry lists of "top places to visit."
U.S. President Barack Obama just dropped by.
Yet, despite its growing reputation as the world's next great travel spot, Myanmar simply doesn't deliver -- at least not yet. If you're considering a visit, here are five things to consider before booking your ticket:
It's Overpriced: Myanmar is by no means expensive. Yet despite the nascence of the tourism industry, the recent influx of visitors has allowed hotel and tour operators to charge a premium for mediocre products and services, meaning travelers won't get much for all the crisp, unfolded U.S. dollars they're required to spend. And another thing -- for people looking to splurge on, say, the $400 hot air balloon ride over Bagan, they better make sure they brought enough cash, otherwise, the lack of ATMs combined with the elevated prices is going to severely prohibit their travel experience.
The Food Literally Stinks: For a country bordered by the culinary giants of Thailand, China, and India, you might think Myanmar would serve up some of the best cuisine on the planet. You'd be wrong. The country's most widely-known food -- a putrid-smelling paste made from dead fish buried and fermented underground for a week -- should temper the hopes of visitors looking for quality cuisine there. Great restaurants are almost as rare as ATMs, even in major tourism areas.
It's Already Been Discovered: The chance to be among the "first" travelers to visit Myanmar has long since passed, as noted by the tour buses, backpacks, and fanny packs seen at most tourist spots. Even the further-afield places like Pyin Oo Lwin and Kyaiktiyo have seen their fair share of visitors. And what about those locales still off the tourist map? They remain that way because the government either doesn't allow foreigners to visit or it requires more money and time-consuming permits than most people will be willing to spend to get there.
Myanmar or Burma?: Is the country's name "Burma" or "Myanmar?" Practically speaking, it doesn't matter. What is critical for travelers to remember is what the name change signifies -- that the country's totalitarian government can and will do whatever it likes, no matter what its people say. Want to change the country's name? Done. Want to re-locate the nation's capital to from Yangon and build a $4 billion city atop a rice paddy while much of the population subsists on a few dollars per day? They already did that too. Visitors must keep in mind that a growing source of the regime's treasury comes directly from the dollars they spend. Hopefully things may change, as reforms continue to be implemented, but it's one more thing to keep in mind.
- It's Overrated: There. Someone finally said it. Myanmar is overrated. Sure, there are some impressive sites to see: Bagan's temples, Inle Lake's landscapes, the world's largest reclining Buddha. But the country simply does not live up to the acclaim bestowed upon it by countless travel writers who have anointed it the place to be. True, Myanmar's people are some of the friendliest, most sincere in the world. Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda will impress. And a couple of the aforementioned places are must-sees. But unless expectations are tempered and the cities of Mandalay and Yangon get complete makeovers, travelers may well leave disappointed.
At the end of the day, the country is an impressive destination, as my wife and I learned recently during a 28-day visit. It's also one that can no doubt deliver an unforgettable and rewarding travel experience, as long as travelers do their research and temper expectations before arrival.