This advice is not because of any political considerations. The advice comes from my experiences from a recent 2 week holiday in Burma. I went on a group tour organised through a major UK tour company. There were 15 in the group with ages between 50 to 80. We visited the usual tourist hot spots in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. We did not do any trekking.
The hotels we stayed in were of international standard and were excellent, but pricy. The internal flights (using Asian Wings) were excellent. The other travel by coach and boat was comfortable and went largely to plan.
My advice not to go to Burma is based on my concerns for being able to have a relaxed, enjoyable holiday. I found the holiday hugely disappointing because the highlights were few and far between and not all that exciting. Most of the holiday was spent in the Ayurawaddy river basin which makes Holland seem mountainous!
The cliche says that tourists destroy the very things they come to see. This has certainly happened in Burma. Small groups of independent travellers may well find the temples and faded colonial grandeur interesting and romantic. The reality is that the major sites are horribly overcrowded and with tourist numbers set to double year-on-year for the next few years, the situation is only going to get worse. There is little evidence of any investment in tourist infrastructure.
Let me give you a few examples:
At Bagan, one of the highlights of the holiday is to see a sunset from one of the temple terraces. Due to earthquake damage, general wear and tear and little maintenance, most of the temple terraces are now closed to the public. This puts immense pressure on the few terraces remaining open. Our brochure promised seeing the sunset from one of the more serene temples. Now imagine 20 plus tour buses converging on this temple driving along dusty cart tracks designed for ox-carts. Then the 400 or so released tourists have to scramble up a single, narrow stone staircase lit by candles on the floor to get to the roof. There was then further pushing and scrambling to get to the terrace at the front. During the scramble I noticed I was next to an unprotected 40 foot drop. There is going to be a serious accident here and it certainly was not serene.
At U-Bein, many tour buses converge on the famous bridge at sunset. It is almost impossible to get onto the bridge and, if you do, it is difficult to avoid being pushed off the bridge. Again, there is going to be an accident here, unless the bridge collapses first.
At Amarapura, the group visited a monastery to observe the monks quueing up for their daily meal. Again, with a few independent travellers observing this could have been an immensely interesting experience. As it was, with the 400 plus tourists, it was more like going to a zoo. I'm not sure who were the animals and who the observers! I found the visit terribly intrusive and felt uncomfortable.
I have other general concerns. Most of the group suffered from tummy problems. One of our group suffered a serious cut on her arm and there was no-one in a 5-star hotel who could apply a bandage properly. There is a general lack of medical facilities and very few pharmacies.
I respected the custom of walking barefoot in the sacred areas of temples and monasteries. However these sacred areas often spread way beyond any clean smooth flooring. We were often walking over rough concrete, sand, gravel, puddles and piles of dog poo.
Burma is a country with all the anomalies of having the extreme rich and the extreme poor. There are temples covered with tons of gold and decorated with rubies and diamonds in a country where the majority can only get soap through charity. On the whole the Burmese people were unfailingly cheerful and welcoming although sometimes a little bemused at seeing tourists.I hope that the scramble for the tourist dollar does not change this attitude
I would not wish to deny the Burmese people the chance to earn a living from showing off its culture. However, I think that the country is struggling to support the current tourist numbers. There are not that many interesting sites to visit. Once you have seen the glorious Shwedagon in Yangon, one teak monastery and one temple in Bagan, you've pretty much got it covered.
If you are thinking of going to Burma, then at least know what to expect. I thought that I had done my homework beforehand, but ended up unpleasantly surprised and disappointed. I think that there are better ways to spend your holiday budget.