As a motorcycle traveller, and as a foreigner in Myanmar, you will be a rare thing indeed – even independent motorcycle overlanders must ride in a group, with a guide.
Less than 20% of the country’s roads are paved, which means there are fewer than 30,000 kilometres of tarmac nationally. Major cities are linked by modern highways, a network with very few dual-carriageways. We will be doing our best to avoid these major routes.
Outside major cities, traffic volumes are very light.
On our tours, we will be riding a mix of highways and more minor routes. Some of the back-roads will be rough and we will ride at a speed appropriate to conditions. There is no ‘off-roading’ on this adventure and no requirement for any dirt-bike skills. On our ‘big’ bikes, we will be something of a novelty, especially in the hills.
Similar to India, ‘might is right’ is the code of the road. This applies especially to official and military vehicles. Traffic drives on the right and helmets are compulsory, both by law and during all riding on our tours.
The ‘Kyat’ is the local currency and there are very many of them to the UK Pound, so expect to carry a fat-Kyat wad. ATMs are fairly widespread and will accept the usual Visa and Mastercards. Beer is fairly cheap, as are most other consumables.
There are currently 1,938 Kyat to the UK Pound.
The Republic of the Union of Myanmar is a large-ish country (twice the area of England) at the heart of South-East Asia. It is bordered by Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. The country has coastlines on both the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Its capital city is Naypyidaw, and its largest city is Yangon (Rangoon).
Myanmar is divided into seven states and although most are predominantly populated by the dominant Bamar group, state borders tend to represent the historical ethnic groups within their boundaries. The national population is around 54 million, the majority of whom live in the Irrawaddy Valley, this river being the longest in the country, flowing for 2170km.
Cities, Demographics and Ethnicity
There are just two cities with populations exceeding one million: Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay. The capital city, Naypidaw has around 400,000 inhabitants and was purpose-built as an administrative capital and the seat of parliament, replacing Yangon in 2005.
The majority of Burmese lead an agrarian life in the riverine valleys. The population is growing, though much more slowly than in similar Asian economies and population density is also relatively low.
There are 135 recognised ethnic groups, speaking over 100 languages and dialects. The Bamar group form the majority of the population (68%), with the next most populous group being the Shan (10%) and then the Karen (7%). Due to historical persecution and conflict, many people of minority ethnicities have fled the country to become refugees in neighbouring countries. A proportion of these have been relocated to the USA.
Although most of the major world religions are practiced, Buddhism is by far the most prevalent, with around 85% of the population following Theravāda Buddhism. There are half-a-million Buddhist monks in Myanmar. Christianity ranks second, with 6%, followed by Islam (4%). There are also older animist religions, often practiced alongside the more recent incomers.
Myanmar has an official literacy rate of 90% and elementary education is compulsory until age nine. The vast majority of education is in the public sector, but increasing numbers of private and international institutions are making an appearance.
All of Myanmar falls into the categories of tropical, or sub-tropical, with three distinct seasons: cool, hot and very rainy. Winter runs from November to February and is by far the best season in which to visit. In hot season – March and April – the heat is oppressive and from May to October, the South-East Monsoon does its rainy-as thing. Annual rainfall ranges from over 5000mm at the coast, to less than 1000m in the dry central plain. To the north, the high mountains receive winter snowfall.
Myanmar is rich in oil, natural gas, gemstones and other minerals, but despite this it is low on a scale of human development and little of this wealth finds its way to the general population. Overall, Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the region. Infrastructure is rudimentary and dated (in the case of some railways, to the 19th Century), although investment from other countries in SE Asia is set to aid development in the years to come.
Myanmar’s biggest agricultural output is rice, with around 60% of cultivated land being dedicated to this crop and over 50 million tonnes being harvested.
Tourism, although very low-key compared to other countries in the region, is also an appreciable income source. As there are few land borders at which foreigners can enter, the vast majority of tourists arrive by air, with an increasing number of airlines providing flights. Independent travel can be very difficult, with guides for the most part being compulsory.
There is Malaria in some regions, but thanks to an ongoing eradication program cases have been radically reduced, by around 80%. Treatment has also improved with deaths reducing by 96% between 2011 and 2016.
It should be noted that tour participants must consult their physicians for advice on anti-malarial medication.
Tap water is generally considered unsafe to drink in most places and bottled water is widely available. Food hygiene is generally good, especially in tourist hotels.
You must have appropriate travel insurance to undertake any tour.
Politics & History
Known for much of its recent history as Burma, Myanmar’s history is so rich, ancient and full of dynastic incident, that it is impossible to but skim the surface here. Hominid remains in the territory date back 750,000 years and from the Mongol invasions of the 13th Century and earlier, to the British annexation, Burma has been colonised and to a lesser extent has colonised its neighbours. Various ethnic groups have risen to prominence and in turn been replaced by others.
Being incorporated into the British Empire has had a profound affect on the Myanmar we see today. Following three Anglo-British wars from 1852, the imperial forces succeeded in annexing most of what is modern Myanmar in 1886.
Under the control of first the East India company and then the British Raj, the established systems of colonial exploitation ensued. Rangoon was elected as Burma’s colonial capital, an important port through which valuable natural resources could be shipped. Dissatisfaction with the behaviour of their rulers led to increasing levels of protest and dissent among the Burmese throughout the early 20th Century and in 1937, under pressure, Burma was ‘granted’ autonomy from the Indian Raj and gained its own legislative assembly, with Prime Minister Ba Maw at its head. However, the assembly’s powers were limited and calls for full Burmese statehood intensified.
As it was for all the British colonies, the outbreak of World War Two fuelled divisions and hastened colonial demise. Immediately prior to the war, Prime Minister Ba Maw, having become the voice of Burmese independence, resigned – this leading to his arrest for sedition. An ally of Ba Maw, Aung San, fled to exile in Japan (immediately pre-war) and formed the Burma Independence Army.
Within months of the war’s outbreak, Japanese forces had swept through Burma, taking Rangoon with ease, and British forces were subjected to an humiliating and bloody retreat. As the British had done, the Japanese instigated an indigenous administration; again under the leadership of Ba Maw. But the country’s exploitation had not ended and under the Japanese it was all-the-more brutal.
The infrastructure and economy of Burma was devastated by the world war, which led to the deaths of some quarter-of-a-million Burmese under the circumstances of Japanese rule. The Japanese themselves lost some 150,000 men in the region. Although many of Burma’s ethnic minorities fought alongside the Allies, the majority (Burma National Army and Arakan National Army) sided with the Japanese. Towards the war’s end, allegiances reversed and in 1945 all Burmese groups fought for the expulsion of the Japanese.
Post-war, Aung San (father of Noble laureate Aung San Suu Kyi), now the preeminent voice of independence, moved to unify the various Burmese political and ethnic interests in his cause. Despite the assassination of Aung San by political rivals in 1947, the course of independence had been set and by 1948 Myanmar became its own nation under the Union of Burma banner. Untypically, Burma declined becoming a member of the Commonwealth.
Democracy, however, was a state of affairs that lasted just 14 years. Rising ethnic ambitions of separation, the influence of Cold-War politics and weakness at the centre of government had left the field open for a military coup d’état and in 1962 a one-party ‘socialist’ system was installed, run by a Revolutionary Council. Governance then swayed between outright martial law and semi-civilian rule for nearly 30 years. During this period there were protests, shutdowns and violent repression, these protests leading to the reinstitution of martial law, but also the planned introduction of a level of democracy.
In 1990, free elections were held, resulting in a resounding victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi. Despite the NLD taking 80% of the vote, and continuing pro-democracy protests, the military declined to cede power and barred the NLD from government. International sanctions were ramped-up until, in 2010, another round of elections was held. Conversely, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared victory, claiming 80% of the turnout. Despite this, in a move toward a partial democracy, outright military rule was dissolved.
Despite the military still wielding great power and influence (automatically granted 25% of seats in any government), subsequent liberal reforms to the economy, censorship and personal liberty have rapidly ensued. By-elections in 2012 saw the NLD un-barred and dominant. In 2015’s general election, the NLD won an outright majority, but it’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, could not take the helm as a technicality in the country’s constitutional does not allow this – due to her late husband and children being foreign citizens. Nonetheless, the NLD’s Htin Kyaw, became the first civilian president and Aung San Suu Kyi is effectively the prime minister.
Major challenges remain, but the silk curtain has been raised and Myanmar is now edging onto the world stage.
Crime & Annoyances
While crime rates can appear high, much of this can be linked to corruption, communal disputes and drug production and smuggling. Crime targeting tourists is reassuringly low, localised and avoided with local knowledge.