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Myanmar/Burma

Health & safety

Dangers & annoyances

Considering all the bad news that trickles out of Myanmar, it may sound like a rather unsafe country to visit. For the vast majority of visitors, the truth is quite the opposite.

Air Travel

Government-operated Myanma Airways (MA) has a sketchy safety record, and there are reports that some MA aircraft have been used by Air Bagan. In February 2008 an Air Bagan flight out of Putao was damaged after missing the runway; a month later engine trouble on a Yangon–Thandwe Air Bagan flight required the plane to return to Yangon. This pales in comparison to past problems. In 1994 a flight missed the runway at Kawthoung, killing 16; in 1998 it took authorities 24 hours to realise one of its planes had crash-landed near Tachileik; while another flight crashed en route from Thandwe (Sandoway) to Sittwe, killing 10 passengers.

Bugs, Snakes, Rats & Monkeys

Mosquitoes, if allowed, can have a field day with you. As a Burmese character in George Orwell’s Burmese Days says: ‘At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master.’ As alcohol won’t help, bring repellent from home, as the good stuff (other than mosquito coils) is hard to come by here. Also, some guesthouses and hotels don’t have mosquito nets.

Myanmar has one of the highest incidences of death from snakebite in the world. Watch your step in brush, forest and grasses.

Rats aren’t all that rampant. Family-run guesthouses, like regular homes, might have a rodent or two. Wash your hands before sleeping (we’ve seriously heard of happy rats licking cake-covered fingers clean at night) and try to keep food out of your room. If you trek in Shan State and stay in local accommodation, you may hear little footsteps at night.

A guide outside Monywa pointed out natural medicines for ‘not shitting’, ‘shitting’ and ‘snakebite’, but said there’s nothing for monkey bites. ‘Monkey bite is no problem,’ he said. In a few sites, such as Hpo Win Daung Caves, near Monywa or Mt Popa, you’ll have monkeys begging for snacks. It’s more spooky than dangerous, but bites are possible.

Crime

All over Myanmar, police stations have English signs up that ask: ‘May I help you?’ It’s easy to smirk at, but supposedly some of the restrictions to travel around Myanmar are based on the government’s desire to keep foreigners out of harm’s way. One local told me: ‘No-one will steal from a foreigner. If I take your camera, I could get five years’ hard labour in prison!’ Most travellers’ memories of locals grabbing their money are of someone chasing them down to return a K500 note they dropped. If someone grabs your bag at a bus station, it’s almost certainly just a trishaw driver hoping for a fare.

There are, however, occasional reports of street crime, particularly in Yangon, which include burglaries of some expats’ homes. But the high gates around some of the finer homes in north Yangon are more for show; as one Yangon residents says, ‘the higher the fence, the more money you have.’

Electricity, or Lack Thereof

Power outages occur everywhere, Yangon and Mandalay included. Many smaller towns have short scheduled periods for electricity, such as a few hours in the afternoon (or in the evening if Myanmar TV is airing a premiership game). Many hotels and shops run generators 24 hours, others keep them on only a few hours (eg 6pm to midnight, and a few hours in the morning).

Insurgents & Bombs

In the aftermath of 2007’s protests, there were a few bombings, though none targeted foreigners. One at the Pyinmana railroad station, near the capital at Nay Pyi Taw, reportedly went off accidentally while a Karen rebel was trying to set it; in January 2008 a small bomb exploded at a Yangon train station bathroom (no one was killed). The government blamed Karen insurgents but many locals believe the government planted both bombs.

A few past incidents have been linked with insurgent groups. In May 2005 three bombs at two Yangon shopping centres and a Thai trade expo killed up to 20 people and injured several hundred. During the previous month a bomb killed at least three at a Mandalay market. In December 2004 a small bomb went off at a central Yangon restaurant, injuring one person. The Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors supposedly claimed responsibility for the latter act. A few other explosions in Yangon were reported, without injuries, in mid-2004 and mid-2003. An explosion in May 2003 in a cinema in Pyu, near Bago, killed one and injured 47 people.

Despite treaties between the government and most insurgent groups, signed in the late 1990s, which give limited autonomy to many areas, violent incidents on the Myanmar-Thai border could erupt at any time, particularly in and around Tachileik. Land mines on the Myanmar side of the border are another threat. Most travel advisories warn against travel in this area, most of which is restricted to foreigners.

In Kayin State, splintered Kayin groups live in a potential battleground between the Karen National Liberation Army and government troops. The section of the Myanmar border in a restricted area of Kayin between Um Phang and Mae Sariang occasionally receives shelling from Myanmar troops in pursuit of Kayin (also known as Karen) or Mon rebels.

The presence of Shan and Wa armies along the Myanmar-Thai border in northern Mae Hong Son makes this area dangerous. Although the Wa have reportedly sworn off drug production, there’s still plenty of amphetamines and opium crossing some border areas.

In the past there have been reports of bandits holding up vehicles at night, most commonly in the Tanintharyi (Tenasserim) division in southeastern Myanmar, but also near Taungoo. We’ve not heard of foreigners being targeted.

Some ‘revolutionaries’ maintain the sympathy of most locals. In the aftermath of the 1990 election controversy, a group of student protestors hijacked a plane from Bangkok to get worldwide attention, and tearfully handed out snacks with apologies to the inconvenienced passengers.

Politics

Talking politics can get not only you, but also the locals you’re speaking with, into trouble. Let them introduce the subject and proceed to talk with discretion. Human rights activist James Mawdsley was arrested in 1999 after handing out political leaflets; he was freed after 415 days. (He describes the experience in his 2002 book The Iron Road: A Stand for Truth and Democracy in Burma.) Following the 10th anniversary of the 1988 democracy demonstrations, 18 foreigners were arrested for handing out leaflets. In January 2005 another Westerner was arrested for handing out leaflets outside Yangon’s City Hall.

Be aware that if you’re interested in seeing Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Yangon, or are dropping by an NLD office, you not only risk trouble (possible deportation) but you implicate your taxi driver too.

Guides, trishaw drivers, vendors and hotel staff are often able to talk at length with foreigners without suspicion due to their day-to-day contact with foreigners. Some can be surprisingly frank in their views. Teahouses carry the reputation as being open-discussion forums for some locals – but not all. Again, let the locals lead the conversation in that direction.

Restricted Roads

Many overland roads are closed to foreigners. And access to the Ayeyarwady Delta, including towns like Twante, Pathein and Chaung Tha Beach, were restricted to foreign travellers after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. However, in places you can enter there are surprising levels of freedom to stop and look around where you want.

Scams & Hassle

Myanmar touts are pretty minor-league in comparison with those in India or the tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok. Most hassle is due to commissions. These small behind-the-scenes payments are made, like it or not, for a taxi or trishaw driver or guide who takes you to a hotel, to buy a puppet or even to eat some rice. Often it doesn’t affect the price you pay.

When arriving at a bus station, you’re likely to be quickly surrounded by touts, some of whom will try to steer you to a particular hotel that offers them a commission. Be wary of claims that your chosen place is ‘no good’, though in some cases we found that trishaw drivers who had warned us that ‘foreigners can’t stay there’ ended up being correct. If you know where you want to go (and it’s a good idea to pretend to, even if you don’t), persist and they’ll take you.

Be wary of offers of fanciful jade or other gems (Myanmar has rich mines for these precious stones) as some are filled with worthless rock or concrete mixture.

Many people may approach to say ‘hello’ on the street. In some cases, they’re just curious or want to practise some English. In other cases the conversation switches from ‘what country you from?’ to ‘buy some postcards?’ or ‘where you need to go?’ It’s all pretty harmless.

Spies

At some point on your trip – and you may likely never know it – the authorities (or the ‘KGB’ as the Moustache Brothers in Mandalay joke) will be watching you. This is even more likely to happen when you go to more off-the-beaten-track places, where authorities are less used to seeing foreigners (or are bored). In Shwebo, for example, a guesthouse told us, ‘We need to see your bus ticket here. We have to report everything you do to the police!’ Also, our pedalling about Taungoo led to police suspicions – they asked what we were doing at the guesthouse – and were satisfied to hear we were just ‘travelling around the country.’