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Taking some of the mystery out of Myanmar

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Many people have limited knowledge of Myanmar, also known as Burma. They might have heard of the Road to Burma, from World War II history class. Or they might have heard the name Mandalay, but think it’s just the name of a casino/hotel in Las Vegas. Probably most don’t know that Burma is the second largest country in Southeast Asia.

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Well, there’s a new website called MyanmarBurma.com and their goal is to help people discover this beautiful country and to plan their next vacation here. Today we are chatting with Kevin McKenzie for some insider details on why this makes sense to visit Myanmar now.

Kevin, you must have sensed an unfilled need to create this new website. Tell us why you think now is the right time to launch MyanmarBurma.com.

As people know from watching the news, Myanmar is going through a great change, stepping onto the world stage after isolating itself for so long. The country is full of breathtaking landscapes, ancient structures, and fascinating people, but all of that was more-or-less off-limits to visitors until political reforms blossomed, beginning in 2010. At that time, my business partner and I recognized an opportunity to create an online destination venue that would reflect the openness and encouragement that was growing more evident in Myanmar every day.

We realize that the country is still in transition to an open society. We resolved to share with online visitors the kind of information that would let them become informed tourists—knowing about the challenges still facing Myanmar as well as the enduring beauty of it all. I think we accomplished that and today are eyewitnesses to some history-making change in Myanmar. We hope people will come and see it for themselves.

I understand you’ve brought together some big names in the travel space to make it easier for people to actually book their own travel to Myanmar. Tell us who all are involved.

The aim of the website is to introduce interested global travelers to solid information about the country, its people, and its culture. But we also want to give them the best deals on hotels and flights. To that end, we are proud to be working with Priceline.com and Agoda.com. They share with us their flight and hotel inventory, respectively, and we in turn share deals and discounts with our site visitors. We want people to virtually explore Myanmar at myanmarburma.com, and then seamlessly book the flights and accommodations to turn a virtual tour into reality. Because of discounts and special deals, they can save some money in the process.

I’ve read about the hope of a new democracy in Myanmar and the government’s ongoing efforts to reform its operations. So, is it safe to travel there now, and will Westerner’s be welcomed?

Yes, it's safe to travel there, for a Westerner or anyone else. But you have to remember, the country is in transition. There is still tension and unrest and occasional violence—much like in the rest of the world, for that matter. Periodically, travel restrictions are announced for certain parts of the country, and then the travel curbs are lifted. Yet these things are exceptions to the rule, which is that Myanmar by and large is safe and stable and, frankly, a little boring for someone looking for danger.

Travelers can expect normalcy in major tourist cities, including Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw, and Bagan, as well as at other popular destinations. Common sense is a good thing for a visitor to bring along with him, of course, but that is true in any port he might visit.

Do U.S. citizens need to get a visa to visit Myanmar and is it difficult to obtain?

U.S. citizens and most everyone else will need to get a visa. Americans and citizens of about 50 other countries can even get a visa on arrival, but that’s not the best way to do it. If for some reason, a visa is not granted upon arriving, the only option is to get on the plane and fly out again. It is best to avoid the risk of rejection and get a visa in advance through a Myanmar embassy or consulate. Various documents are needed to get a visa, of course. Visitors can find more information on our website.

Can tourists that don’t know the language get around by themselves, or do they need to hire a guide when they arrive?

I would say it depends on what kind of traveler you are. If you like a little challenge, the Burmese are uncommonly friendly to visitors and will help you find their famous temples and landmarks in an area. Besides, there is considerable English spoken and understood in Myanmar, probably dating to colonial days. On the other hand, if you want to, say, really learn the history of a temple, you would be better off hiring a guide. Plus… local guides know a city. They can help visitors find good restaurants and other places that printed guidebooks may not mention.

How about the infrastructure? Can you find a range of accommodations with amenities like high-speed internet and room service?

Myanmar has come a long way in bringing many of its hotels up to international standards. In most first-line hotels, the rooms will come standard with Wi-Fi access, usually at fast speeds, as well as air conditioning, satellite television, and room service. Swimming pools, business centers, spas, and babysitting services are not unusual.

Now here’s the caveat: This level of hospitality is most common in major tourist cities. While some outlying tourist destinations also offer top-notch accommodations, in places less traveled, electricity is not always a sure thing, let alone Wi-Fi. A few years from now, that won’t be true, which is why visiting Myanmar now is so appealing: Some of its more primitive charms are disappearing.

That all sounds pretty promising. So, if someone wanted to come to Myanmar for their first visit, can you give us a suggested itinerary and tell us some of the highlights they would be able to experience?

On the web site, we offer numerous itinerary ideas ranging from 3-day quickie visits to 28-day layovers. An example is a 7-day tour that takes a visitor through the nation’s largest Buddhist pagoda in Yangon, then on a cross-country trip to fabled Mandalay, followed by a river cruise to ancient Bagan where visitors ride hot-air balloons over the city at sunset, and finally to artisan villages around Inle Lake. Anyone taking that tour is guaranteed a fascinating week.

Here’s what I suggest: Visit myanmarburma.com, read through some blogs and information pieces, and then peruse the suggested itineraries. Anyone who does that won’t have any trouble planning a fascinating trip to Myanmar.

Thanks Kevin. I know that Myanmar, with its beautiful temples, friendly people and miles of shoreline, is a place on my bucket list. Now I hope our readers will jump on over to MyanmarBurma.com and see for themselves how easy it is to plan that next great vacation.

[Photo of hot air balloon by Pe Myint Oo; balance of photos by Photo City.]

Doug Bardwell, based in Cleveland, OH, writes about travel destinations, photography and tech topics across the country and around the world at DougBardwell.com. Feel free to drop him a line at travel.dougbardwell@gmail.com with suggestions for future stories. To get his stories delivered to your inbox, click the RSS feed or the "Subscribe" button above or follow him on Facebook , Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+. To read Doug’s disclosure notice, click here. For travel ideas in Cleveland and around the world, check his Calendar of Events. To see his travel photo collection, see BardwellPhotography.com.

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