Questions about South-Asia
July 10, 2006 10:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning a trip to India,Nepal,Bhutan,Tibet,Bangladesh & Myanmar

I'm thinking about going away for 2 months mid-August to mid-October. A general plan would be to fly into India, then make my way up to Nepal. From there take the Friendship Highway up to Tibet and back. Then from Nepal through India into Bangladesh (and, if possible Bhutan) and then fly into Myanmar.

Now, there are a number of questions that spring to mind:

- Tibet: Do I need to get a visa (I'm Icelandic - we normally have the same visa requirements as Svandinavia and most of Northern Europe) before I go, or is it possible (or even better) to take care of things once I'm in Nepal?
- Bhutan: I know there are a couple of issues about travelling there, but I'm not sure what is fact and what is fiction nowadays. For example, I've heard that I need to do an expensive planned tour of the country, and can't travel independently. Does anyone know how things work there these days? Also, I'm told that the only way to get into Bhutan by land is via India. Is this possible, or do I have to fly into the country?
- What books would you recommend me to read about the area. I'm not just talking about travel guides, but also local literature & history books.
- Any other tips about the area are appreciated.
posted by einarorn to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, no idea about Tibet/Bhutan/Nepal/visa issues :( However I've earlier written a long comment about traveling to India (marked fave), which you might helpful.

Have fun :)
posted by forwebsites at 10:19 AM on July 10, 2006

Are you really sure you want to visit Myanmar? You do know it's a brutal police state, don't you? (It's about like visiting sunny, friendly North Korea, as I understand it.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:28 AM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks, forwebsites.

And Steven, I know about Myanmar. However, according to people who have traveled there, there seem to be a lot of ways of supporting citizen owned resturants / guesthouses etc. So most of my money wouldn't go to the government.

I also think that isolating the country any further will not help anybody. But of course there are also negatives about going there, which is why I'm planning on being much more careful about where I spend my money.
posted by einarorn at 10:31 AM on July 10, 2006

I was in India and Nepal a few years ago. To get into Tibet, you'll need a Chinese Visa and a Tibet permit. Back then, it was basically impossible to get a Tibet permit without being part of an organized tour, but things may have changed. I think they also required that you fly into Lhasa (no land crossing from Nepal). You could do this from Kathmandu, though.

Nepal is fantastic, although check the various travel advisories. I'm sure you're aware that things have been less than stable for the past few years, but my understanding is that they've improved lately.

Nepal Trivia: Nepal is the only country for which the CIA World Factbook lists "scenic beauty" as a commercially important natural resource. It's also the only UN country with a non-quadrilateral flag.
posted by justkevin at 10:33 AM on July 10, 2006

Here is a book on Bhutan for you. It costs $15,000 and weighs 133 pounds. There is a smaller $100 version, too.
posted by mattbucher at 10:48 AM on July 10, 2006

My friend has been traveling in India for the last 4 years, and is currently in Nepal. She has written extensively about her travels, and the visa issue, in her blog Feringhee: The Inda Diaries
posted by kimdog at 11:48 AM on July 10, 2006

Sorry to keep going on Burma/Myanmar, but, your best intentions aside, it is important to remember that Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader of the country - who remains under house arrest there 15 years after winning the election - has clearly and specifically called for tourists not to come to Burma. I understand what you're saying about isolating a country, but I think that respecting the wishes of the democratic (and democratically elected) opposition seems like a clear way to go.
posted by krudiger at 11:59 AM on July 10, 2006

Response by poster: JustKevin: Thanks for the info. I'm definetely not a fan of organized tours, but some of the tours into Tibet from Nepal seem like they can be interesting.

Kimdog: Thanks for the link. Although she's talking about visas for Nepal, which I wasn't too worried about. I was wondering about Tibet. But the info on Nepal is also good to know, since I might not have time to get all the visas before I go to India.

Krudiger: I know about these issues, and I'm not saying I've made up my mind. These are the pros and cons that LonelyPlanet lists:

Reasons Not to Go:

Aung San Suu Kyi has asked tourists not to; the government used forced labour to ready tourist-related sights and services; international tourism can be seen as a stamp of approval to the Myanmar government; the government forbids travel to many areas, particularly in areas inhabited by minority groups; it's impossible to visit without some money going to the military junta (roughly 20.00 per visa, 10.00 per departure fee and seven to 10% tax on purchases); and activists claim that tourism dollars fuel government repression directly.

Reasons to Go:

Tourism remains one of the few industries to which ordinary locals have access - in terms of income and communication; vast majority of locals want you there; human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas where the international community is present; the government stopped forcing foreigners to change 200.00 into government notes upon arrival; the majority (possibly over 80%) of a careful independent traveller's expenses goes into the private sector; and keeping the people isolated from international witnesses to internal oppression may only cement the government's ability to rule.

posted by einarorn at 12:16 PM on July 10, 2006

Concerning Myanmar and that area, if you trust fiction writers, you might want to read several of the Lawrence Block 'Evan Tanner' novels, one of which, Tanner On Ice is specifically about, well, being imprisoned there, which hopefully you won't have to deal with...

but it's a fun book, and you might acquire some useful flavor.

Review here.
posted by baylink at 12:40 PM on July 10, 2006

Well, last time I was in Burma it was still called Burma so things might be different in the new improved police state, but in 1986 people were very eager to barter. They were more interested in trading for T-shirts, pocket calculators, baseball caps and other small items than in getting cash, so you might want to look into that. If it's still true, you can bring a little bit of the outside world to people whose horizons are forcibly limited, and it's fun too.

Hmmm, now I remember the first thing they asked for was lipstick. And as soon as I finished my transaction, other Burmese would instantly try to buy the goodies off the first guy!
posted by Quietgal at 1:42 PM on July 10, 2006

On Tibet - every year, and sometimes months, seem to be different. When I went in 2003 (during the SARS scare) no such travel permit existed, but I couldn't get a ticket directly to Lhasa from Beijing. But it was super easy to get in; I just flew in to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, and from there any of the local tour groups could get me a one-way ticket in to Lhasa. There were many individual travelers at the guesthouses, none of whom had problems.

I found the Lonely Planet message boards helpful; people would post what they just did to get into Tibet.
posted by RobotAdam at 3:14 PM on July 10, 2006

My mother went to Bhutan on a Sierra Club trek. Independent travel is not allowed in Bhutan, you MUST have a tour guide/ group and have all your lodging booked beforehand. The government is very strict about tourism because they want to preserve their culture. Here's a link to the wikitravel entry about Bhutan. She really enjoyed her time there and said it was worth the hassle and expense.
posted by blueskiesinside at 3:25 PM on July 10, 2006

It's been a couple years, but here's what I remember from the Nepal/Tibet thing: it was much, much easier to get a Chinese visa and Tibet permit before you get to Nepal. It is nearly impossible to accomplish anything bureaucratic in Kathmandu. Also, there is some discouragement from the Chinese government to travel to Tibet from Nepal. Even with our pre-approved visas, Tibet was randomly closed to all but pre-organized tours during the time we were set to go. So, good luck! And enjoy, what a unique part of the world...
posted by maelanchai at 3:32 PM on July 10, 2006

Burma: Be prepared to dish out the 'entrance fee' they require at the airport (~$200 USD?). Also be prepared to find some means of exchanging your foreign currency for 'kyat', for which official rates are about 6 kyat to 1 USD, whereas "blackmarket" rates are about 1000 kyat to 1 USD. Lots of shady-ness will surround this initial transaction.

Note that you will be photographed during your entire visit, from the airport to the markets to the temples and back out again. If this makes you even remotely uncomfortable, don't go. Be prepared to have your bags 'gone through' while you're away from your hotel room or whatever. Nothing will disappear, but it will all be read/photographed for whatever nefarious purposes they have at the moment.

Also try to be very cagey when speaking about politics. Chances are, if you have a conversation about democracy and such, once you've left the person who had that conversation with you (if they aren't a plant) will be hog-tied and tossed into a dark hole somewhere. Consequently, the polite thing to do is not talk politics/technology/worldnews/business with anyone you bump into.

Things are terribly 1984-ish in Rangoon and Mandalay, and there's weirdness up north in Kachin state as well, but you probably won't get up that way. The farther you venture from the major cities, the less of a 1984 world it will be. Although, you'll probably encounter villages where all the daughters were picked up by the militia and taken to the next village to work the sex trade. Meanwhile, the young boys have been conscripted and sent to another far-away village, where they pick up all the young women and take them to another village where they...[nice economy, eh?]

All that said...*definitely* treat yourself to a cold liter of Myanmar Ale...that stuff is golden in the heat! The rest of the trip sounds excellent. Have fun and take some pictures!
posted by garfy3 at 3:48 PM on July 10, 2006

My only comment would be that you might be trying to squeeze too much into two months.
posted by furtive at 7:35 PM on July 10, 2006

Nepal you can get a visa on arrival, Bhutan, you need to go on an organised tour, and be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for it. The only other way is to get invited, I know someone who got invited by meeting a bhutanese guy at a conference. Tibet, you pretty much have to go on an organised tour as far as I know, you can organise it from Nepal, and I think they go both ways i.e from KTM to Lhasa. The other, cooler, thing to do is to fly to Lhasa and cycle back to KTM, mostly downhill all the way!
posted by MrC at 9:24 PM on July 10, 2006

I don't know how to get from Bangladesh to Bhutan, but you should be able to get to Bangladesh from India quite easily.

When it comes to Bangladesh - Dhaka is very dusty (so if you have a dust allergy, beware); also, take note that sometimes the city shuts down due to hartals (protests/riots). Such hartals would be preannounced and it's best to just stay home, nothing's open.

Rickshaws are fun to ride but be careful - there isn't really a tidy traffic system and you don't want to fall out of your seat. And be prepared to be trailed around by beggars (kids especially).

If you can, go to Chittagong, it's really pretty and so much more refreshing.
posted by divabat at 1:14 AM on July 11, 2006

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