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Close Shaves With Offbeat Burma. To discover the wonder and fun, tourists must cope with inconveniences and quirky limitations. TRAVEL: SOUTHEAST ASIA

By John Edward YoungSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1989


IT took a while, but I finally learned the hard way. It's best to dredge the chilly, brown water for assorted bits of loose plumbing before sliding into a Burmese bathtub. Even in the ``better'' hotels.

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Things are like that here.

Burma has a way of dealing with unsuspecting tourists. Not that it's intentional, it's just the way it is.

Up to a few years ago, you only had one day to figure it out.

From 1962 to 1974 visas to visit Burma were issued for a scant 24 hours - hardly enough time to figure out the electrical current, let alone the currency. This policy was intended to keep Burma isolated from the world as leader Ne Win advanced ``the Burmese way to socialism.'' Some would say ``the Burmese way to stagnation.''

``The way'' is tolerated less and less, especially recently by Burmese students and intellectuals.

The average tourist is now allowed a seven-day stay. That means a week full of wonder, fun ... and frustration.

Burma is a country run by a government that tolerates, rather than encourages, tourism - and does little to make it comfortable.

You are not only restricted in time, but also where you may travel. Many areas are off limits to the outsider. Central Burma from between Rangoon to Mandalay is relatively safe. In some areas skirmishes and battles are constantly flaring up between various minority groups and insurgents. Travel to other places is forbidden or simply discouraged because of bad roads, poor conditions, or inadequate transportation. And remember, you have only seven days.

Before you enter Burma, you must obtain a visa - available at any Burmese embassy or consulate. You may get one in Bangkok, where it takes two days. (Better plan on three days, though.)

There is only one legal way to enter and leave Burma - via Mingladon Airport, Rangoon.

Thai International flights from Bangkok are the most frequent, and reliable, flights and certainly a better option than, say, Bangladesh Airways.

There is also Burma Airways. But how comfortable are you going to feel boarding a dated prop plane with ``In Emergency - Cut Here'' stenciled in red on the outside of the fuselage? Save those thrilling Burma Airways flights for only when you have to use them - once you're inside the country.

One flight I took was a bit disconcerting: The plastic window frame kept falling off onto my lap. (A stewardess armed with a ball peen hammer was most helpful.)

Customs in Rangoon can be a hassle, as customs officers may decide to go through every item in your luggage. Each camera, piece of jewelry, foreign-currency note, and traveler's check must be listed when you enter and accounted for when you leave.

Some hassle can be minimized on group tours: Experienced tour leaders frequently bribe airport officials with a carton of cigarettes or bottle of liquor to get them to move things en masse or to look the other way. You may not approve of this way of doing business, but it is simply the way it is here - and in many other developing or strictly controlled countries as well.

There are some strange restrictions that seem to make no sense. You may, for instance, take in your 8-mm movie camera, but a video camera will be confiscated by customs on the spot.

A Roman Catholic priest at Mingladon Airport was trying to smuggle in 100 Bibles printed in the Burmese language. He was hoping not to get caught, of course, but he reasoned that, even if the Bibles were spotted, ``They will just sell them on the black market, so either way, they'll get in. I can't lose.''