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

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.''

If you travel independently, you must exchange at least $100 at the official rate of 6 kyats per dollar. This is to discourage dealing on a rampant black market. Every time you step outside your hotel, you're likely to be offered 35 kyats per dollar by some figure lurking in the shadows.

You may hear that ``everybody does it'' and indeed may witness such transactions. Be warned: Illegal exchange of currency can bring a maximum three-year prison term. A safer way is to barter with cosmetics, old clothes, cheap perfume, or aftershave lotion.

Friends of mine literally traded the shirts off their backs for some beautiful pieces of lacquerware in Mandalay. And kids will follow you like a Pied Piper if they spot your ball point pen. In fact, ``ball pen?'' will without doubt be the first words you'll hear from some little street urchin as you arrive, and the last words as you leave.

About film. Carry plenty. It is available only on the black market, where it's as rare and expensive as a smuggled-in six-pack of Coca-Cola.

Smuggling, too, is rampant here. You only have to visit a market in a large city to see the enormous range of items smuggled in from Thailand, and even China. Market stalls are filled with plastic toys, bottles of Aqua Velva, jars of Ovaltine, bars of French soap, tubes of American toothpaste, and boxes of Wheaties.

Although these obviously came in illegally, they are sold openly, at incredibly inflated prices.

Things like tourist books and pamphlets of major sights and cities just don't exist. Get them in Thailand before you leave. Postcards are easier to find, but then you've got stamps to deal with.

``The best place to get stamps is in Rangoon,'' I was told by a hotel clerk in Mandalay.

In Rangoon, I couldn't fit the four large stamps on the cards without covering the addresses or the message! I had to mail them from Thailand.

The week you are allotted here - at least the first time - is probably best done by organized tour. It means not being able to stray from the Rangoon, Pagan, Mandalay route, for the most part. But it also means not having to rely on inadequate, infrequent public transportation or day-long drives in one direction, only to find that the area has just been declared off limits.

By the way, the only credit card I saw accepted was American Express, and only at the very few ``best'' government-run hotels or government stores.

Any route or course you take must be approved by Tourist Burma, the state-owned and -run tourist agency. Hotels, even the best, are poor by any Western standard. Most of the newer ones were built back in the 1950s and haven't seen a coat of paint or new piece of carpeting since. I touched on the plumbing situation earlier.

So these are but a few of detours and glitches you're up against.

I asked a man who had been to Burma 52 times what he thought was most important for a visitor to remember. ``Remember,'' he said, ``never to get angry or raise your voice if something goes wrong. That is to lose face. Whatever may go wrong is not the fault of the person you're dealing with, but of the government. Be patient.''

Nonetheless, once you have been touched by a moonlit night in Pagan, seen the sun burn the morning mist from Inle Lake, or been helped by the generous, patient Burmese, then the cold showers, mosquitoes, dusty roads, antiquated buses, endless dishes of chicken curry, and yes, even Burma Airways, begin to fall into perspective.

When it's over, you will have spent a rare and very special week in a strange, exotic land, where time has stood still.

And, in retrospect, you most likely wouldn't have changed a thing.

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