Myanmar’s troubled political past and resulting isolation from the rest of the world has resulted in a country wonderfully rich in culture, heritage and national beauty. Officially opened to visiting travellers two years ago, globalization and mass tourism are eeking their way in and causing many people to flock to this Golden Land before its un-spoilt nature is lost.
I was one of the desperate fanatics, determined to visit before the hoards. Independent travel is possible but with guidebooks shockingly out of date and such a depth of culture to be explored, I worried that we wouldn’t quite get the most from the experience despite the fact that for me half the fun of the trip is the planning (I’m often known to spend more time planning a weekend away than on it….). After weeks of research I discovered Ampersand Travel; a UK based company specializing in Asian luxury travel who seemed more than capable of keeping up with my exacting standards. Their small team and in depth know how meant that they were perfectly placed to whip up the ultimate bespoke Burmese itinerary for my 9 day trip, husband and camera obligingly in tow. Our agent, Ellie, was full of personal tips from her own visits and tailored us the most perfect itinerary. The whole trip was effortless from start to finish; with airport transfers, guides, sightseeing and restaurant reservations taken out of our hands.
Whether you’re travelling alone or through a tour operator, I have whittled together my ultimate round up to travelling Myanmar in style; where to go and stay, what to eat and do and some hidden secrets. I implore you to go soon though as the mysticism of this unspoilt country is rapidly being eroded by the influences of mass tourism and exposure to new cultures. The regions with the most preserved Burmese heritage are unfortunately not at the time of writing, open to the public.
- Demand far exceeds supply. Until it catches up book early and expect to pay inflated prices.
- Sightsee with guides who show you the hidden wonders and explain the rich history. Hotel guides cost a lot – be warned and try and book in advance through outsourced companies.
- Myanmar is still very much a developing nation, phone signal is non existent, internet unreliable and tap water avoided.
- Credit cards aren’t always accepted – take plenty of cash – crisp, untarnished and unfolded US Dollars if you want them to be accepted.
An Asian city gloriously lacking in skyscrapers, but filled with crumbling colonial buildings, traffic ridden streets and delicious smells of cooking on every street corner. Our delightful guide May had us falling for the city, most notably the astounding Shwedagon pagoda and its mesmerizing golden dome. She also took us around sprawling markets, a 72 meter long reclining Buddha and the National Museum, filling our minds with the dense religious and monarchical history of the country.
Retreating for the night to the romantic 1920s teak assembled Governor’s Residence, we reclined by the tranquil pool and lounged in our luxurious rooms enjoying the 5 star service and food, which was made a little harder to swallow by the infamously inflated prices. We took Ellie’s advice one night and dined at Le Planteur, a beautiful fine dining French restaurant dishing up world class food and driving you home in vintage British cars (I ignored my natural instinct to eat “local” and was glad I did). Yangon only needs a one-day visit, but is a great initiation into Burma.
Whilst most passing tourists leave not unearthing the true heart of Mandalay, our guide Toto ensured we fell in love with it. Whipping us away from the city’s mundane centre we took a private boat to Mingun, ambling along dust paths to the unfinished monstrously large crumbling stupa, the Indian inspired Hsinbyume Paya and impossibly large Mingun Bell. A private ox-cart “taxi” escorted us back to our boat. In the afternoon impressive sites included the Mahamuni Pagoda, a rebuilt version of Mandalay Palace which harked back to a time when the monarchy ruled and finally the exceptionally intricate and well preserved teak monastery. The delayed influence of modernization was best seen through the attention to detail required in the hundreds of artisan workshops, shunning modern machinery and using painstaking techniques in wood carving, embroidery, paper making and more to craft beautiful local products.
We rested our sightseeing wearied legs overnight in the small and perfectly comfortable if somewhat dated Hotel by the Red Canal (overpriced of course). The next day we uncovered even more of the rich religious history of the area with a visit to the 1000’s of monks at the monastery in Amarapura. Whilst it was interesting to see the monks go about their daily routine we felt a little like we were in a zoo and were embarrassed to be part of the unforgiving throngs of tourists unashamedly thrusting their cameras in the monks’ faces as they went to their meal, I’m not sure if it’s an experience I would thus recommend as it’s lost any serenity and authenticity. We quickly rediscovered Mandalay’s core though with a visit to the world’s longest teak bridge and finally a trip to Inwa where a horse drawn cart led us between the crumblingly beautiful monasteries and stupas.
An unmissable destination; we arrived in the cover of darkness but nonetheless dropped our jaws at the softly lit pagodas dominating our surrounds. Our hotel, Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort was in the heart of old Bagan, with a beautiful pool overlooking the Irrawaddy River. The large chalet rooms and open sided restaurant providing the perfect respite from the mid day heat. The sheer number of pagodas in the area could have overwhelmed but our guide took us to the famous ones and helped us avoid the crowds at some of those lesser known. Chuffed with getting a slot on the coveted sunrise Balloons Over Bagan trip, undoubtedly offering the best viewpoint in Bagan, we were defeated by the weather causing us to lament our cancelled trip and content ourselves with a slow-paced cycle around some of the nearby temples (which in their isolated anonymity and lack of “fame” allowed us to explore by foot at our own pace devoid of battling crowds – a fantastic experience). Bagan should most definitely sit atop the top of your Burma sightseeing list; despite having been to Siem Reap, the mysticism of Bagan is unique with the misty mornings lending an ethereal feel to the endless stupas. And whilst the crowds are large, the land area is large enough that if your guide is savvy enough you can easily feel as if you have the place to yourselves.
Driving amongst rolling green hills it is clear this is the agricultural heart of the country growing every type of fruit and vegetable imaginable. We deposited our bags at the cosy, rustic, wood cabin strewn Hill Top Villa Resort Kalaw where we would later return to a functional dinner but spectacular sunset. Our morning was spent in the company of neglected elephants, being cared for at the charitable Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp. Purposefully devoid of too many tourists we fed, bathed and rode bare back on these delightful animals in beautiful surrounds. Limited for time in the afternoon we just did a 2 hour soft trek amongst the farmlands of local villages but if you have time, the longer hikes to remote villages are breathtaking. I wish we had had longer to linger in Kalaw as it was the most un-touristy area we visited. It’s possible to do overnight hikes with a stay at a local home but these are pretty rustic and remote so not for the faint hearted. Our accommodation was rustic in a different way and the restaurant felt more like a canteen but the views and charm of location soothed us through the night. The more ‘luxurious” option which was full during our stay is the nearby Amara with a strangely Swiss feel to its buildings but wonderful history to it.
The most perfect place to end our jam-packed trip; Inle Lake is itself a wonder. Gigantic in size, it is covered in floating farms, monasteries and villages perched on stilts. Excursions are taken on long tail boats, weaving in between the lake top vegetation and showing us sights such as local markets, the sprawling Inthein pagadoa and the beautiful Jumping Cat Monastery (alas, these days devoid of cats but worth a stop nonetheless). Devoid of motorised monstosities, you slowly navigate the expansive lake in old style boats with simple engines. When you hit shallower waters you bear witness to the unique style of rowing where your captain uses his leg to rotate the oar.
The sites on the lake are plentiful and magical but the surrounding Shan hills provide a spectacular backdrop to the endless lake, best viewed from the restaurant at the Red Mountain Vineyard up in the hills (where the wine doesn’t even start to contend with the views…there may be a reason you have never heard of Burmese wine!). Perhaps what made us love this final location the most was our hotel, the most spectacular of them all, the Inle Princess Resort. Tucked away in a quiet backwater surrounded by floating lotuses and ponds, our Lake View Chalet and private verandah immersed us in 5 star luxury with our beautiful room and unforgettable views. The restaurant served up various cuisines from local tribes , all of which was delicious(including an avocado salad which still has me salivating at the memory of it) and the hotel spa and complimentary bikes kept us occupied when we weren’t being whisked around on the water.
In just 9 days we covered most of the main sites Myanmar had to offer, forgoing some such as the white sandy Ngapali Beach (my thoughts being that beach resorts were imitable – the rest of the country less so). I left entranced by the people, the food, the scenery, the stupas and the strength of tradition and heritage, as yet untarnished by modern consumerism. Myanmar stands alone, a solitary salute to the slower paced, agricultural and Buddhist dominated South East Asia of old, but it won’t remain this pure for long…
Ampersand’s planning ensured a seamless trip that exceeded expectations. Trips with them start from £2,000 per person (excluding international flights) but in truth, planning independently, factoring in hotel, flight and guide costs, makes this an expensive trip whichever way you go about it.