Edwin Briels // © 2016 Khiri Travel
Feature image (above): Khiri Travel’s new products in Myanmar take visitors to destinations rarely visited by tour groups. // © 2016 Khiri Travel
Khiri Travel, a destination-management company (DMC) offering tours across Southeast Asia, has launched a pair of new products in Myanmar. One is a five-day, four-wheel-drive trip through Shan State following a route taken on popular television program “Top Gear.” The other is a four-day visit to the Loikaw hill area of Kayah State, known for its long-neck hill tribes.
The company describes both options as “frontier trips” and says the new tours travel to parts of the country rarely visited by organized tour groups. Edwin Briels, a longtime Myanmar resident and Khiri’s general manager for the nation, spoke with TravelAge West about the new tours’ highlights, why the country might appeal to U.S. travelers and how agents can sell the trips.
Why might American travelers be attracted to Myanmar?
In a word: charm. Myanmar is a destination with a mix of great culture — mostly Buddhist — diverse nature, including a central valley, mountains, beaches and islands, and immensely welcoming people, many of whom are ethnic hill tribes. Then there’s excellent food — think of a mixture of Indian and Thai — and many delightful small-scale accommodations. Charm is also shown in the service ethic, which is characterized by graciousness.
Myanmar is situated between Thailand, China and India; therefore, the food, language and religion reflect those influences. However, over hundreds of years, Myanmar’s people have added their own unique charm to those background influences. I believe it has the right ingredients to be the next big destination in Southeast Asia. Privately guided excursions now make a holiday in Myanmar a comfortable, safe and unique experience for discerning and curious American travelers.
How long has Khiri Travel offered trips in Myanmar? Why offer these new tour products there?
Khiri opened in Myanmar in 2011. We like sharing new itineraries based on our passion for discovery, and as Myanmar is becoming a more mainstream destination, we take pride in offering new experiences in the country’s major destinations, such as Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. At the same time, Khiri Travel is good at going off the beaten track to offer soft adventures for people who value authentic experiences.
Tell us about Khiri’s new four-wheel-drive trip through Shan State.
I have been living in Myanmar for more than 15 years, and for years, I looked at the map and wondered what was behind the mountains to the east of Inle Lake. It was an area filled with mystique — the infamous Golden Triangle, and a road through mountains that used to be the path of opium-carrying mules that would travel in convoy for weeks from village to village.
It was only in 2013 that Khiri got a permit — the first of its kind for travel in this area — in order to arrange filming for BBC’s “Top Gear” television special on Myanmar. When the filming was done, we saw the potential for tourism in this area. Khiri asked the minister of hotel and tourism in Myanmar to get permits for other travelers, and the government agreed. Ever since then, we have organized about 10 trips in this area. It’s a fascinating part of the world, with amazing mountain nature, authentic tribal villages and real adventure. Guests overnight in local villages where few Westerners — fewer than 100 — have been before.
What makes the new trip to Loikaw Hill area of the Kayah State an appealing option for visitors?
The Kayah women in Myanmar have been known worldwide as long-neck women, as they traditionally wear brass rings around their neck. This makes it look like they have a very long neck, but in reality, the weight of the rings pushes their shoulders down, so it’s not the actual neck that is longer. Some women have taken their rings off and can live without any health problems.
Khiri Travel is a sustainable company, and so for a long time, we simply didn’t want to visit the long-neck women, as it was too close to seeming like a human zoo. The Kayah women moved away from their native village for the convenience of the tourists. It was always a bit of an awkward affair for both the tourists and the women. When the Dutch government initiated a project to set up a community tourism program in this area, Khiri reassessed the situation. We created a new program, covering Kayah State from Kalaw to Inle Lake, and in the new setup, local community members tell their history, beliefs and traditions. It puts the long-neck culture in context and makes it a tourist experience, where the local community can fully tell its proud history and heritage.
What kind of travelers are a good fit for the new products?
Myanmar is a destination suitable for anybody fit enough to travel around the world. Yangon, Inle, Bagan and Mandalay all have good four- and five-star hotels. In my opinion, the food is on par with Thai food — just less known. These two new itineraries are more suitable for young or young-at-heart travelers who want to discover new places, meet other cultures and try food that wasn’t prepared on a standard operating procedure from a multinational food chain. The accommodations are comfortable and clean in Kayah Sate — three-star. In northern Shan State, we have a very special experience: one night at a local family house.
What should U.S.-based travel agents know about these new products?
Khiri Travel only works with travel agents and tour operators and not directly with clients. Khiri is an inbound DMC with offices in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and we are happy to send tailor-made proposals to U.S.-based agents based on a net rate. An agent can then decide how much markup to add onto the tailor-made travel packages. After receiving the agent booking, we will send a confirmation and invoice. Khiri will make sure your client has a fantastic experience from the moment they arrive at Yangon airport until the moment they leave.