Fishermen in Myanmar’s Inle Lake famously row with one foot. // © 2013 Yvonne Horn
After decades of military junta closure, in the 1990s, Myanmar’s rulers gradually allowed tourism to peek through its doors. First to venture into the long-closed Golden Land were adventurous backpackers. An exception to this rule was Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises — in 1996, the company established its presence with a river boat, the Road to Mandalay, along with the Governor’s Residence, a historic mansion in Yangon turned luxury hotel.
In November 2010, the military continued to loosen its grip with the release of pro-democracy advocate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Western nations, including the U.S., reconsidered their long-held economic sanctions. In short order, the country that had long been known as Burma found itself on tourism’s radar.
Today, Myanmar is Asia’s hot ticket. U.S. tour operators are upping departures to support the growing demand, and Orient Express is set to launch a second ship, the Orcaella, later this month.
Itineraries hopscotch the country on a classic and easily accessed route: Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan. Adding to the classic quartet, the glorious beaches of Ngapali on the Bay of Bengal are gaining popularity, as is the Irrawaddy the grand river that bisects the country north to south.
The great golden dome of Shwedagon Paya dominates Yangon’s skyline. Breathtaking at any time, it is at its most spectacular at sunset. The city center offers some of the best colonial architecture in Southeast Asia, although age and poor maintenance have left many in poor condition. Best explored on foot are the chaotic Indian and Chinese quarters of the city, ending at the sprawling, wonderful-to-wander Bogyoke Aung San Market.
Inle Lake sits in an enormous carpet of greenery surrounded by mountains. Dotted around the lake are picturesque stilt-legged villages that are only accessible by water. The only way to explore the lake is on long-tail boats, passing fishermen who stand on their skiffs with one leg wrapped around a paddle.
Bagan, situated on a sun baked plain edging the Irrawaddy, represents Burma’s Golden Age. Best explored by horse cart, the landscape could well have sprung from Steven Spielberg’s imagination and not the zeal of the 11 kings who constructed some 13,000 pagodas of which 2,200 remain.
It was in Bagan that I boarded Orient Express’ 82-passenger Road to Mandalay on a five-day Irrawaddy itinerary through the heart of Myanmar-Bagan. Seven onboard Burmese guides provided insightful onshore tours that not only included magnificent structures, but visits to markets, artisan workshops and even a nunnery.
During my two-week visit as an independent traveler, I was surprised to find that travel in this newly emerging destination presented few challenges. Like me, your clients will enjoy not only an exotic and endlessly fascinating visit, but one that is also safe. Crime against foreigners in this country is virtually unknown and, given Britain’s long occupation, many people also speak English.
There are no direct flights from the U.S. Bangkok, Thailand, is the usual point of entry. From there, a number of carriers make the 90-minute trip to Yangon.
Air is the most reliable and easiest means of travel. Bus travel is slow and roads are poor. There are no rental cars. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive; rates are negotiable.
When to go
The best time is the dry season, from early November until the end of February. The first months of the rain season, June and July, are also pleasant. Regardless of season, early booking, as much as a year in advance, is essential for both travel and accommodations.
The kyat (chat), Myanmar’s local currency, cannot be obtained outside the country. Clients must bring with them crisp, newly minted U.S. dollars to cover expenditures during their stay. Bills with even a fold or tiny tear will not be accepted. There are no ATMs for foreigners’ use. Credit cards are rarely accepted and carry a hefty fee. Kyats are used for small expenditures such as trishaw rides (taxis accept dollars), bottled water or market items from vendors. Dollars are easily exchanged at hotels, shops, travel agents and larger restaurants.