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I am sat on the Kumudara Hotel terrace at dusk overlooking the ancient temple site of Bagan, in Myanmar, and a Bangkok-based tour operator is explaining a new trip he is researching.
“Right now, Myanmar is Asia’s hottest destination for experienced travelers,” he said. “European operators are offering Myanmar for 2012, so I will do the same. There’s so much that’s different for visitors to experience here.
Four days earlier, in the bar of Yangon’s historic The Strand hotel, I met an Australian tour operator who told me exactly the same thing.
This may be a surprise. Burma (officially known as Myanmar) is still tentatively emerging from military dictatorship. Although one of Southeast Asia’s largest countries, international knowledge remains limited. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s December 2011 visit suggests that this could change.
Having traveled around the Land of Gold (so-named because of the pervasive golden temples dotting its landscapes), I agree with my Bagan drinking buddy: Burma boasts huge potential. Tourism remains in its infancy, though. Burma welcomed 172,244 tourists in the first six months of 2011, whereas neighboring Thailand received nearly 9 million visitors.
My 12-day Burma trip took in the so-called “Big 4” destinations, the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. I discovered welcoming, friendly people and a diverse cuisine blending Chinese, Indian and Burmese influences. I traversed scenic mountain valleys and lake landscapes, and watched saffron-robed monks carrying soup pots through the streets at dawn seeking food donations. I travelled in aged taxis that ran out of gas mid-journey and took internal flights on new aircraft for $35 to $40 one-way.
The first thing clients should know is that Burma’s infrastructure is basic. Only a handful of international hotels have opened (although many more have sites earmarked), roads and railways are in poor condition. Don’t expect to find an ATM either, clients must bring sufficient clean, crisp U.S. dollars (dirty or creased notes are not accepted) to cover the trip. English is widely spoken, service is courteous and charming and gifts, such as silks, gemstones, silver jewelry and carved wood ornaments are high-quality and an excellent value.
Yangon’s crumbling colonial architecture recalls the days of the British Empire. Wandering through downtown, it strikes me that many of these buildings could be transformed into fine heritage hotels. The street life is frenetic and fascinating – impromptu markets sell a mixture of foreign movies and Dalai Lama DVDs, monks buy newspapers at corner kiosks and every passing bus overflows with passengers.
Yangon’s main draw is the spectacular Shwe Dagon – a vast complex of golden stupas and shrines – including a 321-foot-high centerpiece believed to be enshrined with several hairs of the Buddha. The best time to arrive is at sundown, when the glinting temple domes mesmerize both tourists and locals.
From Yangon, I took the 16-hour overnight sleeper train ($50) to Bagan. Flying is much quicker (around 90 minutes), but the train chugs through bountiful, tropical countryside. It felt like a journey into the past. The fields are still tended using oxen and carts and, at each station, smiling locals board with plates of cooked foods and fruits for sale.
I had long wanted to visit Bagan, whose magnificent red-brick temples comprise one of Asia’s least-known ancient ruins. Dating from the 8th century, around 4,500 stupas of varying sizes once dotted a vast plain beside the Ayeyarwaddy River. Badly damaged by an earthquake in 1975, several structures were partially rebuilt. The oldest, sturdiest stupas feature fascinating remnants of antique Buddhist rock art. During peak season (December to April), clients can take a balloon ride over Bagan but, year-round, it’s possible to climb two of the highest temples for photogenic overviews in the soft light of dawn or dusk.
My next stop was Mandalay, which is accessible by plane or the famed, slow passenger ferry along the Ayeyarwaddy. The moated royal palace, last seat of the Myanmar kings, dominates Burma’s second-largest city. Nearby, at the foot of Mandalay Hill, is Kuthodaw Pagoda, where 729 gold-tipped, white stupas are set in rows and house marble tablets inscribed with Buddhist scriptures. Built between 1859 and 1868, this eye-catching complex is known as the “world’s biggest book.”
From here, I climbed Mandalay Hill for a fabulous view over the partially flooded Ayeyarwaddy delta. As dusk settled, I took a cab to Mandalay’s most photographed spot, the stilted wooden U Bein bridge that spans the picturesque Taungthaman Lake.
My final stop was Inle Lake, an elevated body of water in the scenic highlands of Shan state. The local Intha people grow vegetables on floating plots and fish on wooden gondolas using a strange, one-legged rowing action. I took a half-day boat trip from the village of Nyaung Shwe to visit local communities, where people live in stilted houses at the fringes of the lake and where markets sell jade and amber jewelry, ethnic clothing and handicrafts. I also wandered, unexpectedly, into the deserted Shwe Inn Dein Pagoda, an overgrown temple site first built between 273-232 B.C. I strolled alone up the hillside between more than 1,000 stupas, dating from the 14th to the 18th centuries. It was a pleasantly surprising way to end a mystical journey.
Burma is only emerging as a travel destination. But for travelers seeking an authentic Southeast Asian experience in a country on the cusp of profound change, it is the real deal.
The easiest flight connections to Yangon are via Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok.
Where to Stay in Yangon
The StrandThe Strand is centrally located and Yangon’s most famous hotel. It was built in 1901 and retains its period charm. 95-1 243-377www.ghmluxuryhotels.com/Strand.htm
The Governor’s ResidenceThe Governor’s Residence is a beautifully restored 1920s British governor’s mansion now managed by Orient Express. 95-1 229-860 www.governorsresidence.com
VisaA prepaid visa is required. There is no visa-on-arrival service.
CurrencyThe local currency, kyat (pronounced jyet), cannot be exchanged outside Myanmar. Do not exchange cash at the airport – pay for a taxi in U.S. currency (around $8-$10) and exchange notes at the hotel or with local traders. The official government exchange rate is much lower than the market rate of $1 = 720-750 kyats.