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. Opened officially to visiting travellers two years ago, globalisation and mass tourism are eeking their way in, 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 Independent travel is possible, but with guidebooks shockingly out of date and such a depth of culture to be explored, I worried that we wouldn’t quite get the most from the experience. After weeks of research I discovered Ampersand Travel; a UK based company specialising in Asian luxury travel. Their small team and in-depth knowledge meant that they were perfectly placed to whip up the ultimate bespoke Burmese itinerary for my 9 day trip. 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 some top tips to help you make the most of your trip, and my biggest tip? Go soon!
– 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.
– 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.
EXPLORE THE HISTORY OF… YANGON
An Asian city 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 mesmerising 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. Yangon only needs a one-day visit, but is a great initiation into Burma.
FALL IN LOVE WITH… MANDALAY
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 stupa, the Indian inspired Hsinbyume Paya and impossibly big Mingun Bell. A private ox-cart “taxi” escorted us back to our boat. In the afternoon impressive sites included the Mahamuni Pagoda, the rebuilt version of Mandalay Palace and finally the exceptionally intricate and well preserved teak monastery. The delayed influence of modernisation 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 1000s of monks at the monastery in Amarapura (the most touristy thing we did), 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.
PEACEFUL PAGODAS IN… BAGAN
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 provided 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, which undoubtedly offers the best viewpoint in Bagan, we were defeated by the weather, causing us to lament our cancelled trip and content ourselves with a cycle around some of the nearby temples.
LUSH GREENERY IN… KALAW
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 (their preferred hotel The Amara, was full) 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. As we were 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.
BACKWATER BEAUTY AT… INLE LAKE
The most perfect place to end our jam-packed trip was Inle Lake, a wonder in itself. Gigantic in size, it’s 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. The Shan hills surround a spectacular backdrop to the endless lake, best viewed from the restaurant at the Red Mountain Vineyard up in the hills.
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 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. 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 $24,000 (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. But to make the price more palatable, they’re offering all Sassy readers either a free balloon trip over Bagan or visit to the Green Elephant Camp if you quote “Sassy Offer” when you make your booking.
Ampersand Travel; www.ampersandtravel.com, +44 (0)207 819 9770