Right now there’s the tourism equivalent of a gold rush flocking to Myanmar. Earlier this year WYZA® suggested that Myanmar was, along with Cuba, the world’s hot emerging destination. Recently returned we’d suggest to “book soon”.
- Vientiane, Laos – The city of charm
- An insider's guide to Bangkok at its best
- Everything you need to know about 'Flashpacking'
Why the rush? Well, if you visited Southeast Asia in the 60s or 70s you may recall a time when it wasn’t all shopping malls and freeways and you’d find towns and villages where people lived simple lives close to nature.
Arrive in style in a horse cart!
Rural Myanmar is still like that and you’re just as likely to be travelling by horse cart as by taxi. But it’s changing fast – already there seem to be as many mobile phone shops as there are tea shops.
The iconic Myanmar travel experience is a cruise along the Irrawaddy River. I recommend taking the road from Mandalay as the river flows quickly and running with it, rather than against it, allows more time for excursions.
Fresh papaya is sold at local Myanmar markets
Kipling and history
Rudyard Kipling wasn’t in Burma very long – and he never got to Mandalay. But his brief visit in 1889 was time well spent as his poem Road to Mandalay (later recorded as a song by Frank Sinatra and others) is the visitor’s universal theme song to cruising the Irrawaddy River.
Back then the river was the main road and it was plied by the Scottish-founded Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. At its peak the company had over 600 hundred passenger vessels and barges plying the waters of the wide, fast flowing river and was the largest shipping company in the world. It carried nine million passengers per year during the 1920s.
Rural Myanmar is an untouched part of South-East Asia
That all came to a dramatic halt in 1942 when Japan was advancing on British-held Burma and capturing the fleet would greatly speed that process. So the company sank all its vessels and disabled their engines. That slowed the Japanese advance and proved to be a significant speed bump on the road for decades to come.
All this would be as well known as other major milestones but Burma, now known as Myanmar, has spent the last 50 years secluded and isolated in socialist poverty.
The generals loosened the constraints over the past few years. Last year free elections gave the NLD of Aung Sung Suu Kyi control of parliament. They took over on April 1, 2016.
The satisfying postscript to the great scuttling of the fleet is that, in 1995 another Scot Paul Strachan found one of the original Flotilla vessels in India and has recreated a fleet of vessels in its teak-and-brass image and named Pandaw Cruises after it. They now operate as far afield as the Mekong, the Amazon and the Nile but their heart is in Myanmar where there’s many cruises on several rivers.
Experience a luxury cruise on the Irrawaddy River
The wonders of Bagan
It’s hard to go beyond the traditional 10-day Mandalay-Yangon cruise on a first visit to Myanmar. Despite Kipling’s assurance, from my experience, there’s not a flying fish to be seen at play or at work.
Instead there’s glorious Bagan, where several thousand temples dot the plains in a bend of the river about 200 km south of Mandalay.
Like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu it’s a sight that reveals the skills and devotion of its early inhabitants. Despite being built at least 800 years ago at least half of the original temples survive.
The true wonder of this expansive site stand is revealed when you are on higher ground so make sure you enjoy a panoramic view of sunrise or sunset.
At dawn the scene is even more remarkable than sunset because, soon after dawn’s first rays light the temple spires, the distant shapes of more than 20 balloons can be seen in the distance. Over the next 20 minutes they fly over the site, providing wonderful counterpoints to the ancient wonders below.
The stunning sunrise over Bagan
The Irrawaddy voyage
Mandalay was the beginning of our journey and it was a disappointment. The grid of city streets, dust, traffic and uninspired shops has none of the magic that the city’s name conjures.
True, there are some interesting pagodas, temples – even a skinny Buddha – but much of the old city was flattened in war and never rebuilt. I should have heeded Somerset Maugham’s advice that the wise stay away from Mandalay because it can never live up to the expectations aroused by those lilting syllables.
Skinny Buddha in Mandalay is a remarkable 75ft tall
On the other hand, boarding Pandaw II under the shadow of seried pagodas along the ridge above the river put me right back in romantic discovery mode. Riverside pagodas were to punctuate the entire voyage.
Our cabin evoked an earlier age with the teak walls and brass nautical light fittings gleaming and our bathroom’s toiletries were by L’Occitane en Provence. Throughout the voyage the food was a good blend of Burmese and European dishes.
An open bar on the top desk was a great vantage point for viewing river life. The standard of service was remarkable – including our shoes being surrendered at the end of each excursion so they could be cleaned and returned.
Over the next few days we mainly travelled by daylight so we could appreciate the intimate glimpse into life in Myanmar that river cruising provides. We also learned that the people of Myanmar are some of the gentlest, most welcoming people on the planet.
Each day featured a couple of excursions, generally in the morning and afternoon so we could cruise during the heat of the midday sun. The range of excursions varied from schools and clinics to gold beating, making lacquerware and visiting monasteries and gave us a good grounding on how this intriguing country works – and considerable hope for its future.
The threads of change are already everywhere. There was not a single day when we couldn’t send and receive emails, for example – and most towns now have ATMs.
You may discover locals using new technology in unexpected places
Finally we came to Yangon and the end of the voyage. It was a wrench to leave our home for the past 10 days but we looked forward to our couple of nights in town. We had two specific goals – one was to explore Yangon’s extensive colonial architecture that has been locked in a time warp since WWII. The other was to get to know and appreciate the iconic Shwe Dagon Pagoda in all its moods throughout the day.
To combine these activities we moved into the Horizon Club on the 23rd floor of Sule Shangri-la Hotel and booked a three-hour walking tour of the city. The hotel choice was specific because its high-rise luxury provides a scenic view across the city to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda and down the street to the city’s other significant temple: the Sule Pagoda.
Local markets are filled with fragrant spices
Michael, our walking guide gave us more than our three allocated hours and could not have squeezed in more information. He took us to obscure corners of the city we never would have found by ourselves, such as the fragrant Indian spice markets.
The $60 (USD) fee for the two of us was good value. We learned that the grandson of U-Thant (UN Secretary-General between 1961 and 1971) is leading the push to preserve Yangon’s architectural legacy as the head of Yangon Heritage Trust.
Shwe Dagon Pagoda
While seeing the sunrise over the towering Shwe Dagon Pagoda from the hotel lounge was a thrill it was dwarfed by climbing the stairs of Singuttara Hill to face the giant complex close-up. One of the world’s most significant Buddhist shrines, the Shwe Dagon is 99 metres tall and covered in many tons of pure gold plates. Legend has it that the temple was built when the Gautama Buddha was alive and he donated eight of his hairs that are still contained within.
Myanmar's Shwe Dagon Pagoda
It’s an elaborate complex of exceptional richness. The umbrella crown at the top of the stupa is decorated with more than 2000 rubies and over 5000 diamonds. The whole structure is tipped with a 76 carat diamond that, if you get in the right position, glows brightly and dazzles your eyes.
Myanmar has a rich past and is taking the first tentative steps into an uncertain future. It may be the perennial cry of tourism everywhere but this really is a destination that you really need to see soon for an anachronistic glimpse into an earlier, gentler village society.
Young monks at the Myanmar markets
What travel articles would you like to read next? Join the conversation below.