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12th March 2020

Myanmar – South East Asia’s Golden Wonder

I’ve been to over 120 countries, trying to visit at least 4 new countries every year and have ticked off nearly every region of the globe.  However, there’s been one country that’s been on my wish list for over 30 years, from when I lived in Hong Kong back in the 80s. Back then it was only possible to visit Myanmar, or Burma as it was then for a week, and at that point, there were too many other easier and more accessible Asian countries I wanted to explore. Then followed a decade-long tourism boycott but the desire never went away. 

Finally this November I got to experience what is easily one for the most beautiful and untouched countries in Asia, and set out to find out if Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote “This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about” still held true. 

Myanmar is full of old empire opulence, grand pagodas, natural wonders and a predominantly Buddhist population, renowned for its friendliness and hospitality, and eager to share its ancient customs. There are a dozen or so absolute must-do highlights, including The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Mandalay, a cruise down the Irrawaddy, Bagan and its temples and sparkling  Inle Lake, all of which I did and have no hesitation in recommending. 

However, I travelled with Experience Travel Group who create personalised distinctive and experience-based holidays, and therefore I also got to also discover a side of Myanmar that few tourists ever do, seeing the cultural highlights with a twist. Better facilities and infrastructure within the country means that it is easier now to visit more places. I also genuinely feel that one can visit the country and support hugely deserving individuals and private companies with minimal support to the military regime. 

Here are a few of my favourite places and experiences.

Petra posing by the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (Rangoon)

The giant Shewedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s gold-plated showpiece and the most sacred Buddhist site in the country (Buddha’s hair is said to be buried inside it). The brilliant, golden pagoda (the oldest in the world) standing close to 110m high and covered in gold leaf and 4,531 diamonds are visible from all over Yangon with sunset the perfect time to visit.   

On my visit the stupa glowed in warm orange light, the air was heavy with the scent of flowers and incense and the shuffling crowds flowed as one around the pagoda. I got to have my photo taken by one of the professional photographers that hang around the pagoda before joining devotees taking part in a lamp-lighting ceremony, where hundreds of oil lamps are lit each evening to bring good luck. A magical start to my visit. 

I’d been recommended to keep Shewdagon Pagoda to the end of my trip as once you’ve seen it, no other pagoda can possibly compare. However, patience not being my strongest virtue and itching to get up close, I was straight there on the first night. 

All smiles after taking a balloon trip over the temples in Bagan

Bagan, located on the east bank of the Irrawaddy River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, monuments and ruins in the world, over 2000 in total with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries.  Balloons over Bagan, a long standing hot air balloon operator, takes passengers in complete safety and comfort high above the region for 45 minutes. Seeing the thousands of ancient temples spreading across the plains, appearing through the mist as the sun rises is undoubtedly one of Myanmar’s most impressive sites and not to be missed. 

The flights only operate in the dry season between October and March. Taking a balloon ride has long been top of my bucket list. I’d been saving up to do one on a milestone birthday, but no friends or family got the hint! On the Bagan balloon ride I really did feel as though I was in some kind of a dream – the gentle floating sensation, the views, the silence and then the thrilling landing, skimming the rice fields, waving at the farmers metres below us, before landing on a sandbank. Out of the blue a table is set up, champagne and eats materialise and no-one can stop smiling.  

Smiling local at Kyun Thiri island on a rural excursion

When in Bagan you should allow at least a couple of days to also walk, cycle, take a horse and cart or electric motorbike to explore the temples including the impressive temples of Ananda and  Dhammayangyi, the largest temple Shwezigon and the tallest Thatbyinnyu. However, when all the temples (not to mention the crowds) get all a bit too much Experience Travel Group offers a unique rural excursion to Kyun Thiri Island. 

The 1,300 mile long Irrawaddy (navigable all the way from Yangon to Bhamo, near the Chinese border) is one of the world’s most fabled rivers. To get to the island involved a short boat trip across the Irrawaddy before arriving at the island, just a rustic wooden jetty and a series of muddy steps up a bank before you arrive at the village. This is a totally authentic experience, you’ll see no mass tourist boats, just yourself and a guide. I spent the morning with the people of the island, learning about their unique agricultural way of life and being blown away by the friendliness of the welcome and willingness to be photographed.   

A bullock cart on the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

Located in Myanmar’s north-eastern Shan State, Kalaw is an old hill station with a welcome cooler climate. To fully appreciate the charms of rural Myanmar, I trekked over the rolling hills from Kalaw to nearby Inle Lake staying in monasteries, being lulled to sleep by chanting monks.

With Lin Lin my guide, Tun Tun my porter and Nye Nye the cook we walked for five or six hours a day enjoying the bucolic landscape, reminiscent of Tuscany. We watched the farmers planting, tending and harvesting their crops, chillies, corn and rice. I got to help harvest the rice, holding the stems then cutting the crop with a sickle. I have to admit rather unsuccessfully but at least it caused endless merriment to the bemused ladies taking a break from their work. The women mostly wear traditional dress, turbans on their heads, folded like a towel for shade or wiping away sweat and then often with a bamboo hat on top. 

The men mostly wear football shirts! This isn’t a challenging hard core hike, more of an interesting agricultural experience. However, the gentle pace, the pastoral landscapes, the fresh food bought and cooked for lunch and dinner, the lack of crowds (particularly any other Westerners) the beaming smiles from everyone we encountered made this one of the most memorable treks I’ve ever done and the perfect digital detox.

Intha fisherman showing off his one legged rowing skills on Inle Lake

A photo of the Intha fisherman with their unusual one legged rowing technique, hooking a leg around a long oar to scull across glassy blue Inle Lake is perhaps Myanmar’s most iconic image and used to sell the country worldwide. The best way to explore Inle Lake is on a day trip, slicing through the waters on a long tailed boat. Tours include visits to fishing villages with their houses built on stilts and silk weaving and cheroot rolling industries. Stops are also made to watch blacksmiths and silversmiths at work and to see the floating market that moves between the area’s villages on a five day rota. 

Inle Lake didn’t disappoint and there were unmissable photo opportunities at every turn. I was also excited to hear that  Balloons over Bagan have  recently launched a ballooning experience over the Lake and another extraordinary way to experience one of Myanmar’s most scenic attractions. Breakfast is taken next to one of the beautiful Shan villages wherever the balloon lands.

Getting off the beaten track, visiting a Kayan tribe village

Closed for over half a century and only recently opened to visitors, Kayah state is home to nine distinct ethnic groups, which diversified and evolved from Karen culture. The biggest groups are the Kayah, Kayan, Bre, Lahta, and Yinbaw. Many tribes still practice their indigenous customs, handed down for centuries and dress in their traditional costumes including wearing heavy brass neck rings. Never one to miss a chance to dress up, I got to feel the weight of the brass rings by trying on just a couple.

Ngapali Beach

Those who follow me on social media will know how much of an aquaphile I am. There’s nothing I like more than being by the water, on the water or more importantly in the water. No trip therefore would be complete without giving a rundown of a few of my favourite swimming pools and swimming spots. 

After touring Myanmar’s main sites, laid back Ngapali Beach is the place to relax and enjoy a spectacular sunset from a practically empty palm fringed golden sand beach, untroubled by touts. Unlike some resorts in neighbouring Thailand, Ngapali is still relatively unspoilt with just a small number of beach front hotels. I stayed at Sandoway Resort and enjoyed the balmy blue waters of the Bay of Bengal, took a boat trip for a spot of snorkelling and visited the traditional fishing villages that line the coast.

Infinity pool heaven at Inle Lake View Resort and Spa

The Inle Lake View Resort and Spa is the only deluxe boutique hotel of international standard on the shores of Inle Lake with an infinity heated swimming pool with views out across the lake that got the big thumbs up from me. It was a super social pool as most guests are out and about during the day on excursions but happy to meet up in the pool or adjoining jacuzzi at the end of the day, to watch the sunset and swap tales of this magnificent country. 

To find out more about Myanmar visit https://www.tourismmyanmar.org/

Petra visited Myanmar in December 2019. If you would like to know more about this destination, don’t hesitate to give us a call or to send us an email.

By Karen Simmonds
12th March 2020