To go or not to go? That was the questions I posed to myself before my 2008 visit to Myanmar. Many governments discourage travel to Myanmar, formally called Burma, due to the repressive government. After some research and sole searching I learned that the government has little to do with tourism and sanctions tend to hurt the people more than the government. Tourists provide a conduit between the people and the rest of the world. I found the people so welcoming and country so fascinating that I planned to return "“ then Cyclone Nargis hit. This time I didn't angst over my decision because I knew every dollar I spent would be even more important to the people. So in 2009 I was back in Myanmar. Many people died during the cyclone but fortunately there was no second wave of deaths due to disease and recovery is taking place at a slow but steady pace. Except for some damage in Yangon, the tourist areas were left untouched.
Over a century ago Rudyard Kipling visited Burma and said it was "quite unlike any land you know about." His poem, "The Road to Mandalay" has invoked images of romance and beauty in the minds of travelers for generations. Myanmar is still an exotic destination that has changed little in the last 50 years. The most beguiling aspect of Myanmar is the friendly people who have retained their culture and are not jaded by the world of commercialism. One of my guides explained, "We don't have McDonalds but we do have fast food. All Myanmar food is fast to prepare."
Even though Yangon lost many trees to Nargis it is still a very green city. On each trip I stayed at The Governor's Residence, built in the traditional style with beautiful gardens, a koi-filled stream, and an emerald green pool. A gong announced my arrival and the beginning of unparalleled service.
I was impressed at Yangon's golden Reclining Buddha, which is 229 feet in length but more surprised when I was invited inside the monk's living quarters. Quietly, because most of the monks were resting after having risen at 4 a.m., I toured the neat but basic building. The most important Buddhist Temple, Shwedagon Pagoda, it is truly a symphony in gold at sunset, but the most incredible places are outside of Yangon.
From Yangon I flew to Bagan and boarded the luxurious "Road to Mandalay" boat for a tour along the Ayeyarwady River. The boat is part of the Orient Express so connections, tours, and service are impeccable. The ancient capital of Bagan reached its pinnacle between 1057 and 1287. The impressive ruins spread over acres and give insight to the power that was once Myanmar. The tours, which are included, took me to impressive pagodas; pottery, lacquer ware, and other handicraft workshops; traditional farming villages; a Buddhist nunnery; colorful outdoor markets; and to the top of a pagoda to watch the sun set. The people in the villages stopped to wave but continued their work as if we were just friends passing by. Riding the river from Bagan to Mandalay, like all river trips in Myanmar, is of National Geographic proportions. The Road to Mandalay was in Yangon during Nargis and sustained some damaged. The completely refurbished boat will once again ply the Ayeyarwady starting in August.
While Bagan is the major draw for tourists there are many unique destinations. On Lake Inle the fishermen still practice their unique one-leg rowing style. When I arrived at Paramount Inle Resort two Padoung women famed for the stack of brass rings around their neck greeted me. In Myanmar it is still common to see ethnic groups in their traditional garb. The hotel is built on stilts in the water in the traditional manner so I had a front porch view of daily life on the lake. At the local farmer's market I was bedazzled by the explosion of color and fascinated by the sights. I wandered past an outdoor barbershop, watched a vendor prepare betel nut for chewing, a lady pounding fish into paste, and shopped for handicrafts.
On my most recent visit I flew from Yangon to Sittwee on the Bay of Bengal and boarded a traditional teak boat for the seven hour ride to Mrauk Oo Princess Resort. Mrauk Oo is an important archeological site in Rakhine State that reached its glory in the sixteenth century. Early one morning I climbed to the top of a temple hill where the staff of the Princess Resort had my breakfast waiting. It was a mystical experience watching the morning mist dissipate and the sun rise over Mrauk Oo. It set a contemplative mood for touring the archeological site that included wandering through the Shrine of 80,000 Images. My favorite day began in a vintage Willys Jeep followed by a three-hour river trip to a traditional Chin State village with rattan and bamboo homes and women famed for their intricately tattooed faces.
At the Princess Resort I met an English lady who was concluding a three-week stay and asked, "What was your favorite place in Myanmar?"
She shared, "This is my fourth visit. There is always a lot to see, but my husband and I always end our trip at Ngapali Beach."
Imagine a long sweeping pristine beach with no nasty currents, no mosquitoes, no annoying vendors, first class resorts, and excellent service, and you have Ngapali Beach. On both of my visits I stayed at Amazing hotel where the staff told me, "You can probably leave your things on the beach and they will be there in the morning. Even so, we don't recommend it." Myanmar is a very safe country.
Someday I hope I can one up the English lady by saying, "This is my fifth trip to Myanmar." Meanwhile I am planning my third trip, I still want to visit Kalaw, a popular hill station during the British colonial days; the huge, precariously balanced Golden Rock; and relax at Ngapali Beach for a week. Every day in Myanmar is filled with riveting sights. Kipling was correct, Myanmar is "…quite unlike any land you know…".
If you go:
To book travel check: www.myanmarwonderstravel.com, www.governorsresidence.com, www.orient-express.com, www.amazing-hotel.com, www.mraukooprincessresort.com.
Essentials: A visa is necessary. Air Asia, www.airasia.com, offers RT tickets Bangkok-Yangon for about $110. There are no ATMs, and while most hotels accept credit cards it is best to bring cash. Yahoo, hot mail, and some other web sites are almost impossible to access.
Sandra and her husband, John, are compulsive travelers and writers who have been exploring the world since the 1980s writing all the way. To see more of their travels go to www.sanscott.com. They are on the road seven months a year "“ half in the US and the other half exploring the rest of the world. They like to promote Slow Travel "“ taking time to enjoy the uniqueness of each area.