Note: I will refer to the country as Burma, but its original name is Myanmar and locals are prefer to call it Myanmar and since the political changes it is said to be going back to Myanmar. Furthermore, when we took this trip the company and operator of the cruise and hotel was still named Orient Express, they have since rebranded to Belmond.
We often hear about Asia’s best kept secret on travel sites and reads and they usually are some secluded island off the coast of popular tourist nations such as Thailand, Vietnam or Indonesia. But after my most recent trip I feel like there is an entire nation that remains a mystery to most travelers, one which is certainly not high up on people’s lists of must go to places, well at least not yet.
I am talking about Burma (Myanmar), South East Asia’s western frontier, bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Its coasts touch the Andaman Sea and Bay of Bengal. Its charm has captured the imagination of Rudyard Kipling and inspired a novel by George Orwell. But in the second half of the 20th century and in 2006-2009, the country has been clouded with political turmoil and unrest. Most notably the Nobel Peace Prize winner of 1991 and chairperson of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, who was put under house arrest for over 20 years. Her father, General Aung San, is considered by many as the father of modern day Burma, however he was assassinated in 1947, just months before Burma gained independence from the British Empire in 1948. And from then on till 2010, Burma has seen socialist governments and military dictators. In more recent years we have seen Burma go through more political struggle with the 2007 anti-government protests, where students and monks walked to protest the military junta. Many were killed by government crackdowns and many more were taken as political prisoners. Then in 2008 Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, causing a great loss of life and damage to the nation but the junta refused to let in foreign aid in order to hide the severity of the situation from the international spotlight and to save his reputation. Just as things started to look real bad for Burma, the tables started to turn. In 2011 the junta came to an end and Burma saw a change in government and government policies. In 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from house arrest, and very recently in March 2012 she won a seat in parliament and also began her international travels, one of which included a trip to finally receive her nobel peace prize.
That is just a very quick whirlwind and simplified version of Burma’s recent history, of course in the past the nation was ruled by kings who built lavish palaces and temples, more on that later.
Thus with all these changes, Burma was beginning to open up to the world and the world was beginning to watch. It was especially after Aung San Suu Kyi’s win and travels as well as the British biopic “The Lady,” starring Michelle Yeoh, that triggered multiple headlines and articles about Burma. Everywhere one could read about Burma is the next hotspot in South East Asia for both tourism and investment. We came across these articles and watched “The Lady,” and were inspired to go check it out before the Burmese roads become beaten by the tourists.
We were not exactly sure where to go, what to see or how to go about organizing it until we came across the Orient Express website and noticed they have a river cruise in Burma as well as a hotel in the capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). There was also the problem of obtaining a visa, but luckily we learned that in May 2012 Burma just introduced online visa applications, which we later learned was just a way for you to pay and give your information ahead of time but in reality once you get to the airport you still need to wait for them to actually give you your visa and cross check information. Thankfully for us China Airlines operates 4 weekly non-stop flights from Taipei to Yangon, it used to be 3 but then they added a 4th one this year. Later this year ANA (All Nippon Airways) will return to Yangon and so will Eva Air and Korean Air will begin flying as well. I have travelled with Orient Express to Peru before and had an amazing experience so we trusted the brand and went ahead and started to communicate and organize with them. This was sort of a spontaneous decision, and because summer time worked best with everyone’s schedule we decided to travel in July even though it was both the low and rainy season. But one of my Burmese friends told me she prefers staying long term during the summer because it can be cooler when it rains. I also was reminded that beauty can be found in rain when I read some article about it and when I finally arrived in Burma. And a big plus was that there weren’t too many tourists.
Thus after 2 months of preparing and organizing we boarded our 4 hour China Airlines flight and flew to Yangon. We checked into Orient Express’ hotel in Yangon: The Governor’s Residence. A former British Governor’s home in Yangon located in the embassy district of Yangon, the main former residence contains the lobby, bar, restaurant and shop, the rooms are additions added around the residence on the hotel grounds. The Governor’s Residence is a quaint and relaxing hotel, and despite being in the capital it feels rather secluded. It has a large pool, a spa, free wifi throughout and pretty good food.
We had nothing planned on day 1 so we decided to take a taxi to visit Yangon’s famous heritage hotel, The Strand Hotel. Walking in through the doors of The Strand was like driving trough the streets of Burma, it felt like I had just traveled through time. The moment I entered I felt like I was in some Colonial period film. Though it went through a renovation, much of the exterior and interior is much the same as it would have been when Kipling was sipping tea in the lobby. We had afternoon tea in the hotel and had both a Traditional English set and a Burmese set. Both were good but the Burmese set was definitely more unique and tasty, I also had a go at Organic Burmese Coffee which was quite aromatic. After the tea we asked if we could get a tour of the hotel and we did! We toured a standard room as well as the The Strand Suite (the largest room), where Mick Jagger stayed. The rooms were all quite big, and stayed true to the rest of the hotel, it felt very colonial. Though it was cool to feel like one was back in the days of the British Empire, there was a dusty ominous feel about the hotel that made it slightly dark and heavy and uncomfortable, thus we agreed that the Governor’s Residence was a much better choice. But it was still insightful and worth the trip to see and experience Great Britain’s influence in Burma.
This day started off quite early, luggage outside the rooms at 5:45 and check out at 6:45. We would not see our checked bags until we got onboard the river cruise, they take the bags check it in, at Mandalay the cruise staff will retrieve the baggage and take onboard the cruise. We headed to the airport for our flight to Mandalay, one of the former capitals of Burma during one of the dynasties. The old domestic terminal of Yangon Airport is indeed quite old and run down and crowded at peak tourist hours like in the early morning. We boarded our Air Bagan
flight to Mandalay. Mandalay International Airport is known as one of the many white elephant projects in Burma, where the government spent lots of money to build large infrastructure that would later not be used. It was meant to be Burma’s second gateway and hub but only sees 1-2 international flights despite having a few air bridges and one of the longest runways in South East Asia.
We visited a local market, a monastery, and a silk garment workshop before we finally arrived at the boat. The local market was our first taste of local Burmese sights, sounds, and smells. It was very similar to any other market you might find in much of Southeast Asia but you do notice that the Burmese people are much friendlier. Here we learned about Thanaka, a yellowish-white paste that Burmese children and women wear as make up and sun protection, it is made by grinding tree bark with water on a stone plate. Then we arrived at the monastery in time to watch the procession of monks lining up to receive lunch from local donors. It was quite a site to see, the line stretched as far as the monastery grounds and felt never-ending as monks kept coming at the end, after a senior monk signalled with a gong it was time for lunch the line started moving. First they received a large portion of rice into their clay pot then they received a small snack for later before proceeding into the dining hall where they had curries and other mains with the rice. This was their only meal of the day and they finish it quickly. Burmese buddhism allows meat, and it is the most original form of buddhism, according to our guide. The monk and nun system in Burma is a lot more flexible than in Tibet or China, but there are also many rules and standards that I will not explain here but rather let you go discover for yourself when you visit Burma.
The Road To Mandalay
Finally after a morning of touring, and an incredible sight at the monastery we arrived at the dock to board The Road to Mandalay. It is a decent sized river cruise with a maximum capacity of 80 guests and there are 4 types of rooms. Superior, Deluxe, State and the Governor’s suite (only one of these). The cruise includes a top deck with outdoor pool, lounge and bar, a deck with the main restaurant observation lounge/ library, piano bar, and souvenir shop. Then there are two decks with the rooms, the bottom most deck include the spa and gym. We originally booked a superior cabins, but upon entering it we realized just how small it was, barely enough room to walk or turn around. We later asked to tour the state and deluxe suites and asked to upgrade to a state suite, luckily for us the sweet manager Sammy gave us a special deal and bumped us up past the deluxe and to the state suite for one upgrade price, it was because this was the first voyage of the 2012-2013 season. The halls are quite small, but the state suite was really spacious with a full bathroom. The food onboard was decent, but for the most part it could have been better and because of the chef’s Malaysian heritage the food was more Chinese Malay than Burmese. But the service from the staff and Sammy was top notch and because we only had 40 guests on this voyage it was not crowded and very relaxing and friendly.
After lunch and settling in onboard we continued with our tour of Mandalay. The afternoon tour took us to a marble carving street where the entire street is filled with marble carvers and vendors and marble products and carvers can only be found on this street, we also visited a gold leaf workshop and saw how gold leaf is pounded. We also visited the key sights in Mandalay and neighboring Amarapura:
Shwenandaw Monastery: one of the last remaining original buildings from the Royal Palace, used to be the King’s residence it was then given to monks and turned into a Monastery. It is made entirely of teak wood and has intricate carvings.
Kuthodaw Pagoda: known as the world’s largest book for its 729 stone slabs with the Buddhist scripture inscribed on them
Mahamuni Buddha Temple: contains a buddha image said to have been cast when Lord Buddha was alive Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura and U Bein Bridge: the longest teak wood bridge in the world.
Then it was back on the boat for dinner, and the evening performance by students from a local theater school.
The day started off with a bowl of Nangyi Thoke that we asked the chef to prepare for us. My Burmese friend told me I could not leave Mandalay without trying this Mandalay specialty that locals usually eat for breakfast. Afterwards we went to the village by the dock to see The Road to Mandalay staff offer breakfast to local monks. Then we headed to Sagaing, which was across the Ayeyarwady (pronounced: Irrawaddy) River. We headed up to Sagaing hill for an amazing view of Mandalay, Sagaing and the river. This was the first site that made me feel the magic and mystery of Burma. From here we saw the two Ava Bridges (one original from British times and one recently built), our boat, and Sagaing’s multiple pagodas and temples and well as the International Buddhist University. Afterwards we visited a nunnery, and saw nuns preparing their lunch, nuns received uncooked food from donors and cook themselves while monks received cook meals because it is assumed men cant cook.
Afterwards we headed back to the boat and then we set sail for Bagan. The rest of the day was spent relaxing on the cruise, taking in the sights along the river, mostly unspoiled green lands and mountains and small villages here and there. about 3/4 of the way to Bagan we anchored in the middle of the river to spend the night. There was a cocktail party on the top deck accompanied by a pretty sunset and there was going to be a surprise on the river but the weather would not cooperate, turns out the staff was going to light up the river with candles.
Day 4 and 5: Bagan
We finally arrived in Bagan, the land of thousands of Pagodas, and probably Burma’s most famous and popular site. It is one of the largest archeological sites in South East Asia and houses over 2000 pagodas. It was also one of the former capitals of Burma under the Kingdom of Pagan, the first kindgom to unify all regions that form modern day Burma (Myanmar). It is what appears on google image searches of Burma, with the sunset hot air balloon rides amongst the pagodas (unfortunately the hot air balloon season doesnt start until October).
On our first day in Bagan we visited another local market and some of the key Pagodas in Bagan as well as climb up a couple (only some still allow tourists to climb up), and view the Bagan sunset from one of the pagodas (unfortunately rainy season meant lots of clouds). We also visited a Lacquerware workshop, a well known Burmese product. And a local village.
We also took the suggestion of many sites and took a horse drawn cart from the dock to the most famous temples, the Ananda Temple. the 30+ minute ride was incredible and totally worth the $5, the carts take your on and off main roads and winds through many large, medium and small pagados untouched by tourists and it really lets you take in the beauty of the country.
The key temples we visited were: Ananda Temple, Shwezigon Pagoda, Dhammayazika Temple, Nanpaya Temple, and the Sulamani Temple.
Each temples we visited was built in slightly different styles and it can be seen that Burma was an intersection of Buddhism as we saw influences of Indian, Khmer and Chinese Buddhism in the architecture, the Buddha images and the murals that remained.
Dhammayazika Temple (the falling piece of gold leaf are remnants of the former government, a former official decorated it with gold leaf as it was one of his favorite temples but it has since all fallen off and not been maintained.
Despite not being able to witness the incredible and famous Bagan sunset, it was still an incredible sight from the top of a pagoda to look over Bagan and see nothing but pagodas in the horizon.
The next day we checked out and disembarked our cruise and bid goodbye to the staff. We booked a day tour with Orient Express and we were greeted by a local guide from Bagan who was much better and more honest than our Road to Mandalay Guide who was old and repetitive and did not give good information. We left the boat and checked in at the Aureum Palace Hotel in Bagan, which we learned is actually owned by a former member of the junta and very high ranking general….Oops! But we honestly did not know but we learned more and more about the current state of Burma during out trip. It was a very pretty resort but one could tell that it was indeed built by someone of power to show their power. After a quick check in we headed off on a bit of a drive to Mt. Popa, a volcano, and Taung Kalat, a volcanic rock formation (like a mini-table mountain) on the side of Mt. Popa. Along the way we stopped at a very local market, not a single other tourist in site, and a monastery where we got to visit the monk’s living quarters and saw how to wear a monk’s attire. At Truang Kalat we climbed the 777 steps up to the top, the steps were covered in Monkey poop and mud from the rain. Monkey seemed to be considered holy at this site. At the top was a recently built hodgepodge of temples and stupas. The most recent ones built this year, it is basically if I want to donate I can and have something built under my name. It was not worth the climb, but the climb itself was quite an experience.
On the journey back we visited a palm sugar plantation, where we saw how peanut and sesame oil is made, how one climbs up the palm tree to bring down the palm sugar, how palm sugar is boiled, how it can also be used to produce liquor such as palm sugar rum. Here we also had a try at palm sugar dessert, where you take a small ball of palm sugar and a handfull of roasted sesame and pop it into your mouth, delicious. We also had a small traditional Burmese snack and tea. The snack came from a round utensil where you scooped whatever you wanted into your palm and ate it, there was fried sesame, garlic, peanuts, tea paste, and various beans.
We then returned to our hotel and went up the Bagan Observation tower to view the sunset, which on this day was much better. It was obvious that the tower was simply built because the general could do it, it was tall and huge but very empty and ominous and ghostly. Then we had a lovely dinner in front of the pool with a view of Bagan.
After another early start we headed to Bagan airport to board our Air Mandalay flight to Yangon. In Burma the airlines are all very small with only 2-4 operational airplane in their fleet yet they have to serve multiple domestic destinations. Thus on our morning flight we boarded the plan in Bagan flew to Mandalay and Heho (the gateway to the Shan state and Inley Lake) then to Yangon, what could have been a 1 hour flight turned into 3. Just be prepared for this type of flying when you go, or make sure to book a flight during peak tourist times so that your flight can be direct.
Anyways, we arrived back in Yangon and started off on our half day tour which included a visit to Syriam or now known as Thanlyin to visit an Island Pagoda, Ye Le Pagoda, in the middle of a lake, where it main Buddha image was found by fishermen in the lake as the original pagoda went underwater. In Yangon we visited one of the most famous Pagodas in Burma, the Shwedagon Pagoda, it is considered the most sacred in Burma because it was built during the time of Lord Buddha and relics from the past 4 Buddhas are enshrined below the towering golden Pagoda, but be warned the main pagoda is the key, it is surrounded by a hodgepodge of donated pagodas and temples that kind of ruin the grandeur and power of Swedagon.
Day 7: we boarded our China Airlines flight back to Taipei
It was nothing short of an amazing and insightful 7 day journey through Burma (Myanmar). But I believe it is still figuring many things out at this moment, and whether or not this peace in Burma will last is still unknown. However, I can say that while the peace lasts you should definitely pay a visit to this land untouched by time. It is magical, mysterious, eerie, and beautiful all at the same time. The Burmese people are some of the friendliest I have come across in my travels and they really want people to go experience their culture.
Tips and Notes:
– Burmese greeting (means hello, good day, how are you…etc): pronounce it: Ming-ga-la-ba. Thank you is: Je-zoo-be
– You must go barefoot, as in no socks or shoes, in all temples and pagodas, even at the steps of Truang Kalat. And shoulders and knees must be covered.
– Some temples and pagodas restrict photography or charge a fee, only $1-$2
– It does not have a very developed tourist infrastructure yet, but all the more reason to go visit before it does get ruined by tourists (one day you might not even get to go into temples anymore).
– Do your research well before you head out there. Meaning you should look into who owns the hotels and airlines you are considering. Most of the nicer hotels and airlines are owned by generals and former junta officials but there are a few nice hotels and safe airlines that are privately owned by former political prisoners or locals. We simply let Orient Express book and give us suggestions because we didn’t know what to expect or how to go about planning a trip to Burma since we knew so little about it. Or take a look at this article, it is quite informative: http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/08/05/travel/visiting-myanmar-its-complicated.html?src=dayp
– If you want to try local food, definitely start off with the fried street food and if your stomach can handle it then go for the noodles and other less cooked items. For a dish like Nangyi Thoke, definitely try it at a market and not in the safety of your hotel.
– Burma is a REALLY safe country, the people are so nice and inviting and are very afraid of stealing from tourists (the junta punished people very severely for doing so). They simply want to get to know you and want you to get to know their country.
– In Bagan, get a guidebook and either 1) rent a bike or 2) hire a horse cart for the day and go around the city this way and explore the Pagodas at your own pace.
– Definitely try to visit Bagan, Yangon, and Inley Lake (the only key site we missed), Mandalay can be done in half a day.
– If you are to use Orient Express, definitely stay at the Governor’s Residence (though I hear it is to be renovated soon). If you choose to take The Road to Mandalay, whether its their signature 3 day cruise or their 11 day cruise, do not book a superior cabin, it really is really really small, and also if possible request for a younger guide, the one we had was really not very good. http://www.orient-express.com/web/rtm/road_to_mandalay.jsp
– CASH CASH CASH, is the big rule of thumb, most places do not accept cards, not even Aureum Palace Hotel. And many places only accept crisp new US Dollar bills, otherwise you would need to exchange for the local currency, the Burmese Kyat (pronounced chat).
– There is no need to worry about Malaria or other diseases that we usually worry about when traveling to undeveloped tropical countries.
– GO AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!!!! It is already becoming the newest emerging tourist attraction in Southeast Asia and will soon become overflowing with tourists and it will, sadly, probably lose that mystical charm and that feeling of traveling back in time in a few years as more foreign investment comes and develops the nation. Already more airlines are beginning to fly to Yangon, more hotels are beginning to invest in properties and land, and already this year there was a significant increase in the number of bookings. I used to see Burma as a country broken by political turmoil, but I have come to realized that there is a whole other world behind that image, a world that is very much worth the visit and experience.
You can get started with Lonely Planet’s guide: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/myanmar-burma
I hope you will get to experience that charm, magic, grandeur, and beauty that this country brings soon!