With the closely watched parliamentary elections carried off successfully – and surprisingly peacefully – during my visit this past November, Myanmar (still called Burma by many) is looking to the future with cautious optimism. The new government, led by the democracy leader and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (referred to as “The Lady” by both her devoted followers and tongue-tied foreigners), won the election by a landslide. The country expects tourism to grow as outside investment is reassured by a more stable government and economic growth.
It feels as if Myanmar, a small Buddhist country in Southeast Asia approximately the state of Texas, is on the verge of transformation – a refreshing spirit of change and openness prevails after decades of an iron-clad military regime. A once reclusive nation, Myanmar is a must-see-it-now-before-it-changes destination once described by Rudyard Kipling as “quite unlike any land you know about.” Visitors can explore temples and ancient sites or cruise Burma’s ancient lifeline, the Ayeyarwady River (aka the Irrawaddy), in all categories of comfort.Vintage teak-floored riverboats and renovated heritage hotels attract luxury visitors, redolent of the country’s colonial past when Burma was part of the British Raj. More frugal visitors can enjoy the same warm welcome in quaint towns with bustling morning markets or in Myanmar’s busy, yet charming urban centers.
Most visits begin in Yangon, a lively metropolis of over 5 million that was Myanmar’s capital city until recently ( the purpose-built city of Naypyidaw in the middle of nowhere was revealed as the new capital in 2006). Yangon’s colonial times are still felt through the presence of its large, dilapidated government buildings. Change is definitely present –the country’s first US fast food chain, KFC, opened here in June to 2-hour lines–but the rustic, crumbling, traffic-filled streets of Yangon prove that much remains the same. The traditional sarong-like longyi and yellow facial paste called thanaka (for sun protection) are still worn by most people, and the sight of horse carts is not uncommon. And looming above it all is the astonishing 300-ft gold-covered Shwedagon Pagoda, believed by many to be the world’s oldest pagoda. It is the most revered site for the country’s Buddhist majority and one of the reasons Myanmar is known as the “Golden Land.”
Inle Lake in central Myanmar feels like worlds away from crowded Yangon. Its calm waters, soft light and warm smiles give the impression of travel to an earlier time. Some 20 small villages line its banks, made up mostly of tribal people who survive by fishing or those who farm their manmade floating islands. You can hire a flat-bottom boat and driver and travel through the lake’s maze of canals, marsh paddies and tangled hyacinths, stopping for visits at floating markets and monasteries built on stilts.
The burgeoning river cruise industry that rules Europe’s waterways has recently turned its attention to Asia’s untouched rivers. A lot has changed on Myanmar’s longest river, the Ayeyarwady, since 1996 when Belmond, then known as Orient Express, and its ship the Road to Mandalay first sailed its coffee-colored waters. This year, six new river cruise lines will offer itineraries along the Ayeyarwady, including Avalon Waterways long known for its high-profile presence in the European river cruising world. Their small 18-cabin boat will be one of few to travel north of Mandalay, on the most scenic, but less visited stretch of the river. Passengers visit traditional riverside villages, teak forests, lavish shrines and an abundance of bird and animal life – perhaps even catching a glimpse of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin along the way.
The highlight of my cruise aboard Belmond’s Road to Mandalay took place during our first morning on the river in the temple town of Bagan, when a small number of us were picked up by vintage buses owned by Balloons over Bagan, the first of 3 locally based companies providingsome of the most magical hot air balloon flights anywhere. (I would add Turkey’s otherworldly landscape in Cappadocia and Kenya’s Masai Mara to the list.) At sunrise, we floated over the countless spires of the temples and stupas scattered across the riverside plain of Bagan, an ancient kingdom that reached its peak during the 11th through 13th centuries. Later that day, we would explore the archeological site, a collection of about 2,000 temples and stupas – some elaborate and magnificent, others merely a pile of stones. According to some records, these are all that remain of over 10,000 structures, destroyed by earthquakes, time and man. Seeing the temple ruins in the early light of day filled me with the awe that Kipling must have felt.
Sunset viewing from atop one of Bagan’s larger temples set the tone for our journey ahead on the Ayeyarwady, one filled with visits to small villages, glimmering temples and lush botanical gardens. We took gentle walks and bumpy horse-cart rides, offered early morning alms to hilltop monasteries and made friends at a busy nunnery. At markets full of fresh produce and piles of just-picked fruits, friendly vendors asked to have their photo taken and giggling children tried out their best English on us. From the boat deck we caught glimpses along the riverbanks of a peaceful, timeless lifestyle unchanged over time. I wondered how – and how soon – things would change now that The Lady was at the helm of the new government. I wish them luck.
Patricia Schultz, Author, 1000 Places to See Before You Die | May 23, 2016
Patricia Schultz is the author of the #1 New York Timesbestsellers 1,000 Places to See Before You Die and 1,000 Places to See in the United States and Canada Before You Die. A veteran travel journalist with 25 years of experience, she has written for guides such as Frommer’s and Berlitz and periodicals including The Wall Street Journal and Travel Weekly, where she is a contributing editor. She also executive-produced a Travel Channel television show based on 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Her home base is New York City. To purchase a copy of the bestselling book, click here!