Rudyard Kipling’s oft quoted line that Myanmar is quite unlike any other land you know about, is as accurate today as when it was written. Myanmar has its own vibe, and is coming into its own after years of being largely off limits to tourists. Recently moving towards democracy, and with their beloved Aung San Suu Kyi now free and active in politics, now is the time to visit Myanmar.
Although tourism is hotting up, services and hotels are struggling to keep pace with demand. Therefore, a most comfortable and enjoyable way of exploring Myanmar is aboard a luxury river cruiser. The name of the Belmond-operated luxury river cruiser ‘Belmond Road to Mandalay’ clearly reflects the importance of the Ayeyarwady River as the country’s main transport route. Relax on the top deck and watch river life glide by, stopping to take excursions during the day, and retreating to comfortable cabins and delicious cuisine each night.
Most visitors fly into Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and home to the absolutely dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda, a golden Buddhist temple that draws Pilgrims from around the world. A walking tour of Yangon reveals crumbling colonial architecture to rival that of Havana, busy street markets, and traditional dress still being worn on a daily basis. Wonderful accommodation options in Yangon range from the boutique Belmond Governor’s Residence with its teak construction and beautiful pool; to the grand Sule Shangri-La where high ranking officials host swanky weddings at weekends.
River cruises run mainly between Mandalay and Bagan, with longer itineraries extending to fascinating landscapes further north, and others westward on the picturesque Chindwin River. Beautiful views out over Mandalay and surrounds can be enjoyed from the Sagaing Hills, and a must-see is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to multitudes of marble tablets telling the story of Buddha – the “world’s biggest book”. Mandalay artisans are renowned for their gold-leaf beating, silk weaving, and marble carving. At the end of the day, take in sunset with the locals at the picturesque 200-year-old U Bein Bridge.
Wherever you go in Myanmar, temples are never far away, and no more so than in magical Bagan, where over 2000 temples dot the landscape as far as the eye can see – another awe-inspiring sunset and a significantly moving moment.
Other off-ship excursions may be to countryside villages, largely unchanged for centuries. Chickens cluck about your feet as you stroll the streets, with nothing more on sale for tourists than a cup of tea at the busy village tea-house. Here horse-drawn carts are a common mode of transport, and a smile at a stranger will always be genuinely returned.
It pays to keep an open mind in Myanmar. Do visit that next temple, as it will undoubtedly reveal something surprisingly different. Do realise that many still live in poverty, so try to buy your mementos from small local artisans. And do be prepared to fall in love with a country of great traditions, unfailingly friendly people, and (we hope) a bright future.