Traveller's Guide: Burma

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Back on the tourist map after long years when visitors were urged to stay away, this  South-east Asian country is now a byword for exotic glamour, says Harriet O’Brien

Right now it’s the perfect time to visit Burma. The great golden pagodas there are glinting majestically in balmy sunshine, and as you wander around the sublime Buddhist centres the air will be filled with the sound of gongs and chanting from maroon-robed monks sharing merit with all those who hear them. You’re in a world of total enchantment.

In terms of exotic glamour, Burma is perceived as the ultimate undiscovered destination by the UK travel market. A country of some 55 million people, Burma was for 50 years an obscure curiosity whose name even remained a point of confusion. Although the country was renamed Myanmar in 1989, many Western governments ignored the change, continuing to call it Burma in defiance of the brutal military regime.

In 1996, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi asked visitors to stay away so as not to endorse the junta. And many, particularly British and American tourists, respected those wishes. Now, all that has changed. Since Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest at the end of 2010, a process of real liberalisation has taken effect; her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has welcomed back tourists; and Burma has been, relatively, inundated.

According to a report from the Burma Center in Prague ( burma-center.org), visitor numbers in the first half of 2012  were 150 per cent higher than a year earlier. Many British visitors anticipate a country barely touched by the outside world, which isn’t the case. Other visitors, from Asia and Europe, have made inroads into Burma over the past 15 years, so tourism has been developing. Your mobile phone won’t work there – yet – and ATMs are just being introduced (for now, you’ll need crisp US dollar bills to exchange), but most tourists are surprised by how easy it is to get around: transport is generally efficient; most guides speak good English; and, on the whole, the hotels are very comfortable.

The problem is there aren’t enough hotels. Demand far outstrips supply, says Kate Dicks of Audley Travel (01993 838000; audleytravel.com). In addition: “Reservation procedures are archaic, requiring bookings to be made months in advance but with no clear confirmation until much later.”  Her company has operated in Burma for more than 14 years, having decided that engagement was better than sanctions as a way to support Burma’s people. Given the pace of change in Burma, a solution to the accommodation conundrum will no doubt be found soon – not least with the arrival of big international hotel chains, of whom several are currently negotiating deals. Until then, however, you should book nine to 12 months in ahead.

Most visitors go to the capital, Yangon (Rangoon), home to the stupendous Shwedagon Pagoda and, until recently, the capital; Mandalay, the last capital of the Burmese kings; Bagan, famous for its spectacular old pagodas; and beautiful Inle Lake with the quirky culture of the Intha people. Audley offers a 14-day Classic Burma private trip from £3,240 per person (based on two sharing, as are all prices shown). It covers flights from Heathrow to Yangon via Bangkok, accommodation, domestic flight to Bagan, a two-night cruise on the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, flights to Inle Lake and back to Yangon.

Among those offering less costly group trips around the same circuit is Exodus (0845 863 9601; exodus.co.uk). Its 16-day Discover Burma tour visits the hill station of Kalaw as well as Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake and costs from £2,349 each, including flights from Heathrow, accommodation and domestic flights.

Out of bounds

That Burma contains so many ethnic groups (Karens, Kachins, Wild Wa and more) is both a source of cultural richness and huge political problems. Most groups want either independence or some form of federalism and many are armed. Several regions are therefore closed to tourists.  Most recently, problems in Rakhine state made global headlines. In June last year, clashes between the minority Muslim Rohingyas, and Rakhine Buddhists escalated to the point where the Foreign Office ( fco.gov.uk) issued advice against all but essential travel to Rakhine state, which includes two significant tourist areas: the archaeological zone of Mrauk U; and the white-sand beach of Ngapali.

Many travellers wanting a beach addition to a Burma holiday now head to Ngwe Saung (pictured), an undeveloped coast that’s about a five-hour drive from Yangon.

Come on! Join the party

Burma’s festive spirit is its greatest charm. There are always parties, from shin pyu ceremonies, when young boys traditionally join a monastery, to nat pwes, or local spirit rituals, and pagoda festivals. The biggest is Thingyan (the water festival) for Burma’s New Year (13-16 April).  In rural areas, the old year is washed away with splashes of scented water, but in the cities huge spraying platforms (pictured) are erected and passers-by are drenched from fire hoses. Burma’s most spectacular event is at Inle Lake, where the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda festival (5-22 Oct) sees Buddha statues taken around the lake in a gilded barge shaped like a mythical bird.

Epicurean adventures

Many hotel menus feature Western dishes and generic Asian food without highlighting Burma’s own cuisine. Where possible, try this unique blend of flavours: the national dish, mohinga, is a fish chowder with lemongrass; or ohno khau swe, noodles and chicken prepared with coconut milk, ginger and a kick of chilli. Burma now produces its own surprisingly good wine. Two vineyards have been set up near Inle Lake: Aythaya Winery ( myanmar-vineyard.com, pictured) was started in 1997 by Bert Morsbach, a German, while in 2002 Red Mountain Estate ( redmountain-estate.com)  was founded by a French national,  François Raynal.

Go it alone?

With many hotels and guesthouses now offering online booking facilities, it is possible to organise independent trips without involving a travel company. However, it is inadvisable to arrive in Burma without having made some reservations – and for that you should bear in mind the complexities of booking procedures and of arranging domestic flights or rail travel. It is as well to be aware, too, that hotels may charge double the price you would pay through an agent.

Time to sail away

Traditionally Burma’s busiest thoroughfares have been its rivers. Today you still see great rafts of teak being transported down the Ayeyarwady to Yangon. Since the 1990s, several companies have been operating river cruises in vessels evoking the days of paddle steamers – with modern updates.

Orient Express’s Road to Mandalay (0845 077 2222; roadtomandalay.net) offers 56 cabins aboard a ship with  on-deck swimming pool (right). Prices start at £1,640 pp for a three-night cruise on the Ayeyarwady, with meals and domestic flights from Yangon.

In July, Orient Express will launch another smaller ship. With just 25 cabins, the Orcaella (0845 077 222; orcaella.net) will be able to navigate waters further north. It will operate between Yangon and Bhamo on the Ayeyarwady, and between Mandalay and Homalin along the Ayeyarwady and Chindwin rivers. Prices start at £3,660 pp for the 11‑night trip, including domestic flights and meals.

Alternatively, take a trip on a boutique vessel. Ampersand Travel (020-7289 6100; ampersandtravel.com) suggests an 11-night trip which takes in Yangon  and Inle Lake as  well as a six-night cruise from Mandalay to Bhamo on one of two splendid wood-carved Amara ( amaragroup.net) vessels. With just five or seven cabins, these small river ships are able to stop frequently and so offer a very intimate insight into the country. The holiday costs from £3,480 per person including flights from Heathrow to Yangon, domestic flights, the cruise and accommodation on the other five nights.

Off the beaten track

From November to March, Burma can be frustratingly congested but even at this peak time you can escape to parts few foreigners have seen in the past 50 years.

“There’s lots to explore, but bear in mind you’ll need to be flexible about itineraries if any political problems suddenly look likely,” says James Moreton of Panoramic Journeys (01608 811183; panoramicjourneys.com). The company’s  15-day Lost Cities, Hidden Trails tour takes in the crumbling splendour of Yangon and Bagan before heading east to the Kekku area of the Pa-O tribe. The £2,400pp cost includes domestic flights, board and guide, but not international flights. For a £300pp supplement you can also take a balloon ride over Bagan. Or take a trip to the Chin Hills with Bamboo Travel (020-7720 9285; bambootravel.co.uk), which offers 22 days taking in Yangon, a cruise from Bhamo to Mandalay, the hill station of Pyin U Lwin, Bagan and the Chin Hills at £3,895pp with Heathrow flights, board and transport.

Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Travel
Streets ahead: Venice
travelWhat's trending on your wishlist?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect