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.
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.