As the boycott eases up, once-remote Burma is wide open to exploration.
Burma is a country with questionable politics and pristine landscapes. Since pro-democracy leader Aung Sau Suu Kyi was released in November and rescinded her call for a tourism boycott, culture-hungry tourists have begun to trickle in, joining the likes of Donna Karan and the odd Indian maharaja. Aside from the deeper political understanding that occurs when traveling among the people themselves, something else always emerges: Those who see this country are quick to fall in love with it. So while not much has changed in relation to the military junta’s behavior when it comes to human rights, the wider context has altered so that in 2011 the question among thoughtful, responsible travelers is no longer whether to visit Burma but rather how to visit Burma now.
Though the country is largely terra incognita, its natural beauty and ancient Buddhist temples have for centuries attracted visitors along its main tourism triangle, which extends from Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. (Note: In keeping with U.S. policy, we refer to this country as Burma, not Myanmar, the name adopted after the military coup of 1988.) This pilgrimage, which takes in the cultural accumulation of two millennia, is extraordinary. But off this narrow path on a remote upcountry tour, the encounters are even more unexpected. Under a blisteringly blue sky in the remote state of Kayah, I come across a 56-year-old who has never seen a Westerner in the flesh. He and his family stare at me in wonder before breaking into broad smiles. “In a world that’s become a global village,” says Max Horsley, the luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent’s on-the-ground Burma fixer who organized my trip, “Burma remains the exception.”
Unlike almost every other Asian nation, most of Burma hasn’t yet worked out how to make a buck from tourism. This is a mixed blessing. There is an innocence to the people, and while that’s not to be romanticized as quaint, it is, however, very rare. Equally rare is the infrastructure to ensure a smooth journey. For both the classic and the alternative approaches, I’d recommend using one of the outfitters well-practiced with such trips (see “Top Asia Tour Guides”).
Most tours of Burma start in Rangoon (see “Guide to Rangoon, Burma”). The city, an easy 80-minute flight from Bangkok, is one of the only points of entry for international visitors. (Mandalay, though much smaller, is also open for international flights.) Upon arrival, everyone will at least pause to circumambulate the towering 2,500-year-old Buddhist pagodas Shwedagon and Sule; otherwise visits to this city are normally kept short. This is a mistake. One could easily—and should definitely—stay four nights and soak up the mix of Burmese, Chinese, Indian and British influences evident in the shopping and eating and in Rangoon’s memorably atmospheric hotels. A short flight north will take you to Heho, the access city to beautiful Inle Lake, a 40-minute drive from the airport. There, locals fish while standing on a narrow, canoe-like vessel; with one foot coiled around a paddle, they maneuver the boat in soft, balletic movements as they lure quarry from beneath the hyacinths. Farmers grow fruit and vegetables atop floating gardens while local lotus-stem weavers create silk-like fabrics from the plants’ slender roots. Their ancient traditions haven’t gone unnoticed by the recent influx of fashionable visitors. Pier Luigi Loro Piana, for instance, is working with the local Intha people to produce lotus-flower cloth for the luxury textile company that bears his name.
Visitors to Inle Lake can stay in one of the many stilt hotels that line the water’s edge. I particularly liked Golden Island Cottages (rooms, from $60; Nampan Village; 95-81/209-390; gicmyanmar.com) for its serene walkways to stilted rooms, and its lobby, where local monks gather to read soccer scores from newspapers left behind by tourists. At the restaurant, tenderly spiced carp, chased into gill nets earlier that day, serve as dinner. Spend two nights here, then make a 20-minute hop from Heho by plane to Mandalay, the country’s spiritual center. The usual thing is to take a cruise along the Irrawaddy River all the way from Mandalay to Bagan, which is a vast plain and a unesco World Heritage Site candidate dotted by some 2,000 pagodas, stupas and temples. For three nights on the water, the boat to opt for is the Road to Mandalay, operated by Orient-Express (from $2,290 starting at three nights; orient-express.com). This four-deck river cruiser with en suite cabins and a small pool and a spa recently overhauled its facilities. Alternatives are the German-owned, teak-boned Amara I and Amara II (rooms, from $700; 95-1/652-191; amaragroup.net), both of which are very elegant indeed. Then it’s back to Rangoon for a tight but efficient seven-night tour of the country’s key historical locations.