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 Since pro-democracy leader Aung Sau Suu Kyi was released in November and rescinded her call for a tourism boycott, culture-hungry tourists have begun to trickle in, joining the likes of Donna Karan and the odd Indian maharaja.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.
The reason I even entertained the idea of an alternative Burma itinerary—pushing toward the little-visited hill tribes on the border territory—was because I thought originally that by going deeper into the country, I would reduce any potential contribution to the junta, which is deeply tied to the country’s mainstream tourism industry via taxes and joint ventures. But, says Abercrombie & Kent’s Horsley, exploring upcountry Burma “is like heli-skiing. Once you’ve been dropped into powder on top of a mountain, it’s very difficult to feel passionate about a piste ever again.” Horsely was right. On our ten-day itinerary, he and I traced the Golden Triangle region, which borders northern Thailand and Laos and is known for the ethnic Ang, Wa and Akha villages. Each tribe is wildly different, from the Padaung, or long-necked tribe of the Kayah State, with the famous brass coils stretching the women’s necks, to the black-toothed Angs of the Eastern Shan State. The routes aren’t straightforward and require patient travel by air, long-tailed boat and car, but for reasons beyond political ease of mind, they are worth it.
We took off from Inle Lake, but after a night pressed onward to Loikaw, traveling all day on a shallow-hulled boat powered by a lawn mower engine, past white stupas rising out of the hillsides, their golden pinnacles well tended by the ruling junta, who know that religion serves as a very good opiate of the people. In Loikaw, I spent the day wandering the local market, a ramshackle collection of cheap Chinese goods, hill-tribe textiles and vast piles of vegetables, followed by a river journey up toward villages inhabited by the Intha people. Next we headed upriver to the Padaung. The women of the long-necked tribe let us feel the weight of the coils, which push the collarbone down and compress the ribs. One woman had first worn the jewelry at age eight and removed the brass only three times in her life. She’s 58 years old now.
On our way to Kalaw, an old British hill station, we drove through a landscape not unlike Tuscany’s Val d’Orcia, except here, Burmese mulberries replaced Italian cypresses. We stopped en route at Ping Kong, where the world outside Burma seems to have been kept at bay. At a festival of Pa-O people, the elephant and horse dealers, a group of a few hundred people dressed in the tribe’s signature baggy pants gathered on a roadside to watch the main musical procession of drums. A few hours on, we paused at Pin Luang, where 90 monks greeted us at the monastery. This is also where we wandered into an old wooden house with elegant carved eaves and a complex roof structure that used to belong to Sao Moe Kayaw, the region’s last chieftain. We talked with his wife about old Burma as she made offerings at the family shrine. But it was at Kalaw that I had one of the most interesting encounters of the day, with an 80-year-old Indian woman polishing the floor of a Catholic church. She was born in Madras (modern-day Chennai) in 1914, and her father was a servant to a soldier in the British regiment stationed in Burma. She had tended this tiny church for as long as she could remember; on Sundays, the congregation of 500 overflowed from the pews.
Though officially banned, the Christian missionary thread is powerful in Eastern Shan State. Between visiting a former headhunting tribe, the Wa, and the Ang, teeth dyed black with betel nuts and herbs, we stop at Loimwe. The ghostly town was once a hill station for British soldiers to holiday, but little remains except a few boarded-up houses and a nearby orphanage run by a quartet of nuns. The sisters care for 60 children from 50 local villages. More than the elegant lakeside hotels, it is this deeply moving encounter in the hill country that convinces me that tourism sanctions have no place in Burma. Visitors may be few and far between, but they give donations here and there, which means a lot where as little as $150 can cover a child’s living costs for a year.
Guide to Rangoon, Burma
Sleep: Singapore’s Raffles Hotel is the chalk-white colonial hotel that comes at the top of any Asian itinerary—and rightly so in terms of service. In Rangoon, the same 19th-century architects built The Strand (rooms, from $160; 92 Strand Rd.; 95-1/243-377; ghmluxuryhotels.com), which is far less known but, to me, more beautiful. As a hotel, it remains the country’s grandest address. The Governor’s Residence (rooms, from $175; 35 Taw Win Rd.; 95-1/229-860; governorsresidence.com) is the other high-end hotel in town—a 1920s, 47-room teak mansion—and there’s also the 30-room Savoy Hotel (rooms, from $100; 129 Dhammazedi Rd.; 95-1/ 526-289; savoy-myanmar.com), whose best rooms look toward the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Eat: Burmese food is generally disappointing for those used to the far more interesting cuisines of Thailand and India, but Rangoon is promising. Inexpensive, local-style restaurants, though rough around the edges, are universally frequented by savvy expats. A good sign. Among the best are Shwe Li (316 Anawrahta Rd.), a buzzing, open-air Chinese barbecue, and Huan Lau Lau (416–18 Strand Rd.)—try the spicy mutton and dumplings. Swiss-owned Le Planteur (22 Kaba Aye Pagoda; leplanteur.net), one of the most expensive restaurants, serves delicacies like panfried foie gras, while L’Opera (62 D, U Tun Nyein St.; operayangon.com) has a lakeside setting and meltingly fine osso bucco.
Shop: There’s nothing homogenized about Rangoon’s shopping. The Strand’s hotel boutique (95-1/243-377) offers everything from eye-catching rings by Mi Mi Tin ($40–$120) to tribal feather headdresses ($290). Kids’ toys by The Burma Chindits Company (from $10; 79 Mingalar St.; burmachindits.com) are made from reclaimed teak. Bonton (149–150 Centrall Hall), at the central arcade of Scott’s Market, also known as Bogyoke Aung San Market, sells interesting antique artifacts, including vintage photos, while nearby, Tai Minn (41-42 Central Hall) specializes in silver.