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Recent news reports from Myanmar have been quick to emphasize its more controversial side—repression of political dissidents, prisoners' rights violations, AIDS—but there's no denying there are fantastic treasures in this, the most Buddhist country of all Asia. Although the capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), may need a year's supply of Benjamin Moore to spruce up the old colonial buildings, its religious heart, the 14-acre Shwedagon Pagoda, is a glittery religious village studded with shrines and temples. The place to stay in Yangon, contrary to popular opinion, is not the Strand Hotel, which is in a noisy part of the city, but the Pan Sea, located in a leafy residential neighborhood just a short walk from the Shwedagon. Built in the 1920s, and now totally restored to its colonial Victorian grandeur, the two-story teakwood villa (teak is Myanmar's "brown gold") and adjacent 49 rooms are surrounded by gardens, ponds, and a moat that turns out to be swimming pool. The villa's open-air veranda is lined with wicker armchairs, potted palms, and a pool table right out of George Orwell's Burmese Days. Rooms are chic and spare, with teak floors, beds, and furniture, and large baths with steel-gray stone tubs.
A short walk from the Pan Sea, J's Irrawaddy Dream, as up-to-the-minute as any boutique in SoHo, is the fashion heart of Yangon. Best bets: exquisite silk shawls, handwoven silk lungis (the sarong-style long skirts worn by both men and women), antique beaded jewelry, and bustiers made from antique textiles.
A veritable showcase for Burmese art and antiques is the stunning colonial-era mansion of furniture designer Patrick Roberts, a French native, and Claudia Saw Lwin, his Burmese wife. The Roberts' kitchen and dining room are probably the most exquisitely designed and furnished in the country. Their business, Traditions, sells reproductions of everything from teak beds and rattan tables and chairs to black lacquer begging bowls, red lacquer benches, and copies of their dining room's impressive earthenware water jugs and plates depicting scenes from the British era. You can visit their residence by appointment. Most of the smaller items are for sale at the Strand Hotel gift shop, and the furniture and decorative objects are for sale at the city's Micasa showroom.
The lifeblood of Myanmar is the Ayeyarwady River, and the only way to cruise it in supreme comfort is on Orient Express'Road to Mandalay, a 333-foot ship for 126 passengers. Road to Mandalay travels on either four-, five-, or seven-night cruises between Mandalay and Bagan, the dusty plain dotted with some 2,000 temples and pagodas, an 11th- to 13th-century legacy of Myanmar's golden age. Last August, for the first time, Road to Mandalay took advantage of the high waters on the river and sailed for 12 days to Bhamo, almost at the Chinese border. As the vessel passed, most of the fishing and farming villagers lined the banks of the river waving wildly, since few had ever seen such a large ship. Ashore, passengers were invariably greeted with stares, then smiles, newly-tried English, blessings from head abbots in monasteries, and on occasion, invitations for tea at locals' bamboo-thatched teak houses. The scenery is wilder as you go north, especially through a series of gorges that test the captain's ingenuity because of currents and shallow depths. Road to Mandalay has comfortable suites with big picture windows, and there's a talented English chef who serves wonderful, varied meals.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Singuttara Hill. Pan Sea Yangon, 35 Taw Win Road; 95-1-229-860. J's Irrawaddy Dream, 59 Taw Win Road, Dagon Township; 95-1-220-284. Traditions: To visit the Roberts' villa by appointment in Golden Valley, call 95-1-513-709; Micasa Showroom of Patrick Roberts, Kaba Aye Pagoda Road; 95-1-650-933, ext. 172; The Strand Hotel gift shop, 92 Strand Road; 95-1-243-377. Road to Mandalay cruises: $2,590-$3,995 per person. Information: 800-524-2420.