The landslide victory of the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi over the military-backed ruling party in Burma's November elections signals a chance for change and a boost to her tourism industry. Gill Martin visited the country in the run-up to the historic victory of the leader of the National League for Democracy and reports on what visitors can expect from their travels to Myanmar.
AN agile fisherman in a straw hat performed a balletic dance as he flung his nets across the waters of Inle Lake, an oasis of glassy calm in the Shan Hills of Myanmar.
In the World Heritage Site of Bagan alone there are more than 2,000 temples, monasteries, and pagodas
Fishing for carp he balanced on one leg on the prow of his flimsy wooden boat, the other leg wrapped round a single oar, with which he paddled and steered over a massive body of water swollen by monsoons.
The searing midday sun sparkled on the threads of his gossamer nets as we puttered past in our long-tailed motor boat on a voyage of discovery through the land better known as Burma. It was like stepping back into history, where the pace of life has stilled.
The landscape of slender-tipped stupas slowly unfolded as we travelled all morning from the towns of Nyaung Shwe to Shwe Inn Dein. With fingers dangling in the cooling ripples, we slipped past clumps of palest pink water hyacinths and floating gardens bearing crops of sesame and peanuts, each plot pinioned by bamboo stakes.
On the banks more pagodas punctured the skyline with their tiered towers, while bulbous stupas flaunted glistening golden domes, rich red brickwork and blinding whitewash.
In the World Heritage Site of Bagan alone there are more than 2,000 temples, monasteries, stupas and pagodas built by self-aggrandising monarchs dating back to the ninth century.
From high above we admired a green landscape studded with stupas – you can take a hot air balloon ride for a bird's eye view, or a dawn climb up an observation tower will reward you for obeying that 5am wake-up call. Or you can visit a higgledy-piggledy collection clinging haphazardly to a hillside at Shwe Inn Dein. Or wander inside temples as Buddhist bells chime and families kneel before ornate effigies to offer flowers, while worshippers – men only– are allowed to embellish the Buddha with gold leaf. “We love gold and call our country Golden Land,’' said our guide.
We removed shoes and socks as a mark of respect, ensuring our feet were never pointed towards the statue. (A Brit is banged up in a Burmese jail for depicting Buddha with a pair of headphones, so disrespect at your peril).
Even the hawkers are gracious
The Burmese are well-mannered. Even the hawkers who come alongside your boat with intricate carvings or the trinket sellers in colourful markets, are gracious if insistent. “Happy money,” they declare as they brush your pristine US dollars or grubby local kyats over their goods. They are also a conservative people with strict and sometimes strange rules of etiquette, such as summoning waiters with a kissing sound, never patting someone's head – it's a sacred area – or touching a monk's robe, and a modest dress code.
Myanmar is how you might imagine southeast Asia before the influx of mass tourism to countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. It retains a certain innocence despite a troubled past. It is still the poorest state in the region, but the easing of sanctions in 2010 has signalled record-breaking numbers of tourists, with 1.5 million recorded in 2013.
Yangon, cosmopolitan reincarnation of old Rangoon
City names evoke a colonial past – Mandalay, Rangoon (now the cosmopolitan Yangon) and Katha, which George Orwell describes in his coruscating book Burmese Days in which he is as vitriolic about indigenous corruption as colonial bigotry. He worked there for the Imperial Police Service in the days of the British Raj. And it was Rudyard Kipling who described the Ayeyarwady River, whose fertile silt enriches the paddy fields and farmland after every monsoon, as 'the Road to Mandalay’.
Myanmar has suffered from endless internal conflicts and corruption, but there has been some encouraging political reform. There is now a palpable feeling of optimism for a settled future after the national elections put the Nobel Peace Prize Winner in the driving seat after 25 years of house arrest.
Inle Lake offers a spectacular array of Buddhist stupas
Despite the embryonic state of its tourist industry with power cuts and erratic Wi-Fi all the hotels we stayed in were top-notch, ranging from a spanking new Novotel on stilts on Inle Lake to others with old-world charm and dark palatial furnishings.
They boasted glorious swimming pools plus plentiful and varied menus ranging from samosa, noodles and grilled butterfish to spicy curries, rice cakes and chocolate mousse with chilli. And, with the exception of a grumpy barman who seemed to take delight in announcing the end of Happy Hour just as you ordered your Bagan Breeze cocktail, the service staff were a delight.
Domestic flights were reliable, although for peace of mind avoid the in-flight magazine 'horrorscope' – mine threatened attack by pickpocket, accident to right leg, verbal confrontation, dangers and rivalries, advising: 'to bring good fortune clean the front of the house’. None of which transpired, although I booked a window cleaner as soon as I returned home.
Nyein Moe, 41, our hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic Trafalgar tour director, metaphorically held our hands throughout our odyssey, ensuring we caught internal flights, arranging groaningly early wake-up calls and sharing his country's history, culture and architecture rich in fabulous frescoes and stucco works. As part of Trafalgar's Hidden Journeys programme for small groups we enjoyed off the beaten path itineraries featuring hard to reach and lesser-visited destinations not in the guide books.
He took us to Tha Kya Di Thar nunnery in Mandalay, where solemn, shaven-headed girls in pink robes with tan sashes included us in their rituals and chanting. We dispensed rice and coffee – offering food is good karma – before taking lunch with them and handing out gifts of stationery to assist their studies. At Aung Myay Thukha monastic school, Yangon, he introduced us to a gaggle of giggling girls and boys who we entertained with attempts at their tongue-twisting language. 'Mingalarpar,' being the most useful as hello with a smile.
Nyein Moe survived our cooking at the Inle Heritage training centre, tutored by hospitality students who will be catering for Myanmar's anticipated tourist boom, where we prepared fish soup and chicken curry after picking fresh ingredients in the kitchen gardens.
He showed off the mastery of silversmiths and lacquer-ware artists – however tempted you might be to buy a model stupa be warned: they don't travel well. With scores of Saturday trippers we traipsed across what is reputedly the longest teak bridge in the world, all 1.2kms of it, across shimmering U Bein lake where fishermen and women, up to their armpits in the waters, cast their nets.
The pillars of Li Paing bridge – named after its constructor – once supported the royal palace of Inwar and were used to connect the then capital of Myanmar to villages on the other side of the lake.
He brought us to the home of a school teacher for a jolly evening of home-made cooking, family fun and music, where everything from politics, past turmoil and child care were up for robust discussion. The up-coming election topped the agenda, with fervent hope for change but a realism born of broken promises.
Our hostess, Mrs. San Myo Ei, told how her family were forced out of their home by the military government 25 years ago. “About 100,000 people were moved because they wanted the area for architectural excavations,' she said. “We came here to a place where there was no lights, no heat, no water – only fields. My father died here of a snake bite. He was only 28. We blamed his death on the move dictated by the military government.
San Myo Ei, a Christian, and Buddhist Nyein Moe, are united in their hope for peaceful democracy. “We have been through bad times, but somehow we are happy. We live in the moment,” he said, to explain his people's sunny disposition.
After Myanmar, to help ease ourselves back into the 21st century we broke our journey home with an optional Trafalgar tour extra: a visit to Thailand's vibrant capital of Bangkok.
With an itinerary as frenetic as the city's open-all-hours pace of life and as colourful as her fuchsia pink taxis we packed in a few treats: Tiger beers at a busy bar alongside the Chaophraya River, marvelled at the Reclining Buddha of Wat Po, Thailand's biggest and oldest temple; in the sprawling grounds is the Thai Traditional Medical and Massage School, where we were manipulated, pummeled and held in vice-like grips till the pips squeaked.
We dodged a rainstorm to practice tai chi in Lumpini Park where we stood to attention for the 8am rendition of the national anthem and accepted a banana breakfast from a trio of smiling pensioners; bought orchids and shredded ginger for a song at a sodden market; and risked vertigo with cocktails at the roof-top bar of the trendy Banyan Tree Hotel. It was all a culture shock after timeless Burma.
“Gill travelled to Myanmar with Trafalgar, (www.trafalgar.com 0800 533 5616). Trafalgar offer an 11 day Secrets of Myanmar trip from £2,645 per person and includes 10 nights B&B accommodation, Welcome Reception, a Be My Guest dinner with a local family in Bagan, 5 additional dinners, VIP door to door private airport transfers, sightseeing, and the services of a professional travel director throughout. There is also the option to add a 3 night Bangkok extension to this itinerary and prices for this 14 day trip start from £3,526 per person.
For more information please visit www.trafalgar.com