I’m a passionate traveler - I find almost childish excitement from every new place I visit even if it is close to home. I delight in the new discovery, the hidden restaurant or a new item I find handmade by a local vendor.
As a travel agency owner I often get invited to places that seem even out of my comfort zone and Myanmar earlier this year was exactly one of those invitations.
I happened to be visiting a travel trade event in Thailand and the person who owns the Strand Cruise asked if I had time for last minute adventure to go to Myanmar.
Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is one of the least known countries in Asia. Blighted by controversy and questionable government policies and in turmoil in a small pocket of the north.
So, feeling a little nervous trepidation yet not one to pass up an adventure, I said,”yes I would love to”.
I then embarked on one of my most surprising and uplifting travel experiences of my life.
I traveled on a direct and comfortable flight for just one hour and ten minutes from Bangkok to the Capital, Yangon.
Yangon originated as a small town called Dagon on the outskirts of the ancient kingdom of Okkalapa. In 1755 the founder of the Third Myanmar Empire, King Alaungpaya – who reigned from upper Myanmar – conquered the southern parts of the country and renamed the town Yangon, meaning End of Strife. After the British colonized the south they turned the town it into a busy port. The British have long since departed but they left a legacy of beautiful colonial architecture and tradition.
After driving through comfortable streets dotted with old colonial houses mostly left to ruin during the years of military rule I arrived at truly one of the best hotels I have ever stayed in.
The charm and elegance of this old colonial style hotel was breathtaking. The welcome was warm but this became a trend throughout this fascinating country. Besides being a land of spectacular landscapes and buildings, Myanmar boasts a fierce, proud, and kind population who will go to almost any lengths to make you feel welcome.
This country is as you would imagine most South East Asian countries to have been like hundreds of years ago before tourism became the currency of choice. It has the look of old Asia that has been preserved by its harshly imposed self-isolation.
Todays Yangon appears lost in time and you almost feel like you have been given an early entry pass to an amazing place that will soon be overrun with tourists. Here life seems to have gone on largely unchanged for the past 2,500 years: peasants, oxcarts, the same kinds of food and clothes yet they are surrounded by beautiful gold pagodas and shrines everywhere you look.
The garden city of Yangon maintains its charm with wide, tree-lined avenues, tranquil lakes and majestic colonial architecture. It is home to one of the ancient wonders of the world, Shwedagon Pagoda, a 98-metre-high stupa whose golden glow can be seen from throughout the city. The greenery of Yangon provides an enchanting backdrop to the beautiful shrine.
According to legend, the pagoda was built 2500 years ago and was enshrined with hair relics of the Buddha. Over the centuries, kings and commoners alike sought merit by donating gold and jewels to the stupa and the umbrella at its apex, which is now decorated with more than 80,000 pieces of jewellery and topped with a diamond-studded orb. The platform at the base of the towering pagoda is packed with about 100 pavilions and shrines, where pilgrims from all over the country show their reverence for the Buddha. Here, visitors can see into the heart of Myanmar’s Buddhists as they pray and offer flowers, incense and candles.
After two days of utter luxury in this city, lost in time, I traveled to Bagan where I was greeted and taken on an action packed day of interesting sights before boarding the Strand Cruise on the Irrawaddy River.
Having seen the poverty along the drive during the day my expectations were low for my cruise accommodations but oh how wrong I was. Its cabins are elegant, the food is divine, and the crew are so coddling that you’re surprised that they don’t tie your shoes. The top deck is a teak platform with straw chairs and a small swimming pool and elegant bar; there is enough space so that you can have reasonable privacy even when many other passengers are up there.
The Strand Cruise is the height of luxury yet at a very reasonable price.
I noticed along the way the culture of giving continued as the staff pooled their tips to give to the people a gift each week such as a goat or other useful thing however this was never made public and I only discovered this when I witnessed the arrival of the goat and a bicycle and asked what it was for.
On the leisurely four day cruise on this luxury boat we were taken to visit many sights that you would not otherwise have an opportunity to see. Each day we were greeted with grateful thanks from the people for coming to visit their country and we were made to feel very welcome and special.
Not visiting this fabulous place because we disagree about the politics or the governments actions is not hurting the government but hurts the people directly. They need our help.
The area of Bagan to Mandalay has over 230,000 ancient pagodas. These vary in size from just a few feet tall to towering Gold and marble structures housing giant Buddha sculptures.
On one morning many of my fellow passengers chose to take a hot air balloon ride over the temples and pagodas for one of the most spectacular sights. Looking down from the matching red balloons as you float gently along at dawn will be forever burned into my memory as one of my life highlights!
For many years Myanmar disappeared behind a wall of self-isolation, and only recently did it reopen its doors to the outside world, revealing the country’s unique culture and stunning scenery to new generations of visitors. With a diversity of terrain that ranges from ice-capped mountains in the north, to pagoda-filled plains in the centre, to miles of pristine beaches along the coast, Myanmar has something to offer at all times of the year.
Any political unrest in the country is in an isolated small pocket to the far north and does not at all affect the rest of the country. The people are hurting from the lower tourism numbers and really need your help as they rely heavily on any tourism in this very poor country.
Now is the time to go.
“ Go before the people in remote villages grow accustomed to tourists and lose their curiosity about you, before people switch to global ways of dressing and thinking. Go before they fix the English on the menus and signs. Go before the place gets wealthy and ugly, because if one can generalize from the little pockets of prosperity there, economic miracles are not going to make for an attractive sight. Go before everyone else goes.”
Quote from Travel and Leisure
Self confessed travel addict not looking for a cure, just the next fix! As a writer, College Professor and a Luxury Travel company owner Lorraine Simpson has all manner of access to feed her travel addiction.
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