Why Burma must be on your bucket list
Rarely is a politician the poster girl for a country, but Aung San Suu Kyi has become synonymous with Burma in many ways. Her personal endurance in the face of hardship mirrors that of the Burmese people under decades of military rule, and the way in which she has burst out, confident and charming, onto the international stage reveals a little of the character of Burma itself, shut off for so long by domestic politics and international sanctions but now once again open and hospitable.
Analysts estimate that visitor numbers to Burma (also known as Myanmar) will rise 20% this year: luxury cruise ships are arriving en masse, and there are also now options for crossing the land borders from neighbouring countries. High end hotels and other forms of tourism infrastructure are springing up in every corner of Burma, in anticipation of the coming tourism boom, so if you want to see Burma before the crowds and globalisation transform the culture, landscapes, and people, now is the time to book your trip.
But what is it which makes Burma so alluring? What can you expect to see?
The backbone and lifeblood of Burma is the Irawaddy River, stretching out from Mandalay. Former capitals with well-preserved monasteries and palaces, and villages seemingly trapped in time, dot the river’s plains. In Yangon, colourful street markets stand side by side with the colonial architecture of the boulevards, the influence of Britain, China, and India all being keenly felt. Be sure to take in the 2,000 year old golden temple of Sule Paya, as well as the gem-studded Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites.
Those wanting a few days in a beach paradise, but without the crowds of Thailand, should venture to Ngapali on Burma’s western coast. Looking out at the Bay of Bengal, local fishermen still outnumber the tourists, and you can swim, snorkel, and dive amongst the fish on the coral reefs. The Aureum Resort and Spa is the most idyllic beach hideaway imaginable, with jacuzzis in each thatched cottage, and a spa opening onto the beach.
It is Bagan, however, which will truly take your breath away. Often favourably compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Bagan’s 2,000 surviving temples, pagodas, and shrines are a magnificent site in the early morning light, and if you see them from the air, preferably from a hot air balloon, the scene will forever be etched on your mind. Part of what was, prior to the invasion of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan), a much larger site, you’ll be entranced by the vastness of the temples, the ornateness and beauty of the Buddhas, and the poignant silence and space.
Wherever your itinerary in Burma takes you, you can be sure that some extraordinary hotels await. Many of these are historic buildings, newly restored, and all those we recommend have a stylish flair which is unique to Burma. The Belmond Governor’s Residence in Yangon is a colonial teak mansion dating from the 1920s, in the heart of the city’s embassy quarter; the appropriately named Hotel by the Red Canal is the perfect base for exploring Mandalay’s stupas and temples; and at the Aureum Palace Hotel within the Bagan Archaeological Preservation Zone, you’ll feel like an ancient king or queen surveying your opulent kingdom.