Mingalaba (traditional Burmese greeting)! Let me start by saying five days in Myanmar is not enough! In fact it is a bit crazy. Travel consultants tend to take short trips and pack in as much as possible in what time they have. Myanmar has so much to offer and you should allow for a ten days to a two week journey so you can experience the country the right way.
Belmond is the perfect host and my trip started with a stay at the beautiful Belmond Governors’ Residence in Yangon. The property is colonial style, with a Burmese twist to it and made of teak dating back to the 1920’s. All of the rooms are spacious with a large sitting area and bath. Dining at the hotel is a pleasure and you will not go hungry at the Residence. The hotel also provides beautiful gardens, a pool, business center, boutique and spa. Because of the gardens and architecture of the property you are not aware you are staying in a central city location because it is so quiet.
Yangon, like any large city, has crazy traffic. Your ride from the airport to central Yangon will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour plus depending on the time of the day. This also tends to be the “rainy” area of Myanmar. Forget the hair and your makeup while visiting the country: it is hot, humid and you never know when a rain storm will come. But none of us minded the weather and visiting Chinatown with our umbrellas was an adventure. I highly recommend visiting that part of the city to see the different food stalls and shops.
Our first morning in Myanmar started with a magnificent adventure cruising on the local ferry across the river and meeting our guides for our morning tour through the countryside. This wasn’t going to be your typical tour and it was explained to us as a “motorbike” tour. When we arrived we were greeted by the local motorcycle club with a row of Harley Davidsons and BMW bikes. Wow! Each one of us had our own driver and bike to ride on through the countryside -- what a fabulous experience. Imagine riding on the back of a motorcycle through rice paddy fields and villages. Mid-morning we had to make a stop to put on our rain gear as we rode through the rain. None of us cared how wet we were getting because it was so much fun! We were quite the attraction for the locals who were taking pictures of us.
That evening we had a special visit to the gold covered Shwedagon Pagoda, and one of Myanmar’s holiest sites. Sunset is a good time to visit because the locals come and make their offerings at that time. As the sky gets darker, they turn on the lights which shows off the gold of the temple. It is a magical site with all of the lighted candles.
The following morning we took a short flight to Mandalay, home of the Burmese traditional arts and spiritual heart of the country. Our first stop was to visit a small monastery where they cast many of the bronze statues and ceremonial gongs. With our visit we also donated food to a procession of monks in accordance with the Burmese custom of almsgiving. An amazing experience and great welcome to Mandalay.
Afterwards we proceed to our home for the next three nights aboard the ship – Belmond Road to Mandalay. The ship is docked in Shwe Kyet Yet village, and it seemed that the entire village had come out to meet us and wish us a pleasant journey. The people stood on the river bank and inside small boats on the river waving good bye to us. It was quite a site to see against the backdrop of a beautiful Burmese temple.
The Belmond Road to Mandalay is the original luxury ship built for the Ayeyarwady River cruise and has an old-world feel to it. All of the cabins have large picture windows and I recommend a state cabin to have a bit more room and comfort. The beds are comfortable and you have plenty of hot water for showers. They also have a rooftop bar and pool area with a dining and lounge area on the main deck. I can’t say enough wonder words about the staff and the service on board. And the chef and kitchen staff! What delicious food they prepared for us every day.
The next morning was one of my favorite adventures visiting a small farming village on the river. We were divided into smaller groups and given tasks to accomplish in the village and compete against each other. The village people had as much fun sharing our morning with us as we did with them. We fed the cattle, rolled tobacco into cigars, made Burmese sweets and carried water in smaller jars on our heads to refill large water jars, just like the locals. At the end we visited the local school, giving out donations to the children and enjoying their songs. What a special morning!
On our last morning we arrived in Bagan, where Belmond has a private jetty in Taung Be village. We were invited to visit the local clinic, which is supported by the Belmond Myanmar Foundation and managed by the ship's doctor, Dr. Hla Hun. People travel for miles to receive treatment at the clinic and require overnight accommodations and food. With the support of the local community and monastery they treat hundreds of people each week. Because of people having to travel great distances the community with the help of Belmond are building a place for them to spend the night and have additional clinic rooms. We were honored to write our good wishes on a brick that was cemented into the side of the building being constructed. Another great memory, and I look forward to returning and seeing the finished building someday.
Following our visit at the village, we were given golf carts to visit one of the most famous archaeological zones in the world. Over 3,000 temples dot the plain in Bagan, and the area is ranked alongside Angkor Wat in Cambodia as one of the greatest historic sites in Southeast Asia. We made our way to a “high spot” to check out the view and it didn’t disappoint. The view of the temples took your breath away. Many of the temples are in need of repair due to the recent earthquakes, and the community had already started renovation work. This area depends on tourism.
After lunch we explored one of the most significant pagodas of Bagan, the Ananda Temple. Built in AD 1090, it contains four gilded Buddha states and each stands 30-ft tall. How they managed to build this in 1090 is mind blowing. That evening we were treated to a special blessing at a pagoda by the local community. It was magical and the full moon was shining. This was followed by dinner at a local restaurant and entertainment from the village. The Burmese are proud of their heritage and enjoy showing travelers their dances and customs.
This trip reminded me why I am fond of Belmond, which is one of TravelStore's preferred partners. I have traveled with them in Africa and this was the first time traveling with them in Asia. They know how to create special itineraries and include those special surprises on your adventure that you will never forget.