One of the fast growing "new" destinations for Southeast Asia tours is Myanmar, which I discovered on the newest luxury river cruise ship there: the Belmond Orcaella. The Orcaella joins its sister and historical ship, The Road to Mandalay, sailing up and down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) and Chindwin rivers in 7 days or more.
Now that I have experienced the Ayeyarwady River, I cannot wait to return and visit the Chindwin!
The Ayeyarwady is the spine of Myanmar, its core, around which everything takes place.
By sailing down the river, I discovered places totally unreachable in any other way: the little town of Salay, where I discovered a 19th century ancient teak monastery called Yot-Son-Kyaung; the town of Magwe, where sits one of the most famous Burmese Pagodas named Myathalon that people come to see from miles and miles away as a pilgrimage destination; The town of Pyay that flourished in the 5th - 9th centuries and is famous for its unique cylindrical-shaped stone stupas and the Shwe-San-Daw Pagoda, home of a 10-story seated Buddha.
My favorite visit was a small village named Lat Pan Fu, where locals welcomed us and let us observe their typical lifestyle. Although living in very precarious conditions, some villagers had cell phones! They could not stop taking pictures of their fair-skinned visitors. After a few minutes we were all taking shots together like old family friends would have!
These off-the-beaten-path discoveries enhanced the experience beyond those better-known, must-sees in Myanmar:
Bagan! Flying over its hundreds temples at sunrise in a hot-air balloon is just magic. Climbing up a perfect temple in search of the perfect sunset shot was also amazing.
Inle Lake! Although another hour flight away, you cannot visit Myanmar without seeing Inle. It is the only place in the world where fishermen, also called “leg rowers”, sail using their leg and foot for paddle. This is also where you can admire the floating gardens and learn how locals subside and work with them. Lotus, silk weaving, as well as silver blacksmith shops are also great attractions and, of course, located on the lake.
Shore excursions are handled by the Orcaella logistic team. From approx. 30 onboard, this team is extended twice its size as the Orcaella works with locals living along the river, who are the key ingredients to creating perfect shore experiences. They select where to dock, what village to visit, what transportation will fit for the day, as so many details may vary depending on weather, water level, wildlife, village/town life, etc. I felt so safe, every day, knowing that I was taken care of by a local team of professionals. And I felt so excited discovering their country in the way they wanted me to see it!
What made my Myanmar discovery so special is the way Belmond opened up my senses to this country by organizing daily different means of transportation. We were, after all, discovering the country sailing on a river ship! Caleche in Bagan, minibus in Salay, tuk-tuk in Magwe, ox cart in Gwechaung, trishaw in Danuphyu! These fun activities made me feel like a local!
My taste buds were also excited daily by the succulent dishes prepared by Bansani Nawisamphan (voted best chef in Myanmar.)
And did I forget to mention that Myanmar is SUCH a delight for the eyes too?
I personally see Myanmar as an understated & authentic Thailand, the way it used to be years ago. A simple example is that in Burma, elephants still work for the teak industry. In Thailand, machines have replaced elephants, and these survive solely for tourism purposes.
Clothing is less flamboyant, food in general less spicy. But its history, past present and future, is most fascinating.
I have so many new Burmese friends on Facebook! The Belmond Orcaella team, 99% from Myanmar, is simply the best. I have never experienced such a perfectly synchronized service. The crew works in ideal harmony, creating a seamless, worry-free experience for all the passengers.
Having opened its borders to tourism, some parts of it such as Bagan and Inle Lake are seeing tremendous upcoming development. Yangon is booming, attracting international investments from all over the world.
In November, Burmese people are expecting their most important elections in the history of the country, as Aung San Suu Kyi, “The Lady” may become President.
Myanmar fascinates me in so many ways and will be a country to keep an eye on.