The rise of Asia isn’t exactly an undocumented tale. Eastern economies – led by emerging superpowers China and India – have worked hard to beat a path for themselves on a global stage. The likes of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia are not far behind them. One name that appears absent from the headlines, however, is Myanmar. The former British colony (then known as Burma) has had a turbulent history. Fought over by both British and Japanese forces during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the country gained independence in 1948 – only to be subjected to a military coup in 1962. The army has had a stake in running Myanmar ever since.
To many of the country’s commentators, this has meant stagnation. Speak to a local and you will be told of how Myanmar was once one of the strongest economies in Asia; built on a booming rice trade and strategically placed between its two big brothers China and India. The military junta led Myanmar into a period of economic mismanagement and impoverishment. For all intents and purposes, the country closed down. It is within this sphere of stasis which it has existed, untouched by tourism – and rather perversely, given that it’s a result of a military dictatorship, touted as “unspoiled” by many.
The turbulent country is now opening up, people say. The human rights concessions that the government has made mean that it cannot go back to its old heavy-handed style of governance. Members from the National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the 2010 election but have since ran in by-elections and won almost every seat they have contested. Aung San Suu Kyi – the face of the democratic movement – has also won a seat, however she is reportedly still blocked by the constitution from becoming president.
To many people Myanmar holds a fascination that has been borne out of this political history. Many others, especially British and Australian nationals, often have a family connection. Personally, one of the reasons that I wanted to visit Myanmar, was to see the place my grandmother was born before she left for India – part of a huge migration of people who fled from the invading Japanese army. Other reasons we heard ranged from having a relative who served there during the Second World War to wanting to set up a business in the country. However, undoubtedly the primary reason that people want to go to Myanmar is to see the country before it becomes overdeveloped.
We opted to take a Pandaw River Cruise from Mandalay to Bagan. The entire voyage would take seven days, during which we would get the opportunity to see smaller villages and settlements along the route – a chance to see a way of life that we otherwise would have little access to.
Pandaw has a fleet of 12 ships – all modelled on those once owned by The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which operated during the 19th and 20th centuries. The company – which once had 650 ships – scuppered its entire fleet in 1942 to stop any of its vessels being utilised by the Japanese Army.
For our cruise, we were onboard the Kalaw Pandaw, on its inaugural voyage. The vessel has just 20 cabins, was tastefully decorated and boasted a passenger-to-crew ratio of 2-to-1 – enough to rival ships with a far higher price point.
It is often said that the cruise industry has some of the best service in tourism. Pandaw certainly didn’t do that statement an injustice. Its staff members were attentive, courteous and always willing to go above and beyond. In fact when we wanted to change our arranged flights at the last minute they rang around on our behalf to get us the best possible price.
Having boarded in Mandalay we spent two days in Myanmar’s second biggest city before we headed north. Immortalised in the words of Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name in 1892, Mandalay was the country’s last royal capital during the 19th century. This was before the conquering British forces invaded the country.
Mandalay is an exceptionally pretty town. Home to a wealth of temples, stupas and pagodas the entire city appears to be bathed in marble, gold and teak. We visit Mahamuni Buddha Temple, where men (and only men) stick pieces of gold leaf onto a giant statue of Buddha and the rebuilt Mandalay Palace, which was destroyed during the war.
We are also taken to Sagaing, which sits on the opposite bank of the river to Mandalay and is an important centre for Buddhist teaching. While touring the region we are taught about the influence that religion has over the country. Monks are a constant presence during our stay in Myanmar. In the morning they can be seen queuing up to collect food for the poor and they also act in the capacity of welfare providers – housing people who are down on their luck and offering an education to many people across the country. The respect that people have for them was evident during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. The monks led protests over fuel subsidies, with the subsequent government backlash causing near universal international condemnation. Many people credit the Saffron Revolution with focusing the world’s attention on Myanmar and the situations under which people lived.
One of the highlights of the entire trip was going to see a nunnery up in the hills of Sagaing. Our visit coincided with their midday meal and we were present as the young nuns – who are currently undergoing their Buddhist education – proceeded into the main dining hall. It was quite a humbling experience to see so many people who have given their lives over to work for a cause they believe in.
The itinerary is packed with well-timed experiences and excursions, which are all included in the price of the cruise. In Amarapura, just outside Mandalay, we were taken to see the magnificent U Bein Bridge, which at 1.2 kilometres is the longest teak bridge in the world. Pandaw organised local gondolas to row us out onto the surrounding lake at sunset, with a crew member producing a box of champagne flutes and some sparkling wine, just as the sun started to set. It’s an impressive detail and an experience that goes down extremely well with the passengers.
As we travelled north towards our final destination, we stop off and visit rural communities where the way of life has not changed for decades. Pottery towns like Yandabo, where skilled tradesmen make terracotta pots from the riverbank clay, which are then shipped all over the country using the very river which provided the materials in the first place. It is a self-sustained experience that is typical of village life across the republic.
Myanmar is a country which suits river cruising very well. Remote villages dot the banks of the Irrawaddy and people flock to the river to wave us on. It’s a great thing to just sit out on deck with a book and a cool drink and watch the world go by. In my opinion it’s the one major advantage river cruising has over its ocean counterpart; the size of the vessel reduces the impact on your surroundings and thus a river ship can seamlessly become part of the landscape – a feat that ocean cruising cannot always match.
Bagan was always going to be spectacular and it didn’t disappoint. Roughly 40 square miles, the vast plain is dotted with the ruins of thousands upon thousands of temples and pagodas, all built around the 13th century.
The area is extremely popular with tourists. Companies offer everything from traditional tours to bike rentals and trips in hot air balloons. Our tour guide threads us through the countless ruins, stopping off at some of his favourites, and eventually leads us to one of the biggest to watch the sun go down. It seems as if everywhere in Asia has magnificent sunsets but to watch it on top of a temple in Bagan, as it sets behind the silhouettes of the ancient city, was something pretty special indeed. I certainly won’t be forgetting it in a long time.
As we prepare to fly back to London everyone on board knows they have experienced something unique across the seven days. Pandaw has created a phenomenal experience: luxurious without any pretentious notions. The food, service and itinerary play perfectly to Myanmar’s many strengths and a few of our fellow passengers were discussing taking another cruise with the company – something I didn’t expect with an exotic cruise specialist.
There are undoubtedly still issues that the country needs to overcome if it’s to catch up with its ever more prosperous neighbours but the spirit of the Myanmar people gives cause for optimism. Things are changing. From the people we spoke to, there was generally an upbeat mood, that was refreshing. Or, as one hotel manager put it: “The government has made too many changes to go back to how things were. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” That’s not to say that it will be easy though, one of the country’s biggest tasks will be how to sustainably manage the predicted growth in tourist numbers.
One thing seems certain; there is undoubtedly the drive for change. The world wants to visit Myanmar; the only issue is whether Myanmar is ready for the world.
To see more images from our Adventures in Myanmar please click here