Ever since opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi dropped her opposition to tourism in Burma (provided people use private, non-government agencies), we've been planning a research trip, and now finally we're ready to offer what might be the best of a brilliant bunch of exclusive escapes in South East Asia.
There's some pretty tough opposition in the shape of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, but I felt the experience in Burma was that bit more genuine - very possibly due to the lack of western influence. Holidays to Burma are a must: the people are so friendly, genuine and welcoming, and everywhere felt very serene and peaceful.
It's also abundantly clear why Burma is called the Land of Golden Pagodas. Anyone visiting the region should prepare for a temple or two, but Burma certainly beats them all. Schwedagon pagoda in Yangon is truly awe-inspiring and very humbling, and I was lucky enough to take part in a robe offering ceremony in one of the prayer areas at the temple. With the rain lashing down outside and listening to the melodious chanting of three senior monks, it really was quite a special moment.
Keeping on the temple theme, after Yangon, my next stop was Bagan, which was also at one time the capital city of Burma. The area spans 16 square miles and is strewn with a total of 4,000 pagodas and temples - almost all worn away and revealing the beautiful bright red sandstone which is a stunning contrast to the bright green surroundings (which I was very lucky to experience, thanks to being there in the monsoon season).
Although the area is a national park, it feels very special as it isn't surrounded by strict boundaries or entry areas, and there are no touts. Many of the pagodas are very rarely visited and a fun way to explore is by horse and cart - but I would also consider hiring a bicycle, as that is so often the best way to discover a place like this.
On to the city of Mandalay
Mandalay was made famous by Rudyard Kipling (although many still insist that Kipling never even made it to Mandalay!) which is a real jump back into the present. It's a much more bustling and cosmopolitan city than Yangon, which in comparison feels a lot less developed thanks to several vast areas of park, lakes and greenery. Near Mandalay are the old capital cities of Ava and Amarapura, of which little survive, but which were brought dramatically to life by our wonderful guide.
Another focus of trips to Burma are boat trips down (or up) the Irrawaddy River, between Bagan and Mandalay. My final stop was north east of Mandalay at Inle Lake. To many, this is the real highlight of any trip, as it means the chance to get away from the towns and cities and see local Burmese life - and also the chance to really chill out after a few days exploring ancient cities and temples.
A small number of the hotels here sit right on the lake and are built on stilts, so rooms with outdoor balconies look straight onto the water. The villages in this region are all on stilts, and the locals even grow their crops and vegetables on the lake by creating floating gardens made from dried seaweed and soil.
One day, we headed across the lake to the daily market and were met with an incredible sight - hundreds of long tail boats were moored up by the shore (so much so that we were pretty hard pushed to find a space ourselves) and the atmosphere inside the market was wonderful - we saw everything on sale, from rice, meat and vegetables to household goods and there were also small cafes, chemists and even the local dentist, complete with wind up drill!
We headed on from here upriver to discover the beautiful area of Alaung Sitthou. After a peaceful lunch in a forest clearing it was back to the airport and to Yangon to spend our final 24 hours. After a very spoiling evening at one of the city's most luxurious hotels, we headed out to spend our final few hours on a local train - a great opportunity to witness daily life around the city through the eyes of the locals.
In a trip with this many highlights, picking just one is supremely tricky - but very little can beat a cracking sunset. I can honestly say that sitting on the U Bein bridge (the world's longest teak bridge) which winds across a small lake outside of Mandalay, was the most memorable sunset I have ever experienced. It also meant the chance to meet a hugely charming Burmese monk with a cockney English accent!
For more information on exclusive escapes to Burma, or to start planning your tailor made trip, contact Original Travel.