Until very recently a no-go destination for many travellers, Burma aka Myanmar has now become an absolute favourite. With endearing nicknames such as the ‘golden land’ or ‘land of the smile’, everybody wants to go now. Who wouldn’t want to visit a country where until very recently time literally and figuratively stood still, cut off from the rest of the world? According to Misuu Borit, the owner of the Inle Princess Resort on the shores of the dreamy Inle Lake, her country might not be ready for the influx of tourists anticipated in coming years. “ It’s a double-edged sword. Before 2009, the occupancy rate of the Inle Princess Resort was barely 30%. Nowadays, 70% of the time I have to inform clients and travel agents that the hotel is fully booked.” Which is logical, because the Inle Princess Resort is one of the most beautiful in Burma. Mick Jagger stayed here shortly before our visit and Cliff Richard was sleeping next to us in his suite overlooking Inle Lake.
Balance in style
Talking about rock stars, Jethro Tull might be quite jealous or get very inspired by the one legged rowers of Inle Lake, Burma’s second largest lake, in the Nyaung Shwe region. These one legged rowers, who are actually fishermen and wear distinctive wraparound trousers, balance stylishly on the edge of a simple wooden boat while they lift huge triangular shaped fishing nets from the lake. When not using a one-cylinder motor, they use a somewhat strange technique to paddle with one leg, leaving both hands free to pull in the nets. The sparkling, unruffled surface of Inle Lake is dotted with fields of lotus flowers, rice and ingenious floating vegetable gardens where tomatoes and other crops grow. Renting a boat for the day to calmly navigate between the water villages and temples on bamboo stilts is an absolute must. Sometimes it feels like an Asian Venice, but minus the hoards of tourists, unless you want to visit a lotus weaving shop or a monastery with world-famous leaping cats. Then you realize you’re not the only tourist on Inle Lake.
Something less small-scale is happening in Bagan, a sea of green dotted here and there with earth-red or golden stupas and temples. Despite it’s popularity, Bagan should be on every itinerary. More than 4,000 archaeological monuments surround this former capital city, built between the 11th and 13th centuries, and where Buddhism was first introduced from the south of Burma and India. In 1988, in an attempt to stimulate tourism, more than 5,000 inhabitants where forcibly evicted from the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Today, each visitor has to pay the government a fee to enter this demarcated area. Once inside, you find only temples, stalls and the occasional hotel. Try to discover Bagan with a bicycle, horse-drawn cart, by foot or by hot air balloon, the latter being an absolute must. Balloons over Bagan is extremely professional and the experience is impressive. Bagan also has a milder, less humid climate so it’s a great place to spend a few days, relaxing beside the pool of one of the many beautiful hotels after a day of temple visits. Then you get less temple-tired, because there are plenty to see, from the 13th century Tayok Pye to the 11th century Manuha temple and the famous Shwesandaw Pagoda where most tourists go to watch sunset. To be avoided if you are not a fan of mass gatherings. If you’re lucky enough to have a good guide like our Mister Myint Zaw, then he’ll take you to an equally beautiful temple where you can watch sunset over magical Bagan, entirely alone.
The least known place in Burma is without doubt the Mergui Islands, an archipelago of more than 800 small islands most of which are uninhabited. Imagine Phuket or any other tropical beach destination in Asia but with hardly any tourists. The only visitors who find their way here are divers, who live aboard and dive from boats. The most remarkable thing about these islands, apart from the untouched white sandy beaches and the blue Andaman Sea, are the Moken. This small ethnic group are sea nomads who live on traditional wooden boats and constantly roam the seas. They currently number around 2,000, but their population is rapidly declining. Having lived for many generations on the sea, the Moken have developed the capacity to effortlessly dive to depths of 20 metres without any air canisters, often wearing homemade diving goggles and nothing else. There is just one hotel on the Mergui Islands, but the Chinese are looming and with them, plans to build huge luxury resorts within a few years from now. So, if you want to experience the Mergui and the Moken in all their authenticity, you’d better hurry. The only way to do this is to stay at the Andaman Beach Resort: a jewel of a place, located along a pristine white sandy beach. Kayak in mangroves, dive alongside unique reefs… There is a great manager, friendly staff and the food isn’t too bad. The only snag is that the hotel is in dire need of renovation. The chalets sometimes have unwelcome creepy-crawly visitors and the level of comfort is basic. If that thought doesn’t keep you awake and if you want to discover one of the most unknown archipelagos in Asia before it’s too late, you’ll be blown away.