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I travel luxe but smart: I know what’s worth shelling out for 7.13.2015

When people think of Myanmar, several things come to mind: an oppres­sive military government, the Nobel Peace Prize-win­ning efforts of dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, that Seinfeld episode, a refugee crisis.

What comes less readily to our thoughts is that the country long known as Bur­ma was once the richest in Southeast Asia, thanks to its plentiful natural resources from rubies and sapphires to rice and teak.

And in important ways, the country is still quite abundant, despite its traumatic history: Brit­ish colonialism, Japanese occupation in World War II, a coup and miserably failed experiment with socialism the 1960s-’80s, a dangerous drug trade, a devastating cyclone, and a brutally repressive military dictator­ship from 1989 until, well, the jury is out. But elections were held in 2010 and will be again this fall, Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, and things are improving.

(The advice against going has changed to an invitation to come and support local businesses.)

The economy was deci­mated, there was tremen­dous suffering, and the GDP is still low and poverty high. It’s hard to come away with­out feeling grateful for your own insane good fortune at having been born some­where else.

That’s not meant to be a downer. But it’s impossible to separate Myanmar’s past from its hopeful present. And the backdrop makes the richness that shimmers through that much more alluring.

The country is still rich in minerals gemstones and jewelry are spectacular, to say nothing of the gold-cov­ered and jewel-encrusted pagodas. It’s rich in beauty, both natural, like the morn­ing-misted shimmer of Inle Lake, and man-made, such as the glass mosaics that sparkle like kaleidoscopes inside temples. It’s rich in spirituality most people are deeply Buddhist, with a bit of animism and astrology mixed in.

Leaving offerings or pray­ing silently on their knees, the devout far outnumber the tourists at pagodas, some of which are major pilgrimage destinations for Theravada Buddhists throughout the region. Vir­tually all men join a mon­astery at various points, often starting for a week when they’re 7, almost like a spiritual summer camp, and young monks in oxblood robes, are everywhere pres­ent.

And at risk of invoking a travel-writing cliche, it’s rich in the warmth and generosi­ty of those who live there.

People invited me into their homes in small villages to talk openly about their lives and their country.

Everyone smiled, every­where. Domestic tourists at a pagoda asked to take pictures with the tall, pale redhead who is me.

I learned the phrase “like throwing a sesame seed in an elephant’s mouth,” which came in handy when declining teenage monks’ offers to share their meager rations of rice for which they had begged on the streets with me.

The main reason to go now is that it’s rich in in­trigue, as places are during times of transition.

“There is no greater reward than discovering a nation as it opens up to the outside world,” says Edward Granville, the travel spe­cialist at Red Savannah who planned my trip.

“That time is now for Myanmar, whose residents could not be happier to greet inquisitive travelers.

More than her breathtak­ing sights, it is the charm of Myanmar’s people that creates the most lasting memories.” (I traveled as a guest of Red Savannah.)

That said, it’s not a time cap­sule. The country is limping into the 21st century, but what’s interesting is that there’s virtually no western influence.

You can see the presence of contemporary China, but American culture is notice­ably lacking.

It’s just about the only place I’ve been with no KFC. Even in Yangon, a city of more than 5 million, only about half have mobile phones, and just one-third of the country is on the electrical grid (though many houses use solar); people still send telegrams. Tradi­tions live.

Men and women wear sarong-like garments called longyis and powder their faces with yellow makeup made from tree bark.

In the countryside, the diverse ethnic tribes have retained their adornments, such as the colorful tur­ban-like head-wear of the Pa’O people and the tat­tooed faces of Chin women who were deemed too beau­tiful for their own safety.

Change is inevitable, and as Myanmar opens to the world, its distinctiveness will flatten out.

‘Yangon has dozens of shopping malls and a handful of new high-rise luxury condominiums, built pri­marily for the entrepreneur­ial expats who are flocking here to seize opportunities in a country that so far has no industry.

A massive new interna­tional airport in Yangon, designed to accommodate long-haul flights from the U.S., is in the works, joining the one in the new capital of Naypyitaw.

Hotels are under con­struction everywhere, and farmers around Bagan are selling their land to buy cars to become tourist drivers.

They have reason: Offi­cial tourism numbers were about 1 million visitors in 2012, 2 million in 2013, and 3 million in 2014, and a guide told me the govern­ment is projecting 5 million this year.

That’s another reason to go now. And right now, in the summer rainy season, as I did.

The major sites can al­ready get crowded in winter and spring. But in June, there were only a fraction of the high-season tourists, and the rains are unpredict­able but generally brief.

In two weeks, I got wet in exactly one downpour, which felt wonderful on a sweltering day.

Even when Myanmar tourism was only for scrappy backpackers, travel tended to follow a circuit.

It still does, thanks to flights that connect the dots of a circle. People on my 7am flight from Yangon to Bagan turned up two days later for the 8:30am flight from Bagan to Mandalay. The potential sameness of travel makes it worth organizing your trip with an expert planner.

                Red Savannah’s Granville, who has spent 20 years in the luxury travel world since graduating from Oxford, mostly with Abercrombie & Kent, is an old Myanmar hand.

             It’s partly his “keen interest in understanding Britain’s imperial past” but mostly his deep affection for Myanmar’s “totally charm­ing people, who have been left behind and appallingly mistreated by successive rulers and governments, but who still manage to be about the most sincere peo­ple you could hope to meet.”

His understanding mani­fests in his connections with the country’s best guides.

Each of mine had at least a decade of experience and was a natives or longtime resident of the area where they worked.

Their knowledge and personability, especiallyYan Naing Htun in Mandalay, as well as their skill at hacking the usual circuit to avoid tour-bus crowds, made my trip memorable.

But it was the local villag­ers they introduced me to their own friends who really left an impact.

The four stops of the circuit offer a compre­hensive overview. The start is in Yangon, with its colonial-meets-modern architecture, its bustling markets (live chickens for sale!), 216-foot-long reclin­ing Buddha and spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda that is decorated with 40 tons of gold. It’s also home to the only truly western -style luxury hotel in the country (so far), the lovely Belmond Governor’s Residence, in the leafy diplomatic corner of the city.

From there it’s onto Bagan and its 2,300+ plus 11th – to 13th-century pagodas in 20 square miles of UNESCO World Heritage area.

My favorite city was Man­dalay, with its remnants of imperial life, centuries-old monasteries, workshops producing everything from gold leaf to marble Buddhas for offerings and, of course, pilgrimage-worthy pagodas, especially Maha-Myat-Mu­ni, where the devoted layer sheets of gold leaf on the Buddha and have been for so many years that the figure appears to be swaddled in blankets.

Even better was when Red Savannah took me off the circuit, adding a spur to Hsipaw, in the eastern Shan plateau, whose culture is an important strand in the mosaic that is Myanmar.

It meant a day in tran­sit, by car and a rickety 19th-century railroad that crossed Gokteik viaduct on the longest testle in the world, shaking dramatically all the way.

That was a case of the journey being an end itself, but the destination of Hsipaw, normally just a stop for serious trekker packers or backpackers in search of an inexpensive place to chill out, is a highlight on its own. It’s a slice of a different style of life, and an important part of history.

It was home to the impe­rial palace of the last Shan prince, who was disap­peared during the 1962 coup. The tragic story is told eloquently in Twilight Over Burma, by that prince’s European-born wife, a book that Red Savannah enthusi­astically and rightly encour­aged me to read.

Two of the prince’s de­scendants still live in the palace, and welcome guests daily to share that powerful history.

The detour on the way back from that detour to Mandalay was an afternoon in the bucolic hill town of Maymio, where the elite col­onists of Yangon escaped the blistering summer heat and local tourists now visit the extensive botanical garden and chill out in the cool air.

Red Savannah gave me another hill town on the way to the last stop sun on the circuit as well. Kalaw may not have been the most exciting tows but literary tourists love it because the love story The Art of Hearing Heartbeats was written and takes place there.

I loved it for the utterly charming Tudor-style Amara Mountain Resort especially being able to sleep there with open windows instead of fully cranked air-con, coo air being a major luxury after ten days of power sweating.

The circuit ends on Inle Lake in the Shan state, a UNESCO Biosphere Resery whose natural beauty is matched by its compelling culture.

A market moves among several villages, many of them reached solely by long-tail boat, packed with shop­pers and vendors from four tribes, all in their traditional garb. Each village specializes in producing one product, such as boats, beautiful fab­rics made of silk and lotus fibers, or savory snacks.

The boat journeys be­tween them take you past Inle Lake’s impressive aquatic tomato farms, in which growers cultivate to­matoes on floating islands of sediment these turn out to be delicious, especially in a local specialty of tomato salad with peanut dressing and more impressive fishermen.

They perform a sort of la­borious ballet, balancing on one foot at the bows of their boats, moving a net with their arms and using their other leg to propel an oar that steers the boats. Watch­ing them is mesmerizing.

Which brings me to the richness of resourceful­ness. Through everything Myanmar has been through, people have found ways to make things work. That’s deeply appealing, and yet another reason to go.

 Source : The traveller Vol 3, No.7  From July27  To August 2, 2015