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UNLIKE ANY LAND YOU'VE EVER KNOWN
 
(2015 - Fall Issue)

Writer: GEMMA PRICE



Ever since Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and global superpowers entered discussions to strengthen relations, Myanmar’s star has been ascending and Yangon has rocketed to the top of everyone’s “must go now” lists.

Combining a beguiling mix of British colonialism and Myanmar tradition, this captivating Southeast Asian destination, as yet unsullied by the trappings of breakneck economic development, has plenty to offer well-heeled frontier travellers.

Coveted Lodgings

As entry restrictions were relaxed and inbound travel soared, so has the development of hotels and resorts, however the city’s best accommodation options are those that have led Yangon’s hotel scene for decades.

Orient Express—now rebranded as Belmond—acquired the Governor’s Residence Yangon in 2006. Originally renovated to its former glory in 1997 by Patrick Robert, a French artist and designer, accommodation here recalls the nostalgia of the British colonial period. In the Governor’s Rooms, teak canopy beds bordered by silk-panelled walls and doors overlook leafy treetops. In the gardens below, breakfast is served on the wraparound balcony, which overlooks the cool fish pools shielded by red parasols from the already oppressive heat of the day.

Rooms at the Strand Hotel also rank among the city’s most coveted places. Built by British entrepreneur John Darwood in 1901 and later acquired by the Sarkies brothers, the Strand was one of the region’s most luxurious lodgings during Burma’s colonial heyday. Its guest book includes the signatures of George Orwell, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, among others, and many of the Victorian features enjoyed by these illustrious guests have been well maintained. The hotel’s colonnaded entranceway opens out into a vast marble-inlaid lobby where butlers in tighpone dress jackets and traditional longgyi and slippers coax the ancient elevator into submission. And black-lacquered ceiling fans swirl beneath concentric rings of banisters and the atrium skylight high overhead.

“With its huge diversity of cultures, people and fabulous history, Myanmar is the tourism treasure trove of Asia,”says Swiss general manager Philippe Delaloye, who has 30 years of experience managing hotels in Thailand. “Its relatively slow development has preserved the beautiful ecology and unique way of life.”

Evocative Sites and Gems

Yangon’s Chinatown is always a hive of activity and the go-to hangout for locals of all ages. Buddhist monks and nuns in orange, burgundy and pink robes sweep past fortune tellers fringing Sule Pagoda, said to contain a hair given by the Buddha to two Burmese merchants. Along busy Maha Bandoola Road, potholed pavements front gold shops, Chinese medicine vendors, restaurants and bakeries.

Shwedagon Pagoda is the country’s most sacred site and its mystical ambiance has to be experienced first-hand to be fully appreciated. The 2,500-year-old complex of temples, stupas and statues has withstood earthquakes, invasions, fire, out-and-out pillaging and foreign occupation. The main stupa in itself is mindboggling, covered with hundreds of gold plates and crusted with innumerable rubies, sapphires and an alleged 4,531 diamonds, the largest of which tips the scales at 72 carats.

But Myanmar’s greatest gems are scattered countrywide.

Frontier Explorations

River cruising globally has boomed over the last few years, and options to explore Myanmar’s life-giving waters have grown, too, capturing the sense of frontier exploration that characterized the colonial era. Last year Belmond launched Orcaella in the wake of Road to Mandalay. Like her big sister, Orcaella cruises the Ayeyarwady from Bagan to Mandalay but also reaches Yangon and goes up the Chindwin River to Homalin—the first luxury cruiser to explore this section of the river through the jungles of the north, forgotten villages and ancient towns near the Indian border.

In Mandalay, the former capital city of the Myanmar Kingdom one hour by air from Yangon and 20 minutes from Bagan, Mandalay Hill Resort lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill facing the distinctive architecture of the Royal Palace and its beautiful moat with a panoramic view of the city’s myriad pagodas.

When safari camp-inspired Bagan Lodge opened in Bagan in 2013, it offered travellers a luxurious base from which to explore the plain of temples without detracting from the destination’s frontier feeling. During the apogee of its wealth in the 11th and 13th centuries, Bagan was covered with more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries, 2,200 of which remain today.

“We really wanted to keep the idea of an explorer’s camp, an expedition. Here you are, going somewhere in Myanmar, and you pitch your tent amid the pagodas,”says designer Brigitte Dumont de Chassart. “We stayed away from concrete and cement as much as possible, designing the rooms as pairs, then covering the two rooms, outside, by one tent. We kept to the concept of tents with 21st-century amenities.”

As one of the country’s big draws, Inle Lake in Myanmar’s northern Shan State is a hotbed of development, however Inle Princess Resort, lapped by the eastern fringe of Inle Lake and backed by the blue peaks of the Shan Hills, is one of the few up-country resorts that successfully unites the setting and cultural traditions of its very hospitable staff with five-star service and standards. (It’s also one of the few resorts not connected to the old regime—the owner is a former political prisoner.)

Each room is a standalone chalet crafted entirely from bamboo and reclaimed native hardwoods such as teak and pyingado by local Inthar carpenters, and each is fronted by a glass window to maximize natural light and the spectacular surrounding scenery. Shan and Inthar silk textiles and handicrafts crafted on-site add splashes of colour while clay-oven-inspired fireplaces provide welcome warmth on chilly evenings.

Just behind the resort, the Red Mountain Estate vineyards were first planted in 2003. Today the winery produces a variety of red and white wines, including a selection of sweet muscat wines.

Myanmar even boasts unspoiled beaches. The three-kilometre stretch of Ngapali, located in the Rakhine state in Western Myanmar facing the Bay of Bengal, is another key destination for visitors and developers alike. Newly opened Ngapali Bay Villas and Amara Ocean Resort are two of the better options, however my favourite has to be Sandoway Resort.

Nestled among coconut palms along 450 metres of pristine beachfront and surrounded by 2.5 hectares of tropical gardens, Sandoway Resort bungalows blend Thai wooden panelling and Balinese window frames with traditional local Myanmar features, such as

A-frame wooden ceilings, stone carvings and bamboo rails along the verandas.

“My hope is that Ngapali won’t overdevelop into a destination for mass tourism,”says co-owner Pietro Tura. “I had the privilege of visiting beach resorts such as Phuket, Koh Samui and Bali when they were still undiscovered and untouched and I hope these shores won’t turn into any other Southeast Asian beach resort.”

With the sudden uptick in visitors, Myanmar is bound to develop quickly, and after so many decades of economic torpor, it’s right that it should. That said, if you want to experience one of Southeast Asia’s most untouched destinations, go now, before everybody else does.

Travel Planner

Many airlines offer service into Yangon where you can book flights on local carriers to reach other parts of the country. For information on Myanmar, visit The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Ministry of Hotels & Tourism at myanmartourism.org and evisa.moip.gov.mm. For hotel information, visit:

Bagan Lodge: bagan-lodge.com

Belmond Orcaella & Road to Mandalay: belmond.com

Governor’s Residence: governorsresidence.com

Inle Princess Resort: inleprincessresort.net

Mandalay Hill Resort: mandalayhillresorthotel.com

Red Mountain Estate: redmountain-estate.com

Sandoway Resort: sandowayresort.com

The Strand Hotel: hotelthestrand.com

 
 
 
 
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