Burma - A Golden Land
Our Managing Director, Juliet, recently enjoyed a premium cruise tour through the heart of untouched Burma. Read her exclusive review:
I spent 10 days in Burma in September with APT on their premium ship, Princess Panhwar, cruising the Irrawaddy River up to Mandalay. From the moment you arrive in Burma, it really does feel like you've landed in another world - a mysterious land of shimmering golden temples, full of startling examples of ancient and modern co-existing side by side. With such a wealth of places to see in this captivating country, it is reassuring to travel with a company like APT, with their expertise ensuring a relaxing and truly immersive experience.
We were well looked after as soon as we landed in the impressive colonial city Yangon. A friendly local guide took us on a tour of its well-manicured open parkland and streets lined with imposing yet crumbling buildings from the British rule, and surprisingly for south-east Asia, not a motorbike or moped in sight - they are banned in Yangon. It doesn't take long to notice just how many pagodas there are. In the centre of a busy roundabout, in a beautiful park setting, or just casually lining a city street, pagodas amaze you at every turn. It is impossible to visit Yangon without seeing the most magnificent of all - the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. This vast golden stupa dazzles in the centre of a large temple complex, far more impressive in reality than any photograph could ever portray.
This was our first real insight into the spiritual nature of Burma. Buddhism is far more than a religion here, it is a way of life, with everyone from tiny children to elderly ladies worshipping at temples and making offerings of food and flowers to Buddha. As we drove to the airport at 6am on Sunday morning, we saw people out sweeping the roads, and were told by our guide that this wasn't their job, they were simply doing their good deed for the day. Golden pagodas are usually recovered in gold leaf every 5 years and in a country with such poverty it is bizarre to see such lavish riches, until you remember that worship here is more important than material wealth.
We flew from Yangon to Bagan to join the ship halfway through its journey up the Irrawaddy into the heart of Burma. Flying over the thousands of temples and stupas of ancient Bagan is an uplifting sight, and walking amongst them is utterly breathtaking. Our very knowledgeable guide patiently explained that some pagodas are temples (a place for the faithful to pray) and some pagodas are stupas (bell shaped domed structures enshrining a holy relic), and the variety of shapes and colours is astounding. We watched the sun set from the top of a temple (not for the faint hearted or vertiginous!) and took in the beauty of this massive archaeological zone.
When visiting so many temples, it is important to remember that in Burma, it is forbidden to wear shoes or socks in any place of worship. Shoes or sandals that are easy to take off and put back on are therefore an absolute must. Shoulders and knees must also be covered, so long cotton trousers and t-shirts are the best clothing to wear. The heat is quite intense throughout the year, but as we were visiting at the end of the wet season there was also high humidity, so cool clothing is essential.
We joined Princess Panhwar and settled into our cabins before a tour of the ship. My cabin was incredibly comfortable - bright, modern and spacious, with a balcony and superb bathroom with walk-in shower. The contemporary, airy feel continued throughout the ship, with a lovely air-conditioned lounge and bar area with ample seating, an outside bar where we spent most evenings, and a spacious open-seating restaurant. There was a relaxed and welcoming feel to the ship, perfect after a day of excursions.
There were two things that really stood out for me about Princess Panhwar. Firstly, the crew were exceptional. They were all from Myanmar, and were friendly, welcoming and very knowledgeable. The two tour guides were on the cruise throughout and had superb knowledge of the destinations, which really brought the excursions to life. To my mind, a cruise director can make or break a cruise, and Tom, the cruise director on Princess Panhwar, made this cruise very special. He conversed with locals on our behalf, asking them questions and giving us a real insight into how people in Burma live. He gave several lectures on this history and culture of Burma during the cruise and the fact that he has lived through such a tumultuous period in Burmese history made it all the more relevant.
The second outstanding feature of Princess Panhwar was the food. Always an important aspect of a cruise, the food on board was amazing, and I would go as far as to say that the lunch buffets were the best I have experienced on a ship. As well as soup, sandwiches and different types of salad, including regional specialities, there was always a chef station serving freshly cooked local delicacies, which became a real highlight. Burmese food is a melting-pot of influences from its neighbours, India, Thailand and China, so spicy curries, stir fries and noodles were excellent options. Dinner was always superb, with a good choice which included a Burmese-style dish alongside more Western dishes. Included drinks with meals is a nice touch, the waiters soon learn your preferences - a glass of chilled wine always arrived for me not long after we sat down to eat!
There were also thoughtful extra touches on Princess Panhwar to make your cruise special - a cold towel and refreshing fruit juice to greet you after an excursion, surprisingly good complimentary Wi-Fi on board considering where we were, and a basket in which to put dusty shoes after an excursion, from where they emerged miraculously clean before the next tour!
However, the highlights of a cruise through Burma with APT will always be the incredibly well-organised and fascinating excursions. Accompanied by one of the tour guides from the ship, we visited a wide array of pagodas, from the glistening white pagoda of Hsinyume, the remarkable unfinished stone Mingun temple, the egg-shaped golden Kaunghmudaw Pagoda, the magnificent Ananda Temple with its cruciform layout and one of the most intriguing, the Kuthodaw Pagoda containing the world's largest book with 729 individual marble slabs, each a page of the book.
We visited Sagaing near Mandalay with its incredible views over hundreds of temples and the Irrawaddy River, the architectural genius of the teak Shwenandaw Monastery, and also met the villagers from Yandabo, where the treaty which ended the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826 was signed, now an important clay pot producing village. We were taken to fascinating traditional workshops which made silverware, gold leaf, lacquer work and wood carvings, and wandered through the sights and smells of local markets, where bartering is a much-needed skill!
One of my favourite excursions was a gondola ride beneath the spectacular U-Bein bridge at sunset - a relaxing and scenic opportunity for taking lots of photographs. The tour of the ancient imperial capital of Inwa by horse drawn cart was also a real highlight, seeing some fantastic sights and chatting to the local children as they cycled alongside our cart, expertly selling us some very pretty, and very cheap, bracelets. There are a lot of local products of differing quality on offer at most of the villages and temples, many sold by young children and families, who become your best friend for five minutes!
Burma is an incredibly special place, full of awe-inspiring sights and astonishing experiences. Travelling with APT is the best way to guarantee seeing the real highlights, and understanding such a complex country is so much easier with the help of APT's knowledgeable and friendly on-board tour guides.
Handy Hints and Tips:
- The Kyat is a closed currency so you cannot buy it before you travel. Take US Dollars with you to exchange when you get there and remember you get more Kyat in exchange for high denomination notes in pristine condition. US dollars are welcome at larger shops and restaurants, especially in the north, but it's useful to have small denomination Kyat notes for buying souvenirs and drinks.
- Pack long shorts or trousers that cover the knee for visiting temples, and make sure you have something to cover your shoulders with.
- Wear shoes or sandals that are easy to take off and put on for your temple visits as you have to leave footwear at the entrance.
- Check with your doctor a few months before you travel for any vaccinations you might need.
- Although mosquitoes aren't generally a problem, pack some strong insect repellent.
- Remember to apply for your visa online before you go as it saves queuing on arrival at the airport. It is easy to apply for at http://evisa.moip.gov.mm/index.aspx and is usually approved within hours - take your approval letter with you when you travel. A tourist visa costs 50 US dollars and is valid for 90 days from approval, so don't apply until 90 days before your trip is due to end.