The few travellers who were lucky enough to have seen Burma in the 1980’s will notice on their return today, many startling changes. When I first flew into Burma, more than 30 years ago, I was armed with a 7 day visa, a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label whisky and a carton of 200 western cigarettes. (Bizarrely it had to be State Express 555 brand, though I never found out why!). On arrival at the ramshackle airport in Rangoon, a man would be waiting, quite openly, to take the duty-free off your hands, in exchange for a large wad of kyat, the local currency pronounced chat. This would be sufficient to travel around the country on buses and trains, stay at cheap guest houses and eat in local restaurants. Air travel, fine dining and luxury accommodation didn’t appear to be on the menu.
My! How things have changed. A visa valid for a month, a sparkling new airport in Yangon, a modern, efficient internal airline network, a broad range of eating options and some really sumptuous accommodation. I am pleased however to note that not everything had changed; the faded colonial charm of Mandalay, Yangon’s famous golden pagoda Shwe Dagon and bustling markets, the mighty yet slow flowing Irrawaddy River and the magnificent landscape of over 2000 temples dotting the major archaeological site of Bagan all retain their original allure. And most pleasing of all these constants are the Burmese themselves – still the most charming, friendly, sincere and modest people you will ever meet, anywhere in the world.
I was returning to Burma as a fortunate guest of luxury operator Belmond (formerly Orient Express) who have been major investors in tourism to the country since strict rules were relaxed several years ago. With a police outrider to whisk us through the previously non-existent rush hour (the pitfalls of a relaxed import duty on new vehicles, I’m afraid) our group arrived at an oasis of calm, among the old Embassy district, that is The Governor’s Residence, a small luxury boutique hotel dating from Victorian times. The hotel is the perfect respite from the hustle and bustle of Yangon, Burma’s former capital and largest, most vibrant city. Two days and two nights of frenetic activity before an early flight up to Mandalay where we board our vessel, “Belmond’s Road to Mandalay”, a former Rhine River Cruiser, for the highlight of the visit, namely a three day, three night cruise down the Irrawaddy (or the Ayeyawady River as it is now known). Though this was my first river cruise, (and what a way to start!) I took to the concept straight away; lots of shore excursions to keep us busy and yet discreetly pampered when on board, just watching the world go by on the river banks. The gentle swaying of the ship,( always anchored at night in the middle of the river), combined with a surprisingly good local sauvignon blanc ensured a restful night’s sleep in our teak lined luxury cabin.
We spent a whole day at the awesome Bagan, visiting several of Belmond’s community projects including handing out text books in a local school and an impromptu school concert, as a thank you and a visit to a local clinic, overseen by our very own Ship’s Doctor. The afternoon was spent exploring part of the vast site by bicycle, visiting many temples, exploring small villages and greeting lots of locals. The highlight was a steep climb up a poorly lit internal stone staircase to the top of a large pagoda to view the sunset with mists drifting up from the river, a view of hundreds of pagodas all basking in the orange and red hue of a setting sun. Then back on board the boat for yet another amazing dinner, this time a locally themed barbeque, on the open aired top deck with a million stars as roof decoration and, as if that wasn’t enough, a thousand floating lanterns set free on the current, to float past us as a magical flotilla.
Another early start to signal the end of the stay as we head back to the airport for a short flight back to Yangon and via Bangkok back to a rather drab looking, but still intact United Kingdom. A great deal has happened in thirty years to both Burma and me and, on the whole, for the better. All those years ago, as a directionless youth, a wizened old man at the bottom of Mandalay Hill read my palm and told my fortune. He said, among many other things, that I would make my living from the earth. Now, as a fully grown up tour operator, perhaps he meant to say I would make my living from the world! I never got to ask him.