After years of isolation, Burma seems to be THE must-get-to destination of 2012. So must-get-to in fact that flights to Rangoon are chocca and hotels in the country are full to bursting too.
Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away (erm, Camden) I worked with Nick Pulley at Bridge the World travel. Since then Nick has gone on to set up his own successful tour operator, Selective Asia, specialising in South East Asia, an area of the world about which Nick is unbelievably passionate and knowledgable. Having used Selective Asia myself to travel to Vietnam last November (and highly recommended they are too), I chatted with him recently to pick his brains on all things Burma.
Does Burma live up to the hype?
In every conceivable way, yes. Even given its insanely fast ascendance to the pinnacle of Asia’s, perhaps the world’s, travel experiences over the past 9 months. It is worth every one of the accolades that has been bestowed upon it. That is not to say that the sensationalism is necessarily accurate at times – you will not actually be the first traveller to set foot in Maymyo, or the first to explore the Anonda Pagoda, and there isn’t actually any great necessity to visit this year rather than next – however it is unquestionably one of the planet’s great travel destinations right now and is set to remain so for many years, in my mind.
How many times have you been out there?
I’ve now been three times, initially visiting as a backpacker around 11 years ago, and then returning in 2010 and 2011. Whilst the more recent trips have undoubtedly been work based, with numerous hotels and site inspections factored in amongst the more enjoyable travel elements, the amazing thing about Burma is how little it has changed since I first visited. That will of course alter, and in fairness the speed of change over the past year has caught us – along with the travel industry as a whole – completely by surprise. However I do feel the press have given Joe Public the impression that within two years this will be another Thailand. Another 300 years, or 30, then yes. In reality unique, fulfilling travel experiences in this wonderful country will be accessible for many, many years to come. We are currently only just scratching the surface.
Burma seems to be flavour of the moment – how difficult is it to get flights and hotels?
Very! Hotel rates have soared in recent months, with some hotels increasing their rates by as much as 200 per cent! Despite this, hotels are not struggling to fill rooms and the occupancy rate is as close to 100 per cent many months in advance. This is not to say that the overall holiday costs have increased by this much, however we are seeing total increases in the region of 30 per cent from last year’s prices (i.e. for a complete, tailor-made travel ‘package’).
Another difficulty is the speed at which we can confirm holidays. If you were booking a holiday in Cambodia with me today, I’d be able to confirm all our services as well as the hotels tomorrow. With Burma this process takes 4–5 weeks, sometimes longer due to the long delays with hotels returning calls and sending written confirmations. This is not intentional on their part, they are all just buckling under the weight of enquiries. Even with our well established, close relationship with favoured hotels the wait is still considerable.
The solution? Travel in the shoulder seasons (May, June and September, October) – either side of the peak season – when availability is a little easier, also take your foot of the gas. Burma will still be there next year and in many ways it will be even better!
And although things have opened up, how do you ensure you’re directing your money away from “the regime” who still own hotels and so on. Or are things just not that black and white?
I’d say its grey. Despite what most travel companies state, and what everyone would like to believe, most hotels and businesses in Burma have some sort of less-savoury connection. Some of these ‘connections’ are stronger than others of course and there are numerous hotels we avoid on this basis. However to say that it is possible to avoid lining any junta pockets altogether is wishful thinking in my opinion. Perhaps it’s not appropriate for me to say so, however it’s the truth. It’s also important to remember why this demand for Burma has soared recently. Why? Because, if we believe much of what we are told and read, things are improving and the government is sticking to its promise of a delivering a more democratic approach to governing the people. There are many groups that would disagree with this statement and I am not just about to state either way which I believe to be true as this is not my position to do so.
What would be your ideal itinerary as an introduction to Burma and how long?
I always encourage clients to include the Big 4 (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake) as they are un-missable, but also to allow time for other, less visited destinations. Hsipaw is wonderful, and I have enjoyed several trips to the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo (in fact I have climbed up from the lower base camp at Kinpun to the rock twice). Many of the towns between the key destinations are also of real interest, so allowing a little extra time for them is essential in my opinion. Whilst I would discourage clients from thinking of Burma as a beach destination, it does have a wonderful stretch of coastline with minimal development so a few days of R&R at the end of a holiday is forgivable!
What’s your favourite thing to do in Burma that’s totally off the tourist trail
Trekking in some of the further flung spots of Shan State is certainly amongst my personal highlights, overnighting in homestays as you walk into the back of beyond of this remote country. Unique, unforgettable experiences happen on a near daily basis and thanks to the skill of a great guide, the lives of the people you meet along the way are brought to life. Likewise its great to be able to share your life and travel experiences with them
Any general, top Burma tips?
Allow time and stay flexible – both when booking and once on the ground. Book as far in advance as you can and try not to set your heart on certain hotels if you can help it. In this current climate it’s very possible that some won’t be available and anyway, a country such as Burma isn’t about the hotel ‘experience’. Don’t try and squeeze too much in in too short a period of time. You probably won’t go back, so allowing a few more days can convert a good trip into an outstanding one.
Any favourite restaurants?
Aah, now we’re getting down to the little secrets. We’ve sourced restaurants of all standards and types across the country and these are the sorts of details we like to keep for our own!
OK, I’ll let you in on a few: My favourite restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay are both Indian, although anyone that knows me won’t be that surprised. (You’ll find great Indian, Chinese and Thai food across the country as well as Burmese of course).
In Yangon look out for Asoka if you’re keen on excellent Indian and the very good Feel serves some of the best Burmese food outside of the market stalls. In Mandalay, Spice Garden is fantastic and the seafood specialists at Lashio Lay also deserve a shout.