Five Ways to Explore Burma

Mount Popa
Photo by Lopez

by Gill Charlton, The Daily Telegraph, February 03, 2016

From rural bike rides to cruises along the Irrawaddy, we select five different ways to explore one of the world's most fascinating nations, with stops at Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay.

There’s still time to book a winter holiday to Burma combining a tour with a few days at the beach. The warm, dry weather should continue until mid-March. It’s also an exciting time to visit the country as the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, prepares to take over the government in March after its landslide election win last November.

To visit Burma is to travel back in time to the Asia of yesteryear. Yangon, the former British capital, retains its colonial heart and an astonishing 3,000 temples rise from the wheatfields of its medieval capital, Bagan. A particular highlight is Inle Lake where tribal women still wear colourful traditional dress to market.

A cruise on the Irrawaddy River which bisects the country and forms its transport lifeline is a must on any itinerary. But it’s especially rewarding to go beyond the Yangon-Inle-Mandalay-Bagan tourist loop to visit some of the country’s beautiful teak villages and vibrant rural markets where you will meet some of the most endearing people in the world.

The best hotels in Burma

On two wheels

There are few cars and trucks to disturb the peace of the Burmese countryside making its rural backroads ideal for cycling. Adventure travel specialist Exodus has a guided group tour that combines the main sights of Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay with rural rides through the valley of the Chindwin River. It’s a beautiful land of forests, rice paddies, and villages of teak houses and monasteries, where you’ll share the roads only with ox carts and the odd motorcyclist. The tour finishes in the Shan Hills surrounding Inle Lake, a landscape reminiscent of Tuscany complete with vineyards.

Exodus (0845 314 2530; ) has a choice of nine departures between Jan and Dec on this 16-day tour from £2,899 b&b including flights. Maximum group size 16.

A walk on the wild side

There are dozens of different tribes inhabiting the margins of Burma. Unlike in neighbouring China and Thailand, they have largely managed to preserve their traditional way of life. Wild Frontiers has designed a trekking tour taking in some of the most interesting tribal areas in Shan State: the Akha, Lwe La and Ann minorities near Keng Tong and Pa-O and Danu villages in the hills around Inle Lake. The tour finishes with a few days exploring Bagan’s temple plain and the old colonial quarter of Yangon. The next departure with Wild Frontiers (020 7736 3968; ) is October 29: 14 days for £3,295 including all meals but excluding international flights. Maximum group size 12.

Cruise the Irrawaddy River

Most tourists take a short cruise on the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan but the most interesting stretch is upstream from Mandalay where the river narrows. Stops include colonial Katha, the setting for George Orwell’s Burmese Days, and the village of Kyauk-Myoung where the famous 50-gallon water pots are made by hand and fired in huge kilns. The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, revived by Scotsman Paul Strachan in the 1990s, restored one of the company’s original riverboats to offer luxury cruises. The company now has a fleet of replica Pandaw boats, all fitted out in traditional brass and teak with large sundecks. There are just 18 cabins which makes for a convivial atmosphere on board. Pandaw Expeditions (0208 326 5620; ) offers a 14-day “Best of Burma and the Upper Irrawaddy” cruise stopping at remote villages and making a transit of the river’s Second Defile filled with the chatter of birds and gibbons in trees hung with rare orchids. From £3,795 including most meals and all flights.

Trains new and old

Burma’s railways have seen little investment over the past 50 years which makes for some interesting journeys. Tourists can now also visit Thanbyuzayat, the terminus of the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway, immortalised in Bridge on the River Kwai and Richard Flanagan’s Booker award-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Selective Asia (01273 670 001; ) has put together a tailor-made ‘Railways Old and New’ itinerary with chauffeured car and guide. The journey starts in Bangkok and follows the route of the Death Railway into Burma’s rarely visited south-east corner, including the fascinating old port of Moulmein (Mawlamyine). The 17-day tour also includes rides on Yangon’s old-fashioned Circle Train and the slow train through beautiful countryside from Mandalay to Hsipaw which crosses the Gokteik Viaduct built over a century ago across a deep gorge. From £2,525 per person b&b for a privately guided holiday, excluding international fights.

Touring on a budget

Among the companies arranging classic group coach tours, Voyages Jules Verne’s offer very good value. Its all-encompassing 17-day Discover Burma itinerary takes in not only Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake but also two delightful former colonial hill stations: Kalaw near Inle Lake and Pyin Oo Lwin where the local taxis are Victorian-style horse-drawn carriages. It also includes a two-night river cruise from Mandalay to Bagan where the group enjoys a private candlelit dinner in the grounds of an ancient pagoda. Voyages Jules Verne (020 3131 5187; ) has departures Oct-Feb; from £3,195 including all flights and most meals. Maximum group size 25.

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This article was written by Gill Charlton from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.