As the Tour Operations Coordinator at Classic Journeys in charge of our Myanmar trips, I speak to our guides and colleagues in-country on a weekly basis, and I also hear a lot of questions from travelers who are curious about Myanmar and wonder if this is the right time to visit.
Q: How does your experience in Myanmar compare with other Asian destinations?
Sara: We have been to quite a number of Asian countries, and what we appreciate about Myanmar is that this country has it all—and then some: buddhas, temples, pagodas, ruins, markets, good hotels, good food, interesting culture, friendly people, fascinating history. It feels isolated and off-the-beaten-track and, at the same time, quite accessible. Though we flew to our destinations, the flights were short and reasonably efficient (a “meal” is even served on a 40-minute flight!).
Bob: We have enjoyed past visits to Vietnam and Thailand (multiple times), and to Cambodia and Laos as well. But Myanmar at this point is special, just having opened up to the world after being under an autocratic military rule since 1962. There are few tourists there now, and almost no Americans. There is nothing jaded about the Myanmar people at this point—they are friendly and welcoming, they don’t hustle you like in some other tourist destinations, they seem genuinely interested in being helpful. This will probably change at some point, which is why we chose to go now.
Q: What influenced your decision to travel to Myanmar this year?
Sara: Myanmar has just opened up after 50 years of military rule and the Burmese are very welcoming and friendly. It is still easy to connect with the people; even the slingshot seller on the street wanted to demonstrate her product for me, and she wasn’t trying to sell me anything. We experienced no hustling, no begging, no surliness, just pleasure at our being there. People demonstrating crafts really wanted us to understand what they were doing; there was no simply going through the motions. And we weren’t expected to buy anything. We were spontaneously invited to visit homes and even to a going away party for a monk-to-be, where we were treated as guests of honor. This wasn’t arranged ahead of time, just something we happened upon. We expect it won’t be the same when tourism becomes more prevalent. Diet Coke and the first international ATM machine have just arrived, and we all know what comes next…
Q: How did traveling in Myanmar compare with your expectations, and in what ways did Myanmar surprise you?
Sara: We expected it to feel more like a communist country because of the military rule and the close connections with China, but it was way warmer and friendlier than expected and the infrastructure was way better. We were surprised by how many sights there were and by how pervasive it all was: more temples, more monks & monasteries, more commercial enterprise, many floating villages, not just one or two sites preserved for tourism. We felt like we were seeing the actual country and the way people live, not a show put on for outsiders. We were also surprised by the amount of English spoken.
Bob: I had read about Bagan and the exceptional temples and ruins there; they more than met my expectations. But I was surprised and enchanted by the unique world of Inle Lake—the fishermen, the farmers of the floating gardens, the lakeside villages on stilts, the markets along the lake, and so much more.
Q: How would you describe the quality of the hotels on tour?
Sara: The hotels were unexpectedly good. They had clean rooms, comfortable beds, were nicely decorated and had accommodating staff. The public areas were attractive. The food was very good, too.
Bob: The hotels were more than satisfactory—not 5-star, but that’s not what you should expect in a country that has been closed for 50 years. The public rooms, restaurants and grounds were very good, the individual accommodations good.
Q: How would you describe the locals’ reaction to tourists? Did you meet any interesting locals during your trip?
Sara: The reaction of the locals to tourists was so much fun for us. They loved taking our pictures as well as posing for us to take theirs. Their delight was definitely a part of our pleasure in being there. We arranged for an unscheduled, late-afternoon tour of a neighboring floating village at Inle Lake and two women showed up with their sampans. Dressed in their finest, they stood to row us using the typical leg/shoulder technique. When we got to their village, there was much hooting and hollering as they called to their many friends to come out and have a look at us. We were invited in (but declined)! We visited a monastery and the just-married couple who were sponsoring lunch for the monks that day noticed us and invited us to their family wedding lunch at a nearby restaurant (again, we declined). Everyone was extremely friendly.
Q: What was your most memorable experience?
Sara: There were more memorable moments than any previous trip; I have 1500 “keeper” photos to remind me of this one. (Unlike many other areas we have visited, it was quite easy to take pictures with no other tourists in them.) Overall, the images of visible spirituality of the Burmese people, from the very young to the very old, will remain with me. There were moments of incredible peace, like when viewing the reflection of temples in a lake at Bagan, along with moments of sudden surprise, as when turning a corner and seeing a mountainside literally covered with temples and pagodas. We saw never-to-be forgotten sunsets in never-to-be forgotten settings. And I will not soon forget the crunchy tastiness of the best peanuts I have ever eaten in my life.
Bob: My most memorable experience was joining the celebration of a boy just entering the monk life. The 3 of us plus our guide were invited in, sat on the floor and shared food among the friends and family, talked to the head monk of the event (who had a degree from a US university).
Q: How would you describe the variety of experiences during your trip?
Sara: Classic Journeys has done a great job of putting together a combination of experiences that work well together. We spent about the right amount of time in each area. We chose this trip over another because it doesn’t spend too much time on the water. There is a lot to be seen and experienced on land in Myanmar; it’s not a day trip.
Our guide Jimmy was outstanding. He was knowledgeable and perceptive, not a common mix in a guide. He had taught some of the other guides, and we noticed how much they all respected him and wanted to brag to us that he had been their teacher.
Bob: I thought the variety of experiences, and the time devoted to each, was perfect. There are a lot of temples and pagodas in Myanmar, but I never got that “oh no, not another pagoda” feeling; they were mixed in among markets, street walks, boat rides, visits to cigar makers and textile weavers, horse cart rides, museum stops, and more.
Our guide Jimmy was something of a dean among the guides; we ran into a number of other guides he had mentored or taught. He spoke good English, was knowledgeable about the sites and mindful of the interests of our 3-person group. Probably the best guide we have had in several Classic Journeys trips.
Q: What would you want someone that is thinking about traveling to Myanmar to know?
Sara: Now is the time to go, before Myanmar gets overwhelmed by traditional tourism, and Classic Journeys is the company to go with. Classic Journeys made the trip as easy and as comfortable—and, most importantly, as interesting—as possible. We loved it! I almost wish we hadn’t yet been because I’d like to have that first-time experience all over again. When I think about my trip to Myanmar, the smile is still on my face.
Bob: The people (at all levels) speak a remarkable amount of English, as a legacy of British rule. It’s far easier to communicate in Myanmar than elsewhere in southeast Asia.
The bottom line: if you are thinking about going to Myanmar, go soon.