Sandra is a veteran of group travel with Inside Asia Tours, and has just returned from our Beautiful Burma Small Group Tour with our wonderful tour leader, Tara. Here are a few of her most memorable moments from the trip…
Burma was a country that I knew little about and had never thought of visiting until two years ago, whilst enjoying an Inside Asia group tour in Vietnam and Cambodia. Enticed into discovering the beauty of Burma (Myanmar), our group met up again in 2015 – anticipating a tour full of exciting places, good food and accommodation, fun-filled activities and beautiful landscapes. We were not disappointed. Far from it!
Burma today reminds me of Bali when I first visited 35 years ago – minus the distinctive smells emanating from open drains and the break-neck escalation of the tourist industry.
A bumpy ride in Kalaw
We visited many beautiful gilded Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout our tour, never tiring of taking photographs of the unique architecture and beautiful vistas – except perhaps when walking barefoot up 777 steps to the monastery on Mount Popa. When one of us (me) did feel weary from a leisurely 3-4 hour hike through the beautiful hills of Kalaw, help was at hand! Our tour leader, Tara, managed to magically conjure up transport to take two of us to the local village. I imagine that the sight of me and my travelling companion in the back of a truck that looked like it had survived WWII was quite hilarious.
The truck dropped us off just outside the local Palaung village – the right one, we hoped. We hadn’t a clue where we were, but luckily, two local boys kindly escorted us into the village, showing us to a dark longhouse for tea and potato chips (crisps if you’re in the UK). Not quite the café or teahouse I had envisaged, but the freshly picked, village-grown tea was refreshing and worth the trek and a bumpy ride.
What a relief when eventually the remaining travel companions arrived – we were in the right village after all! As we left, three of us took up the offer of a ride back to the bus. I was sadly mistaken thinking that it would be in a truck. Tara had negotiated three smelly motorbikes driven by three local men flashing broad red stained lips and teeth from chewing betel nut. The bikes looked as if they too were relics from WWII. My two companions thoroughly enjoyed the motorbike ride, but for me it wasn’t a pleasant experience bumping along potholed dirt tracks through forest and farmlands. I kept my eyes shut most of the way. Maybe I should have chewed some betel nut as I hear it’s good for stress reduction!
Floating over Bagan
A few days earlier, we enjoyed a much more leisurely form of transport: hot air balloon. Drifting slowly and peacefully over the many unique temples and stupas below, with the Irrawaddy River and mountains in the distance, was amazing. This unique experience I would willingly do again. By all accounts, we all thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Bagan – and by the time we left I think we had depleted it of all its locally made lacquerware and crafts!
Walking with elephants
The Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp (Magwe Village Kalaw), a retirement camp for logging elephants that we visited on our way to Inle Lake, was one of the many highlights of our tour. After being greeted with a refreshing drink and an informative talk about the history of elephants in Burma, we took a short walk to the river to feed and bathe those magnificent animals in a beautiful, tranquil setting.
Out on the water
I was particularly looking forward to our stay at Inle Lake, and my expectations were more than met. On the first morning of our stay, a few of us had chosen to get up early to experience a sunrise boat trip in a traditional longtail vessel. Although the sunrise wasn’t spectacular, it was well worth the ride to explore the waterways, passing local people taking fresh produce to market.
Inle is famous for its Intha leg-rowing fishermen, some of whom posed for us out on the lake whilst our local guide explained their distinctive technique, and there was plenty else to look at on the water. In just one morning we passed villages of stilted houses along the shoreline, visited the local pagoda, watched boats being built by hand, and returned to our accommodation past fishing boats and floating gardens.
The next day saw our group venture out once more on the lake, setting off early for Sagar in the south – minus the two of us who opted for the truck ride in Kalaw! Although I missed out on seeing some spectacular sights and visiting local villages, my ‘local truck travelling’ friend and I had a very relaxing time enjoying the spa and getting a pedicure treatment, so I have no regrets.
The grand finale
Leaving Inle Lake for Yangon, we realised that our trip was coming to an end. I knew that as a city, Yangon would be in total contrast to the beautiful Shan hills and the peaceful atmosphere of Inle Lake – but even I was not prepared for the length of time it took us to travel the mere 16km from the airport to our hotel. It took forever for the poor bus driver to negotiate his way through the chaotic gridlock that we found ourselves in. Road rules were non-existent. The driver deserved a medal for getting us to the hotel all in one piece!
Once we entered our hotel, the Chatrium opposite Kandawgyi Lake, all was quickly forgotten and forgiven. We had time to freshen up and relax for a while before we headed out to the spectacularly beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda, decked out in its gold leaf and diamonds. Watching the sun set on the top of the stupas was stunning – this was one pagoda I didn’t mind taking my shoes off for. Even a little bit of rain couldn’t dampen the atmosphere of this amazing place.
Having travelled to Vietnam, Cambodia and Burma with Inside Asia Tours, I am now looking forward to my next adventure – hopefully with the wonderful group that I enjoyed my time with in both Burma and Indochina. Thank you Tara for being such a wonderful guide, and Tyler for enticing us to visit Burma. We were not disappointed.
If you are interested in joining our Beautiful Burma Small Group Tour, don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our Burma experts to find out more. Many thanks to Sandra for sharing her experiences, and look out for more blog posts from her tour companions in the coming weeks!