Unspoiled Myanmar is Open for Business

The ugly seeds of human rights abuses have finally been supplanted by a new civilian government already moving to increase tourism to this incredibly beautiful land, home to thousands of elegant and ancient temples and pagodas that dot the countryside, shimmering in the misty hilltops and lush valleys.

Bordered by China on the northeast, Laos on the east, Thailand on the southeast, Bangladesh on the west, India to the northwest, and the Bay of Bengal to the southwest, Myanmar is a microcosm of all that is exotic in Asia. Add to that 1,200 miles of uninterrupted coastline along the Andaman Sea and you’ve got a tourism paradise just waiting for discovery.

It’s that potential and growing interest in the country by major tourism entities in the West, that made us select Myanmar as a hot destination for 2012, not the least of which is its tremendous potential for mining the explosive interest in river cruising in Asia with a wealth of opportunities for cruising on its major rivers, the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin, itineraries that take in some of the most awesome landscape in Asia, past lush rice paddies and into quaint, countryside villages. Indeed, countrywide, Myanmar has the greatest variety of scenery in all of Southeast Asia, ranging from Himalayan peaks to tropical beaches.

on the river Pandaw Cruises, with itineraries on the Mekong and in Borneo that have made it familiar to Western travelers, began its operations in Burma back in the British colonial days, deriving plenty of expertise in river cruising since then, with 10 luxury ships operating in four Southeast Asia countries in 2012. But it’s in Myanmar, where they started, that ironically offers the newest appeal to travelers.

What makes river cruising so unique here is the fact that most of the population lives in three great river valleys encircled by impenetrable horseshoes of mountains. River life dominates the country and forms the main system of transportation and in the river valleys themselves, thousands of years of Buddhist art, architecture and archaeology await visitors, including the 3,000 standing monuments at Pagan. According to Pandaw, no other Asian country offers such a vast and varied range of cultural sites, where literally almost everywhere there are temples and monasteries, festivals and ceremonies, with Buddhist activities dominating virtually every aspect of life.

That appeal is starting to show in bookings to Myanmar, explains Tom Markwell, senior v.p., marketing, Pandaw Cruises. “Right now, we are sold out through October of 2012. We have no inventory—that’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem none the less. We’ll have three ships on the water in 2012 in Burma, right now we have one, the Pandaw 2, on the water. In January, we’ll have the Katha Pandaw, and the third vessel, the Orient Pandaw—which is the ship we’ve had in Borneo—she’ll start cruising in September of 2012 and she’ll be on a long-term lease with an Australian tour operator.”

For now, Markwell says, “We’re running two itineraries—a 10-night downstream and a 14-night upstream. We do one or two 20-night itineraries per year but that’s just the exception, so basically 10- and 14-night programs is what we’re running. VantageDeluxe World Travel has all of our 10-night itineraries pretty much consumed through 2013. The 14 nights we’ve been selling to our FIT audience. But like I say, the programs are full, at least until the fourth quarter of 2012.”

The 20-night expeditions are infrequent, Pandaw says, because those cruises take place during the Southeast Asia monsoon season which is the only time there’s sufficient water levels to attempt the remote parts of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers. But for culture lovers, they’ll love the idea of visiting the oldest wooden village houses in Burma, and enjoy spectacular remote communities where the locals are delighted by Western visitors, cultures they don’t get a chance to interact with either because of their remoteness.

The 14-night cruise takes passengers from the city of Prome on the edge of the Delta to Katha and the great 2nd Defile on the Upper Irrawaddy. Daily stops include tours of the historic capitals of Pagan with its 3,000 monuments, and Mandalay with its royal palace and many sites around the city, particularly on the river. The cruise passes through the lush teak forests around Prome, through the near desert of Middle Burma and then into the mountains of Upper Burma. There are also optional stays in Yangon, the capital, along with transfers and flights are offered as an add on to the cruise.