Unspoiled Myanmar is Open for Business

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by land There are also land tours to Myanmar and one company that’s been offering programs there for years is SITA World Tours. According to Max Ali, director of operations for SITA, “We’ve been operating tours to Burma for years and they were very popular in the beginning.” But when the military junta came into power along with the bad international press, interest waned, but they still kept a program in place for the niche travelers.

And now, he says, that interest is coming back. “We’re seeing a lot more interest in Burma again,” he says, “especially more recently,” referring to the release of the pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi last year and her recent acknowledgement that it was now time to start encouraging tourism again, something she did not encourage when the junta was in power.

At the same time, since the transition to the new civilian government in August of this year, Burma’s human rights record has been improving—something your clients need to know since those abuses were the main stumbling block to selling the destination. The new government has already assembled a National Human Rights Commission consisting of 15 members from various backgrounds, and several activists in exile have returned to Burma after President Thein Sein’s offer to expatriates to return home to work for national development. And, in a September address to the United Nations Security Council, Burma’s Foreign Minister confirmed the release of hundreds of political prisoners in the near future. At the same time, several banned websites including You Tube, Democratic Voice of Burma and Voice of America have been unblocked.

And while Ali agrees the popularity of river cruising will increase the popularity of travel to Burma, not surprisingly, he says the best way to see the whole of the country is on a land program, citing SITA’s 9-night Golden Myanmar program that kicks off in the country’s capital city of Yangon—formerly Rangoon—where travelers will visit Shwedagon Pagoda, home of the world-famous glittering gold stupa, the National Museum and Bogyoke (Scott) Market for some exotic shopping followed by a special dinner and a cultural show.

The next day they’ll fly off to Bagan, an enchanting city that was home to the ancient Bagan Dynasty on the Irrawaddy River, known as one of the richest archaeological sites in Asia where some 5,000 temples stand in ruins. The following morning, they’ll drive to Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano and abode of Nats (spirits), where they’ll also visit the shrine at where ancient royalty paid homage and enjoy a panoramic view of the Bagan plain before returning to Bagan where travelers can spend an afternoon exploring the fascinating city on hired horse carts or bicycles.

The next day, it’s back on a plane for a flight to Mandalay, seat of the last Burmese monarchy and a center for culture and art. Here, they’ll visit Shwenandaw Monastery noted for exquisite woodcarvings; Kuthodaw Pagoda with the world’s biggest book and the Mandalay Palace built by King Mindon. Next, they’ll enjoy a short drive to nearby Amarapura, an ancient capital, home to the Bugaya Monastery, U Bein’s Bridge and Thabyedan Fort. After lunch, they’ll continue to Ywataung Village, Kaunghmudaw Pagoda and Sagaing Hill and enjoy a veritable treasure trove of Burmese art and architecture.

Finally, it’s a flight to Heho, a short drive from attractive Inle Lake, a region populated by local ethnic groups known as Inthas, where they’ll enjoy a scenic boat excursion that includes floating gardens, a floating market and visits to typical monasteries before flying back to Yangon and a final day of sightseeing. The can’t-miss attractions here are the Kaba Aye (World Peace) Pagoda and Maha Pasana Guha Cave. Later, they’ll visit Chinatown and the lively evening market before flying back home.

So, why Myanmar now? Markwell puts it best when he says, “…the timing has to be right and the perception has to be right—they have to be in the right frame of mind or to believe that it’s the right time to go to Myanmar. I think the sort of gentle changes the government has made in Myanmar recently shows they’re working very hard to change the perception and also to encourage tourism. I just read that they formed an official tourist board where they were kind of loose in the past. So they’re definitely identifying the demand and they’re trying to handle it correctly. And with that, the travelers are seeing that and they’re reading about it so maybe it feels less volatile possibly to them. They’re opening their mind to it. I think Burma has always been on everyone’s plate, you know, ‘Wow, I’d really like to do that,’ but then there’s always been that question of timing.”