12 Tuesday November, 2013
Ampersand's marketing manager, Sacha Smith-Laing and sales consultant, Ellie Boulstridge recently spent 2 and a half weeks exploring Burma. Here are a few helpful hints and tips they picked up along the way...
1. Be aware that your mobile phone (SIM) will not work in Burma. Ampersand can provide you with a local mobile phone on request.
2. Wifi is available in most hotels, even in more remote spots, and it is usually free if you are a guest of the hotel – with a few exceptions. Connection strengths and speeds vary and some hotels don't have wifi in the bedrooms, only in communal areas such as the bar or the lobby. You will be able to use social media like Facebook and twitter, but twitter is less reliable and doesn't always work here.
3. Plugs – sockets vary from hotel to hotel. Generally you will need a plug / adapter with two round prongs; occasionally it will need two flat prongs and sometimes you will need three pronged English-style plugs.
4. Should you call it Burma or Myanmar? Both are fine, but you will find that 95% of local people say Myanmar. However, locals do not appear fazed if you call it Burma, which most Brits do. You will also find that practically everyone uses the new names for local towns and cities: Yangon in place of Rangoon and Pyin Oo Lwin in place of MayMyo.
5. Go off-season! The rain is occasional in September and a welcome relief from the heat. More importantly you will not have throngs of tour groups to contend with and can enjoy the monuments in a more peaceful and spiritual way. It's also cheaper and rooms are available, unlike in peak season when they are fully booked months in advance.
6. Regarding Tip # 5, do be aware that hot air ballooning over Bagan’s temples is only operational in high season from October to February, so if you can't bear to miss out (we don't blame you!) then try to come the first 2 weeks of December, after the November crush and before the Christmas tourists.
7. For a fun and frantic local eatery try Feel Myanmar restaurant in Yangon – ask your guide to help you order as it a bit of a circus with throngs of people choosing their meal from an enormous selection of fresh buffet dishes. The end result is rather like a Burmese thali with a dazzling array of local delights in separate dishes with pickles and seasoning on the side.
8. Have a lunch pit-spot at artisanal foodie restaurant, Sharky’s – a fun and fresh Yangon institution. It's a Westernised but Burmese-owned deli & restaurant with an enthusiastic proprietor, Sharky, who’s often around to chat about his top quality produce. Food is European style but locally sourced – from Burmese cheese, homemade yogurt and ice cream, sausages, cured meats and the piece de resistance, Sharky’s Fois Gras burger (perfect washed down with a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc Malborough).
9. In Yangon, for a charismatic colonial experience brimming with Burmese character book yourself in at the Governor's Residence (do this well in advance – the Governor’s Residence is Burma’s most sought after hotel). Request a room on the top floor; the windows of lower floor rooms overlook the walkways meaning you will want to keep the curtains closed, making these otherwise gorgeous rooms feel a little dark.
10. Try the traditional Burmese breakfast, Mohinga, a sometimes vegetarian sometimes fish based coconut noodle soup with egg, chilli flakes, herbs and "crunchies" (deep fried shallots) for texture. We tried it on our first morning in Burma at the Governor’s Residence and ordered it for breakfast for the rest of our trip!
11. For a special treat or a blow out last meal in Burma book a table at La Planteur, Yangon's most opulent fine-dining restaurant set in a distinguished old colonial villa serving French cuisine. Make sure to sit on the terrace, as the upstairs seating is air-conditioned and not as atmospheric as the garden terrace, which is bathed in soft lighting and shrouded in greenery. Bring an appetite if you opt for the set menu; after two starters and a main course we were given a cheese board and THREE dessert courses!
12. The Strand is one of Yangon’s most fabled hotels and a firm favourite of ours. It’s a splendid spot for your last night’s sleep in Burma as you’ll end on a high, steeped in history. If you don’t stay, do at least drop by. Dinner at The Grill is highly recommended: people-watch and soak up the elegant surroundings of the lobby and have a drink at the Strand Bar (a great place for cocktails on a Friday night) before dining at The Grill with its vaulted ceiling, Burmese lacquer details and neoclassic pillars.
13. Burma’s most famous religious site, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, is no less magical for its fame and popularity. We suggest visiting in the late afternoon to see lots of local people mingling around. Unlike in the west, temples in Burma are a place to spend time with friends and family, relax, eat, socialise and pray. Watching the pagoda's glowing gold colour changing with the setting sun is utterly mesmerising.
14. If you love river cruises, then you have a lot of luxury options and more on the way: RV Paukan already have 3 vessels in Burma (RV Paukan 2012, 2007 and 1947) and they are building 3 more in 2014 with on board swimming pool. The Orient Express has both The Road to Mandalay and the brand new Orcaella, which is offering some interesting and off beat river routes to untouched parts of the country. New luxury ship, Sanctuary Ananda, is also launching at the end of 2014.
15. If you're not hugely into cruising but would like a river cruise experience, we recommend taking a simple sunset cruise along the Bagan plains. Many people do not realise that on some of the long cruises the sights along the river banks do not vary greatly. The stretch downstream from the Shwezigon Pagoda, however, is strewn with temples making for a breathtaking and romantic late afternoon experience – particularly with Bagan’s hundreds of pagodas silhouetted at sunset...
16. As an alternative to Bagan’s horse-and-cart journeys, which can be rather bumpy and only go on roads and designated tracks, we suggest setting off on your own private adventure on horseback across the temple-studded Bagan plains. We had a beautiful two-hour experience riding past countless temples, which we admired all to ourselves with not another tourist in sight. In fact, we rode all the way back to our hotel at sunset. It was magic!
17. One of our favourite hotels in Burma was the homely and beautifully maintained Amara in the cool colonial hill station of Kalaw. Snuggle down in bedrooms with creaky floorboards, real fireplaces and eaved ceilings; relax with a stroll through the colourful garden, which is so much like an English country cottage garden you wonder if you're dreaming! Look out for the owner’s charming golden Labradors.
18. The Green Hill Valley in Kalaw in the Shan State is a conservation project focused on protecting the ecology, elephants and traditions of the local people. You can stop for an afternoon to have a delicious home-cooked lunch, bathe the elephants, hike through the jungle and learn about the conservation efforts of the team. Depending on your itinerary, by the time you reach Kalaw you would most probably have already done Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, so you will be somewhat “templed-out” and getting out in amongst nature at this point is paradise.
19. If you like cats, you’ll love the Inthar Heritage House on Inle Lake. It is a beautiful example of a traditional stilted house and a real-life Shang-ri La for about 50 immaculate Burmese cats – they even have their own “playground island” with cat-sized huts for their snoozing pleasure. And if, like Ellie, you’re less fond of cats, upstairs from the sanctuary is a re-creation of a heritage home with period furniture and an art gallery and restaurant attached.
20. At Inle Lake, ask your boat driver to take you through Pauk Per fishing village – you'll see wonderfully rickety stilted houses and local life playing out, like ladies washing their hair in the lake and kids splashing around; it'll only take a few minutes to go through it by boat and it's not on the tourist trail. N.b. Even if you think it may look silly, ask your guide to provide an umbrella on long sightseeing trips to protect yourself from the sun and don't forget to bring sun cream when taking excursions on the lake – boat journeys are deceptively cool because of the wind so you can easily forget to reapply and end up sun burnt.