By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
I have just returned from a two week business trip to Asia where I visited China, Singapore and Malaysia. One of the things that struck me most on this trip was the degree to which Asia has leapt into the 21st century over the nearly 50 years since my first visit to the continent in 1970.
Once primitive transportation hubs, pothole-rutted roads, and quaint local guest houses have all given way to glistening state-of-the-art airports, vast ground transport and communications networks, gleaming skyscrapers, cosmopolitan hotels and fashionable shops in almost every major Asian city. Today’s travelers have to look long and hard for vestiges of the continent’s true local history and culture because of urban modernization and the overbuilding of destination resorts targeted to travelers in search of a tropical paradise.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit many of Asia’s premier destinations in the 80’s and 90’s when it was still relatively easy to discern and experience the soul of the destination. One country that I visited on several occasions in the early 90’s was Myanmar, which at the time had just changed its name from Burma, as it was known since it became a unified state in 1057. If experiencing Southeast Asia as it once was is on your future travel agenda, then, I can confidently recommend Myanmar as perhaps Asia’s last natural frontier.
Called the “Golden Land” because of its thousands of gilded pagodas, Myanmar today is similar to what Thailand was like 25 or more years ago. But things are quickly changing. Just five years ago (when a military junta turned power over to a civilian government), less than one million tourists visited the country. By last year that number had escalated to nearly five million. It’s just a matter of time before this once untouched country will be mainstream.
As one of Abercrombie & Kent’s tour brochures described the country: “Myanmar is an intrepid traveler’s dream. This is a land where holy men clad in traditional longyi are revered, thousands of ancient, religious stupas rise out of flat plains and floating-village life ebbs and flows on Inle Lake. For a glimpse of old Indochina, there isn’t a more eye-opening destination than this mysterious country which only began allowing Western travelers into its borders in recent years.”
Boasting an exotic mix of British, Burmese, Chinese and Indian influences, Myanmar is a country that dates back more than 3,500 years. If you go, keep in mind that it is a country that can’t be experienced in a few days’ time. Travel distances are long within the country and the infrastructure is still under development. Plus, it takes time to come to grips with how things work, understanding the people, the culture and political climate.
A land of Buddhist temples
Be prepared to be “Templed Out.” You’ll find a Buddhist temple on almost every corner, or more specifically, a golden stupa, pagoda or pyre. Be sure to visit Yangon’s jewel-encrusted, dazzling Shwedagon Pagoda, which dominates the local skyline much as the Eiffel Tower reigns over Paris. The most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar, Shwedagon was built between the 6th and 10th centuries and is the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world.
Also not to be missed are the thousands of temples spread across the plains of the ancient city of Bagan. With beautiful, golden spires spread out across the horizon, it is an impressive testament to the religious devotion of Myanmar’s people over the centuries. Combined, these temples form one of the richest archeological sites in Asia and provide views unlike anywhere on earth. The most spectacular time to visit the site is at sunrise or at dusk. To get around, you can choose from taxis or walking tours or guided horse and carts. But, the most exotic way is via hot air balloon. Whichever method you pick, prepare to be awe-struck. You’ll be hard-pressed to match the experience.
Consider a river cruise
However wondrous Myanmar’s historic sites are, the country’s big draws are the Burmese people themselves (warm, friendly and generous of spirit) and their country. This means you need to take the time to go beyond the main tourist areas and spend time in Myanmar’s traditional teak villages, teahouses and small-towns. Because Myanmar’s tourism infrastructure is still taking shape, the most comfortable way to explore the country is by a riverboat cruise along the Irrawaddy River, which bisects the country starting in the Himalayan glaciers to the north and emptying out in the Indian Ocean, some 1,300 miles to the south.
Most river tours begin in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, made famous in Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name. Not an ancient city, it was founded in 1857, prior to the British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885. In its time, Mandalay was a splendid, cosmopolitan city. It was largely destroyed in World War II by the intensive bombing of the Axis powers. Today it remains a center of trade with China and India and is home to more than half of all Buddhist monks in the country.
Finding its place in today’s world
Now, Myanmar is in search of its economic and political place in the world. Earlier this month, President Obama terminated the US Burma Sanctions Program. His move responded to the positive changes the country has undergone in the past few years and is intended to “support efforts by the civilian government and the people of Burma to continue their process of political reform and broad-based economic growth and prosperity.”
For their part, Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and President Htin Kyaw have attracted international attention for their busy diplomatic schedules, trying to build Myanmar’s ties with its neighbors with the aim to expand economic, security and political relations. Myanmar may have a long way to go before it finds its sweet spot in today’s world, but geopolitical experts agree that if these two leaders can harness their current momentum, they will move Myanmar one step closer to reaching its goals.
All in all, the beauty of visiting Myanmar today is the understanding that you as a traveler, along with the local people, will be helping bring about a new beginning for the country even as you explore an Asian world that was. So, I urge you to start your Burmese journey by learning to say the two most helpful words in any culture: Hello (ming-gu-la-bah) and Thank You (jay-zu-de-bar-dee). Then, watch the huge smiles that will surely come your way.