World-apart wonders await in time-warped Myanmar. Formerly known as Burma, this ancient, almost-forgotten corner of Southeast Asia boasts a mind-boggling concentration of Buddhist pagodas and monasteries overrun with maroon-robed monks; off-the-grid artisanal villages still navigated by ox- and horse-cart; and a genuinely warm and welcoming people who have remained largely uncorrupted by mass tourism and fervent capitalism—for now.
As the country fast emerges from the stranglehold grip of a long-repressive ruling military regime, and starts on a promising path to democracy, Myanmar is the "it" spot du jour, attracting everybody from democracy pushers (including President Obama, who stopped over in November) to aspiring capitalists wanting a piece of the pie, to travelers eager to take on new ground.
But as Myanmar shoots to the top of "where-to-go-now" travel lists, the country is changing, and quickly. With its blink-and-you-might-miss-something dynamic, the services of a quality on-the-ground tour provider are indispensable, with local agents who can help travelers navigate a country that’s very much a work in progress.
During my two-week visit to Myanmar last month, I set out to sample the services of two long-established, high-end tour providers in the country, including Asia Transpacific Journeys and Abercrombie & Kent. Here's how their travel services stacked up.
Asia Transpacific Journeys
The Company: Based in the US, Asia Transpacific Journeys specializes in Asian and South Pacific travel and has been organizing high-end customized and small group tours to Myanmar since 1990. The company, which partners with local travel providers in the country, models its tours around expert guides with itineraries anchored on cultural immersion and environmental responsibility—a formula that’s proved successful enough to draw clientele from Harvard and Yale alumni associations and institutions like the American Museum of Natural History.
The Guide: Bagan native Lin Htike was by far the best guide we encountered in the country, owing to his Hong Kong-based higher education, flawless command of the English language, insightful commentary, and witty personal anecdotes. (What a shame for future visitors that he’s retiring from guiding—to run for parliament!).
The Itinerary: After a late-night international arrival in the timeworn colonial city of Yangon, seamlessly coordinated ground transfers, a restful night’s sleep at the historic The Strand (in business since 1901), and an early-morning flight north, I was ready for two days of exploring the ancient Burmese capital at Bagan in very capable hands.
Bagan’s awe-inspiring archaeological site bursts with some 2,000 Buddhist pagodas set along the shores of the Ayeyarwady River. We visited a handful of them, including the massive golden stupa at the Shwezigon Pagoda and the 12th-century Nan Phaya, with its stone carvings, and took in spellbinding bird’s-eye views of the pagoda-pocked landscape from a misty sunrise hot-air balloon ride and from the sunset-primed terraces of the Shwesandaw Pagoda.
ATJ’s local connections were evident: Our popular guide was received like the local mayor; we had a table magically appear for us at a fully booked restaurant, and secured a coveted spot on a hot-air balloon ride, even though they normally book up months in advance. After mentioning we’d enjoy encounters with the locals, our guide brought us to the little-visited 1,000-year-old village of Phwasaw, where we were invited into residents’ homes and workshops; he also brought my beau out for a night of drinking with the Burmese boys, fueled by whiskey and local folk songs.
ATJ arranged lodging at the well-situated Aureum Palace Bagan, a sprawling 114-room property spread out over 27 acre on the fringes of the archaeological park, with an open-air teak-pillared lobby, infinity pool, and garden villas overlooking a stupa-speckled lakeside landscape.
Book It: Most ATJ travelers opt for private, customized journeys. Small group trips combining country highlights with off-the-path surprise are also available, like their signature 13-day Burma: Land of the Golden Pagoda (from $6,595/person).
Abercrombie & Kent
The Company: For 50 years, Abercrombie & Kent has been leading luxury tours to remote worldwide locales, with trusted high-end tour products that have attracted clients like Barbara Walters, Oprah Winfrey, and Bill Gates. For the last 15 years, the company has operated in Myanmar, with local offices in Yangon and Bagan that are helmed by fulltime A & K staffers.
The Guide: Charming and knowledgeable, Nunu Aung, an Inle Lake-area native from Taunggyi, has been guiding for 10 years, managing to parlay a degree in physics and her self-taught English, Chinese, and French language skills into a well-suited career.
The Itinerary: After a transfer from Bagan to Inle Lake on a busy national holiday, a mix-up left us assigned to a subpar freelance guide that A & K hadn’t regularly worked with. After a call to the A & K office in Yangon, however, a new guide was assigned for the next day of touring, which proved a more than suitable replacement.
Inle Lake is a veritable water wonderland, rimmed by bamboo-forested mountains and aquatic gardens, bustling local markets and handicraft workshops, "floating" stilted villages and wooden monasteries and temples, and local Intha fishermen—all of which was comfortably navigated by A & K’s designated motorized longtail boat. Nunu whisked us about to morning markets and assorted artisan’s workshops—silver makers, weavers, blacksmiths, umbrella makers, cheroot rollers—unobtrusively pointing out fine details that we would have missed otherwise. She also led us to memorable encounters with a conservation center for Burmese cats, and through bamboo groves to the Shwe Inn Thein site, a charmingly unrestored collection of ancient stupas.
A & K arranged a stay at the top-rate Aureum Palace Hotel Inle, with 65 spacious villas, restaurant, and swimming pool, all poised for sensational lakefront sunsets.
Book It: Travel independently on private, customized itineraries, or, book small group trips like the 11-day Myanmar's Burmese Heritage (from $6,495/person).
To explore more travel possibilities, check out Fodor's Myanmar Travel Guide.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard has set out circumnavigating the globe on an ambitious 14-month adventure. Tag along on her travels through Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America—and on the high seas in between—as she reports back to Fodors.com on captivating cruises, hot hotels, and timely travel trends.
Photo Credit: John Garay