Zoe Rees recently returned from the 15-day Best of Burma trip. She sat down and answered a few questions, giving a really good insight into a fascinating place that we still don't know much about.
What made you decide on Burma as a destination?
I love all things South East Asia, and Burma is one country I hadn’t been to. It was always high on my ever growing “list” but I have been mindful of the situation on the ground and was having an inner debate over visiting. When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, followed by her changing her view that responsible tourism should be encouraged and no longer boycotted, I felt it was the right time to go.
What were your expectations going in? Was there anything you were concerned about?
I try not to have expectations when I go somewhere new, I like to go in with an open mind and just go with the flow. I was curious as to how we would be received by the locals, and also a bit concerned about enjoying an interaction and learning about their country without putting them at any risk for discussing certain topics that were being closely monitored.
Do you think a local guide added to the experience?
No one can give the insight to a country any better then someone who lives there. Particularly with a country that has such sensitive issues, and with the local people having to be extremely careful about what they say and who they say it too, it helps to gain a better understanding and a bridge to the local people.
Describe your favourite day in Burma
Our second day in Bagan was my favourite. Throughout Burma, every which way you turn, the stunning golden temples decorate the skyline. In contrast, the stone temples of Bagan reminded me a bit of the Angkor in Cambodia.
I was lucky enough to start the day at the crack of dawn with a bird’s eye view of these temples from a hot air balloon. There are literally thousands of temples and it was a serene experience to float above them. Later in the day we went by horse and cart to get up close to some that we hadn’t seen the day before on our bike ride. It was here that I also had a “back in time” experience with the realisation that bartering was well and truly in existence! The items high in demand were lip balm, mascara, perfume and nail polish. Any one of those items could secure your item of choice from their table of carvings, masks and paintings.
What was the one story you were most excited to race home and share with friends?
People are always a big part of my holiday experience – learning about and observing them as they go about their daily lives. Meeting the Burmese reminded me of meeting a puppy for the first time – they watch you with curiosity; take a few steps towards you, waiting for some kind of signal from you that it’s ok. And as soon as they get that, they bound forward eager and excited.
On one day in particular, early on in our trip when the announcement was made that more then 600 of the political prisoners had been released, the local people couldn’t wait to rush up and tell us the news. They joy and recognition that change was really here and good things were starting to happen, was something really special to witness.
Tell us about the food…
Burmese food is a combination of Chinese, Indian and Thai influences. As with a lot of South East Asia the fresh fruit – mangosteens and rambutans are particular favourites. Being vegetarian I was pleased to see a range of salads (thoke) which are noodles with varying garnishes.
What is it that you enjoy about travelling with a small group?
Being able to blend in and get a better interaction with the locals. You are also less intimidating as a small group. It really stood out when at some sights we would spread out and be very inconspicuous as opposed to the larger travel groups. I remember one day on a long drive we stopped to look at some workers in the rice paddies. We hopped out to stretch our legs and wander around. I was talking to a young girl who was helping her family out on her day off from school. She was telling me all about the different products and her family. I stopped to look around at the rest my group, spread out around the fields, some talking to the men and their machines (cow!) others watching and talking to the women planting, some off to the side just soaking up the scene. Very unobtrusive and part of the scenery. Suddenly a large coach of 30-40 pulled up to see why our minivan had stopped, and they thundered down the banks, across the crops and stood in a very imposing large group shoving their cameras into the faces of the locals.
If anyone is thinking about going to Burma, what would your advice be?
Go and go quickly! You also need to remember they are an extremely new country to tourism and to have an open mind and lots of patience.
Got any packing tips or advice for travellers?
Ear plus if you are going on any of the trains! Take lots of cash in new crisp USD dollar bills – large denominations. Ensure you get your visa prior to going and book well in advance.
Describe Burma in 5 words…
Charming, Friendly, Temples, Smiles, New, Mingalarbar!
Sound good? If you want to see Burma in style, we have a very special Platinum Burma departure leaving on 14 October. The price is $4159 and includes the 14-day tour, local flights and return transfers. The price is based on twin share but a single supplement is available on application. The maximum number of places on this trip si 14, so be quick!
For more information email Zoe Rees in Private Groups on firstname.lastname@example.org.