Myanmar was isolated from the rest of the world for nearly half a century. When I first visited the country in the 1980s, tourists could obtain a visa for a maximum of seven days, and tour groups were shadowed, fairly blatantly, by the secret police. A paranoid military junta governed the country from 1962 until 2011, when strongman Gen. Than Shwe finally stepped down in favor of a milder-mannered former general, Thein Sein, to clear a path to some form of civilian government.
The Changing Face of Myanmar
By Andrew Harper
The Hideaway Report | April 1, 2016
At the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi duly won a second electoral landslide. (The first was in 1990, when the military simply ignored the result.) At the time of writing, a full political settlement has yet to be agreed, but many sanctions have been lifted, overseas investors are straining at the leash, and President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have included Myanmar on travel itineraries. The number of visitors from the United States is increasing rapidly.
Of course, the experience of a land frozen in amber is a big part of Myanmar’s appeal. Yangon bears little resemblance to modern Asian cities like Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong. The old colonial heart, with grand brick buildings, remains largely untouched and gently decaying. True, the streets are choked with traffic — most import restrictions on vehicles having been lifted — but much of the city’s skyline has changed little since the end of World War II, and the most prominent landmark remains the golden spire of the Shwedagon, a Buddhist pagoda that is a focus for both national identity and Buddhist devotion.
A country that has remained substantially unchanged since the 1960s may be romantic, but there are obvious downsides: roads, trains and airplanes can be inefficient, and hotels may lack contemporary comforts. The purpose of my recent trip was to see whether Myanmar’s changing economic and political circumstances have resulted in improved logistics and expanded opportunities for American travelers. In recent years, most Harper subscribers have journeyed through Myanmar aboard a boat on the Ayeyarwady River. Were there now, I wondered, new hotels and resorts that I could also recommend with confidence?
The Strand, Yangon
My journey began at an old haunt, The Strand, a 31-suite, colonial-era hotel, built in 1901. The Strand reopened in 1993 after a complete renovation and has since found favor with diplomats and businesspeople, as well as leisure travelers nostalgic for the Burma of Kipling. The atrium lobby, with its columns, rattan furniture, ceiling fans, inlaid marble floors and potted ferns, is extremely atmospheric. And the adjoining Strand Bar, with teak panels, brass fixtures and billiards table, remains one of the city’s most popular meeting places, a favorite of expatriates, especially during happy hour on Friday evenings. (The famous house cocktail, the “Strand Sour,” is a concoction of Mandalay rum, lime and bitters.)
After a friendly check-in, we were escorted upstairs and introduced to our personal butler, who explained the facilities of our 700-square-foot Executive Suite. Its décor proved to be relatively austere, with cream walls, a polished teak floor, teak headboard, white cotton duvet and framed floral prints. Tall windows looked across a quiet street to a sidewall of the Australian Embassy. Modernity had arrived in the form of air-conditioning, slow Wi-Fi, an adequate cell phone connection and an iPhone dock. The marble bath was sufficiently spacious, with two sinks and a walk-in shower, but the lighting was subdued, while the water that initially flowed into the tub was a sinister shade of brown. (It ran clear after a while.)
Overall, we were comfortable and content. True, we noticed one or two signs of peeling paint — I have learned recently that The Strand will close from May to November this year for refurbishment — and the housekeeping staff had an annoying habit of leaving open the door to their storage cupboard, treating us to a view of cleaning products, but in general the atmosphere was calm and dignified.
The Strand has been restored rather than converted, so there is no pool, no gym and only a small Spa Suite. Aside from nostalgic appeal, the hotel’s chief merit is its location at the colonial heart of the city. However, it is important to understand that the setting is uncompromisingly urban. There are no gardens to provide a buffer between the hotel and the city; the view of the Yangon River is blocked by warehouses lining the waterfront, and the property faces a multi-lane highway.
The Strand 90
Atmospheric public areas; obliging staff; convenient location for sightseeing in the colonial district.
Our poorly lit bath; proximity to busy Strand Road.
Good to Know
Yangon’s best-known restaurant, Monsoon — for Burmese and Southeast Asian cuisine — is a short walk away.
Rates: Superior Suite, $400; Deluxe Suite, $450.
Address: 92 Strand Road, Yangon.
Telephone: (95) 1-243-377.
Belmond Governor’s Residence, Yangon
Three miles to the northwest, in the green and tranquil Embassy District, the Belmond Governor’s Residence provides a complete contrast. Its main building is a 1920s teak mansion with a wraparound porch, surrounded by gardens and accessible by a covered walkway across a lotus pond. The hotel is a refuge from the city, a place to recuperate from a long flight or to unwind at the end of a demanding tour. Ceiling fans whir in shadowy lounges and the peace is disturbed only by an occasional splash as guests take a dip in the lovely fan-shaped pool.
The 49 accommodations occupy four newer buildings, set amid gardens behind the mansion itself. The rooms tend to be rather dark, but all are elegantly furnished in a traditional style and come with polished teak floors and expanses of Burmese silk. Well-appointed baths provide twin sinks, walk-in showers and excellent lighting. Even the Wi-Fi works unexpectedly well.
The main Mandalay Restaurant serves Burmese cuisine plus familiar international dishes. Although the quality of the food was high and the staff proved extremely polite and friendly, the service during our stay was exasperatingly slow at times. Otherwise, the hotel’s chief amenity is The Governor’s Oasis spa. There is no gym.
Myanmar is a relatively large country that extends about 1,250 miles from north to south. The easternmost range of the Himalayas forms its northern border with China, while the Myeik Archipelago comprises more than 800 tropical islands along the western coast of the Malay Peninsula. Much of Myanmar is extremely remote and receives few, if any, visitors. This will doubtless change in the coming years, but for now most travelers follow a fairly predictable itinerary. Nearly all the roads are extremely poor, and the main railway line from Yangon to Mandalay is ill maintained and suitable only for the young and adventurous. Until such time as the infrastructure is radically improved, the only practical way to travel around is by plane.
Twenty years ago, Burmese aviation had a notorious reputation for crashes and barely a monsoon season passed without one of the elderly Fokker turboprops operated by the state-run airline disappearing abruptly from radar screens. Happily, there are now several private airlines, with modern ATR 72 turboprops and Airbus A320 jets. Although the equipment is new, air travel still has two principal drawbacks: The planes are usually full (with little room for hand baggage) and there are no Business Class seats.
Belmond Governor’s Residence 93
The gracious colonial main hotel building; atmospheric décor; tranquil atmosphere; romantic gardens.
Some rooms can be dark; excruciatingly slow service in the restaurants.
Good to Know
Room 111 is generally considered the best in the hotel, with windows on two sides and a lovely view over the pool and gardens.
Rates: Deluxe Garden View Room, $600; Junior Suite, $780.
Address: 35 Taw Win Road, Dagon Township, Yangon.
Telephone: (95) 1-229-860.
Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort, Bagan
Our uneventful flight to Bagan lasted 80 minutes, and for much of the way we flew north, parallel to the Ayeyarwady River, the 1,350-mile artery that connects the foothills of the Himalayas to the Andaman Sea. Bagan once had about 200,000 inhabitants and 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas before its destruction in the late 13th century at the hands of the Mongol Kublai Khan. Its wooden structures disappeared, but many of the brick pagodas survived. Today, around 2,200 remain, surrounded by quiet fields.
Three local properties are of a sufficient standard for Harper subscribers. The Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort has well-tended grounds that slope down to the Ayeyarwady, a large open-air swimming pool and a spa. Most of the accommodations do not make the cut. The furnishings are simple and the baths are old-fashioned. However, the eight suites within villas close to the river are worthy of serious consideration. These are spacious and tranquil, with expanses of teak, local artwork and spacious modern baths.
Bagan Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort 87
Atmospheric villa suites; lovely, well-tended grounds.
Regular rooms are sparsely furnished and the baths are small and old-fashioned.
Good to Know
This is the only acceptable hotel in Bagan with a view of the Ayeyarwady River.
Rates: Deluxe River View Room, $320; River View Suite, $560.
Address: Bagan Archaeological Zone, Old Bagan.
Telephone: (95) 6-160-048.
Aureum Palace, Bagan
The most obviously luxurious of Bagan’s hotels is the Aureum Palace. Set amid 27 acres of landscaped gardens within an archaeological preservation zone, it comprises a series of traditional teak buildings, including a spectacular lobby pavilion with a steeply pitched roof, a sizable pool with a backdrop of ancient pagodas, spa facilities and Xanadu serving Asian and Italian cuisine. The Villa accommodations are extremely attractive. The lake-view Jasmine Villas, for example, come with Jacuzzi tubs and private terraces overlooking the serene waters of a small lake. At times the Aureum Palace feels like a property more suited to upscale tour groups than individual travelers, but it is certainly a comfortable and convenient base from which to explore.
Aureum Palace Hotel 87
The grand teak buildings; the backdrop of ancient pagodas.
The lobby, with a prominent ATM, feels more suited to group than individual travel; the hideous observation tower.
Good to Know
The Villas overlooking a small lake are spacious and exceptionally tranquil.
Rates: Deluxe Room, $250; Orchid Villa, $340.
Address: Near Bagan Viewing Tower, Min Nanthu Village, Nyaung Oo Township, Old Bagan.
Telephone: (95) 6-160-0467. Website
Bagan Lodge, Bagan
On this trip I had opted to stay at Bagan Lodge, a property of 82 villa rooms and four suites that opened in late 2013. The property made an uninspiring first impression, thanks to an entrance set surprisingly close to the edge of a dusty road. Once inside, however, things improved dramatically and we discovered a striking open-air lobby, a congenial bar and an attractive restaurant, all overlooking a 65-foot swimming pool. The accommodations are contained within a series of brick bungalows, shaded by stylish tented roofs, which are spread across peaceful and extensive grounds. Pathways meander among flowerbeds bright with tropical flowers. Although Bagan Lodge is quite a sizable resort, it doesn’t feel like it. Indeed, it possesses a hideaway quality that I found instantly appealing.
Our air-conditioned Villa Room had wooden floors, rattan furniture, a sofa and a campaign-style writing desk and chair. The well-appointed bath was sufficiently spacious for a couple to coexist in comfort, with two sinks, a walk-in shower and a soaking tub. French doors opened onto a veranda with two loungers. Although this lacked privacy, it proved to be a pleasant place to relax with a book, lulled by the trickle of a nearby fountain. We didn’t bother to watch television, but we did check email and the Wi-Fi worked without a hitch.
During our stay we enjoyed well-prepared Asian food, served by consistently friendly and obliging staff, and one afternoon we spent a pleasant interlude in the spa. If you are likely to prefer a full-service resort with imposing architecture and memorable setting, opt for the Aureum Palace. On the other hand, if a peaceful, low-key boutique property sounds more appealing, Bagan Lodge should be your choice.
The one activity at Bagan that everyone tells you not to miss is the dawn flight by hot air balloon, so we duly rose at 5 a.m. and made our way through the blackness to the waiting bus. Alas, although the sky was clear, the winds at altitude were too strong for safety and air traffic controllers forbade us to take off. The local company Balloons Over Bagan is run by an expatriate Australian and enjoys a strong reputation and a flawless safety record.
We did manage to explore the archaeological preservation zone by car and on foot. (If you are feeling energetic, you may wish to rent bicycles.) A knowledgeable private guide is crucial for this, as there are dozens of major monuments, many of them linked only by dusty tracks. Given the increasing number of visitors, it is advisable to stipulate that you prefer to see quieter, more remote pagodas, and to visit the best-known ones outside of the peak times, which are just after dawn and before sunset.
Bagan Lodge 87
The peaceful gardens and hideaway atmosphere.
The swimming pool is too close to the main restaurant.
Good to Know
The unattractive entrance, close to a dusty road, is not typical of the property as a whole.
Rates: Villa Room, $275.
Address: Myat Lay Road, Nyaung Oo Township, New Bagan.
Telephone: (95) 6-165-456. Website
Hotel by the Red Canal, Mandalay
Riverboats generally take five days to sail upriver from Bagan to Mandalay, but the flight lasts just 25 minutes. Mandalay is Myanmar’s second city, with a population of about 1.3 million. In the 19th century it was the seat of the last rulers of independent Burma, King Mindon and King Thibaw. Alas, their great palace, enclosed by walls 1.2 miles on each side and with a moat 210 feet wide, was destroyed by bombing during World War II. Almost none of the original structures survived and the site is like a vast empty square at the heart of the city. Although Mandalay itself is a sprawling and dusty place, it stands amid the remnants of four royal capitals spanning 500 years of Burmese history. And despite being a commercial center, with strong links to the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, it is also a center of Buddhist studies, with numerous monasteries and pagodas scattered across Mandalay Hill and nearby Sagaing Hill on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady.
In an attempt to find a hideaway hotel of some kind, I had chosen to stay initially at Hotel by the Red Canal, a 25-room property close to Mandalay Palace. Unfortunately, it did not live up to expectations. Although the public areas are quite attractive, with expanses of natural wood and local artwork, our rooms and bath were both too small for comfort; the Wi-Fi was painfully slow and unreliable; and the restaurant served almost exclusively Indian cuisine. The staff were friendly and the gardens were pretty, but the kidney-shaped pool was cramped. In addition, the surrounding area struck me as scruffy and unappealing.
Hotel by the Red Canal 86
Pretty gardens and friendly staff.
Small rooms and baths; the restaurant serves chiefly Indian food; scruffy surrounding area.
Good to Know
The best rooms are those on the first floor, with outdoor areas overlooking a small water garden.
Rates: Shan Room, $280; Chin Room, $300.
Address: No. 417, corner of 63rd and 22nd streets, Myae Tha Zan Township, Mandalay.
Telephone: (95) 2-611-77. Website
Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel, Mandalay
An alternative is provided by the 206-room Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel. Although this is a large, eight-story property, popular with businesspeople as well as tourists, it has much to recommend it, not least its proximity to the Buddhist sites of Mandalay Hill and spectacular views of monasteries and pagodas from the higher floors. On arrival, we were impressed both by the dramatic lobby with its massive gilded columns and the charm and efficiency of the reception staff. After check-in, we were taken on a tour. At the rear of the main hotel building are extensive grounds, including tennis courts, a spa and a splendid swimming pool, surrounded by teak pavilions in imitation of the old palace architecture. We were immediately struck by the feeling of calm and space.
Only the higher categories of rooms and suites should be considered. We had opted for an Executive Suite, with wooden floors, gilded furniture, a richly patterned Chinese carpet, a scarlet sofa and framed embroidery. The separate bedroom had paneled walls and fabrics in muted shades of burgundy and gold. The adjoining bath was modern, spacious and well-appointed, and a small balcony afforded a spectacular view of Mandalay Hill, crowned by the gilded Sataungpyei Temple.
Although the Mandalay Hill Resort is not typical of the hotels that I generally recommend, it provides a good base from which to tour the culturally significant surrounding area.
Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel 89
Elegant Executive Suites; expansive grounds; splendid pool; memorable views of Mandalay Hill.
Uninspiring architecture; the atmosphere of an upscale business hotel.
Good to Know
This property falls into the category of “the best that is currently available.”
Rates: Junior Suite, $460; Executive Suite, $550.
Address: 9 Kwin (416.B), 10th Street, at foot of Mandalay Hill, Mandalay.
Telephone: (95) 2-356-38. Website
Malikha Lodge, Putao
Since 1962, parts of northern and eastern Myanmar have been under the effective control of rebel groups and off-limits to the Burmese army, never mind foreign visitors. However, I made one foray off the beaten tourist path into remote Kachin State. Ninety minutes by plane from Mandalay, the town of Putao is within sight of 19,300-foot Hkakabo Razi, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. Commercial airplanes land at Putao only in the dry season from October to April.
The objective of our journey was Malikha Lodge, an eco-resort perched on a forested hillside above the Nam Long River, and designed by Jean-Michel Gathy, an architect who has worked on no fewer than seven Aman resorts. The main lodge building proved to be a large open-plan space, with a steeply pitched roof, a central bar, a fire pit and walls lined with artifacts made by the Lisu and Rawang tribal peoples. A wall of glass doors opened onto an expansive outdoor deck, with a second fire pit, built-in sofas and a spellbinding view upriver toward the mountains. Alas, the day of our arrival was cloudy, so no peaks were visible. (The best months for a visit to Putao are November and February; December and January are usually clear, but the nights are often cold. The monsoon season begins in May.)
Guests at Malikha Lodge are housed within spacious individual cottages, surrounded by private gardens and sheltered by bamboo trees. The interior design is as striking as might be expected from an architect of international renown. Its focal point is a huge teak tub, about four feet in diameter. Nearby is a woodburning stove. A king-size bed, draped with mosquito netting and backed by a headboard covered with ethnic fabrics, takes up one side of the space, while opposite are two wooden sinks and a walk-in shower. Outside we discovered a peaceful terrace with a daybed, plus a small private pavilion overlooking the river. Aesthetically, our cottage was a triumph. In practice, it had drawbacks. The spectacular tub was so large that the hot water ran out when it was only half full, and the stove was woefully inadequate to heat the cottage on a chilly January night.
Other aspects of the resort were more satisfactory. The Burmese set menu for dinner was excellent. On our first evening we enjoyed an extensive variety of soups, curries and salads, all accompanied by Burmese red wine — a shiraz-tempranillo from the Red Mountain Estate in the eastern Shan State — which proved unexpectedly good. The staff-to-guest ratio appeared to be at least 3-to-1. Outdoor activities were organized with exemplary professionalism by two expatriate Nepalis.
Most guests at Malikha Lodge take a gentle rafting trip on the river — the rapids become more demanding as the winter snows begin to melt — and hike through the picturesque countryside. Many disagreeable aspects of the modern world have yet to reach Putao, so village compounds are free of plastic garbage and the houses are still constructed chiefly from bamboo. Those inclined to be more adventurous can embark on longer treks, or explore the region by mountain bike.
Overall, we were slightly disappointed by Malikha Lodge, perhaps because our expectations had been too high, and doubtless because the weather was unseasonably chilly and cloudy throughout our stay. For three days we were unable to get a Wi-Fi connection, and on departure we found ourselves obliged to pay with cash as the local technology is too primitive to permit credit card transactions. It is important to realize that this is a remote and stylish mountain lodge, but not a sophisticated eco-resort of an international caliber.
Malikha Lodge 88
Dramatic interior design; exquisite situation overlooking a forested river valley.
Insufficient heating in the cottages for cold winter nights; erratic or nonexistent Wi-Fi.
Good to Know
The snowcapped Himalayas are generally visible from October to March.
Rates: Bungalow Suite for two, $2,500 (all-inclusive).
Address: Mulashidi Village, Putao.
Telephone: (95) 2-356-38.
Ngapali Bay Villas & Spa, Thandwe
One remote region of Myanmar that is certain to see a rapid increase in the number of foreign visitors is the tropical Myeik Archipelago in the far south. For now, however, the best place to relax on the beach is Ngapali, on the country’s west coast, facing the Andaman Sea.
It is an hour’s flight from Yangon to Thandwe. Apparently there are plans to expand the airport to allow international flights and large jets, but for now it is suitable only for turboprop aircraft. As a result the nearby coastline remains unspoiled and the hotels are mostly low-rise and hidden among the palms. The drive to Ngapali Bay Villas & Spa took just 20 minutes, along a quiet road, past small shops, casual restaurants and modest village houses.
The resort was designed by British architect David Wordsworth and Burmese interior designer U Kyaw Sein. They did a remarkable job. Our self-contained villa was exceptionally spacious, elegant and comfortable, with a 20-foot ceiling, magnificent wooden floors and stylish teak furniture, including a huge, irresistible daybed. Contemporary Burmese paintings and traditional Buddhist sculptures helped to create a strong sense of place. One wall was almost entirely glass, and huge windows granted views of a long beach of pale golden sand. The enormous adjoining bath was appointed with twin copper sinks, a walk-in shower and a huge teak tub. The only discordant note was the outdoor shower, which for some extraordinary reason contained a protruding air-conditioning unit. Some villas have private pools; ours did not, but we scarcely felt deprived, not least because the warm, clear sea was just steps away. (The main hotel pool is pretty, but poorly situated amid vegetation and hence lacking a view of the ocean.) Even the Wi-Fi functioned without a hitch.
A short walk away, the Tamarind restaurant has a glorious outdoor terrace, where we would sit for hours, gazing at the glinting water or contemplating a stroll down the beach to a small market. As might be expected, the menu specializes in seafood. The other chief amenity at the resort is the Frangipani Spa.
Myanmar is obviously at a time of transition and the future is hard to discern. I suspect that Ngapali’s days as a refuge from the world may be numbered, and Bagan will soon be overrun with visitors, much like Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But new destinations and resorts will emerge, because Myanmar’s potential is immense. For now, the best hotels tend to be comfortable rather than exceptional, and I strongly recommend that any itinerary should still find space for a riverboat trip on the Ayeyarwady. I left Myanmar with my affection for its inhabitants increased. Few countries possess such attractive, easy-going and hospitable people. We can only hope that the miseries and frustrations of military rule are finally over.
Ngapali Bay Villas & Spa 92
Exceptionally spacious and stylish accommodations; the magnificent beach; the tranquil atmosphere.
The main swimming pool is poorly situated and lacks a view of the sea.
Good to Know
Boat trips take guests to offshore islands for secluded beaches and superior snorkeling. The hotel has been waging a battle against Jet Skis, so far successfully.
Rates: Deluxe Sea View Villa, $350; Deluxe Beachfront Villa, $420.
Address: Myapyin Village, Ngapali, Thandwe.
Telephone: (95) 4-342-301.