BUR MESE DAYS

Tourism to Myan­mar is up and the 21st cen­tury has barely in­truded. There are ma­jes­tic rivers, thou­sands of tem­ples and Bud­dhism is still a way of life. It will be quite un­like any land you know about...

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - The Escape -

Min­gal­abar’ –‘Hello’ in Burmese – starts the wel­come let­ter slot­ted into the vin­tage type­writer in our bed­room. We’re at the Yan­gon Ex­cel­sior – Yan­gon’s new­est tip-top ho­tel and a witty, con­tem­po­rary rein­car­na­tion of an his­toric build­ing: for­merly the HQ of colo­nial trad­ing com­pany, Steel Brothers. Min­gal­abar. It’s a word we’re soon us­ing with ladies with thanaka (wood-based make-up) painted on their faces, with gemol­o­gists sell­ing us world-class sap­phires, and with smil­ing novice monks in betel­nut robes; the every­day folk in this mag­i­cal land. We’re in Myan­mar on a 21-day be­spoke fam­ily trip. A va­ca­tion that sees us hik­ing among re­mote, stupa-topped hills; bump­ing along red­mud tracks in ox carts to visit an­i­mist shrines; and trav­el­ling in lo­cal tuk-tuks to eat snake gourd curry in vil­lage stilt-houses. Not to men­tion clop­ping along in a horse-drawn car­riage to the an­cient im­pe­rial cap­i­tal of Ava; and tak­ing a his­toric train ride in ‘up­per class’ over the dizzy­ingly high (318 feet) Gok­teik Viaduct.

One of the high­points is Yan­gon, the coun­try’s erst­while cap­i­tal. It’s a place where we kneel be­fore saf­fron-robed monks at the Sh­wedagon Pagoda for a tra­di­tional bless­ing cer­e­mony; en­joy an ex­clu­sive tour of the 400,000 square foot Sec­re­tar­iat (it’s be­ing turned into a mu­seum), just opened after be­ing closed since the six­ties and where Gen­eral Aung San and his six col­leagues were gunned down; and then gos­sip roy­ally in a pri­vate meet­ing with the great grand­son of King Thibaw, the last King of Burma, in his home.

It’s also where we visit old gem-trad­ing fam­i­lies with a lo­cal gem­mol­o­gist, to select from pi­geon-blood red ru­bies and sparkling sap­phires: the best on earth and from just Dhs185 to Dhs184,000. We then then savour fine Eu­ro­pean-meets-Asian din­ing – think seared scal­lops on green mango salad – in just-opened Seeds: an up­lift­ing bam­boo and glass lake­side restau­rant from Swiss chef Felix Ep­pisser who bagged a Miche­lin star at his eaterie in Switzer­land.

What are the other high­lights of the trip? Our cruise down the Aye­yarwady – vis­it­ing the pot­tery vil­lage of Yand­abo, its gates guarded by two 300-pound live sows – and wak­ing up to a dawn of golden stu­pas glit­ter­ing on the shore. And our moon­light and can­dlelit visit to Ba­gan – the 9th to 13th-cen­tury cap­i­tal of the Pa­gan king­dom – to see its de­serted stu­pas, whilst eat­ing tem­ple foods like ‘mum­mies and dad­dies’ (quails’ eggs in bat­ter) off a tra­di­tional lac­quer dish, the sound of tin­kling pagoda bells and monks chant­ing in the air. Plus our 15-mile cy­cling tour of vil­lages near Ba­gan: tak­ing in 11th-cen­tury tem­ples, mar­kets, and smil­ing women with tamarind-tat­toos on their faces.

An­other must-see is the colo­nial hill sta­tion of Pyin Oo Lwin with its kestrel-red man­sions and tur­reted colo­nial piles. And Kalaw where army of­fi­cers play golf on a man­i­cured course midst a town of half­tim­bered ar­chi­tec­ture – in­clud­ing the 1903-built Her­itage Ho­tel with its hunt­ing tro­phies on the wall. We also love the nearby Green Hill Val­ley’s ele­phant sanc­tu­ary where we bathe with the ele­phants – wash­ing them with aca­cia bark (nat­u­ral sham­poo) be­fore they’re set free to roam at night – and the ele­phant apothe­cary and its vet who pre­scribes ‘fre­quent mud-wal­low­ing and dust baths’ for his pa­tients.

An­other favourite des­ti­na­tion is far-flung Pekon Lake, which is two hours from Inle Lake in a long­tail boat over sub­merged paddy fields, pass­ing Samkar’s 18th-cen­tury stupa com­plexes. Here we stay in the new Inle Sanc­tu­ary bou­tique ho­tel, which boasts just six rooms set on stilts on a pier above the wa­ter in a beau­ti­ful, re­mote spot. Next morn­ing we open our sleepy eyes to par­adise: sun­light-dap­pled wa­ter, ‘leg row­ers’ (men guid­ing their boat with one leg) and fish­er­men wear­ing con­i­cal hats float­ing gen­tly past our win­dow.

There are so many spe­cial mo­ments. Ev­ery­one in longyis (sarong-style gar­ments) wel­com­ing us with end­less smiles and cups of green tea suf­fused with sesame and the mar­kets with mounds of mus­tard leaves, tamarind paste can­dies and turmeric. Oh yes, and the wa­ter buf­fa­los and egrets along­side the chil­dren wav­ing from the river­banks. And the young men play­ing chin­lone (feet only vol­ley­ball) with a cane ball. There’s lit­tle to add but: Pyan Lar Ke` Par Me`. It trans­lates as: We’ll be back. And sooner than last time.

Dham­mayangyi Tem­ple is the largest of the four Ba­gen tem­ples. Above: A long-necked woman

The façade of the Sanc­tum Inle Re­sort

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