Having arrived in Burma, it took a while for Georgie to get an internet connection...
Here's the first update, and likely to be the last given the apparent speed and difficulty!
Everything is fantastic here!
Having landed at Yangon airport, the personality of the nation struck me - the passport control people were so friendly, and although it took a little while to get through everyone was so helpful. Our guide met us, collected our luggage, and then off in a 40 year old car to our hotel. The Governor's Residence - it is absolutely amazing, everthing seems to be made of teak and it is set in such beautiful tropical gardens. My room is so absolutely beautiful I could live here and the staff are just so amazing, friendly and helpful. On the first night a great G&T was a must and it didn't disappoint, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a good selection of French, Argentinian and Chilean wines served at pretty reasonable prices. The food was delicious too, my favourite so far being wonderful seabass, lemongrass and herbs.
Up early the next day and sightseeing, visiting the temples, and pagodas. I did my research before I left but I never realised just how many there are here, and we haven't even left Yangon (Rangoon). Yangon is what you'd imagine - a bustling, busy noisy city where, thankfully, motorbikes and cycles are banned. As an aside, the cars are all Chinese imports, and all second hand, but, here's something we could sensibly adopt - each driver has to resit their driving test every year! One thing unusual - the cars are right hand drive, a colonial hangover from when the Brits were here, but they now drive on the right, so quite challenging.
I visited The Strand Hotel, which overlooks the river. It is very colonial, grand and, despite being on the main road, very quiet inside and a welcoming oasis of calm. We then sampled local life by going on the circular train, which circles Yangon ( Not unlike an M25 on rails!!!) and is the train favoured by all the locals, and their produce, animals and it seems their whole life. Amazing! It stops off randomly at various stations, picking up, and dropping off people who have either been to the markets to sell their produce or to buy. We got off after about an hour, and just walked across the tracks to get to the platform.
Something I was intrigued about was how we would be viewed, given the country has only recently opened up? We found that we were as much of interest to them as they to us, which felt a little odd to start with. We were frequently asked if they could take a photo, where they had a camera, or if not they wanted to be taken with us anyway. And it is clear that, despite extensive travels throughout Asia, the Burmese people are the most friendly, genuine and interesting I have ever met.
Hotels and incentive travel bookings
The rumour is that 2013 is already fully booked, with new hotels being built to accomodate overseas visitors. Strangely, the Brits lag behind, as the most common European visitors are the French, Italians and Germans, plus the Chinese and Koreans. As more hotels are built to a good standard and the word is spread, I expect that to change.
Following Yangon we flew to Bagan, and were taken back in time. It is unbelievably beautiful, just the transfer from the airport to the hotel was idyllic, something you can't say for many places. With hardly a car in sight, a horse or ox and cart are the favoured forms of transport. Arising out of the early morning mist were the majestic pagodas, dating back to the 10th century, and thousands of them, all in varying states of condition, as amongst these ancient buildings there are also newer ones. Amazing, considering this is not a Unesco World Heritage site.
Then onto our hotel, which was set on the banks of the Irrawaddy, a working river where the local barges carry the teak from the northern hills. It is completely unspoilt and rather than hundreds of boats and barges there are just the odd one or two. Bagan is beautiful, and completely undeveloped. It is a destination that has everything to be a hit the world over, I just hope that when the inevitable development happens it keeps its charm and character.
Off to Mandalay
We are now in Mandalay having travelled up the river on the most amazing junk replete with beautiful bedrooms and decks, 20 cabins all in teak, and even a working shower. Needless to say I had to get a funny tummy at some stage..and it was here! Mandalay is a busy trading town, where all the gems and teak are traded and exported. We are leaving tomorrow so we were disappointed to learn that The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, is coming here and we will miss her as she arrives one hour after we leave.
We fly to Inle Lake, which is North again, and even less developed. This is the most magical place I have ever visited, and the people are the gentlest, most polite you could wish to meet, especially the monks and the nuns. As a destination? So far my experience in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay has confirmed my expectation of being suitable for small, adventurous incentive travel groups. They would have a stunning and memorable experience.