A longstanding ‘no go’ zone on account of its complex political history, Burma has recently begun to emerge from the shadows of a brutal dictatorship to become one of the most appealing (if controversial) travel destinations in Southeast Asia. Since the release of famed human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi, tourists and journalists alike have flocked to experience its crumbling colonial architecture, deserted beaches and golden-domed pagodas. Hong Kong-based British floral designer Gemma Hayden Blest shares memories, tips and phenomenal photos from her recent trip.
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Ever since I read Rudyard Kipling’s words "Burma, unlike any land you know about”, I had been fascinated with images of Burma. Orange-clad monks, stilt house villages, floating gardens, horizons studded with temples and flowers like no where else. With the release of Aung San Sun Kyi in 2011 and her request to boycott tourism within the country lifted I couldn’t get there quick enough.
How did you get there?
We travelled on one of the first flights from Hong Kong operated by Dragonair but there are also direct flights from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. The journey was easy but it’s important to get the right visas before arriving.
Where did you stay?
We spent a day in the capital visiting Shwedagon Paya, the famed ‘Golden Pagoda’, then flew to Bagan to balloon over the temples. From there we took ‘the road to Mandalay’ and cycled over the U Bein bridge. We crossed the floating gardens of Inle and finished up hiked around Indein wondering why it had not been used as an Indiana Jones set.
We travelled as ethically as we could avoiding government-run projects. Don’t fall into the trap of going on a package holiday- It’s totally unnecessary. Independent travel is easy and beneficial for the locals. Myanmar Diaries helped us organise a lot of our reservations.
How did you get around?
We took a few internal flights as we were only there 10 days, but we travelled mostly by bicycle and then by boat from Bagan up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay.
What was the best meal you ate?
A selection of fresh produce from a floating market on Inle Lake, eaten under a blazing terrace sunset. Speciality chili chips dipped in avocados the size of melons with local Burmese wine - believe it or not, they have vineyards producing great Pinot Noir.
What were you reading on your travels?
I quickly ditched my book for a young street hawker’s copy of ‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell, and became even more submerged in the decaying ruins of colonial rule.
Did you go out at night?
Everything revolves around the break of dawn and everyday we had to wake before 5am, so with limited electricity, intense temple-raiding and long cycle rides, by dusk we were exhausted.
What were you glad you’d packed?
A torch! Power cuts are common and scrambling through derelict temples even in the light of day needs extra light to be able to admire the incredible wall paints and avoid bats!
What do you wish you’d left behind?
My trainers. Entering temples requires bare feet and I quickly became sick of tying and untying laces.
What do you wish you’d known before you went?
Everything about Burma’s history and struggles. So many monks spoke of things I couldn’t even begin to understand. A country of self imposed isolation thats been frozen in time.
Was it expensive?
Once the initial travel was covered, day-to-day exploring was cheap. You do have to be careful with your budgeting, though - credit cards are not accepted and there are no ATMs in the country.
Where are you off to next?
I have a Mongolian ‘Lonely Planet’ next to my bed with a dog-eared corner over the Golden Eagle Festival. Type it into Google Image! Unbearable.
Take a look at Gemma’s beautiful floral designs on her website, haydenblest.com