Category Archives: burma travel

Setting Sail & Sightseeing in Burma

Set Sail to Burma
Set Sail to Burma

There is just under 12 months to go before luxury cruise and safari specialists offer something pretty spectacular. Sanctuary Retreats’ new custom built ship, Sanctuary Ananda, sets sail on its maiden cruise voyage in Myanmar. The coolest part? The all-suite ship is being custom built by two renowned Burmese brothers in a Yangon shipyard using traditional materials combined with modern technology to ensure she can navigate Myanmar’s rivers.

A familiar sight in a Burmese village
A familiar sight in a Burmese village

Sanctuary Ananda will offer eight exciting itineraries on 3, 4 and 7-night ‘Discovery Cruises’ between Bagan and Mandalay and 7, 10 and 11-night  ‘Exploration Cruises.’ The longer journeys will allow guests time to explore the Upper and Lower Ayeyarwady Rivers as well as the Chindwin River, incorporating must-see sights and the opportunity to engage with many local tribes and Burmese people. These ‘Exploration’ itineraries are particularly suited to guests who want a more relaxed cruise with a chance to explore off-the-beaten path.

Your bed in the suite
Your bed in the suite

The four-night “Mandalay to Bagan” itinerary begins in the cultural capital of Myanmar, and makes its way to Bagan, the spiritual heart of the country and home to more than 2,000 gilded pagodas. Guests admire the beauty of life along the river with visits to the Sale monasteries, textile workshops in Amarapura; Sagaing; the living centre of the Buddhist faith in Myanmar, and the local markets and traditional shoe factories of Pakokku.


Bagan, the 11th-century capital of the country is one of Asia’s most extraordinary destinations; more than 4,000 temples, pagodas and stupas (Buddhist memorials) cover Bagan, a true treasure trove of Buddhist art history. Work on the new ship is taking place in Myanmar, employing skilled local craftsmen. In addition to the furniture built by local carpenters, Burmese teak and traditional handmade fabrics will be used throughout and all Sanctuary Ananda’s guides will be local, Burmese experts. Recruitment and extensive training has now begun to build a team that will deliver the high standards behind Sanctuary Retreat’s ‘Luxury Naturally’ philosophy.

A little Burmese scene on the side of the road
A little Burmese scene on the side of the road

There are 21 spacious suites, ranging from 291 sq ft to 721 sq ft, including the exclusive Aloungpayah Suite. Most offer large private balconies with uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside, towns, villages and riverside life.  Accommodating 42 guests, Sanctuary Ananda will offer a high level of personal service. The Aloungpayah Suite, along with the 4 Luxury Suites, will also have a private butler service.

Prices start at $2.244 per person, based on two people sharing a Deluxe Suite, for a 3 night itinerary including sightseeing, all meals, soft drinks and local beer.

Burmese textiles
Burmese textiles

Sanctuary Retreats’ runs a collection of luxury safari lodges and explorer ships so we trust it’ll be amazing. Bringing the boutique experience to guests with the promise of authenticity, all have the same aim: to allow guests to have a “real” experience and enjoy a more natural kind of luxury in properties that have a strong commitment to conservation and responsible tourism. The Sanctuary portfolio also includes safari camps and lodges in Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, as well as expedition cruise ships on the Nile, the Yangzi, in Myanmar and the Galapagos Islands.

The Beautiful Grit of Burma: Part Three

The last in our Burma travel series, Jeff Duncan, Jaunt Contributor and GM of Stage Three Music, takes us to Bagan, the final stop on his journey throughout the beautiful grit that is Burma.

Part 3: Bagan, Original Majesty
“You’re scared aren’t you?” Said my friend.

We were up far enough up on the pagoda that a fall down the deceptively steep, sharp brick steps would be ugly. I wondered how many unlucky schlubs had taken that tumble over the last thousand years. It would be the type of fall that can’t be stopped. The victim would only gain speed and torque as they log-rolled to the bottom, each thud against the bricks doing real damage.

Was there even a hospital within 100 miles?
“Stop projecting. And, yes.” I replied.

Ungracefully (and not very heroically), we crawled, hunched over like crabs to summit the ancient edifice. When we arrived at the top, I looked out over the lush green landscape, punctuated by hundreds of clay-red stupas. It was still and a slight mist of rain cooled my face as the sun set slowly.

It was likely my emotions, but I sensed an energy, a deep & phasing, barely sub-aural cycling of power. I kept my mouth shut about it. It was the perfection I’d not even been aware I was searching for; simultaneous stillness, solitude, antiquity and natural splendor. It was fleeting.

Behind us, an agile old local had followed us up. He began his mantra of “You buy! You buy!” holding up his indigenous paintings. I gently indicated that I would have a look if he met us in 10 minutes down by our minivan (with the broken AC – every car we took in Burma had broken AC, at least that’s what we were told). He persisted, but I pointed at the view and gave him the 1 minute signal. The local vendors had extra vigor, presumably because the tourists were staying away due to the recent protests and unrest. Still, I felt a bit bastardly moving him along. The feeling later eased when I bought two of his paintings.

The two-punch combo of a depressed economy and repressive government is a wicked one, so far as I can tell, but the people live on and seem connected to their fascinating history.

We needed some local cash. Our US $20’s were slightly more fire power than necessary so we took a ride to our driver’s Aunt’s house; she had a black market side-gig changing currency. Very Burma. On the way, we passed the ridiculous golf course the military had built in the middle of the stunning plain…“Let’s shoot 18 in the ruins Bro….Sweet!” I think the regime is far more suited to run a dog circus than a country.

The Aunt’s dwelling was a dark-wood and straw mat affair slightly off the main drag. Lit only by candles (the whole town had lost power for no particular reason, which is common), it felt slightly spooky-warm and seemed an extension of the clay earth it was built upon. I caught myself scanning the dark corners of the room for some thieving marauder ready to jump us for our money belts, but quickly shrugged off my American paranoia when his thin old Aunt appeared with her happy eyes and missing-tooth smile.

The Burmese will only accept crisp fresh dollars; any tear, crumple, fold or stain and it’s rendered useless to them. I’ve heard tales of tourists damn near starving to death with a wallet full of worthless, fouled money who are then forced to go to their embassy for a hand out. Fortunately, mine wasn’t so dirty and the old lady, with surprising skill and speed, counted out a fat stack of the equivalent kyat, less her commission, of course. Kyat makes a man with forty bucks feel rich; the size of the currency and exchange rate the way it is leaves one with an obscene wad of the stuff that’s better stowed in a chamber pot than a billfold.

After dinner I was beat, and on the way back to the cabanas our driver noticed me rubbing my sore neck. 

“Can I recommend a traditional Burmese massage?” He offered in his unexpectedly polished English.
Now there is an idea, and a fine one at that. A perfect end to a perfect day.
“Where do we go?” I anxiously queried.
“Oh, they come to your hotel,” he said. I envisioned a slow, two-hour deep oil rub from some skilled, local beauty. She’d relax every muscle and smooth each sinew and I’d drift away deep and heavy to awake anew tomorrow.
“To send the man over it will cost $10 US dollars for each of you,” he added.

My prior vision was abruptly smashed, replaced by one that involved my lower back being tickled by some dangling beard…piss.

“Can’t you send women over?” I asked, before really thinking it through.
“Sir, I will tell you that this is a historic site and we don’t….” he rattled.

“Hey, wait… I’m sorry… I didn’t mean… I just want a massage, I think you misunderstand. I don’t like to get rubbed by men…” I foolishly stammered.
He was peeved.

After copious explanations and back trackings, the guy seemed mildly assured we weren’t another gaggle of American sex tourists who took a wrong turn at Bangkok.

As I waited for sleep with a stiff neck, I left the window open and listened to the thunderstorms rolling across the plain of Bagan and wished we’d had one more day there.

By Jeff Duncan

The Beautiful Grit of Burma: Part Two

Inwa, Treasure of Mandalay
By Jeff Duncan

I stepped carefully, picking only the driest and most solid looking patches of ground that rose up from the primordial swamp of horse piss that constituted the path to the tiny improvised dock.

Christ, I was tired, which was odd considering there was a strict 10pm curfew. People couldn’t venture outdoors until morning under penalty of death. It seemed dramatic from the clerk gal at the hotel, but I was in no humor to test it out. We knew the drill before coming to Burma in the first place. Still, the idea of some bloated “Officer of Civilian Compliance” stamping papers and chirping out orders that impacted my destiny switched on some weird pitchfork wielding, ‘don’t tread on me’ inner rage-thing (that I, of course, ignored).

We were told that the best way from Mandalay to the old city was by boat. We paid a few kyat and climbed aboard a long narrow wooden vessel that had an old diesel engine sputtering in back. A kid, presumably the Captain’s son, no more than 10, made ready and we began chugging across the river. After completing his chores, the kid came over and sat by us. I noticed he was smoking a cigarette. Confused and alarmed, I acted out a pantomime that conveyed the sentiments,”Hey! Your Dad will see you!” and “You’re too young for that!” The kid, understanding me completely, carefully put the cigarette out, stowed it in his pocket and produced a ragged old cigar butt which he lit, laughing as he did. We roared; what can you really say to that?

From our first muddy steps onto Inwa it was clear that the place was special. 21st, hell, 18th century technology has passed the place by completely…save for plastic flip-flops. What’s sure is that it is a remote section of an already remote place and it looks, smells, and feels completely authentic. I sort of felt like a bastard even being there-hulking over the natives in my well-fed whiteness to “have a peek”. I tried to mitigate this feeling with the talk softly/smile broadly policy I was developing.

On the ferry over, the smoking kid had made several awkward references to the “Ho-Kaa” waiting for us on the other shore. We chewed on that one for a bit to no avail and it was only when the emaciated horse and wooden buggy appeared to tour us around that we had the “Ahhhh” moment.

We bumped & knocked our way down the narrow primeval roads stopping frequently for passing livestock. Coming out of yet another lush thicket, we caught our first glimpse of the superb ruins of Maha Aungmye Bonzan. Although not as old as the village itself (est. 1300’s) the Bonzan ruins are glorious and have a mystery and energy deeper than almost everything else I saw that day.

Dismounting our cart for a closer look, we were swarmed by about 12 local children, all peddling various chochskies. I agreed with myself that I would buy nothing as it would only add to their selling fervor, but they broke me down in about 4 minutes. I ended purchasing several pounds of crap for those back home from the little salesmen.

There were no security guards, ticket takers, guides or any of the usual tourist handlers that one expects at a historic sight. Indeed, the place is no Colonial Williamsburg or renaissance fair and thank heavens for it. Ruins are ruins for a reason, and a few centuries of neglect had beaten the old monastery into perfect antiquity, complete with weeds and grasses growing from the walls.

The kids instructed us to dispense with our shoes before entering the hallowed area. We explored the various shrines, turrets and sculptings, and made our way to the cavernous first floor. Lit only by the 3 or 4 other entrances, the tomb-like structure was dark and cool with low ceilings. It smelled of the ox and goat dung that littered the dirt floor. In almost total darkness we walked carefully along in our bare feet. I quickly grew more concerned about making it across to the exit than actually seeing the place. I snapped a flash for a picture and wished I hadn’t. Slight squeaks and a tiny breeze right over my head confirmed the presence of bats, now stirred by our blustering. Panic suggested that I run full bore towards the door stepping on or over my companions as needed. Amazingly, my voice came slow, yet high and quivery, when I said “Guys, I think we need to go.”

Twenty seconds later found us outside again; I manically patted myself down paying special attention to my head and neck area to be sure some damn bat hadn’t taken up residence there. Foolish & unwarranted, but the little fuckers scared me cold. The kids covered their mouths giggling and pointing at our silliness.

As we rounded the corner back to the dock (and eventually to the magnificent U Bien Bridge), I saw 2 local women bathing themselves in the waters of the Ayeyarwady river. They wore some type of sheer bathing frock and were as natural and shameless as they were beautiful. My inclination was to avert my eyes, but I did not, rather I drank them in with the rest of the simple grace and authenticity of Inwa. They waved and smiled as we passed.

To be continued…

The Beautiful Grit of Burma: Part One

This week, Guest Blogger and Jaunt Contributor, Jeff Duncan, takes us to Burma for an in-depth look at life behind Burma’s military dictatorship.

Professional musician and GM of Stage Three Music, when he’s not in the Former Soviet Union competing in Jujitsu or trekking into dangerous third-world countries, Duncan can be found performing around LA or composing soundtracks for feature films. Currently, his music can be heard on the film, Exact Bus Fare, set to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Beautiful Grit of Burma
By Jeff Duncan

Part 1: The Docks at Yangon
We were uptight. It was a week after a Japanese photographer and untold numbers of locals had been killed when Myanmar military goons fired shots into a crowd of docile protestors. We’d applied for our passports a few months in advance, before they stopped allowing foreigners in, so by chance we ended up on one of the first flights back into the tense Burmese dictatorship after the borders were reopened.

One of my travel pals had picked up “The Fever” in Bangkok and was generally pissy; the other had some strange allergic funk of unknown origin spreading across his muzzle, swelling his lips to cartoonish proportion. I had stepped deeply onto a nail in a sludgy red-light grease-trap of a back alley and was concerned I’d contracted Hep C. It all added to our anxiety.

Our taxi driver, who felt strangely ‘assigned’ to us at the airport, spoke perfect English and German. He asked us several times if we were journalists or if we thought America was going to come and challenge the junta. He was very funny and engaging and provided much history on the place, but I sensed something was not altogether right. We later agreed it was very likely he was on the government payroll.

After dumping our bags at Traders, we headed to the docks, passing the house-cum-prison of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist. Our driver told us “ABSOLUTLY NO PHOTOS” and that we may look, but only as we dove by. He added, “Don’t stare, the Army is watching!” From the quick glance I was allotted, I saw razor wire and a pathetic looking barricade, likely there to prevent the protestors from springing Suu Kyi from her in-house arrest (since ‘88). The army was out in force, but after a few days in country we noticed that the soldiers were oddly friendly. Gentle and curious, many were equipped with outdated AK47s & flip-flops. I got the distinct feeling that the bastards who stole power in the 60’s, and continue to maintain it with savage brutality, are the only real criminals Burma has to offer (as they send their wives on shopping trips to Tokyo & Paris and their children to schools in the West while the rank and file starve). It seemed that the average foot soldier was simply trying to get by. Then again, we know where “just following orders” gets you… what a mess.

The country is known for its swarms of monks; however, we saw only a small handful in eight days of heavy travel. They were lying low or otherwise detained.

For many decades the relentless heat and swamp-like humidity have molested the colonial handiwork the Brits left behind. Unchecked by upkeep, the Anglo buildings and roads have fallen into a semi-Jungle state.

Their man-made edge dulled by nature and leaded fuel; they’ve taken on a dirty camouflaged appearance. We drove through the disrepair and chaos to the waterfront.

I was immediately mesmerized by the teeming microcosm that sprawled before us. Vast ships docked to be loaded and unloaded lined the wharf with smaller contraptions ferrying cargo from vessels anchored 200 yards out. It easily could have been 1918. Hundreds of laborers schlepped large bags of rice, tins of lard and other essentials from the bowels of the ships and off to massive green warehouses for storage. Grinding work made only more difficult by the mauling heat. An impromptu bazaar had sprung up catering to the workers and selling beverages, food and betelnut.

Chewing betelnut is a local tradition that delivers a mild coffee-zing and gives the chewer ghoulish red-stained teeth and gums, as if they’d just eaten a child.

The work was ordered and rhythmic but there was an overwhelming, broad lawlessness as well. There must have been a system holding it all together that I was ignorant to. We walked unquestioned down the pier and onto one of the boats. The laborers we passed, clad in their traditional man-skirts were interested and friendly but focused on the .01-.03 USD cents they earned per load. There were more than a few young boys carrying sacks on their backs that must have equaled or trumped their weight. We soaked in the scene and chewed some betelnut …I damn near choked myself to death on a mouthful of red spittle, laughing at my zombie-like friends. The guys on the pier had a laugh.

Returning to the car we noticed our driver was on his cell phone which he quickly clapped shut and put in his glove box when he saw us. The government had pulled the plug on internet and telephone service several days prior and we posited that he was either on a government channel or a 2 way walkie. Perhaps sensing our suspicion, he proceeded to tell us a sex anecdote, a surefire way to reroute our paranoia. He said that as most people aged 18-35 live at home with their parents there is little time for enough privacy to “Make the fuck”. He claimed that going to a local motel was out as well because it was commonly known that the owners of such places spied on young lovers through holes in the wall and often video taped the act for sale on the streets. The solution to this was for the lovebirds to go naked under their longi (aforementioned skirts) and tear a quick one off in the car parked innocently by the side of the road. “This way we learn to make the fuck very quick!” We laughed as expected, but remained uneasy.

The place was amazing and filled with color and brilliant humanity, but the fear and oppression was palpable and more than a little depressing.

To be continued…