Myanmar travel guide: How tourism has transformed this south-east Asian hotspot

It's two years ago and I'm sitting on the balcony of a stilted house on Myanmar's Inle Lake, eating a bowl of Shan noodle soup. A breeze drifts up from the canal, barely disturbing the heat that's encased me. Not even the monsoonal summer rains – gathering already, though it's not yet May – will be enough to dilute this swelter.

Stretching out into the heat haze and towards the distant Shan mountain range are rice paddies and palm-leaf dwellings and floating gardens defined by the bamboo poles that anchor them to the lakebed. I'm the only customer here today, and my boatman has drawn up beside the jetty, where he waits for me.

Fast forward nearly two years. Here I am again, sitting inside that same stilted house on Inle Lake, drinking Myanmar beer. My party has requested a seat on the balcony, but it's jammed with tourists chatting animatedly between mouthfuls of Burmese food, and so we're directed inside. 

Again, a breeze wafts up to us through the room's broad windows, affording brief respite from the heat; but it carries upon it something new, something unfamiliar in this subdued and far-flung place: the sound of whistling engines and hustling boats as the canal beside us sloshes with afternoon traffic. There's no space here for our boatman to park; he must wait some way off from the jetty and keep a lookout for our return.  

This is the new order, for change at last is sweeping over Myanmar. It has been stirred by political foment and social insurrection, fortified by the reforms of a military junta that called historic democratic elections in 2010 after holding power for five decades, and agitated for by an international community that has since lifted sanctions.

Elections will be held again later this year, and though the transformation of Myanmar into a fully-functioning democracy is far from complete, its people have at last awoken from what might well have been a prolonged and nightmarish slumber.

The change is writ large on the streets of the city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), across the breadth of its once modest, low-rise skyline. Construction sites swathed in bamboo scaffolding point to a prosperous future. Here is the site for Dagon City, a complex of residential, retail and office spaces, and there a modern gallery set against a backdrop of towering cranes and rapidly-climbing high-rises.

 "Making history in modern Myanmar," its hoardings read, "a beacon for brighter business opportunities." At traffic lights glossy new cars – easier to acquire now that prohibitive import duties have been axed – jostle for position, disregarding the fact that the ribbon of road stretching ahead will never be able to accommodate them all.

"Myanmar is experiencing growing pains," concedes Ross Bray, senior trade commissioner and counsellor for the Australian Trade Commission's Yangon office. "It's starting to become unaffordable to live in Yangon – an influx of expats and 'repats' [Burmese expatriates returning to do business in their homeland] has caused the price rise. Rental space here per square metre is higher than in New York City."

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But perhaps the most remarkable inflow has been that of tourists: visitor numbers have risen threefold, to over three million annually, since 2012. Visa applications are being streamlined, airports upgraded, air services agreements signed (Australia recently entered into such a compact, with a beady eye on the future) and the "2013-2020 Myanmar Tourism Master Plan" fine-tuned. 

It's a welcome burst of attention for a country crippled by a lack of foreign investment – and a challenge for hoteliers operating in a landscape bereft of tourism infrastructure. But progress is already afoot: out on Pyay Road, across the street from the once-prestigious University of Yangon, stands a gleaming new hotel, Accor's Novotel Yangon Max – the first such international establishment to be built in the city in more than two decades. 

I had passed its shell on my way from the airport on that first trip here two years ago, and now I'm checking into one of its executive suites. The staff here is disarmingly friendly yet strictly professional: Lai Lai welcomes me with a cool cloth and a lemongrass and ginger drink; she shows me to my suite, completes the check-in procedure and presses me to inform her of any special request. Who would guess that just one year ago this sharp young woman had never engaged with a foreigner?

"The only way for us is to train staff from scratch, but we need to come here with total humility," says Frenchman Philippe Battle, Accor's area general manager for Myanmar as well as the Novotel Yangon Max's general manager. "Most of the people who have been serving you right now didn't know anything about the hotel industry eight, nine months ago."

We're sitting out on the hotel's pool deck, drinking Bellini cocktails and eating canapés served by courteous young graduates of the group's training arm, Accor Academy. These people are Myanmar's future, the interface between its despotic past and a promising future, and the keepers of a rich and ancient history. 

The story they will tell first is that of Shwedagon Pagoda: from here on the pool deck we can see this most holy of Buddhist stupas, its vane struck rose-gold in the twilight. Just this afternoon I was there, watching transfixed as Burmese women took pouting selfies with newly-acquired mobile phones, the sacred bells of the pagoda tinkling far above them. 

I had cast my mind back to my first visit, when mobiles were so expensive to operate only the very wealthy possessed them. The roads, too, though awash with cars, had felt different then, safer: I'd cycled 11 kilometres around the People's Park and People's Square, through five-lane roundabouts, down a network of lanes to Bogyoke Aung San Museum, which was closed that day, and all the way around Kandawgyi Lake. 

I'd got hopelessly lost finding my way to Shwedagon Pagoda, and when finally I reached it I'd thrown down my bicycle, kicked off my shoes and run up the white-hot marble steps to escape the heat. Beneath the structure's blessed shelter, a Burmese man had offered me a bottle of water and a place to sit. 

If my guide, Ye Thiwa Thwin, had been there that day, he would surely have concluded that the kind Burmese man was merit-making – doing a good deed so as to hasten his journey to Nirvana. At the pagoda this afternoon, once I'd torn my eyes from that dissonant sight of longyi-wearing, mobile phone-wielding young women, he'd instructed me to make some merit of my own. And so I'd lit the stupa's oil lamps, thoughtfully, meditatively, as the sun went down. 

Four hundred kilometres north of Yangon, in Myanmar's purpose-built capital city of Naypyitaw, stands an almost perfect replica of Shwedagon Pagoda. It was built, perhaps, to remind this city's inhabitants of home, for this is the parched, expansive plain to which the government decamped overnight ten years ago, wrenching along with it tens of thousands of government and public service employees. 

So far, foreign embassies have resisted the migration, preferring the frangipani-scented compounds of Yangon and the international education afforded their children; and so the flight there next day is filled with diplomats and businesspeople and ministry officials – and just a sprinkling of curious travellers. 

Naypyitaw is a peculiar place of disembodied activity zones (ministry, residential, military) and a hauntingly empty 20-lane highway. In the "guest house" zone I meet Frenchman David Daguise, the first foreigner to be officially acknowledged as a resident of this city. 

He left behind the beaches and palm trees of Thailand to take charge of another of Accor's fledgling Myanmar hotels – MGallery's The Lake Garden Naypyitaw, set in a world of parched plains and stilted protocol, in a place where bars and nightclubs are outlawed and golf and karaoke reign.

"No-one could speak English, I couldn't speak Burmese," Daguise recalls of those early days. "Some of my [staff] had never seen a foreigner before. I got here and had to use the fax. I hadn't used the fax in ten years! I said, 'Okay, hold on tight, David, it's going to be fine'. Eventually, we were able to pull something out of the hat." 

Daguise has done more than merely pull something from the hat: the hotel, colonial-inspired with teak shutters, lazy sunrooms and artfully scattered Burmese artefacts, created 200 jobs for the local community; it has hosted numerous dignitaries and heads of state – the names of which can't be prised from this discreet manager's mouth, not even by a succession of the hotel's signature grape-and-vodka cocktails nor a jolly, communal meal at its speciality Italian restaurant, Primo. 

It's an outcome praised by an official of the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism who I meet in Naypyitaw: the engagement of foreign hotel groups, he says, is driving human resource development and improving tourism standards across Myanmar. 

But nowhere are the advances more apparent than at Inle Lake. The flat expanse of Naypyitaw soon gives way to winding roads that lead through the Shan mountain range and all way down to this vast, shallow sweep of water.  I have travelled this "curly" route, as my guide Ye Thiwa Thwin calls it, once before, on the overnight bus from Taungyyi to Yangon. 

But now I see the countryside unfolding before me in bright daylight, the dramatic hillsides and hairpin bends, the goat market that's sprung up on the roadside and the villagers who've laid out their wares within inches of the buses' passing tyres – bamboo poles, clay pots, great mounds of dried beans and sour plums with which to feed the cattle.

The lakeside has metamorphosed in the two years since my visit. Eight or ten hotels were scattered about its eastern shore back then; today, that number has almost doubled, and includes Accor's newly-launched Notovel Inle Lake Myat Min. This development is sudden and intensive, and exposes the lake and its people to great change.  But hoteliers like Mathieu Le Besq – Novotel's Inle's executive assistant manager – know well that their business will succeed only if they support locals in the protection of their environment. 

"The lake [already] has many challenges – overfishing, stunning of fish, pesticides used in farming which pollute the lake," says Le Besq. "But people are aware how much tourism the lake is bringing, and without the lake, there will be no tourism." 

From where I now sit at the resort's sunset bar, the lake looks perfect: still as a pool of mercury, flushed pink with the setting sun. I raise my glass and wish it the best. I wish it every last merit the gods can spare.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies to Singapore twice daily from Sydney and daily from Melbourne and Brisbane. Jetstar Asia flies from Singapore to Yangon daily. Fares from Sydney to Yangon via Singapore start from $1028 return (subject to surcharges for high season, peak days of departure as well as tax changes); both sectors can be booked at qantas.com 

STAYING THERE 

Rates start from US$192 per night at the Novotel Yangon Max, US$127 per night at The Lake Garden Nay Pyi Taw and US$115 per night at Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min; all rates include breakfast. See accorhotels.com. Exo Travel offers a range of tours and short excursions. See exotravel.com 

VISA

Australians travelling to Myanmar must be in possession of a visa. It can be obtained online at evisa.moip.gov.mm/NewApplication.aspx

MONEY

Myanmar kyat is not readily available at currency exchange kiosks in Australia but can be withdrawn with Visa and Mastercard debit or credit cards from ATMs at Yangon International Airport and around the city. Money changers are widespread in Yangon. US dollars are accepted by some establishments but must be crisp and unwrinkled. Credit card facilities in Myanmar are unreliable.  

The writer was a guest of Accor, Qantas, Jetstar Asia and Exo Travel. 

FIVE PRESSING  MYANMAR ISSUES

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Derived from the term for the ethnic Burman majority, 'Burma' was adopted by the British as the name of its new Southeast Asian colony in the 19th century. It was changed to Myanmar – a well-worn, indigenous Burmese word – by the military junta, and so accrued distasteful connotations among pro-freedom supporters. As the country transforms, there's been a gradual acceptance among most people – including US President Barack Obama – of its name. As one local says, "Most people here really don't care".  

TO GO, OR NOT TO GO

After decades spent lobbying for and supporting sanctions against her country while under house arrest, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi today welcomes tourists –  but with an important caveat: they should always aim to travel responsibly, to engage private rather than government operators and to draw attention to the ongoing political inequities in Myanmar. 

THE PACE OF POLITICAL CHANGE

After decades of human rights violations, military junta rule and excommunication from the outside world, change in Myanmar has been widely welcomed. While some have criticised the government's slow pace of reform, others say transformation takes time and the results of legal reform are already being felt, especially in the realms of foreign investment and education. 

RESPONSIBLE TOURISM

Mass tourism will almost certainly threaten Myanmar's fragile environment and cultural icons. But the country's growing popularity offers travellers the opportunity to set the tone for its future as a tourism destination: they can start by heeding Aung San Suu Kyi's advice to travel responsibly, selecting ethical tourism operators and supporting grassroots businesses wherever possible. 

SERVICE STANDARDS

A lack of vocational training and cultural differences prevent many establishments in Myanmar from offering consistent, high-quality service. Certain hotels, restaurants and operators are countering this by conducting in-house training. The anticipated growth in hospitality training institutes will see this problem gradually resolved. 

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN BURMA

CRUISE

Charter a boat from Sintku, three hours north of Mandalay, and set off in search of Myanmar's fabled Irrawaddy dolphins. On the way you will bypass villages where life unfolds at a slow pace: farmers tending their fields by hand, artisans crafting earthenware pots and fishermen employing traditional methods to snare their catch. 

COOK

Travel on a traditional leg-rowed canoe to the home of an Intha family at Inle Lake. Experience warm Burmese hospitality, learn about age-old cooking traditions and feast on specialties made from locally-grown, market-bought produce.  

RELAX

Myanmar is not all pagodas and shrines: just a short fight from Yangon you will find Ngapali Beach, an as-yet unspoilt swathe of tropical coastline. Activities include snorkelling, visiting local fishing villages – or just lying on the beach with a book close at hand. 

MEDITATE

Make an early morning pilgrimage to one of the many monasteries at Sagaing Hill, a centre for Buddhist meditation near Mandalay. Here you will be introduced to a method of meditation that is based on the four foundations of mindfulness as described in the Buddhist text, the Maha Satipatthana. 

COMMUNE

Attend a traditional Burmese tea party in a monastery: first stroll the adjacent village and observe its residents going about their daily life; then meet the monks and learn how to prepare tea leaf salad – quite possibly Myanmar's most popular snack.   

BUILDING BURMA

Myanmar has changed irrevocably in the two years since Philippe Battle, Accor's  area general manager for Myanmar and the general manager of the Novotel Yangon Max, moved there. He reflects on the challenges of starting a hotel from scratch in a country quarantined from the world for almost half a century.   

WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU ENCOUNTERED?

When I arrived two years ago a sim card for your cell phone [cost] $US1800, and you had to fight for it. Nowadays, it's $US1...We need to understand that this country was closed for almost 40 years. Forty years has erased all [previous achievements], and the country is catching up.

ARE THERE ENOUGH HOTEL BEDS FOR TOURIST DEMAND?

Yes and no. Today you have six thousand rooms in Yangon which is enough for the airlift [number of planes arriving in Yangon]. The issue, like any destination, is that you need to match the number of seats on [incoming] planes with the number of hotel beds.

CONSTRUCTION WOULD PRESUMABLY ALSO BE VERY CHALLENGING AND EXPENSIVE?

It's a tremendous, tremendous challenge because we are demanding a standard of construction that is almost unknown [in Myanmar]. Unfortunately, I would say, everything [for the hotel fit-out] is imported. Again, this is changing very fast – some products [are now being] made here in Yangon, and if we have this discussion in two years from now I would say my answers will be totally different.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR TOURISM IN MYANMAR?

The number of arrivals [not just tourism] is growing by 30 to 40 per cent each year. The number of flights is increasing. There will be room – not only for tourists, but for business people. Myanmar on its own, which is bigger than Thailand, doesn't even have the number of tourists that Phuket has. That tells you everything: the future is in front of us. 

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