Most families, as in my own case, are restricted to travelling during school holidays, so I would like to share one of my favourite countries in Southeast Asia that lends itself beautifully to active and fun family travel during the school holiday period. Being a tropical country, Myanmar is an ideal winter destination with very pleasant and dry weather between November and March.
Like most Asian countries, it offers an incredible variety of unique experiences, particularly suited to an active family, perhaps with older children or teenagers. Go trekking in lush high mountains, cycle along paddy fields, vegetable farms and vineyards, and try sea kayaking and snorkelling. Get a taste of authentic rural living as a guest of a remote tribe, relax on a luxury river cruise, or float by hot-air balloon over some of the most breath-taking landscapes in Southeast Asia.
One of my favourite areas in the country is the lush mountainous region around the beautiful Inle Lake. It is perhaps the most varied and exciting region in the country in terms of scenery and culture.
A spectacular and fun way to get a close insight into the traditional boat racing of the Intha women. Inle Lake is famous for the annual boat racing events in October and throughout the year, various communities on the lake practise to hone their boat racing skills for the main event. You can have the unique opportunity to experience the thrill by joining one of the teams during their practice session.
One could get involved by being part of a team of 15 women and competing with another team. Besides the fun, it is also an excellent opportunity to support the local communities in their endeavour to preserve their unique boat racing culture.
This very special local tradition is an annual event where several Pa O communities come together and hold a rocket launching competition using home-made rockets! The festival is celebrated for a favourable climate, good harvest and prosperity and wellbeing. The atmosphere is ecstatic.
The festival ground is buzzing with Pa O people in their traditional attires. There is traditional music and food and the winning tea performs a “dance of joy”! Rockets are made of large bamboo poles or metal shells and are fired from a twenty to thirty-foot-high stand. Some go over a kilometre into the sky!
Kayah is the smallest state in Myanmar, tucked away between the southern part of Inle Lake and northern part of Kayin State. It is home to various minority communities including the longneck women and is an ideal area for those who wish to explore remote countryside without involving long and arduous trekking, as most villages in this region can be accessed by car and boat.
CBI are a Dutch organisation which has set up two community-based projects in Kayah State to promote ethical and sustainable tourism which benefits local communities. The projects were set up and implemented between 2014 and 2017 and are now fully handed over to the communities.
You will be taken around the villages by the locals who are genuinely excited about sharing interesting stories of traditional beliefs, ancestors, and totem pole and herbal medicines; taken to shrines where animist traditions are practiced; and treated to a traditional home-cooked meal with a local family.
This area has remained relatively unknown to foreign travellers and is home to the Danu Trails – an extensive trekking area inhabited by the Danu people who are known as smart farmers specialising in tea and coffee plantations and are also renowned for their traditional folk dance and music.
Like the ancient ‘Opium Trail’, this area is ideal for extensive trekking involving about six to seven hours of walking each day through a breath-taking scenery filled with lush mountains, remote villages and beautiful farms and plantations. The trail can be covered in three days staying in village homes along the way for an ultimate cultural immersion.
Of all Asian countries where luxury boat travel is possible, Myanmar is my favourite, as it is still relatively untouched and travelling on the river is certainly the most relaxing way to explore!
The Irrawaddy is Myanmar’s largest river, flowing from the northern mountains near the border with Tibet to the south of the country before it merges into the Andaman Sea. Chindwin River is the largest tributary of the Irrawaddy and flows through some of the least visited parts of the country.
Together, they offer absolutely fascinating and unique routes in Asia. Rudyard Kipling has very beautifully captured the essence of the region in his literary works especially his famous poem “Mandalay”.
Launched in November 2014, Sanctuary Ananda is a beautiful custom-built boat with 21 spacious and luxurious suites on three decks. All the suites feature floor-to-ceiling windows and a private balcony that are perfect for observing the unhurried life along the river and the beautiful temples, pagodas and monasteries that Myanmar is so famous for.
The food and service are impeccable and leisure facilities include a delightful spa by L’Occitane, sun deck with a plunge pool and a library.
The itineraries range from two to four nights between Bagan and Mandalay to longer ten and eleven-night journeys covering Upper and Lower Irrawaddy as well as Chindwin rivers; all filled with superbly guided excursions and memorable experiences. Hot-air balloon ride over the impressive monuments of Bagan and the stunning sunset views at U Bein Bridge in Mandalay were particularly memorable for me.
Supporting the local communities is at the very heart of Sanctuary Retreats. The boat and all the furniture on board were built by local craftsmen and they have adopted a charming little village under the Sun Kyun Village Project to support the inhabitants.
Since its inception, the project has provided the community with a library, teacher’s living quarters and two classrooms in order to create a better future for the younger generation. The village is visited during the cruise and it was truly heart-warming to see the project’s positive impact on the villagers.
Built in Yangon in 2015, The Strand Cruise is currently one of the finest luxury cruises on the Irrawaddy, operating between Mandalay and Bagan. It is named and styled after its sister property, the iconic heritage hotel, The Strand Yangon, and offers the same quality of exquisite service, stately accommodation and refined cuisine.
The boat features 25 generously-appointed cabins with beautiful regional artwork, teak floors and floor-to-ceiling windows. On board facilities include a sundeck with a swimming pool, spa and a fitness centre.
For history buffs, Myanmar has plenty to offer, from colonial heritage of Yangon to stunning Buddhist temples and pagodas of Bagan and Mandalay. Some of my favourite experiences include visiting the Secretariat in Yangon, meeting with a renowned author and former secretary of Aung San Suu Kyi’s, cycling around Minnanthu area of Bagan and a pre-dawn tour of Mandalay when you can witness the early morning Buddhist rituals performed by the monks.
I also find Moulmein hugely interesting, perhaps due to its very laidback atmosphere and association with George Orwell’s legendary literature. The town’s location on the river is stunning and there are several very interesting places to explore including the incredible hilltop pagoda complex, monasteries and Myanmar’s first Baptist church, which was founded in 1827 by American Adoniram Judson.
Now into its second year of operation, Wa Ale Island Resort is a privately owned eco-tourism project on the 9,000-acre island of Wa Ale located in the Lampi Marine National Park in the Myeik Archipelago, in southern Myanmar.
Often referred to as one of the last lost paradises on earth, Myeik Archipelago consists of around 800 islands and is a haven for marine life. The island of Wa Ale is blessed with a terrain featuring a scenic rocky coastline with pristine white sand beaches with bays and inlets surrounded by lush evergreen and mangrove forests.
It is currently the best luxury island retreat in the country and being a part of the Lampi Foundation, the property is committed to preserving the local community and environment through various projects including sea turtle conservation, coral protection and charitable donations to support education and welfare of the local community.
The resort features eleven private luxury tented beach villas and two treetop villas that have been carefully constructed using locally reclaimed materials so that they have minimal ecological impact on the surrounding environment.
You could spend the days snorkelling and diving, kayaking or paddle boarding through the island’s pristine river and mangrove forests, hike on the jungle trails, go island hopping in the Lampi Marine National Park, learn about the local “Moken” fishing community and turtle conservation or simply relax and enjoy a private massage in your villa.
I believe that philanthropic involvement is critical to maintain and support the locations to which we travel. In Myanmar there are many initiatives across the country that you can get involved with or support, which is a particularly fulfilling experience for adolescents who can learn so much about other cultures from this.
These include fantastic opportunities such as:
I call it “travelling with a heart”! If you would like any more information about family holidays in Myanmar or philanthropic opportunities, please do feel free to contact me.
Images kindly provided courtesy of:
Khiri Travel, Wa Ale Island Resort (and copy right to Scott A Woodward), Sanctuary Resorts and The Strand Cruise.