Myanmar is finding its feet as a tourist destination, and the best way to take advantage is to leave the ground. By Hamish McDonald.

Myanmar’s new tourist wave

Ballooning over the ancient city of Bagan.
Ballooning over the ancient city of Bagan.
Credit: Felix Hug / Corbis

In the 2005 edition of its guide to Myanmar, Lonely Planet opened with a chapter titled “Should You Go?” and a quote from Aung San Suu Kyi 10 years earlier calling for a tourism boycott. It then went on to suggest ways in which travel could be best planned to avoid putting money in the pockets of the military junta and its business cronies.

Lonely Planet has now dropped the question in its current edition, though it worthily urges its readers to avoid package tours that might fund the military-business combine still running the place amid a qualified transition to electoral politics and the consequent lifting of international sanctions.

Judging by the package tourists clutching the blue guidebook in several translations who joined me recently on planes owned by the cronies, the advice is little heeded, at least by the visitors who aren’t staying in backpacker hostels and spending long bumpy nights on intercity buses. Such is the cachet of visiting Myanmar “before tourists wreck” it (as Rupert Murdoch put in a tweet from his new year cruise along the Burmese coast) that non-backpacker tourists can no longer bank on finding vacant hotel rooms and aircraft seats in the northern winter, and need to engage a travel agent.

From worrying about how to remain guilt-free, travellers now have to decide how shameless they want to be in their spending during their Burmese holidays. The population, aside from a small middle class, remains impoverished, but middle- and top-end prices for hotels and attractions have multiplied. Business hotels in Yangon, such as Parkroyal or Traders, that were renting rooms for $US60 or so a few years back now charge $US250 plus. Nostalgic luxury such as the British colonial-era Strand Hotel or the polished teak Governor’s Residence charge $US600 plus a night, if you can get in. Couples spend $US14,000 or so for a cruise along the Irrawaddy aboard a new luxury riverboat.

Fortunately the offer of a room in Yangon from old friends spared me from worrying about the ownership of a hotel. Merit was earned by a visit to the great Shwedagon Pagoda looming over the city, darshan (imbibing of greatness) at the tomb of the last Mogul emperor of India, who was exiled here after the 1857 uprising, and walks around the magnificent pre-World War II buildings that author Thant Myint-U is doing so much to preserve.

In the ancient city of Bagan, however, I abandoned any shame and embarked on a hot-air balloon ride costing $US285 over the ruined pagodas and temples scattered across a vast plain beside the middle reaches of the Irrawaddy. An Australian, Brett Melzer, and his Burmese wife, Khin Omar Win, pioneered this activity and their Balloons over Bagan operation remains the dominant player with 12 of the 21 balloons allowed in the air at any one time.

The cool morning air of the winter months provides the best lift for the balloons and the clearest skies as well, requiring a pre-dawn start. However adventure is packed into the experience from the beginning when a fleet of vintage buses, converted trucks used by the British Army against the Japanese, collects passengers from their hotels.

We assemble for tea on camp tables at a soccer pitch, where partially inflated balloons lie like beached whales. With the buses hitched up as anchors, young Burmese crewmen inflate the balloons with fans and then blasts of hot air from gas burners. We climb into the basket of our balloon, eight passengers on either side of pilot Andy Davey, an Englishman who assures us of painstaking safety checks. With more jets from the burner, we gently lift and drift over the tops of the trees. The sun is coming up over distant hills. The landscape is covered by skeins of ground mist. For an hour, we drift in periods of silence above fallow fields, roads with cyclists turning to look up, our shadow passing over the red brick temple ruins below. The exception is one pagoda partially covered in gold leaf, funded by former military intelligence chief Khin Nyunt. The work lapsed with his arrest in a pre-emptive coup by then junta leader Than Shwe, in 2004.

The colours steadily intensify. When the basket seems set to scrape a pagoda spire, Davey fires the burner to lift us over. The Irrawaddy becomes a wide strip of pale blue along one side, margined by white sandbanks. Far on the other, we see aircraft shuttling more tourists into the airport from Yangon and Mandalay and hear the control tower chatter on Davey’s radio. We see the fleet of buses chasing us below.

With a final brush of the basket over a thorny tree, Davey brings us into a landing field. In the shade of the buses, the ground crew has set up picnic tables, with croissants and champagne (yes, it’s French, one European passenger is assured). As we eat and drink, a clutch of village children have arrived, hoping to sell their naive paintings. Another shameless moment. At least the balloon company employs about 200 locals and they clearly enjoy their work.

Another flight on a former-crony airline takes me up to the Inle Lake, a waterway in the hills of the Shan State, several times the size of Kashmir’s famed Dal Lake and similarly hosting an amphibious human population. We are getting close to the eastern border zones where ethnic rebels waged war against the central government until a truce three years ago. Unlike at Bagan, safely inside the region of the Burman ethnic majority, security officials check foreign visitors in and out at the local airport.

My small hotel in Nyaung Shwe town, the Pyi Guest House, is run by a charming Shan couple, Win Win and Tun Tun. On the lake, fishermen still balance on the end of their sampans, with one leg wrapped around a paddle as they manage cone-shaped fish traps.

Large excavations scar the eastern shore where the government plans a huge hotel precinct; meanwhile, the lake’s villages are making the most of tourists, packing them into demonstrations of cheroot-making and weaving cloth from fibres drawn out of lotus stalks. Combined with silk or cotton, this produces exquisite scarves and shawls at the Ko Than Hlaing factory, a ramshackle building perched on stilts above the water. Prices range into the hundreds of dollars, and credit cards are docked on a wi-fi link. There’s no shame for the customer here.

Several kilometres outside Nyaung Shwe is the Red Mountain Estate vineyard and winery owned by Nay Win Tun, a leader of the Pa-O ethnic minority in Shan State and founder of the Ruby Dragon group, which built extensive businesses in gem, jade and gold mining after the Pa-O made peace with the army in 1991 (cemented by a gift of a slab of jade to key generals some years later).

The vines stretch over hills, with distant views of the lake. Teenage girls trim the vines to expose bunches of sauvignon blanc grapes to the sunlight ahead of the harvest. Late afternoon tourists gather at outdoor tables to eat snacks, sample the wines and watch the sunset. But as dusk falls, the cafe packs up. “Most of the people come here by bicycle,” said Francois Raynal, the French winemaker who is the sole foreigner among 150 employees. “So we don’t want them cycling back to Nyaung Shwe in the dark, drunk sometimes. We don’t want to have any accidents because the police will come here. Every time you have an accident in this country it raises a problem and then they forbid.”

Raynal says the altitude (1000 metres), clay soil and cool winter nights make it ideal for whites, similar to New Zealand’s Marlborough region. The sauvignon blanc is indeed acceptable. The reds, chiefly a 2013 shiraz-tempranillo, are young and pungent. But with the government slapping a ban on wine imports last year, drinkers have little choice. “When the roots will get deeper in soil, I think one day we will make good reds here, but not yet,” Raynal admitted, though he uncorked a 2009 shiraz-tempranillo that was soft and drinkable.

That’s a bit like the young democracy and raw capitalism that has surprised the world since late 2011, when the current president, former general Thein Sein, gave the Chinese a shock by shutting down a contentious dam across the upper Irrawaddy and invited Aung San Suu Kyi to join the system, which she did. Foreign visitors can now watch how it unfolds with a glass of Burmese wine.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Begin the Bagan".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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