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wall design at Wat Xieng Thong

The Gilt Trip… Burma 2013:  An Apsara Adventure! Explore the road less travelled to reveal the hidden treasures of this South-East Asian country, from its mist-covered lakes and hills to its 11th century temples with UNESCO restored mural paintings, golden Buddhas and diamond-studded pagodas…from Yangon to Bagan and Mandalay to Inle Lake.  Simply Sharing: I researched a travel itinerary for 6 months before the January trip and have since updated these notes with my own thoughts, musings, inspirations and edits. Now is the time to go as there is fast moving change towards the tourist trail in a country long considered a pariah state, isolated from the rest of the world with an appalling human rights abuse record but now with renewed hope for reforms since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Please add to your Top 10 Travel Wishlist! x apsara

ITINERARY: 10 DAY, 11 NIGHT TOUR

DAY 1: Yangon [Tuesday 1st January 2013]

Visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred site of pilgrimage, for evening prayer. Shwedagon Pagoda's spectacular golden dome rises 322 feet high and dominates the skyline of Yangon. It is sheathed in gold plates and topped by a 76-carat diamond. By day or night, this stunning structure is vibrant with the chants and prayers of Buddhist monks. Rudyard Kipling described his 1889 visit in From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches—Letters of Travel 'Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills...' Fifty years ago there was a giant standing buddha overlooking the temples and monasteries, but one day he tired of his duties, collapsed into a heap on the floor and has since been replaced by a monster-sized lazy reclining buddha. Chaukhtatgyi Buddha is topped by a crown encrusted in diamonds. apsara advice: antiques and quality Shan state lacquerware - by appointment with Daw Mya Sein, a former Shan princess t. 542 505 [difficult to find as tucked away in a residential area so ask a guide to organise this excursion. Items can be shipped worldwide.] where to stay: The Governor's Residence [booked months in advance...lovely for evening cocktails colonial style on the terrace...browse the boutique!]

DAY 2: Yangon - Bagan

...a 13th century wonderland of Buddhist temples and stupas, that Marco Polo described asa gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes’.

In the morning, head to Tayokye Pyay for a first glimpse across the plain of Bagan. Continue to Gubyaukgyi, famous for its original frescoes restored by UNESCO; Abeyandana Pahto for its 550 Jakata mural paintings;  Nagayon, the last restoration project in which UNESCO was involved, and Htilominlo Temple for its plaster carvings and glazed sandstone decorations. A highlight:  a romantic picnic amongst the temples!

In the afternoon, visit Ananda, an architectural masterpiece of the early‐style temple and Ananda Okkyaung, one of the few surviving brick monasteries from the early Bagan period. Watch the sunset from one of the open upper temple terraces at Pyathada Pagoda or end the day with a horse carriage tour [no.28/Mr Mui, whose English is a product of the BBC world series, and his mule 'miu miu'] among the temples that you will already have visited by foot starting at Ananda and passing Thatbyinnyu, the highest temple in Bagan, the massive and rather oppressive Dhammayangyi Temple noted for its brickwork and stunning Sulamani for its intricate murals. Other to dos: sightsee by bicycle through the parched landscape, past secluded stupas with bursts of fucshia bougainvillea to the local village and 18th century wooden monastery.

where to stay: Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort or Hotel at Tharabar Gate

DAY 3: Bagan

At sunrise, book well in advance for balloons over Bagan... In the morning, visit Nyaung Oo Market before continuing to Myinkaba village and local sites [Gubyaukgi, with some of the oldest mural paintings, Manuha and Nanpaya] followed by an introduction to the lacquerware production process, a renowned centuries old tradition, in one of the local family workshops. [visit Mya Thit Sar workshop in new Bagan where Tun Tun demonstrates the complicated 6 month long lacquerware process]. In the afternoon, visit the village of Minnanthu, an isolated area in Bagan with deserted temples such as Payathonzu, with its unusual architecture and Tantric Buddhism influence, Lemyethna and stunning Nandamannya, before boarding a local boat for a slow cruise down the Ayeyarwaddy before sunset.

DAY 4: Bagan - Mandalay

Burma is renowned as “The Golden Land”, a name inspired by Marco Polo to describe the dramatic view of the gold-spired pagodas that can be found throughout the country. Mandalay is a former capital city. Attend the daily meal of over a thousand monks at the country’s largest monastery, Mahagandayon in the bygone capital of Amarapura [I was fortunate enough to meet a young monk studying greek philosophy who made an introduction to his master Ashin Kelasa whose focus is education, education, education!]. Much is made of the nearby 200 year‐old U Bein Bridge, constructed entirely from teak, but I personally found it over-rated and disturbing with hawkers peddling trapped baby owls and many with disabilities begging along the entire bridge. Back in town visit the Mahamuni Pagoda, home to a Buddha statue covered in gold leaf by followers so often that, although the face remains visible, it has lost its original shape. Mandalay also has long been known as a center of skilled craftsmanship and in former times supplied the Royal Court. A tour of traditional workshops includes crafts such as woodcarving, marble masonry, Kalaga tapestry and gold‐leaf making. At the end of the afternoon, before sunset, visit the Kuthodaw Pagoda with its 729 marble stone slabs of Buddhist scriptures [known as the world’s biggest book], Shwenandaw Monastery, noted for its exquisite woodcarving and the impressive Kyauktawgyi Pagoda with its huge sitting Buddha.

where to stay:Mandalay Hill Resort lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Recommended simply for the spa which is a treat!  The Road to Mandalay: 1 hour by air from Yangon/a twenty minute flight from Bagan [all flights are at ungodly hours like 6.30am and there is often only one a day to your chosen destination!]

DAY 6: Mandalay

An excursion to the former capitals of Ava and Sagaing. Covered with 600 white‐painted pagodas and monasteries, Sagaing Hill is regarded as the religious centre of the country and is home to 3,000 monks and 100 meditation centers. Visit a nunnery for morning prayers and a glimpse of the novice nuns o so pretty in pink. Organise a meditation guide for a 3hour introduction to Buddhism and meditation. Continue to Ava, the capital from 14th to 18th centuries and visit by horse and carriage the teak wood Bagaya Monastery and the remains of the Royal Palace.

Other options: board a private local boat for a 1hour cruise on the Irrawaddy River towards the site of Mingun, famous for its huge unfinished pagoda and the Mingun Bell, considered to be the world’s largest uncracked ringing bell. Also visit the Hsinbyume Pagoda or drive to Mahamuni Pagoda and the nearby marble street to photograph laborers creating white marble Buddha statues by hand. Early morning: visit the Jade Market where vendors are processing, buying and selling jade, one of Burma’s most sought‐after commodities.

image: Niko von Huetz

DAY 7: Mandalay - Heho - Inle Lake

Organise a flight to Heho in Shan State and a 2hour scenic drive towards Nyaung Shwe, the gateway to Inle Lake, one of Burma's best‐known sights. At Nyaung Shwe, a must see is Shwe yan Pyae Monastery and the stunning temple alongside with glasswork murals. Then head to your hotel via boat rather than by road...a wonderful introduction to Inle Lake!

The Intha people inhabit the lake shores and floating villages. Traditional fishermen row with one leg while the other is used to balance on the boat. Floating gardens, built up from strips of water hyacinth and mud, are anchored to the bottom with bamboo poles. Visit the floating villages and the daily market rotating around the villages on the lake. Include a visit to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, the lotus weaving village of Inpawkhon, a local cheroot factory, a silver workshop and the 'jumping cats’ monastery with antique Buddha statues. Lunch at Inthe Heritage for deliciousness and views across the lake. Must-Do: on the way to Inle Lake, although a detour, visit an elephant conservation project in Kalaw created to protect the Asian elephant and provide a sustainable livelihood for local people. A guide specialising in elephant conservation will organise a half-day trek through a protected forest... encounter elephants, their mahouts and hill tribes, and help the mahout bathe and feed the elephants... where to stay: Inle Princess Resort

DAY 8: Inle Lake

Visit the daily morning market on the lake. From the middle of the lake, continue down a narrow jade-coloured canal leading to the Paoh village of In Dein. Explore the covered stairway to the Alaung Sitthou area where ancient stupas are partly covered by vegetation and from this vantage point look out across the lake. Ask your guide to organise lunch with a local family...

Inle Lake - Heho - Yangon

Travel Tips for Burma
Visas and Accommodation
Organise visas before arrival into Burma. Visa on arrival is only available from select destinations. British nationals should apply for a visa at the nearest Burmese embassy or Consulate well in advance of travelling. London: Myanmar Embassy, 19A Charles Street, W1. In person: submit a downloaded/completed form with passport image, passport, £14 cash and then return a week later for your visa...It is not same day! By post: a month. Demand for hotel accommodation during high season [November to March] is high so book well in advance.
Cash and Credit Cards
There are no ATM cash points in Burma. Bring dollars, preferably hundred dollar bills but not old ones as vendors will not accept notes that are torn, stamped, or have a fold in the middle.
Mobile Phones There are no roaming mobile phone agreements with other countries in Burma.
Dress Appropriately respect Buddhist customs and dress appropriately when entering a place of Buddhist worship. Shorts, sleeveless tops will cause offence; shoes and socks should be removed before entering a pagoda or monastery. Women should cover shoulders and wear loose clothing.
Ground Agent: Abercrombie&Kent for luxury tailor-made travel to emerging and established destinations or  KHIRI TRAVEL- offices in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. They specialize in out-of-the-ordinary itineraries for individual travelers, believe that responsible tourism promotes sustainable development of the region, and give priority to suppliers and grassroots projects that stimulate nature conservation and environmental awareness.

DAY 9: 'Indochine'...Luang Prabang, Laos

DAY 9 Luang Prabang

'For centuries Luang Prabang was the cultural, religious and political centre of the country. When power moved south to Vientiane, Luang Prabang was left like a genteel and elderly aristocrat inhabiting the old estate, still grand if a trifle threadbare.' By Stanley Stewart: 'Gilded Pleasures: Luang Prabang' featured in Condé Nast Traveller, November 2009 issue.

Everyone is seduced by Luang Prabang. Since Laos opened its doors tentatively to tourism in the 1980s, visitors have talked in reverent tones about the sleepy town far upcountry on the banks of the Mekong. It captivates. It weaves a spell. It carries some flavour of Indochina before the modern world encroached. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Luang Prabang was once the country’s former capital and today is considered one of Indochina’s cultural gems.

Lying amidst the rolling hills of the Upper Mekong it is filled with a dazzling mix of royal wats, French colonial architecture and traditionally attired monks. In the afternoon visit the stunning golden temple of Wat Xieng Thong, a key element in Luang Prabang's successful submission to UNESCO for recognition as a World Heritage site. With its striking gold and turquoise stone mosaics, intricate carvings, glass mosaic bodhi tree, temples and chapels set in gardens of bougainvillea, frangipani and banyon trees, this is the finest royal wat in the city. Later, a journey to the summit of the forested slopes of Phu Sii Hill offers some spectacular views out across the city and the surrounding countryside, taking in the majestic course of the Mekong river and the hazy mountains in the far distance. [How to get there: Yangon to Bangkok and connect with a direct flight to Luang Prabang.]

The Mekong river meanders pass the township of Luang Prabang

apsara stone mosaics and intricate carvings at Wat Xieng Thong...following my new friend through the temples with offerings after morning alms.

DAY 10 & DAY 11 Luang Prabang

The highlight: a ritual that takes place each morning at 6.30am when over 300 monks emerge from their various Wats in clementine-coloured robes to form a silent file through the town collecting alms. Lining the street are devout locals, with their mats and wicker baskets  offering the sticky rice they have prepared earlier that morning. As the monks pass, they roll the rice into balls and drop these in the begging bowls. At the end of the main street the monks quietly disperse and return to their temples for breakfast and prayer. It is a simple, moving demonstration of the Buddhist faith. Another must-see is the night market...

The Royal Palace, now the National Museum, was built in 1904 for King Sisavang Vong and retains many of its original features as well as an interesting assortment of gifts presented to Laos from various foreign nations. Other important Luang Prabang temples include Vat Visoun, known as the “Watermelon Stupa” for its stupa’s unusual spherical shape, Vat Aham and Vat Mai. The best views of Luang Prabang are from the top of the 100m Mount Phousi.

The Mekong has long been one of Asia’s major trading highways. An interesting afternoon trip from Luang Prabang is a journey by boat on the Mekong River to the Pak Ou Caves, carved out of a towering limestone cliff and crammed full of thousands of gold lacquered Buddha statues. Migrating from the mountain regions of southern China, the H’mong are renowned for their fine embroidery and handmade jewellery. Rather than visit the local village on the way [very tourist trail] instead visit The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Museum for a small but well done display of ethnic cultural objects.

Viper-and-scorpion-infused lau lau whisky

where to shop

CARUSO LAO - 60 Sakaline Road www.carusolao.com. As much gallery as store, Sandra Yuck has spent over a decade designing elegant homeware with local weavers, master carvers and silversmiths. Standout pieces include intricately carved wooden budhhas edged in silver.

where to stay

  • Amantaka    
  • Carved out of what was once the French Colonial Hospital, now under a UNESCO World Heritage preservation order, the low-slung buildings contain 24 spacious suites, all but eight with private pools, surrounding a central garden with a pool at one end and a grove of perfumed frangipani at the other. The interiors are stark and stunning, although slightly clinical, with plain shutters, white walls and huge black-and-white photographs of local Buddhist monks by Hans Georg Berger. Conde Nast Traveller Hot List 2010. Rating: opulent
  • La Residence Phou Vao

    This five-star property is an elegant blend of traditional architecture and modern luxury. It is away from the centre, but a shuttle bus can take you into town, and numerous rickshaws will ferry you home. Ask for a room overlooking the pool for views. Rating: deluxe
  • Hotel de la Paix
  • Architect Duangrit Bunnag has created a haven away from the hustle and bustle of the town centre by blending existing colonial buildings with new, modern structures."Luang Prabang is a city that strictly follows the historical construction guidelines led by UNESCO as a part of the commitment to its nomination as a World Heritage site," says Bunnag. The concept has been to balance historical value and modern comfort. Each of the 23 individually-designed suites has contemporary interiors and opens onto a private garden with either a pool or an outdoor pavilion. Rating: deluxe. Or stay at sister boutique hotel 3 Nagas in the centre of town...

DAY 12: LUANG PRABANG TO HONG KONG

where to stay: Upper House

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