|October 3 2019||18 nights
|Yes||$7820 pp||add $1550|
It was 2003 and I was in the Yangon office of Asian Trails, our longstanding partner in South-East Asia and China, discussing Burma and its future with Laurent Kuenzle, who was the country manager (and now CEO of Asian Trails worldwide). He said to me 'Ross, you must go on the Burma Road' as he dragged out a map and sprawled it across the coffee table.
Travelling north from Mandalay this British-built road heads into the northeast Shan states, an area previously off-limits to foreigners and where opium poppies once grew. The road is winding and we pass many Shan villages with thatched huts and simple living. Bordering the Shan state is Yunnan province in southern China. This land of high mountains and huge rivers is inhabited by over 36 indigenous groups dressed in their colourful costumes, with animist beliefs and ancient rituals. It was here during WWII that the Nationalist Chinese fought furiously against the Japanese invaders, eventually defeating them at the Salween River. There are the ancient tea horse caravan towns of Dali and Lijiang to spend time in before we reach Tiger Leaping Gorge and the high Tibetan mountains.
I took Laurent’s advice and in 2005 we operated our very first Old Burma Road journey. To this day it remains a favourite for us and our guests.
Along the bustling waterfront of Strand Road, former colonial buildings slumber in the tropical sun. Their grand designs seem incongruous to the street life where hawkers, commuters, rickshaws and cars scramble for space in this former colonial city that the British called Rangoon. Its centrepiece is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a glistening golden sentinel to the life of Buddha that sets the scene for any journey in Myanmar. A few hours here feels like a week as you slip under its spell of calmness and serenity.
Arguably the jewel in the crown of any visit to Myanmar is Inle Lake in the southern Shan states. Our private boats skip across the water from the jetty town of Nyaung Shwe, to be greeted by the local people fishing with conical nets, and paddling their small canoes with one leg, an oar tucked firmly between calf and thigh. Everything about Inle Lake is unique; its aquaculture, stilted houses over waterways, 16th century stupas and ethnic groups. Our hotel is set by the water’s edge with wonderful views of the setting sun.
In 1885 the British sailed up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay and landed their forces. With the regimental band at the head of its column, they advanced on the palace. The end of the Myanmar royal family came swiftly as the last king capitulated and was exiled to India along with his wife and children. The palace walls remain, however, the 150 gilded teak wood buildings that were once inside have been lost through years of war and neglect. Due to a twist of fate just one building remains from this time, allowing us the chance to see a splendid example of Myanmar architecture from the 17th century. We drive to the top of Mandalay hill for a commanding view of the Old Burma Road heading north to China.
Having conquered upper Burma, the British made peace with the warring Shan nation and established a hill station at Pyin Oo Lwin (formerly Maymyo). We take the two hour drive from Mandalay and spend two nights in this delightful town with its colourful market, stunning botanical garden and most agreeable climate.
We board the train for an adventure across the Gok Tek Bridge to the town of Lashio. The train is very local, tumbling along on its narrow gauge with frequent stops at remote stations. We reach Lashio, formerly a town off-limits to western travellers, with a reputation for smugglers and opium. We spend the night comfortably just 200 kilometres from the Chinese border.
The Old Burma Road was constructed in 1937 from Lashio to Kunming (China). Taking one year to complete its 1154 kilometre journey, the construction came with massive loss of life in harsh conditions. With a mainly indigenous workforce of over 200,000 and little heavy equipment, the road was an attempt to supply the Nationalist Kuomintang Government in China with much needed supplies following the occupation of coastal China by the Japanese. We will see remote countryside, local villages and be part of history as we reach the border town of Muse and walk across the border into China.
We step in to China and into another world. China’s rapid growth has reached the remote town of Ruili, with modern streetscapes, bright lights and western shopping brands. We overnight, then drive into the countryside of Yunnan province; the mountains rising around us and ethnic groups of Lisu, Dai and Yi people working their fields of tobacco and corn. Our destination is Tenchong, famous for its jade trading with Myanmar, and also where the Japanese invasion from the south was finally halted in 1944. We visit the impressive Burma Road museum, and spend the morning in the traditional Chinese village of Hershwin with its courtyard houses, ponds and narrow alleys.
A spectacular drive today as we head across the mountains, reaching over 3000 metres at Mt Goligo before descending to the Nujiang River (also known as the Salween River). During the Cultural Revolution, many Beijing academics were sent to this area to reform through labour and become good peasants. Their stories are lost but their legacy remains with prosperous fruit gardens of papaya, mangoes, pepper and macadamias. We continue on the Old Burma Road, then meet the new highway that cuts across the top of the range with many tunnels and massive bridges. We cross the mighty Mekong River then descend into the ancient town of Dali, once a kingdom of China during the 9th century.
The old town of Dali was originally walled and several of the main gates have been restored to their former grandeur. Dali is the homeland of the Bai people; their colourful costumes and ancient tradition still alive and well in the 21st century. We will visit the three pillar pagoda, the symbol of Dali and over 1000 years old, and explore the old streets of Dali.
For 1000 years Yunnan province has been famous for the production and trading of tea. The ancient town of Lijiang was once an important caravan town on the tea horse trails. Set at the foot of the imposing Jade Snow Mountain, Lijiang is the home of the Naxi people, an ethnic minority who have reputations as traders and negotiators. The village is a series of interconnecting houses and alleys through which streams run, interspersed with bridges and small weirs. We will wander the streets and see a performance called ‘Impression Lijiang’, produced by China’s most famous director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), with a cast of 400 actors and 100 horses.
We continue north into the foothills of the Himalaya where the Yangtze River lies between us and the Tibetan plateau. The river is flanked by huge mountains that rise to 5000 metres and narrow the river into a gorge. The gorge was made famous by the legend of a leaping tiger that was allegedly chased by a local warrior until the tiger leapt across the river to the opposite bank using a giant fallen rock as a stepping stone. Known as Tiger Leaping Gorge, we visit the rock and marvel at the force of the Yangtze as it gushes its way to Shanghai.
Our journey reaches its climax and also its highest point as we ascend onto the Tibetan plateau and the town of Zhong Dian. The landscape is immediately different as pine trees edge onto grey peaks and wild rhododendrons flourish. The Tibetan houses are huge; built from mud brick and giant pine timbers with prayer flags decorating the roof. We visit the impressive Songstam Monastery, home to the Red Hat order of Tibetan monks to see their daily life, and later visit a Tibetan house to enjoy some zanba and yak butter tea.
Our journey complete, we fly to the provincial capital of Kunming and settle into the comfortable surrounds of Green Lake Park. Depart the following day for home or continue your travels.
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The train from Lashio to Maymyo
The British colonialists constructed a railway line from Rangoon to Lashio in Shan State, northern Burma. Lashio is where I start my journey, heading south to Maymyo.
It is not possible to buy tickets in advance so I must front up at the ticket counter by 4.15 am on the morning of departure. I manage to wake by 3.30am and I am ready to go a few minutes later, heading downstairs from my rustic lodgings to be greeted by bleary-eyed reception workers who have very kindly prepared a breakfast pack for me. I head off in the darkness for the railway station, which is fortunately just a five minute drive from my accommodation. It is an eerie experience as the car pulls up at the station. I can hear music wandering softly through the night, and there are already opportunistic shop owners opening for business - candles for lights, shadows and silhouettes, people on the move. They are selling provisions for the journey ahead: water, beer, peanuts, sweet bread and fruit; just about anything you can think of. more
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