In the last few years, no destination has garnered more press, international interest and increase in tourism than Burma. Until 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi, affectionately known in Burma as ‘The Lady’, asked tourists to stay away from the country so as not to benefit the military junta and its supporters. Following widespread political changes, and a change of feeling by Suu Kyi, tourists have swarmed to Burma in a way unlike any other country in recent history. Although tourists have visited since 1997 (the country’s official ‘year of tourism’), these have tended to be European tourists travelling in large organised tours which only visited certain destinations deemed ‘appropriate’ by the junta. Now, the trend of independent and, often, high-end travellers has seen hotels in Burma experience record levels of popularity and occupancy to the point that demand is massively exceeding supply. With the opening up of the country and the tourism trade, hotels in Burma are mushrooming up all over the country. Luckily, the trend with new properties is that hotels are moving away from the bland international hundred-plus room model, to more boutique and ‘Burmese’ properties. I was lucky enough to visit the country in September where I set about on a comprehensive tour of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, Hsipaw, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Here are my favourite hotels that I stayed at along the way…. 1. The Amara You’d be forgiven for thinking that you were in the home counties at this charming hotel located just outside Kalaw, a former British colonial hill station. Rooms in The Amara are split between two buildings; one cottage that dates from colonial times and one new build; although the renovation and construction has been so skilfully done that you wouldn’t know the difference. Both quaint cottages are surrounded by what can only be described as English country gardens; colourful flower beds, smooth green lawns, an organic vegetable patch and leafy fruit orchards are all frequented by the owner’s two bounding golden Labradors, which only compounds the feeling that you are staying a friend’s country house rather than at a hotel. Unlike the majority of hotels, rooms at The Amara aren’t uniform. Split over two floors in each building, some rooms are situated under the eaves and have charming sloping roofs, others have expansive double aspect views over the gardens and all have creaky wooden floorboards and pretty patterned curtains; whichever room you stay in you won’t be disappointed. Although the majority of visitors come to Kalaw to trek in the surrounding Shan hills, I would personally recommend a visit to the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp – a 45 minute scenic drive outside the town reached by driving through winding mountain roads. Set up and owned by an incredibly hospitable Burmese couple, this inspiring centre cares for retired elephants that were previously employed in the harsh logging industry. The centre is also heavily involved in the local community and does inspiring work taking care of the environment, providing free schools and health care to those who live in the area. All in all, this will be a day trip that doesn’t disappoint. 2. Inle Princess Resort
This community-focussed resort is simply the most charming on Inle Lake. Situated on the banks of a quiet part of the lake, the majority of the resort’s wooden chalets have direct lake views, which makes the resort a very appealing option. However, in my eyes, the real draw of Inle Princess Resort is the feel of the place; owned and run by a local Burmese lady and her French husband, the property has been designed to ensure that tourism becomes a source for good for the local people of Inle Lake. Furniture and soft furnishings are made on site with local materials, the majority of employees comes from neighbouring villages, food is bought from local markets or grown nearby and waste and harm to the environment is minimal – a nice feeling when many of Burma’s nicer hotels still have links to the former military junta. At Inle Princess service is warm and heart-felt, the grounds are picturesque and very well cared for, the food fantastic and feels home-cooked, the spa sensational and the chalets very homely and well thought out. Chalets are all very similar, their main difference being their location. Try and avoid Mountain View Chalets in preference for Pond View or, ideally, Lake Front Chalets. Outdoor showers, impossibly comfortable beds and a private balcony make these a real draw. I was particularly impressed by the spa at Inle Princess; reached by crossing a teak bridge over a romantically lily-pad strewed pond, spa rooms have floor to ceiling windows that fill the space with light and expansive views of the lush paddy fields beyond. And, at the end of a long day on the lake, I can think of nowhere more pleasant than the hotel’s lake-front restaurant to see in the serene sunset and ward away the mosquitos with a clinking G&T before digging into the signature Shan menu (to die for!).
Inle Lake View is currently, in my opinion, the slickest boutique hotel in Burma right now. Built and decorated to an incredibly high standard, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay and was thrilled to hear that hotel’s parent company, Senda, are planning on opening three new hotels across Burma in the next couple of years (the first to open will be The Loft, in downtown Yangon). Although the hotel, strictly speaking, has lake access, all rooms and buildings are set back slightly away from the lake on the banks. Although critics lambaste a hotel on Inle Lake that isn’t directly located on the water, in my opinion the absence of insects and abundance of surrounding greenery feels a lot more pleasant than a lot of the stilted wooden bungalows that are the norm in this part of Burma. On arrival the lobby made me think of one of my favourite hotels in the world, The Datai on Langkawi island, due to the clever use of dark teak wood, antique furniture, buildings that are open to the elements and leafy wooded surroundings. Rooms, the restaurant and spa are spread away from the lobby over several different buildings, all linked by a series of garden pathways. Rooms differ quite dramatically over categories and I would recommend against using Deluxe Rooms (the entry category) as these can feel dark and located slightly out of the way. However, the hotel’s Junior Suites and Lakeside Villas are both sensational; full of light and decorated with modern minimalist furniture (but still with a strong Burmese feel), these feel incredibly comfortable and truly luxurious. The hotel’s real highlight has to be the fine dining restaurant. Managed by a new French F&B manager, it was refreshing (after 14 days of rice, noodles and curry galore) to eat a mouth-watering European menu – the highlight being a melt in your mouth chocolate soufflé. Other stand out aspects of Inle Lake View include the 15 minute (mine was at least 25) complimentary massage on arrival and quiet, romantic and adult feel.
4. The Strand An absolutely stunning colonial era property, The Strand is Yangon’s oldest hotel and without a doubt the city’s grand dame. An all suite hotel (with only 30 rooms), a stay at The Strand is the height of luxury. The arrival into the hotel’s grand lobby, up the red carpeted staircase and into my suite has to be one of the smoothest experiences I undertook in Burma. All suites comes with their own dedicated butler who will assist you with everything from serving breakfast in your suite (a must) to unpacking your bag and booking (much needed) restaurant reservations at Le Planteur. Suites are enormous and the pinnacle of colonial style; heavy wooden furniture, endless ceilings, crisp white linen and so much space that any hotel room you visit afterwards will feel pale in comparison. With the Governor’s Residence as its main competition, The Strand has, unfortunately, and in my opinion unfairly, not got the recognition it deserves. This has perhaps been the effect of a lengthy riverside renovation (which created debris and noise directly outside the hotel’s doors), a shifting preference for hotels outside the downtown and the fact that Governor’s has a swimming pool. However, I am a firm advocate on staying in the downtown – especially if you are returning to Yangon at the end of a countrywide tour. Unlike hotels in the city’s leafier embassy quarters, from The Strand you can explore the city by foot right from your door; Yangon’s many crumbling colonial buildings are located all around and can be toured with a specialist guide or independently. If all that exploring makes you hungry then be sure to return to The Strand Café for high tea served on starched white tablecloths on rattan furniture under whirring ceiling fans. Whether you are staying here or not, there is nowhere better to eat on a Saturday night than The Strand Grill. An exquisitely restored room, this is an example of colonial grandeur at its very best; high ceilings, a highly polished monochrome tile floor, neoclassical pillars and Burmese black lacquer detailing makes this an experience not to be missed. And best of all, the bar (a Saturday night Yangon institution) is just next door for some well deserved after dinner drinks. Read more about The Strand’s history here. 5. Governor’s Residence
My all time favourite hotel in Burma, The Governor’s Residence, an Orient Express hotel, absolutely stole my heart. Arriving at night from the airport, walking down the romantically lit wooden walkway into the hotel encapsulated the idealistic romance that the majority of Brits expect from Burma. An absolutely beautiful building, originally the home of a colonial governor, the Governor’s Residence has been sensitively restored in a way that manages to successfully combine being both a luxury boutique hotel and a stylish heritage building in its own right – not something that many hotels manage to achieve. An elegant mansion decorated with delicate colonial-era detailing, The Governor’s Residence is the place to stay for those looking to live out some colonial era fantasies; whether it be a G&T before dinner or an evening cocktail party on the lawn. Relax by the fan-shaped swimming pool under the shade of a traditional Burmese parasol, sip on a Kipling Sling at the first floor open-air lounge or enjoy a candle-lit dinner overlooking the lily-pond; whatever you do at the Governor’s Residence it will be in a style. In my opinion the best room category in the hotel is the Governor’s Rooms; dark wooden furniture and Burmese decor feels tasteful and antique, but, be warned, as with all the rooms, views out of the windows often are into other rooms or public spaces of the hotel, meaning that privacy can only be achieved with the blinds down.
Although the majority of hotels that cater for tourists in Bagan are situated in the old part of the town around the temples, the prize for location, without a doubt, goes to Aureum Palace. Built almost around the temples themselves, when staying at Aureum it is hard to forget where you are – whether relaxing by the temple-facing pool, watching the sunset from your private terrace or taking dinner in the expansive open-air restaurant. There is no denying that Aureum Palace is a large hotel that at times can feel a touch on the soulless side However, with most accommodation in Burma still relatively simple (at least on an international scale), it can be nice to indulge in some modern comforts (for one or two nights of your trip at least). As with all Aureum properties bathrooms are enormous (soak in the light-streamed tub, enjoy a powerful rain shower, unpack in your own dressing room), beds are soft and inviting and the AC is powerful – nice things to return to after a sweat-soaked day of temple exploration. The Aureum is also home to Bagan’s infamous eyesore, its own viewing tower. Although there is no denying that this structure is hideous from the outside, if you can’t get on a sunrise balloon ride, the 12th level viewing tower with views over the plains is easily the next best thing for panoramics of Bagan.
7. Popa Mountain Resort Located slightly off the tourist trail, few travellers make the journey to Mount Popa, about 50 km from Bagan. Although the temples of Bagan are fantastic, I’m a big advocator of taking the time to go slightly off road, especially as Burma, known as the golden land of temples, has the potential to ‘temple-out’ even the most ardent cultural tourist. Mount Popa is an extinct volcano with green wooded hills and a laidback countryside feel. Those tourists who do venture to Popa do so for the Taung Kalat Temple, a magical monastery perched on the very top of a sheer sided volcano plug. Although you are encouraged to climb the 777 steps to the top (past your fair share of aggressive monkeys) I would personally recommend skipping this and heading straight to Popa Mountain Resort, a short drive up the hill. A quaint property, Popa Mountain Resort has a selection of cottages nestled amongst lush jungle and gardens. From the impressive infinity pool (a perfect place to spend a hot afternoon) to the Temple View Rooms (don’t consider any other category), the views of this surreal Disney-like structure are unbeatable. From Popa Mountain Resort you can go on a variety of guided treks, go horse-riding, dine at the open air hilltop restaurant, sample the spa or just enjoy the view from your balcony. If you do want to include Mount Popa in your itinerary I would recommend doing this on the second day of your time in Bagan. This means that you can enjoy your first day in old Bagan, exploring the temples, taking in sunset from the Irrawaddy River, enjoy a magical sunrise balloon ride over Bagan and still have time for a trek in Mount Popa on your second afternoon. 8. Thiripyisaya Bagan’s best boutique option, Thiripyitsaya is dreamily located on the banks of Burma’s Irrawaddy River. Although the vast majority of hotels in Bagan are located within Old Bagan, often amongst the temples themselves, a stay at Thiripyitsaya, with its river views, feels much more relaxing due to the feeling of openness and space that is often missing from the competition. Standard rooms, housed in a series of ‘bungalows’ (all identical bar a view of either the river or the gardens), do have a slightly Camp America feel, so I would definitely suggest staying in one of the hotel’s 8 River Suites. As you would expect, these are located on the river bank, and each have their own private river-facing terrace, a large four poster bed and spacious bathrooms. Although a little dated in style, there is a feel of faded colonial grandeur about the suites, and are all surrounded by the hotel’s gardens and lawns and are a very short walking distance from the idyllic river-facing swimming pool, fringed by traditional red Burmese parasols. At night is when this hotel really comes into its own; lit by candles and twinkling lights, while dining in the uninterrupted darkness the only sound you can hear is the river flowing below and the chirping crickets all around. A solitary line of tables looks out over the garden and the quiet, adult feel of the resort makes Thiripysitsaya a very romantic option. There is an indoor restaurant and covered bar, but make sure to reserve the outdoor tables well in advance. Large, open, spacious and green, the hotel’s gardens and swimming pool are a great place to spend an afternoon taking in Bagan’s other attraction, the scenic Irrawaddy River. 9. Mandalay Hill Resort Outside Yangon, Mandalay Hill Resort is the biggest and blingest hotel you’ll find in Burma. Although those who travel to Burma often profess their love for small, authentic, boutique style hotel, having travelled the country for over two weeks, I was very happy to rest my head in a place that matches the standards of international luxury hotels. Ideally located on the northern side of Mandalay’s Royal Palace moat, rooms at Mandalay Hill Resort have views of either the moat or the green Mandalay Hill crowned with its glittering gold pagodas. Either is very pleasant, but the view over the hill spans for miles, giving the impression of added space to any room. The hotel has all the elements you would expect of a property of this calibre; spa, swimming pool, international buffet restaurant, bar, expansive gardens and a ninth floor dedicated exclusively to a range of luxurious suites (the Executive Suites were my favourite), large tour groups in trainers and white socks and groups of business men milling about in the lobby. However, Mandalay Hill Resort is more than the some of its parts and I would definitely recommend a stay here, especially if you are heading to Hsipaw or Pyin Oo Lwin and are returning to Mandalay for one last night. The spa was one of the best I saw in Burma, and hosts the hotel’s two ‘Spa Villas’, absolutely magical suites that are decorated in a range of rich Burmese fabrics, gold ornaments and sexy mood lighting; the ultimate honeymoon love nest. Past the spa, the hotel’s tropical gardens extend further than you would expect and surround an atmospheric al fresco restaurant and a series of green jungle pathways. Most of all, I enjoyed the rooms at Mandalay Hill Resort. Beds, unlike a lot of hotels in Burma, engulf you and made it hard to get up for a morning of sightseeing. Showers are hot and powerful, the AC is pumping, the room service is punctual and the views are fantastic. For one night of luxury within a slightly more basic tour, I couldn’t recommend this hotel highly enough. 10. Rupar Mandalar Originally designed as a private residence, Rupar Mandalar is the best small hotel option in Mandalay. The other hotel that can been considered ‘boutique’ – The Hotel by the Red Canal – although very charming, is a touch on the small side. Rupar Mandalar, in contrast, is situated in a large and green compound on the outskirts of the city, out of the way from the Mandalay’s hustle and bustle. Although fans of central Mandalay hotels such as Mandalay Hill Resort and The Sedona claim that Rupar Mandalar’s location is an issue, I personally felt that it was beneficial to have a respite from the city after a long day of sightseeing. Despite romantic connotations of Mandalay that probably stem from Kipling’s famous poem, 21st century Mandalay is a busy city that teams with citizens going about their business on an American-like grid layout. Rooms at Rupar Mandalar are large and have everything you expect, but the real benefit of the hotels is its facilities. For a hotel with only 22 rooms there is a gigantic swimming pool (rumoured to be the largest in the city), gym, sauna and steam rooms, a small spa, gem shop (for those famous Mandalay rubies), outdoor bar and entertainment area and private dining facilities – in other words, every need is catered for. The other major plus at Rupar Mandalar is the service; incredibly heartfelt, staff go out of their way to please and are incredibly charming (as with the majority of Burmese hotel staff), further compounding the feeling that you are staying at friend’s house rather than a hotel. Due to its popularity, the hotel is expanding, with 20 new rooms to open early next year. In the meantime, expect building works and a small level of disturbance during working hours. Have you been to Burma recently? I’d love to hear what you thought about the hotels there. Or if you’re planning on heading there soon I’m always happy to share more recommendations!
Cover photo courtesy of www.epgtravel.com