Burma tourism blossoms with new river cruises

There are very few civilizations left in the world that are not inundated with Western culture. In 1990, the newly liberated Budapest was a city with no billboards, shopping malls or fast food franchises, but upon my return there last year I was amazed and saddened by how quickly things can change.

So the opening up of Burma, also known as Mynanmar, and lifting of international sanctions on the military dictatorship for its record of human rights abuses, has me especially intrigued.  It's said the newly opened Burma remains the most authentic Asian culture in the world. So this is an opportunity to seize as soon as possible.

One of the most popular ways to do that is on a cruise of Burma's Irrawaddy River.  And although the country maybe a new addition for Americans wanting to check out some of the world's most significant historical sights,  the well-worn itineraries are pure exotica.

The Mystery of Burma

Just northwest of Thailand with 1,200 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal, Burma is among the most ancient and ardent followers of Buddhist culture in Southeast Asia. The country's thousands of pagodas and temples -- many covered in gold and some more than 2,000 years old -- create a feast for the senses with colorful sights, scents and sounds.

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The name of its largest city may ring a bell: Rangoon. Now a thousand years old with a population of 7 million, it has welcomed only a limited number of Western visitors in the modern era. The 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, considered the most sacred site in Burma, is a bell-shaped tower 300 feet tall and sheathed in more gold (they claim) than is held by the Bank of England. This soaring golden icon (proper name: stupa) is believed to hold eight strands of hair from Siddhartha Guatama, the incarnation of Buddha, at the time it was originally built.

Also in Rangoon is the infamous 200-foot-long statue of the “reclining Buddha,” adorned with a crown of diamonds. (It is not the original Buddha on the site, but a remake of one that once towered over the city's temples, left so sadly neglected that fifty years ago he “got tired and fell down.”) These relics are just a taste of the intense Buddhist devotion that defines Burma.

The city of Bagan epitomizes the epoch when Burma was a center of Buddhist culture. Within 26 square miles in and around Bagan, more than 4,400 temples were built with a religious fervor between the 11th and 13th centuries. Bagan attracted monks and pilgrims from thousands of miles away, and even Marco Polo hailed it as “a gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.” The city still has more than 2,000 standing temples today. Hot air balloon rides over the region are popular.

How to See Burma

In Burma, the word “foreign” applies to far more than mere geography. The language, the culture, its stark isolation from the modern world, and even the still controversial political climate all indicate you need a great tour provider. Two of the tours highlighted below were just announced last month -- because it takes time to travel there and organize them. Orient Express has been operating its tours for only a few years.

Let’s start with Viking River Cruises’ brand new 16-day “Memories of Mandalay” Irrawaddy River cruise, sailing from Pyay to Mandalay (starting price $5,500 without airfare).

Or you can brag about booking with the infamous "Orient Express” company on an 11-night river cruise to the more northerly Gorges of Bhamo (single cabin $4,030 for 11 nights without airfare).

Or for a great value, especially for solo travelers, you can try Grand Circle Cruise Line’s new 15-day land tour and Irrawaddy River cruise from Bagan to Mandalay for as little as $3,995 per person ($5,295 with airfare), and with no surcharges for traveling solo.

The land and river itineraries of all three companies vary somewhat, so do your research before you commit to one.

With all three companies highlighted here, most shore tours are included in the fare, although some optional excursions are offered at reasonable prices. On the river cruises, everyone will visit Buddhist monasteries, explore villages with British Colonial architecture, and get a taste of the major cities of Rangoon and Mandalay.

Everyone should enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride through the Bagan archeological zone dotted with hundreds of temples a thousand years old within a 26 square mile region. Optionally, you can see it from above in a hot-air balloon. Later in the tour come the cave temples of Hpo Win Duang and Shwe Ba Duang, filled with works of art from the 14th to 18th centuries.

As mentioned, each of these companies has a slightly different itinerary and words alone cannot do justice to the beauty of Burma, so I highly recommend visiting the links below. Viking Rivers spends more time and sails further south on the Irrawaddy, while Orient Express sails further north (as just one of many possible choices). Grand Circle, offering the 15 days and the lowest price, is the value leader, highly recommended especially for solo travelers but for couples as well.