“Min ga la ba” and hello from Ellie and Sacha in the temple-strewn plains of Bagan! From the elegant southern city of Yangon, the second stop on our Burma reccy has taken us to central Burma – a breathtakingly beautiful landscape which is literally littered with thousands of ancient temples. Alas, it is time for us to leave (next stop: Mandalay), but these have been the Top 10 highlights of our stay in Bagan:
The Ampersand Travel team’s top travel recommendations for the year ahead….
Secluded deep within Bhutan’s Punakha Valley lies the stunning new 11-room Uma Punakha. Launched in September 2012, this is the sister property of Uma Paro, renowned for its COMO Shambhala massages, yoga and wellness facilities. The unveiling of Uma Punakha is significant because it opens up a new part of the Dragon Kingdom to those who love to combine luxury with adventure and culture. Split your trip between both Uma properties (5 or 7 nights) – and for the extremely adventurous, you can incorporate a stay at the Bumdra Monastery Camp, COMO’s own wilderness campsite high in the Himalayas and accessed only via remote mountain paths. Experienced guides will direct you through the Valleys of Punakha, Thimphu and Paro with activities including day walks, visits to the Dochu Lu, the Punakha Dzong, Taktsang ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Monastery, the National Museum and a wild hike to Kila Nunnery between the valleys of Haa and Paro.
Vivanta by Taj Madikeri Coorg is a new opening located in the misty jungle-shrouded mountains of Karnataka, a beautiful state in south India. If you want to detox from city life and completely switch off, this isolated hillside 4,000 feet above sea level is the perfect setting to do so. The property has 62 rooms and villas spread over 180 acres of rainforest with over 300 species of plants and abundant wildlife. Treat yourself at the Jiva Grande Spa which is hidden under a rainforest canopy or unwind listening to the sounds of the jungle at the Buddha Garden and vast outdoor pool. The design and location of this unique new property make it as invigorating as it is relaxing.
2013 is the year to visit Burma – the land that tourism forgot, but is now swiftly falling for. Stay one step ahead of the madding crowd with Ampersand’s recommendations of where to go and what to do in Burma, including:
- Ballooning over Bagan… Enjoy a sunrise hot air balloon trip over the temples of Bagan with extraordinary views over hundreds of ancient ruins and pagodas which peek out from this remote jungle.
- Sun-worshipping on the idyllic palm-fringed beaches of Ngapali… With one of the longest coastlines in Asia, Burma is a treasure trove of beautiful, unexplored beaches, many of which offer good diving and snorkelling. It works wonderfully as a stand alone beach break – certainly more adventurous than Thailand and with fewer tourists – and just a short plane hop from Yangon. Ngapali is one of the most spectacular sweeps of beach, a 3km stretch of palm-backed sand and the location of Sandoway Resort, one of Ampersand’s favourite hotels in Asia.
- The botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin… These colourful gardens are beautifully maintained and a popular spot for honeymooners and families.
- Slicing through the water on Inle Lake on a long-tail boat… Nearly 200 miles south-east of Mandalay lies Inle Lake – a place of heart-stopping beauty where no electricity flows.
- Venture off-the-beaten track to a luxury oasis in Putao… Designed by Aman architect, Jean Michel Gathy, Malikha Lodge is sleek and sexy despite its incredibly far-flung northern location. This is Burma’s greenest, most remote state, home to Lisu and Rawang tribes. You go for forests, trekking, cycling, wildlife, waterfalls, rafting and kayaking – it’s all possible from the lodge. Be aware: Putao is hard to get to and this is reflected in the cost.
- Sailing on the Sea Gypsy… Departing from the homeport of Kaw Thaung, live like a genuine sea gypsy for a week aboard a rustic yet comfortable boat – with nothing to do but sail, dive and swim like a true Moken.
If you are a lover of golf and fine views, there’s nowhere better to stay than the Victoria Golf and Country Resort in Kandy – voted the best golf course in the sub-continent. Sleep in a chalet overlooking the 17th Tee, just steps away from the golfing green with stunning views over the Knuckles Mountain Range. Once you have had your golf fix, head into those wickedly named Knuckles! These thick forested mountains are perfect for those who love to hike, mountain bike or explore local villages and discover waterfalls. The flora and fauna is very impressive and there are many species of mammals found amongst these forests including elephants, giant squirrels and leopards. Rangala House is a charming and homely place with some of the most rewarding views in Sri Lanka overlooking the mountains as well as tea plantations. The drive to Knuckles Range forest conservation is only a 45 minute journey away so whether you want to sit back and marvel at the beauty around you by the pool, or actively explore the range, Rangala House is the place to be.
Our South East Asia specialist Mark recently stayed at Surya Shanti and said it was by far the most special place he experienced in Bali – his new secret discovery which he is eager to share with clients! It offers the archetypal Balinese idyll that everyone is looking for on the island but simply can’t find – and at an affordable price. One hour from Ubud if you want to go shopping but close to a very cute little village, Surya Shanti is otherwise completely surrounded by rice terraces, zero traffic, Mt Agung volcano views from every angle and dramatic valley views leading down to the sea. The property has just 11 villas (4 of which have panoramic views of everything from your bed), 2 swimming pools, a spa, a terraced restaurant and a dining balé in the garden. The gardens are the perfect blend of manicured and wild, and the natural colours of the flowers and plants are utterly kaleidoscopic It is hard to imagine that a place like this still exists on this overcrowded island. Many hotels in Bali go for the wellness angle or full blown luxury, but what Surya Shanti offers is the spiritual essence of Bali – as clichéd as that may sound!
A sailing voyage is the best way to experience the mythical Komodo Islands and the remote Raja Ampat islands. As for which vessel to choose, we think Tiger Blue is the most glamorous yet affordable schooner which sails these seas – a 34-metre phinisi with billowing red sails, sexy teak fittings and 10 en-suite cabins that can sleep 10 people. If you prefer, you can sleep on deck to enjoy the balmy breezy and star filled night skies. There are 9 staff including talented Indonesian chefs (otak-otak or a fresh sashimi snack, perhaps?) and a Dutch dive master who can guide you through the magnificent underwater landscape. Raja Ampat has the richest marine life of anywhere on the planet.
Sumba, a surfer’s paradise just an hour’s flight from Bali, is home to some of the most untouched beaches and traditional villages in Indonesia, as well as the best surfing conditions. The only hotel on the island, the hideaway resort of Nihiwatu Lodge is set amongst 438 acres of tropical forest, rice terraces and grasslands wrapped around the stunning two and half km long Nihiwatu beach. This world-class beach is protected on both ends by cliffs and headlands ensuring total exclusivity. Tucked amongst the trees these luxury bungalows villas all have balcony vistas stretching the full length of the beach, the sea and the headlands beyond. For those who can afford it, we suggest splashing out on their new residences, “Nihiwatu 2.0”, which launched at the end of 2012. These offer more seclusion, better ocean views, a butler service, access to a private pool (shared between the Nihiwatu 2.0 residences) and a higher level of luxury and hardware than the other cottages. Fear not, though… whichever category of villa you choose, they are all stunning.
Song Saa Private Island is the brainchild of an ex-marketing exec Rory and interior designer Melita, an Australian couple who love luxury hotels as much as they love the environment. They have done a truly magnificent job of taking eco-luxe to the next level. If you are used to staying in the best luxury hotels like Amans, Six Senses or COMO Hotels, you will not be disappointed at Song Saa. After identifying the most idyllic undiscovered location – 2 small islands in Cambodia’s Koh Rong archipelago – they have transformed it into a rustic palace decorated with unique and often re-used salvaged items combined with the slickest white lounging sofas and killer beds. The food is Michelin worthy (and it’s all included in the price) and the natural environment and local island culture is safeguarded Rory and Melita, who work hard to protect both. Be warned: this resort is so special and staff are so welcoming that guests have been known to cry on departure!
Please email email@example.com or call +44(0)20 7289 6100 to speak to one of our consultants about any of these trips. They will advise you on your options, plan a bespoke itinerary for you and take care of all the booking details. Happy travels in 2013!
The ethos of Ampersand is that ‘luxury is in the experience’ and Burma is a great example of this. In light of the political changes in Burma, which have created much client interest, Ampersand has been carrying out fact-finding recces for the last three years (during which time our team has spent close to 3 months in Burma collectively) and we started selling holidays there this year.
To help you decide if Burma is the right destination for you, we put James in the hot seat to pick out his top 3 favourite Burma experiences and we asked Robin to dispense a few quick tips on the hotel options in Burma…
JAMES JAYASUNDERA, MD of Ampersand Travel
1. Visiting the giant golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon: Once, we were there for the water festival and it was surrounded by hundreds and thousands of worshippers paying their respects. The air was heavy with the scent of flowers and incense, and the shuffling crowds flowed as one around the pagoda. It was wonderful to see families of all sizes, spanning 4 (perhaps 5) generations, spending time and praying together.
2. Slicing through the water on Inle Lake on a long-tail boat: The water, mountain and sky seemed to merge with one another and the colours were washed out into shades of blue and grey. It was cool – almost cold – and it felt surreal. Here, whole villages live on the water and crops are grown on small strips of floating islands. Rarely has reality felt more dreamlike.
3. Seeing close to 300 young novice monks in the botanical gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin: The gardens are beautifully maintained and a popular spot for honeymooners and families. Deciding to take a rest and watch the world go by, a few young novices came walking around the corner in single file. A few soon became 10, 10 became 20 and before we knew it a sea of red robes were swaying past us. Some were very small, barely 4 years old, whilst others were a little older, all of whom maintained extraordinary discipline and poise. They filed past us and disappeared as silently as they appeared.
ROBIN SMITH, Senior South/ South East Asia Specialist
Yangon: The Governor’s Residence is the most luxurious property in Yangon. It is a superb luxury retreat in the heart of the city, full of character and has a lovely swimming pool. The Strand is perfect if you really want the colonial touch, and The Savoy is slightly less of a colonial property but it’s still very nice and a little bit cheaper.
Mandalay: There are three really good properties in Mandalay – one is the Rupar Mandalar which is a relatively small character hotel and it has lovely rooms but it’s not a big 5 star property. Mandalay Hill Resort is a big 5 star property and, though we don’t normally use such large hotels, we’ve made an exception with this property because the location is great, the food is amazing, and their higher category rooms are fantastic. Also the alternatives, though possibly smaller and more cosy, overall are not necessarily better. The Hotel by the Red Canal is good if you’re looking for something a little cheaper. It is a high-level guest house – almost like a big homestay because the staff so friendly and welcoming – and it has a small pool.
Bagan: Our favourite hotel in Bagan is the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort. It is Japanese owned and they have quite a few rooms – their lowest category rooms are almost like an American summer camp where you have wooden chalets around a garden. The higher category rooms have views over the river and the property itself has a lovely pool with views over the Irrawaddy. It’s a spacious resort with a really positive vibe. Aureum Palace has very nice rooms and a knockout pool with views directly overlooking the Bagan plains dotted with temples… really quite amazing. Its top notch location is perfect for exploring the temples by bike or foot. The Hotel at Tharabar Gate is a good option if you’re looking for something a little cheaper – it is a mid-range character hotel, well located and the hotel is sprawled over a fairly large area.
Ngapali: Sandoway Resort is definitely our number one choice. Their rooms, especially their lower category rooms, are extremely well priced – particularly compared with Thailand’s resorts. If you really want to enjoy the end of your trip, the beachfront villas at Sandoway are truly unbeatable with double doors that open onto the beach so you can walk straight out onto the sand. It really rocks – it’s a beautiful hotel! Ngapali Bay View is a relatively new property, old and decrepit until about 2011 when they did it up. They have massive rooms but the gardens aren’t as mature as Sandoway Resort, which is right next door. However, it’s still a really nice property, well managed and everything is up to date and new. The Amara Beach is on a different beach the other side of the airport – the beach itself is nice but there are some rocks in the water so it’s not quite as charming a place to swim, but if you want some seclusion and no tourists this is a really good one to choose because it’s really on its own. And it only has a small inventory of rooms, which are all very nice.
Inle Lake: Inle Princess is one of our favourite hotels in Burma and it has the chicest clientele in Inle.. It’s a really charming, small lakeside property, the rooms are lovely and the lakefront rooms are really sweet with a little sit out area on the water. And the spa’s amazing – they’ve got huge treatment rooms and when you’ve finished they’ve got a huge shower room. Inle Lake View is another great property, the junior suite rooms are extremely nice and good value. It’s a bit bigger than the Inle Princess but it’s also well-run.
Putau: Malika Lodge was designed by the same architect as the Aman and, though the location is really beautiful, there’s not much there in the way of development. You go for forests, trekking, wildlife, waterfalls – it’s all possible from the lodge. However, it’s rather hard to get to and it is not cheap. It’s not run at the same level of an Aman but the hardware is good.
* Foodie tip: Le Planteur in Yangon is probably the best restaurant in the country and they sell fusion food and traditional Burmese food. It’s close to the Shwedagon Pagoda and fits nicely with a late afternoon visit there. There is also a fun restaurant in Yangon called the Green Elephant selling traditional food. We would recommend getting out and experiencing local tea shops – there are lots of exotic dishes. The Burmese eat a lot of salads; one salad they eat a lot which you won’t have come across is the green tea leaf salad – they cure the leaves and add peanut and chillies and all sorts!
If you are interested, please look at our suggested Burma itineraries and our full portfolio of Burma hotels. For more information or to book your trip to Burma, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or call +44 (0)20 7289 6100
Hyderabad… India’s newest undiscovered luxury destination. This lively city has a new world-class international airport (recently voted top 5 in the world) with direct flights from London, and it is home to a phenomenal new hotel: the Taj Falaknuma Palace. Grand, opulent and steeped in history, this 19th Century palace used to be home to the Nizam and has played host to European royalty and heads of state. It is now a true destination hotel: the spa, food and swimming pool are all sensational. Set in a peaceful location on top of a hill, you can almost step away from the city whilst still feeling a part of it and you can hear the Islamic calls to prayer at different times of the day.
Eco luxury on the southern coast… The ultra-stylish Song Saa Resort is a new opening designed in a Maldives-esque style with over-water stilted villas – a first in Southeast Asia. We love it because it offers a new and interesting alternative to Thailand as a sexy beach break. From Siem Reap simply fly to the coast and then take a 30-minute boat ride. The 25 villas each have their own private pool and their design is inspired by Cambodian fishing villages with features like thatch roofs and the use of drift wood. This ground-breaking luxury resort is also as environmentally friendly as they come and they work to protect the virgin rainforests, tropical reefs and glistening white beaches of this area. Diving has been dramatically improved since they restored the coral, or you can go sailing, kayaking or snorkelling.
The northeast & northwest coasts… Trincomalee (left) is the 5th largest natural harbour in the world, located on the northeast coast. At present there is the upbeat and colourful 4 star Chaaya Blu which is a delightful property built in the 70’s and recently refurbished taking full advantage of the return in popularity of this iconic style. Another up-and-coming coastline is Kalpitiya, 150km north of Colombo. It is one of the most beautiful coastal areas located in the Western Province. The peninsula separates the Puttalam lagoon from the Indian Ocean and creates a marine sanctuary with a diversity of habitats ranging from bar reefs, flat coastal plains, saltpans, mangroves swamps, salt marshes and vast sand dune beaches. There is also a really fun and chilled out resort here called Bar Reef.
Eco Lodges & mud huts… These offer a taste of the traditional Sri Lankan village lifestyle – our favourites include The Mudhouse (left) in Anamaduwa, Galapita Eco Lodge in Buttala and Bar Reef in Kalpitya. Ulagalla Resort in Thirappane is a great example of the new trend for melding eco initiatives (it is powered by Sri Lanka’s biggest solar farm) and extreme 5-star luxury… it simply stunning with 21 chalets spread across 58 acres of natural woodland.
Hot air ballooning over Bagan…Enjoy a sunrise balloon trip over Bagan with extraordinary views over hundreds of ancient temples & pagodas peeking out from this remote jungle. This is one of Asia’s most awe-inspiring experiences – perfect for those who have experienced Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and are looking for something more adventurous and arguably even more wondrous.
The idyllic palm-fringed beaches in Ngapali… Burma has one of the longest coastlines in Asia and it is a treasure trove of beautiful, unexplored beaches – many of which offer fantastic diving and snorkelling. Ngapali is the best up-and-coming beach and the location of our favourite hotel in Burma, Sandoway Resort. It has 56 rooms, villas and cottages scattered through 6 acres of tropical gardens, a big pool, a great seafood restaurant and its own Art Deco style luxury cinema.
Hunting for precious gems… Burma is known for her top quality rubies, sapphires and semi-precious coloured stones. This experience introduces you to the miner families who teach you how to choose the best gems – perfect for those of you looking to treat yourself or your partner to a beautiful sparkler… perhaps even find the perfect handpicked engagement ring. The brokers are mainly women and great fun to deal with. Over tea, drinks and local snacks they will display an array of loose stones, explaining which are the better quality stones and why, the different ways of setting them together and negotiating the best prices. Traditionally, tourists will only be exposed to already set pieces; this is a unique experience because you can select the stone of your choice and decide on the design yourself. The stones are then set to your design and will be ready by the time you return from the rest of your trip!
New luxury lodge… Set to open in September 2012, Uma Punakha is COMO Hotel’s second hotel in Bhuta. The first is Uma Paro, our favourite hotel in Paro – especially suited to people who are sporty and into wellness and yoga – and the two properties are a 5-hour drive from each other. Their new resort has spectacular elevated views over the lush terraced valley and the rushing Mo Chu river. It is going to be a great base for hiking, white water rafting and cycling with an English-speaking guide. The other stunning, high-end options in Bhutan are a collection of lodges by Aman Resorts, who were the first luxury hotel chain to open here. They have five gorgeous rammed earth lodges in Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang which make for the perfect circuit through the country. The great thing about Bhutan is the ability to combine untouched natural surroundings and an authentic cultural experience with impeccable and unpretentious luxury. Whatever you do, don’t miss the dramatic cliff-hike up to the sacred Tiger’s Nest monastery (pictured above).
Sailing South East Asia… Tiger Blue is a 34-metre traditional teak and Phinisi schooner, hand-built on an Indonesian beach by local craftsmen. This stunning luxury yacht offers tailor-made trips exploring the islands of South East Asia. Available to charter year-round for groups of up to ten people or 14 for families with children, the boat comes with a nine-strong crew including a chef, laundry boy and dive master. With a unique blend of style and comfort, this beautiful vessel has been designed with outstanding attention to detail and has sumptuous en-suite cabins with cosy beds, hot showers and air conditioning. The top deck, with its plush loungers, is the perfect setting for relaxing with a sundowner at the end of an exciting day. Whether you want to sail around the Komodo Islands (best in March – Sept), cruise the famous Spice Islands in eastern Indonesia (best in autumn), or explore the abundant Raja Ampat Islands (best Dec – Jan), you are guaranteed a mind-blowing trip.
Happy New Year! I thought a good way to lift January spirits and provide inspiration for your 2012 Easter and summer holidays would be to treat you to some dreamy photos of our favourite destinations. It may be a cliché, but pictures do speak louder than words. I hope these ones make you go, “Mmmm”! Click on the images to find out more…
Tel: +44 (0)20 7289 6100
The ethos of Ampersand is that ‘luxury is in the experience’ and Burma is a great example of this. It is a country I’ve always been fascinated by but, as we all know, it is a contentious country to visit. We first went to Burma in 2010 and have been selling it for the last year. Due to the growth in tourism and interest from our clients, in April 2011, my South East Asia specialist Mark Wright and I flew to Burma for a very extensive recce throughout the country. We found that at first sight there was no sign of an oppressive regime, which of course doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but we certainly didn’t see it. We saw one policeman and one member of the army in 2 and a half weeks – you see more police presence in the UK. Opinions on whether it is right to visit Burma have changed a lot in the last 18 months. To better understand the arguments for and against travelling to Burma you may find the following website helpful: http://www.tourismtransparency.org/
Politics aside, Burma is an extraordinary country with a fascinating history. There is so much to see and do, the people are really kind and fun, and the guides are, bar none, the best we’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world. My overriding impression from the trip is that it is an exceptionally devout country. I’ve always felt that temples and places of worship are only interesting when you can see the rituals taking place and that is one thing there is no shortage of in Burma. All the monasteries are absolutely packed full of novice monks and nuns who are all chanting away and completely focused on what they’re doing. The discipline and faith of the people is really touching and you really do see it everywhere in Burma.
The scenery is amazingly diverse. It’s a country with such a range of topography: you’ve got the tail end of the Himalayas in the north with mountains over 4,000 metres high; you’ve got a large border with Thailand in the east; and there is the huge stretch of the Andaman Sea on the west and south with islands and beaches that you would normally associate with Thailand. A 10 day trip would allow you to experience a broad range of landscapes and the great thing is that it is very easy to travel around the country.
What I was most struck by was the extraordinary efficiency of the Burmese people – they are incredibly competent and capable. You might think that somebody hasn’t understood you but in fact they’ve understood every single word. It doesn’t matter how silly or tricky the request is – from being allocated the right seats on the plane or room in a hotel , to ordering unusual cocktails at the bar – it all comes out just right without any fuss at all. Where Burma stands out is the ground handling and the guiding are fantastic.
The standard of hotels in Burma is remarkably good. Whilst there are a few good 5 star hotels, on the whole, the best one can find are 4 star properties which are immaculately clean and well run, fit for the fussiest traveller. The thing about Burma is that it feels as if you are maybe 10 or 15 years back in time. It is ideally suited to people with a sense of adventure who enjoy engaging with the countries they visit. People with specialist interests – be it food, architecture, religion, botany, anthropology etc – are particularly well catered for due to the incredibly knowledgeable and qualified guides.
Browse our portfolio of Burma itineraries and please call Mark Wright or me, James Jayasundera, for more details on 020 7289 6100. We particularly recommend The Golden Land of Burma itinerary, which we designed off the back of our trip. It uses all of our favourite hotels and provides the perfect balance of experiences whilst ensuring you don’t get too “templed out”! To see more photos of our trip, please take a look at our Burma album on Facebook.
Kipling wrote of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda in his Letters to the East: ‘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. “There’s the old Shway Dagon” said my companion. The golden dome said “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about” ‘.
I certainly hope so! I have been looking forward to this trip for… well, years. I am finally embarking on a 2-week research trip with my South East Asia specialist, Mark Wright. The itinerary is jam-packed. We’re trying to do everything anybody might ever want to do in Burma, plus inspect all the best and most charming hotels in each location. We’re both really looking forward to seeing the crumbling colonialism of Yangon and Mandalay; colourful hill tribes and British hill stations; floating fishing villages and cruises along the Ayeyarwady River and Lake Inlè; and of course, an abundance of gold pagodas, monasteries, temples and stupas almost everywhere we go.
I am most excited about visiting Burma’s ancient Bagan temples, one of the richest archaeological sites in the world, with some 5,000 monuments peeking out from thick isolated jungle. We will end the itinerary on the south coast at Ngapali Beach where we will hopefully eat some great seafood with our feet in the sand before heading back to London.
Judging by the number of enquiries we’ve had in the last year, you are just as intrigued by Burma as we are. As always, but particularly so with Burma, it is our duty to keep our finger on the political pulse and find out all there is to know on the ground. If you’ve any specific questions about Burma please post them on the comments section of this blog post or tweet us @ampersandtravel and we will investigate your queries while we are there.