Today Burma’s pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will meet Prince Charles and Camilla, ahead of her historic address to the Houses of Parliament, an honour usually accorded only to heads of state.
It’s yet another extraordinary moment in a series of extraordinary moments since Burma’s military junta started to relax its stance towards democracy.
One of the first moments, at least in terms of tourism, was when Aung San Suu Kyi reversed her long-standing stance on asking tourists not to visit her country lest the tourist dollars fall into the hands of the Junta.
Since then there has been not quite a flood, but certainly a huge increase in interest in visiting a country which, like Cuba, has been preserved in aspic for the best part of 30 years.
In a visit last year Editor-in-Chief at Cruise Critic, Carolyn Brown, wrote:
Certainly military rule has eased somewhat on Myanmar or our ship – Crystal’s elegant Crystal Symphony – would never have been permitted to call here. We’re one of four ships that will visit Myanmar this year. That’s not many, compared to a popular Caribbean port – but it’s four more than called at Yangon a few years ago.
The doors, however tentatively, are being opened to tourists from the West and from Asia and there’s a rustling of anticipation that feels as if positive change is on the way. It reminds me of the situation with Cuba. And like Cuba, the way of life here is a throwback, in sense and sensibility, to a more innocent era, say the 1960s and 1970s.
After a while, what startles is what is missing in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). People don’t use cell phones on the street. I saw no American cars and can count on one hand the number of late model (not to mention luxury) vehicles that passed by – mostly Toyota and Mazda models — that were hard worn, at least a decade old, and lacked air conditioning systems, seatbelts and radios. There isn’t graffiti. Oddly, I noticed that there were no parking garages. There are few other tourists.
Today, cruise lines are queuing up to get into this amazing country, before perhaps it turns into another Thailand or Vietnam.
Voyages to Antiquity is at the forefront of this renewed interest, and has recently launched its Far East programme, which includes a 16-night, round-trip, fly-cruise from Singapore and two nights in Yangon, as well as a trip in February 2013.
Azamara Club Cruises has an 11-night cruise from Madras to Singapore, which spends two nights and three days in port in Yangon.
Orient-Express operate an exquisite river boat, the Road to Mandalay, which plies the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and goes deep into the Burmese countryside.
In August and September this year it sails on a series of 12-day ‘Gorges of the Far North’ cruises, which go right to the Chinese border up to Bhamo, at the foothills of Yunnan, finishing at the spellbinding plain of temples at Bagan.
The voyage is only possible post rainy season when the river is swollen and water levels are high enough to allow passage through the three dramatic gorges, flanked by vertical cliffs, in the north of the river.
As Rudyard Kipling once wrote: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
See the most interesting deal this week: 16-night Far East Fly-Cruise from £2,795.
Fancy finding out more about Far East cruising? We pick the best ports.
Read: Our review of Voyages to Antiquity’s Aegean Odyssey.