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Travel to Myanmar

The sleek Belmond Road to Mandalay

Mysteries Unveiled on the Road to Mandalay

By Hideaways Ambassador Van Giles

In what could have been something of a mob scene, my wife and I were shepherded through the throngs at the airport in Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, by the very competent guides from Belmond who were waiting to greet us. They ushered us into an air-conditioned luxury van and handed us each a bottle of chilled water--a seemingly small gesture, but just the kind of attention to detail we would come to expect from Belmond over the course of our Road to Mandalay tour.

Our five-day trip through Myanmar was the long-awaited fulfillment of a bucket-list dream and a chance to explore the temples and cultural riches of this formerly closed country. Myanmar only recently started welcoming foreigners, and we wanted to visit while its veil of secrecy was just being lifted, before it turns into another Cambodia in terms of tourist popularity.

Joining us in Myanmar were my dad, Bill, and his wife, Ann, two seasoned travelers who also wanted to experience this ancient land. I should probably point out here that, for the most part, this journey is not for the casual or uninitiated traveler. There are no beaches to lounge on, no crystal-clear waters to wade into. And it helps to be in fairly good shape, as there is a lot of rocky terrain to be navigated if you want to take in all the sites--and sights!

Case in point, our tour guide in Bagan suggested we scale a 300-foot temple in order to fully appreciate the sun going down over the city, with its hundreds of stupas stretching as far as the eye can see. Danielle was pregnant, and these were some steep steps! Even I, who ran a marathon a few years ago, was tired after climbing just two of the five tiers of this particular temple. And we faced other challenges like this throughout the trip--doable, but definitely not for someone with mobility issues.

A highlight of our land-based tours--besides visiting all the most famous pagodas and stupas--was seeing the Monywa Buddha, covered in gold and the world's largest reclining Buddha at more than 300 feet in length. It looked big as a battleship and every bit as commanding. Of course, we also enjoyed visiting Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset, and marveled at all its shimmering temples and the smiling monks moving about them.

Eventually, we flew into Mandalay--the last royal capital of Burma--in preparation for our river cruise along the Ayeyarwady on the Belmond Road to Mandalay. But first, there was a little touring to some of this city's fascinating sites: the world's largest "book"--actually a series of 729 stone slabs carved with Buddhist teachings--on the grounds of Kuthodaw Pagoda; Mandalay Palace, the royal residence of Burma's last monarch; and the huge Buddha at Mahamuni Pagoda, covered in gold leaf by scores of worshippers who visit the sacred site each year.

At this last stop, our Belmond guide included a short lesson in how to pound small amounts of gold into paper-thin sheets that can then be applied to the Buddha. It's said that so much gold has been added to the statue over the years that the 6-ton Buddha now weighs more than 12 tons!

We found it easy to make friends with other Belmond guests--about 25 of us total--especially rubbing shoulders while witnessing such intricate craftsmanship. We also found it abundantly clear from the onset that we could move along at our own pace. If we wanted to relax or sleep late, we could. If we wanted to do some learning outside of the tour group, there was always a resource for that or a caring guide nearby to answer any and all questions.

Our Eye-Opening Experience

Without a doubt, my favorite part of our entire trip was touring an open-air Burmese food and spice market in Mandalay. There, sitting on the dirt floor, were people offering 100-percent pure spices like cumin and neon-yellow mustard by the kilo. Right next to that stall was the neighborhood butcher selling his goods of fish and livestock, right from the dirt floor. He was more than happy to hold up a handful of pig intestines that were covered with flies, for me to consider purchasing.

This lack of plastic wrap and styrofoam containers might sound horrifying to your average whole-foods shopper, but we found it awe inspiring. As we strolled through the market, our guide explained the difference between eating chickens that were raised for fighting versus the meatier birds that more closely resemble the oven-roaster chickens from Purdue Farms that I was raised on. Needless to say, this scene was straight out of a time warp.

The locals frequenting the market were wearing tribal garb and yellow face paint, representative of their cultural heritage--but somehow they were more enthralled with our Western appearance and ways. I am more than 6 feet, three inches tall, and my wife Danielle has blonde hair and blue eyes--and she was pregnant! So this was like a double-whammy of curiosity for them. But every look or stare from these market-goers also came with a heartwarming smile.

Sailing in Style

Belmond Road to Mandalay is an elegant vessel that originally was built and used in Europe. Once on board, we discovered we were upgraded to a stateroom, a nice bonus. Our room was intricately decorated with unique Burmese pieces, the modern shower had plenty of hot water, and fresh towels were constantly restocked. We also loved the Belmond touch of a quaint writing desk and a plethora of postcards waiting for us, in case we wanted to make our friends back home jealous by putting something in the post to them.

There was never a cluttered feeling on the top deck or in the dining areas. Breakfast was buffet style with a nice selection of meats, cheeses, fruits, and Western-style options. Lunch also was buffet style and offered an array of salad options and local fish dishes. Dinner was a production, with a five-course sit-down menu. The food was always eclectic and cooked to perfection, with main courses ranging from lamb medallions and beef tenderloin to tuna steak or sea bass.

The staff went to great lengths to accommodate our every need, especially during meals. The head chef even came out of the kitchen one night to introduce herself at our table and make sure my wife's vegetarian meal preferences were being met.

I think our favorite moments on board were when all four of us relaxed on the top deck in comfortable wicker chairs, being served cold drinks while cruising along the sand-banked shores of the Ayeyarwady, watching the pagoda-studded landscape roll by. After all, this kind of memory was what we had traveled here for.

Hiding Away in Yangon

By Hideaways member Bill Giles

Three hotels stand out in my mind as four- and five-star recommendations in this former capital of Myanmar: The Strand, Sule Shangri-La, and Belmond Governor's Residence. Each has its own very different vibe and scene. I recommend any one of them, and also suggest you visit the others for lunch or dinner to enjoy their unique settings and ambiance.

The Strand: Take a stroll along the Yangon River knowing you can step off bustling and steaming Yangon Road into a cool, calm, clubby hotel where everything will be just right, in the British Colonial way. This 1901 building recently was overhauled into the 21st century without losing any of its vestiges of Raj appearance and demeanor. Have lunch or tea in the marble-floored, teak-inlaid, ceiling-fanned Strand Café. Mohynga noodles and Burmese tea go with anything on the Continental and Burmese menu. Dinner is served in the more formal Grill and is not inexpensive.

The lobby, ringed by a gallery of rooms above, is right out of a Casablanca-like movie set. This hotel was a social hub for ex-pats in the fading days of the Empire that ended with the WWII onslaught. Author George Orwell was a regular here while stationed in Yangon as a British functionary. Reading his novel, Burmese Days, will help you see the place with pre-war eyes. The Strand is worth a visit anytime. At the very least, have a Strand Sour toast to George in the bar. Rates start at $177 and include breakfast.

Belmond Governor's Residence: This colonial-style villa estate offers romantic grounds with lotus pools, al fresco dining by lantern light, and luxe accommodations. You can imagine Rudyard Kipling sitting under a tree composing a verse or two. This was the British governor's official residence and still is the heart of Yangon's Embassy Row. You can sense the intrigues, both diplomatic and personal, that were whispered there within the gardens.

While lunch here--especially outside on the shaded, fanned veranda--is refreshing, dinner at sunset may be an even better, more intriguing time to visit. We were handed a rambling menu of Burmese and Continental dishes; try the Burmese Spice Bar "specialties," but keep a glass of something cold handy and know the route to the nearest pool. Slide in and experience the past century while you dine well here, but (again) not inexpensively. Rates start at $290.

Sule Shangri-La: Welcome to the future of Myanmar. This ultra-modern, world-class hotel has everything for the demanding business guest and globetrotter. Style-wise, think big Ritz-Carlton with Burmese flourishes, including staff in traditional attire. Though a large hotel, the personal service here is outstanding.

While you can have a leisurely drink in the Peacock Lounge or experience fine dining elsewhere in the hotel, the Cafe Sule is the place for those on the go. This is an international food court (with a heavy Japanese skew) where you can choose from Continental, Burmese, Japanese, and American culinary treats and bring them back to your table. Keep eating as long as you have time--breakfast and lunch move at a dizzying pace. The less-crowded dinner hour invites dallying and, consequently, a gigantic caloric intake.

One gets the feeling that the Sule Shangri-La will be the style and pace of this emerging country, a far cry from the colonial crawl of old Burma. Part of this city's magic is that now you can experience both just by turning a corner.

To get your exciting Myanmar trip planned and booked, call your Hideaways Travel Consultant at 800-843-4433, or email

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* Hideaways Aficionado Club is a registered trademark of Hideaways International, Inc.
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All Rights Reserved