Part of Insider Journeys' Asia-based tour leading team, Amanda shares her thoughts and experiences of Burma!
1. How long have you been tour leading for Insider Journeys?
I’ve been leading tours with Insider Journeys since early 2012.
2. How many journeys have you led to Burma so far?
I’d say about 10 or more, though there’s been such a rush of interest in the country that it’s hard to count, especially with all the extra departures we’ve added. I feel like I’m part of the furniture here, as I’m back to the country so often!
3. Is tour leading different in Burma compare to other destinations?
Absolutely. This is a destination that’s just opened up in recent years to tourism and it’s also one of the most rapidly changing countries in the world. Logistically, we have a different mode of operations in Burma. Everything happens in a different logic to the rest of Asia but I can definitely say that it works incredibly efficiently – even if it doesn't look like it to our passengers at first!
The airports are chaotic, the service experience of staff at restaurants and hotels is at a different level though improving rapidly, and the guides are still adjusting to this new level of client numbers (as well as working with tour leaders!). But despite the differences in touring, at the end of the day you have seen incredible regions, shared aspects of a beautiful culture and had some of the most wonderful experiences anyone could wish for when traveling.
4. What surprised you the most about Burma?
The devotion and practice of Theravada Buddhism.
The way the people of this incredible country have managed to maintain their culture, customs and unique way of life, despite everything they have been through with the military junta. The devotion and practice of Theravada Buddhism for the majority Bamah (Burmese) ethnic group is stronger and more wide spread than any other country I’ve seen and worked in.
People on the streets in every city, town and village are continuing to use traditional tanaka cream on their faces. The majority of the people still wear their traditional dress of longees on any given day.
With everything they’ve been through and experienced since the first coup d’etat they've still retained their traditional ways of life and their own customs. It’s a vastly different culture overall to any you have seen before. It’s not just the most surprising thing I found when I first came here; it’s one of the country’s aspects that I still find incredibly beautiful and inspiring.
5. What’s your favourite Burmese dish? We hear the tea is very strong?
I don’t mind the curries (mild as they are in spice) or the traditional mohinga noodle dishes, but my favorite food here has to be that found in Shan state. They have this incredible stuffed lake fish, tomato salads and peanut soups, as well as vibrant, tasty vegetable dishes unseen in the rest of the country. I also love to eat at the teashops – samosas, steamed pork buns and parathas! The tea can be strong, yes – especially when it is in a pickled tea leaf salad! However, a refreshingly mild green drinking tea can be found at all establishments, complementary of course. Tea is served with just about everything!
6. How have you and your travellers found the local people in Burma?
Schwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
The local people are incredible: strong, resilient, open, friendly and beautiful. They are so warm and welcoming, just so happy to have travellers coming to their country and sharing its beauty. They’re also excited about the changing nature of their political situation and the increased transparency that comes with tourism. I think most of my passengers fall in love with Burma, not just because of the countries beauty, but because of the warmth and beauty of its people.
7. Your most amusing experience so far?
It’s something every week – last night I had a Gangnam style dance off with a group of Burmese schoolchildren at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon!
8. Finally, what’s your advice for first-timers to Burma?
I would say come here with no expectations. Don’t assume anything about the country in advance because it’s going to be so different to what you imagined. Come with an open mind, a sense of humor and adventure, and a willingness to accept it just as it is. It’s not perfect: the infrastructure is not wholly there in regards to tourism, the hotels vary, restaurants are slow but improving, and there’s a real lack of tonic water in the country for those who love a G&T. But it will absolutely be one of the best experiences you could ever hope to have.