A Photo Journal of Myanmar

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A view of the plain of ancient temples of Bagan, Myanmar

Myanmar. You may be more familiar with its colonial identity, Burma, but the Burmese are only one of 7 main tribes that make up the country. The country itself has been riddled with political turmoil, but in 2012, Myanmar opened more widely to foreigners and to tourism.

“Well,” explains our Myanmarese guide Nyen Moe, “technically, it has always been open, but until that year, a foreign visitor was limited to a maximum stay of 7 days.”

When I applied for my visa, a rather simple process online, the validity was 3 months. But, for this visit, all I needed was a week (the near two-day flight/trek notwithstanding).

In that time, I found a country on the verge; an emerging destination; a democracy in idle but poised to shift into gear, waiting to happen. But Myanmar has its challenges: an infrastructure that’s neglected, and a lack of good roads that make travelling by land a challenge. Now, many touring companies are empowering us to go with a conscience. So how can travel help you reap capital gains?

Most touring outfitters tend to navigate Myanmar by the river, the great Irrawaddy, that takes travelers to storied Mandalay and the ancient temples of Bagan. One company has struck up the courage to go it on the ground. But not without purpose. In 2016, Trafalgar is featuring Myanmar in its Asia offerings.

I was fascinated by why a company that revels in Italy and France and the UK would even bother with Myanmar? The beauty of these friendly people? Certainly. But it is beyond the path less-travelled that’s at play here.

Many of us have heard about voluntourism, and Habitat for Humanity. But what if you want to travel with a conscience, give back to those less fortunate, still be immersed in a culture, but maybe you’re not exactly the fittest, don’t have the physical ability or, well, the inclination?

According to Gavin Tollman, Global CEO of Trafalgar, we can make a difference in the destinations we go to. In Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), for example, the itinerary includes a visit to a school for children run by a monastery.

“The only way we can break the cycle of poverty is around education, and not everyone can afford education,” notes Tollman. “It’s a basic belief and fundamental to our program, Trafalgar Cares. It is an initiative designed to see how we can be better corporate and global citizens.” The core of the program, he adds, includes sustaining local businesses, local artisans, and working in small communities.

Philanthropy is the essence of these initiatives. While we are at the school, we are supplied with stacks of ruled notebooks, boxes of pens and pencils and pencil sharpeners. As we tour the school, I enter a classroom. The children are reciting in unison something written on the chalkboard. Our Myanmarese travel director, Nyen Moe, tells me it is a set of learning rules.

The teacher asks Nyen Moe to translate for her: where do I come from, she asks. The children want to know. I spy a map of the world on the wall at the front of the class, and pluck up the courage to make my way there. “Canada,” I say, and point to our massive land on the map. Some of the children have plucked up their own courage and repeat after me. “Canada,” they say. To help illustrate how far I’ve come to meet them and to see their country, I point to Myanmar, a slice of land sandwiched between India and Thailand, and then back to Canada.

That’s the good thing about group travel, says Tollman, “you can bring people into the small towns and the communities, and you can budget what their needs are accordingly.” Like the supplies for this school in Myanmar. The company isn’t just supporting existing schools, either.

“We are building our second school in Ecuador,” Tollman explains. “Our first was in Kenya.”

Charitable giving goes beyond schools. According to the company, Trafalgar was the largest collector for Movember; and it is now working with the Susan B Komen foundation to help raise funds for breast cancer research. Fifty percent of the cost of a specially created itinerary for a trip to Rome in May, for example, will benefit the foundation.

It may be better to give than to receive. For Tollman, giving is about breaking down the barriers through travel. Yet I felt that I was the one on the receiving end. Having the opportunity to engage with the children was the true gift.


Click through for my photo journal of my coach tour with Trafalgar in Myanmar. And stay tuned for part II of the journey, via the River Irrawady, in the coming weeks.

Good morning, Yangon! The view from our Trafalgar hotel of Inya Lake.

The impressive seated buddha in Yangon, near the monastic school. Note the scale, with the people in the foreground.

Students at the monastic school in Yangon that the company’s charitable arm, Trafalgar Cares, supports.

Waiting for their gifts of school supplies to be delivered.

Parks and green spaces mix with modern, traditional and colonial architecture in Yangon. Note the shapely topiaries.

Market stalls hold earthy delights such as the hoary, hairy rambutan fruit.

Guided tours of golden temples across Myanmar are an integral part of the land journey.

Fisherman on Inle Lake, doing their daily balancing dance with poles and nets.

A serene moment by the pool of our Trafalgar hotel, overlooking the planes of the ancient temples of Bagan.

For more, visit Trafalgar Tours

Visit again for part II of the journey, via the River Irrawady, in the coming weeks.