Point of view: Simon Reeve discovers Burma

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Pushing through branches and bushes that scratched and tugged at my shirt, I emerged into a small clearing dominated by an ancient temple. Aged and abandoned, its rusty-red bricks glowed warmly in the sunset light. Dark doorways almost begged for candle-lit exploration. It was like stumbling onto the set of an Indiana Jones movie.

I was in Bagan in Burma, re-named Myanmar by the former military dictators, travelling for a new TV
series and spending most days with my mouth hanging open: Burma is truly extraordinary. The capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to 13th centuries, Bagan alone is one of the most glorious sites of human civilisation found anywhere on the planet, home to literally thousands of temples built on the plain next to the Irrawaddy River.

Simon Reeve

Balloons over Bangan in Myanmar

Standing outside the hidden gem in the clearing, I fumbled for my camera, desperate to capture what I thought was my personal discovery. I was too slow. From a narrow path ahead, a French family suddenly emerged riding e-bikes in formation, the three young children looked perfectly groomed, like they were out for a meal in the Paris suburbs.

They stopped their bikes in a line, right in my shot of course, hollered at each other in delight and then beat me inside to explore. I could only grumble and retreat. There were plenty of other stupas, pagodas and temples to investigate. But the presence and excitement of the French family reminded me of the enormous value of taking our children to exotic parts of the world.

Their youngest was not much older than my six-year-old Jake, but they had chosen to spurn the obvious and familiar on a holiday break, and picked somewhere tricky to travel.

Hanging out with the elephants at a camp in Burma was a highlight of Simon’s trip

The French – I hate to say – seem to do exotic family holidays better than Brits. My own unscientific observations suggest they go further, stray more exotically, stay longer and, dammit, look better while doing it. Grrr. The family of temple photo-bombers would have enjoyed spectacular rewards in Burma.

The country is one of my new favourite destinations. It feels like one of the last travel frontiers, a place of superlatives that hasn’t been completely diluted or destroyed by the all-conquering forces of globalisation. There are temples, culture, leg-rowing fishermen, isolated beaches and everywhere women wearing thanaka on their cheeks, a yellowish paste and natural sunscreen.

Not that everything is perfect, of course. After decades of military dictatorship, the army is ethnically cleansing its own people in the west, while de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi now appears less of a saint, and more like the problem.

As a traveller there, some of your money can help to provide work and a meal for those working in tourism, but many large hotels are owned by elite ‘cronies’ who dominate the downtrodden.Democracy is still a young idea in Burma. I can only hope it quickly puts down deep roots. The rewards for the Burmese, and for travellers wanting to explore the country, would be huge.

Burmese landscape near Kalaw

After leaving Bagan, I travelled on across the country and into the Shan Hills. If you head the same way, don’t miss visiting the Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp: ethical, careful and completely wonderful, the dedicated team care for retired logging ellies.

Book a visit with your family and bank the incredible memories that come from feeding a giant pachyderm a barrel of chopped pumpkin, then scrubbing it with a natural brillo pad in the river. Experiences like that aren’t found locally, as that adventurous French family knew only too well.

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