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Sailing to Myanmar’s Most Magnificent Temples
Myanmar (formerly Burma) has long been a land shrouded in mystery. Largely cut off from most of the world during the second half of the 20th century, the country, which sits to the east of India and Bangladesh and west of Laos and Thailand, can feel lost in time. The streets of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) are lined with buildings that date from the era of British rule. Visible from many points in Yangon, the golden spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda helps give the city an otherworldly magic.  

Travel farther back in time when you head into the interior to the last capital of the kingdom of Burma, Mandalay, and visit the many 12th- and 13th-century temples and stupas that dot the plain around Bagan. Though Myanmar’s cities feel very different from Asia’s busy commercial capitals, huge changes have been sweeping the country in recent years as it has eased visa restrictions and implemented democratic reforms.  

Given Korean Air’s 50-year history flying to destinations across Asia, it is not surprising that the airline was among the earliest carriers to extend service to Myanmar, beginning in 2012. Now you can fly with them to Asia’s travel frontier, enjoying all the comforts that one expects from Korean Air.
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    Day 1
    Fly to Yangon
    The journey to Myanmar is a long one, but Korean Air makes the flight across the Pacific from one of the airline’s 16 North American gateways a delight, with gourmet “farm to flight” meals, an extensive entertainment system, and some of the most comfortable seats in the air. In First Class and Prestige Class, the seats become fully flat beds; in Economy Class, you’ll find extra-wide ergonomic seats with an impressive 34-inch pitch.  

    The first leg of your trip will end at the new Terminal 2 at Incheon, where you’ll be able to stretch your legs and enjoy some of the state-of-the-art services, shopping, and restaurants before continuing on to Yangon.
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    Photo By Mg Cthu
    Day 2
    Arrive in Yangon
    After you land in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, you’ll be met by a car and driver to transfer you to the Strand Hotel. One of Asia’s iconic hotels, the Strand opened in 1901 and has long been the address for visitors to the city. While the hotel has been renovated and refreshed many times over the years, most recently in 2016, it has always been with the goal of staying true to the property’s history. While the chandeliers, dark woods, and ceiling fans remain, the hotel had added the latest in in-room technology and entertainment.  

    After you get settled, head out to the 326-foot-tall Shwedagon Pagoda. The gleaming stupa covered in gold plates dominates the city’s skyline and is the most important holy site in the country. It is also, according to some, the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world, though the date of its construction is disputed. Continue on to the more modest Sule Pagoda. While it doesn’t compete with the Shwedagon when it comes to the “wow” factor, Sule’s location at the heart of downtown Yangon has made it an important site in recent years. Demonstrations here in 1988 and 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution, were central to bringing political reform to this country.  

    On a stop at the Rangoon Tea House, about ten minutes on foot from the Sule Pagoda, order a lunch of the local dish mohinga, a fish soup with rice noodles, and then head on to the Bogyoke Aun San Market to shop for gifts for friends back home. Look for lacquerware, embroidered tapestries, and silk items. Myanmar is also known for its gemstones; if you are planning on shopping for jewelry, ask the concierge at the Strand for recommendations of reputable jewelers before you head out.

    After a cool cocktail at the Strand, dine tonight at Kipling’s at the Savoy Hotel. The menu includes excellent Asian and Western dishes, though the primary draw here is the views of the Shwedagon Pagoda, illuminated at night.
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    Photo By Belmond
    Day 3
    After breakfast at the Strand, you’ll skip the road to Mandalay and instead take a flight—it’s roughly an 80-minute journey.  

    Board your home for the next three nights, the luxurious 43-cabin Belmond Road to Mandalay river cruiser, then join some of your fellow guests for a city tour. While Yangon is the commercial heart of Myanmar and Naypyidaw its new political capital, Mandalay is one of the country’s most important cultural centers. As the last capital of the kingdom of Burma (until it was conquered by the British in 1885), the city is centered around the site of the former royal palace (destroyed by fire during World War II; a reconstruction was built in the 1990s) while various pagodas and monasteries benefitted from royal patronage. Among the more famous of them is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, described as the world’s largest book. It features 729 upright stone slabs inscribed with the entire text of the Tipitaka—the collection of the canonical scriptures of Buddhism.

    At the end of your tour you’ll return to the ship for dinner and begin your journey down the Irrawaddy River.
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    Photo By Belmond
    Day 4
    Start your day with morning yoga on the ship, followed by breakfast, and then the opportunity to join in a Buddhist almsgiving ceremony. 

    One of the highlights of the Belmond cruise on the Ayeyerawady is the opportunity to see parts of Myanmar that are off the beaten path followed by most travelers. Case in point is your destination today, Inwa (formerly known as Ava). 

    The city was the capital of a number of Burmese kings from the 14th to 19th centuries, before being abandoned following an earthquake in 1839. Today, you can explore the ruins either in a horse-drawn cart or by bike. The city walls, ancient watchtowers, monasteries, and pagodas are all reminders of Inwa when it was at its height.  

    After your Indiana Jones day, return to the ship and enjoy a spa treatment and a late afternoon tea, or simply lounge poolside.
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    Photo By farfar
    Day 5
    This morning, you’ll arrive in Bagan, one of the most impressive archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Start your day with an onboard meditation session to clear your mind and better appreciate the wonders you’re about to see.  

    Once you arrive in Bagan, you can either explore the site with a group from the ship or head out on your own on a bicycle. Even if you don’t bicycle much at home, Bagan is an ideal place to explore on two wheels—there’s no traffic in the archaeological site, and there are no hills to climb on this flat plain.  

    Bagan was the capital of a kingdom of the same name from the 9th to 13th centuries; during that time, some 10,000 pagodas, temples, and monasteries were constructed—around 2,000 of them still stand today. Unlike some archaeological sites, at Bagan you won’t have to settle for looking at a bunch of stones and trying to imagine what a building must have looked like at its peak. The Dhammayangyi Temple, the city’s largest, is 150 feet tall; and the Sulamani, Gawdawpalin, and Mahabodhi—along with many others—that remain largely (and miraculously) intact. Part of the magic of exploring Bagan is that with so many different temples and monasteries, it’s easy to find yourself alone at one, with perhaps only a few cows or a caretaker as company.  

    You’ll return to your ship for lunch, and a break from the midday sun with a cold drink. In the afternoon, visit some more temples and monasteries—there’s no way to see all of them in a year, much less a day. The Ananda Temple is famous for its sunset views, so make your way over to it towards the end of the day before you return to the ship for the evening and enjoy dinner followed by a marionette performance.
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    Photo By Charlie Costello
    Day 6
    You’ll want to wake up early today for an experience that may prove to be the highlight of your Burmese adventure: a sunrise hot-air balloon flight over the pagodas. Given the sheer scale of the site and the many pagodas, small and enormous, the bird’s-eye perspective as you float above them is breathtaking.  

    Afterwards, you’ll return to the ship for breakfast and then disembark for a flight back to Yangon, where you’ll connect with your Korean Air flight through Incheon Airport and back to North America—unless you’re continuing on to explore another destination in Asia first. With the new Korean Air and Delta joint venture that launched in 2018, it’s easier than ever to get to and from Asia (with 27 daily round-trip flights between the United States and Asia) and to earn miles, whether on Korean Air’s Skypass or Delta’s SkyMiles programs. The thousands of miles you’ll earn crossing the Pacific will come in handy for the return visit to Asia that you’ll want to start planning on your flight home.