After decades of being off limits to responsible tourists Burma has had a dramatic change in policy opening up to the wider world since the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It's almost exactly a year since KE decided to set up an easy adventure holiday in Burma. With its combination of a short element of trekking and visits to many of Burma's highlights, Rangoon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan, this holiday has proved to be a resounding success. We have full or nearly full groups for most of our 2012 departures and we will be offering other itineraries in Burma in the future. Fiona Marshall, our Office Manager, accompanied the first KE group to Burma in November 2011 and she contacted one of the clients, Vanda Tillotson, to ask her if she would mind answering a few questions.
Is now a good time to visit Burma?
Now is the best time to visit Burma - before it gets turned into a tourist destination that loses it's soul and unique identity to become a 'corporate' holiday experience. It's a delightful country different to any other I have known (and I have traveled widely). When trekking it was clear that the Burmese way of life is simple and agrarian at the moment. It was like traveling around Thomas Hardy's Wessex. The landscape around Bagan is unique. This beautiful countryside is dotted with thousands of stupas and pagodas which we climbed all over. That won't happen in the future as the footprint of tourists begins to erode the crumbling stonework. And the stories behind what you see are magical. The cities too are special in another way. Local produce is abundant in the markets; both unusual and high quality. The Chinese influence is strong in terms of buildings and the number of motorbikes on the roads - and resented by the Burmese people. One night we happened to see the installation of one of the first ATM machines. That'll make a difference to the exchange of pristine, American dollars into local currency.
With Burma so much in the news, how do you feel things may have changed since you visited?
So much has happened in Burma over the last year. When I was there last November I was told that the Burmese people felt the world had left them behind. I think the visits by Hilary Clinton, Hague and other world leaders have given the Burmese people confidence. However, they told us they are very cautious about whether change will happen but the subsequent publicity they have received must give them hope. But that's all, a feeling. Nothing else has changed.
Would you like to return to Burma?
I would like to return to Burma very much. The people are delightful, open and friendly. They take a keen interest in speaking to you. The landscape is beautiful and the hospitality generous. My next trip will be to the north of Burma and into the mountains.
Did you go and see the film, "The Lady"?
If so, what did you think of it? I deliberately didn't go and see the film, The Lady because I now know too much about the real story and the real Burma. One of our evening meals was held in a room next to the offices used by Aung San Suu Kyi's father. I would have been very disappointed and irritated to have seen a glossy, Hollywood biopic which generalised a deep, profound life story of a very courageous woman.
Do you feel optimistic for the future of the Burmese people?
I, like the Burmese people, feel cautious about their future. The generals have such a vested interest in their own wealth and privilege that I believe it will take a generation before the Burmese people feel they have a genuine say in their own future. The coming elections in April will be a step forward but systemic, governmental change will take longer.