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BURMA!

Washington DC Other

We’re transitioning DC reporters, and your publisher is pinch-hitting. Except he's been on vacay with his family the last two weeks. That's why, now that he's back, the first thing you're going to hear about is not CityCenter or Pike & Rose, but Burma. (Yes, we know some now call it Myanmar. But we bet many of you still say Chinatown, not Penn Quarter.)

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There are many beautiful beaches in the world. And there are a number of places where elephants stroll. But how often do you see both at the same time? (Kind of like seeing Ray Ritchey in Crystal City.)

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Burma is about the last unspoiled paradise, yet its tourist infrastructure has developed enough that you can find luxury amidst exotic foreign culture and cuisine, and feel adventurous yet safe. All for half or less the price you’d find on the more beaten track. And you won’t feel out of place if those simple canoes above are your more accustomed watercraft than the mega-yachts of St. Barts.

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We went to four different areas: Yangon (the capital city formerly known as Rangoon); beachtown Ngapoli; the picturesque pagodas of Bagan; and idyllic Inle Lake. Yangon’s a big, dusty urban sprawl we didn’t find appealing for a holiday. But the other three areas were stunning. Our favorite was Ngapoli (and not just because flowers spell out the greeting on your bed). And guess what? The guy who told us about it, and co-owns the Amata resort where we stayed (and where we snapped the first dozen pictures in this issue), is veteran Baltimore/DC real estate developer Richard Naing. We’d known Richard for 20 years since our kids were in school together. We totally forgot he came from Burma—until we were telling him about our trip. 

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Richard’s had a storybook career. His family came to the US in 1963 after the military took power in Burma. He went to BCC high school, studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, then started rehabbing historic properties in DC. Eventually he developed and sold many buildings, like the Kalorama Lofts, 2401 Penn, and Courtyard by Marriott at 1900 Connecticut. In the late '80s he chaired Adams National Bank, and in the '90s ran CBRE’s DC private client group. Today Richard owns and manages two hotels and numerous office buildings, apartment houses and mixed-use properties in the DC/Baltimore region. A year ago, as Burma moved toward democracy, he added to his portfolio by partnering with Burmese hotelier Win Aung to develop seven hotels in his home country (in the process creating 2,000 jobs there).

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The opportunity he sees? Three million tourists a year now visit Burma, compared with just half a million five years ago, and the upside is suggested by Thailand’s 30 million a year next door. So they’ve started a travel agency (Asian Vacation Travel & Tour) and the Amata chain of luxury hotels--here's our lobby in Ngapoli. (We probably shouldn't tell you, given DC weather, but that's the ocean at the other end.)

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You can tell you’re in for the charm of yesteryear when you arrive and find this vintage hotel car in the front drive, next to those bikes (the more popular mode of transportation in the community).

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Yet the accommodations are anything but primitive. Here's our two-story bungalow, exemplifying their theme of “barefoot elegance."

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They’ve thought of every touch—including these towels folded as kissing swans and festooned in more flowers.

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Not surprisingly, some glamorous guests have discovered them.

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Any guesses? Morning grapefruit.

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Happy not to pay Whole Foods prices for our morning coconut water, we went out on the local economy, a few feet away.

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Infrastructure is still improving—this is the airport. But what fun to feel like you’re in the Caribbean or Bangkok in the '50s, or maybe Logan Circle in the '90s. And WiFi is spotty, but things will change. And (we remind ourselves), you shouldn’t be on it during vacation anyhow.

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After you’ve rested in Ngapoli, you can fly on to Bagan, go up in a hot air balloon, and see 2,500 pagodas within a few square blocks—basically everywhere you turn, like JBG signs.

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Assembling around 5:30 in the chilly morning, you’re happy to see these babies fired up.

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At Inle Lake, you can also stay in Asian chalets nestled in nature, like we did here at the Inle Princess.

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And be ferried around by a pilot rowing in their old tradition of standing up and using legs to propel the oar. (Getting almost as much exercise as Mitchell Schear at FlyWheel.)

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And everywhere you go, you can visit craft shops...

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weavers

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frenetic outdoor markets

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and their distribution systems.

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And see pagodas big and small. Feeling like you’re a million miles away from the US.

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Except when the President of the United States visits. Folks, President Obama may seem unimportant now in DC, but unfortunately for us he is still very important in Burma. So much so, they essentially closed the Yangon airport one evening as he was flying out—at the very time we were supposed to. (That’s Air Force One on the runway.) So we lost our non-refundable hotel rooms in another city and had to book new rooms to stay in Yangon plus new flights for the next morning. We'll send our bill to the White House.