SOUTHEAST Asia has long been a magnet for Australian travellers eager to revel in the region’s heady combination of dramatic countryside, historic monuments, spiced up cuisine and – particularly in Thailand – a relaxed attitude towards homosexuality.
As the decades have rolled by once inaccessible areas such as Cambodia and Myanmar, in the past riven by conflict and political strife, have opened to provide new and exciting travel experiences.
“If you’re looking for modern Western standard hotels, glorious beaches and luxury then Thailand offers all of these,” says Floris Fluitsma, founder of travel specialist Orange Journeys which offers a number of all-gay guided journeys across the region.
“With the incredible temples of Angkor Wat and its colonial background Cambodia is a cultural hotspot.
“But with Myanmar back on the map there’s an opportunity to see a tranquil country that’s less developed but full of wonderful sights, almost reminiscent of Thailand 25 years ago.”
The 2010 release from house arrest of Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was the single most important act in bringing this many-cultured nation in from the cold.
Visitors are now rediscovering the country, which caresses the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal, with tourists jumping around 400 per cent in four years.
Even so, the numbers visiting Myanmar are still a tiny fraction of the amount travelling to its eastern neighbour of Thailand.
First stop for most visitors is the country’s largest city of Yangon.
About as busy as Myanmar gets, the bicycle and rickshaw remain king here and the smog producing traffic jams of nearby Asian capitals are unheard of.
The Buddhist religion is a powerful presence in the country and the faith reaches its visual zenith in the awe-inspiring form of the Shwedagon pagoda.
Rising like a giant glinting cone from Yangon’s streets, the pagoda is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites reportedly containing relics from no less than four Buddhas.
Covered in 27 tonnes of gold leaf and tipped with 5500 diamonds as well as mighty 76-carat gem, Shwedagon could argue its case for being the number one monument in all Myanmar.
But to blinded by the bling, and forsake the rest of the country, would a travesty.
Mandalay is a perfect base to spend a day or two lazily floating down the mighty Irrawaddy letting local boats and fishing villages slide by on your way to the historical city of Bagan.
Most immediately comparable to the temples of Angkor, construction began in the 11th century.
At its height 10,000 temples dotted the landscape and while centuries of invasions, lootings and earthquakes have taken their toll, Bagan remains a take-your-breath-away wonder with the 170 ft high Ananda Pahto its crowning glory.
And you should tire of temples – it can happen – head straight to Inle Lake.
Dotted with stilt house villages and floating gardens, it’s the perfect place to unwind gazing at a landscape you can still, just about, call your own.
Orange Journeys offer all-gay tours to Northern Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar. An 11-day tour to Myanmar including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Lake Inle starts from $ 4350 excluding flights. Visit http://www.orangejourneys.com.au/starobserver.html for a Star Observer reader offer of a 5 per cent discount on all travel experiences listed on the website.