Interview with Bennett Stevens, Director of Luminous Journeys

Born and raised in California where his family ran a charter yacht business for more than 20 years, Bennett Stevens was stricken with an incurable case of wanderlust in 1996 and took to the road. He “serpentined” his way around the world and wound up in southeast Asia where he managed to survive as a writer and documentary photographer before cofounding Luminous Journeys in early 2012. LJ is a U.S. based company specializing in Burma/Myanmar, where the focus is on old world luxury and high end learning tour workshops, such as travel photography and yoga meditation.

Bennett Stevens

Despite rave reviews in major travel magazines over the past two years, Burma remains something of a shadowy enigma to most. It’s still very much a niche market, even more so for luxury travellers who might not realize what exotic treasures the newly opened up nation of 65 million people and more than 100 ethnic minorities has to offer. Benn and his Burmese partner, herself a 12-year veteran of the Burma tourism industry, share the same root philosophy – that truly luminous journeys are shared experiences between traveler and native alike, where authentic cultural intercourse serves to make the memorable meaningful. Fortunately for LJ, with the warm and welcoming nature of the Burmese people, it’s a piece of cake.

What is it that you do exactly?

How much time do you have? Being a boutique agency and custom tour provider relatively new to the market means I have to wear several hats daily, some at the same time! I just returned from a month in Myanmar where I got a break from my office duties to help out with one of our luxury photography tours. Whenever possible – especially with specialized small group tours which require a tremendous amount of logistical teamwork – I feel it’s very important to experience first-hand some of what our guests are experiencing and get their feedback in the moment.

During and after the tour I checked out some new destinations, hotels, restaurants, even a “high wire” rail trip across the British built Gokteik Viaduct, which was fantastic. This is the stuff I really love doing. Back in the office, well, it’s an office! Being a hands on guy I often work directly with our clients to build personalized itineraries. While this is often very rewarding, it can also be very time-consuming . Between emails, phone calls, online meetings, research, writing articles, promos, adding new content to the website, placing ads, and doing the interminable SEO work, it’s a wonder I’m still smiling! The Burmese have definitely rubbed off on me in that regard.

What do you enjoy most about what you do?

Meeting clients after their tours and seeing their glowing faces. That may sound a little hokey and self-serving, but it’s absolutely true. When you put so much time and effort into something as a person and as a team, the real satisfaction and joy comes from seeing the goal accomplished. In our case, it’s seeing those glowing faces. I went into this business because like many a visitor before me, most famously the likes of Kipling and Orwell, I fell in love with the place. I lived in Thailand for the better part of 16-years and am quite fond of it — but Burma is something quite a bit more extraordinary. Yep, seeing that glow, that’s what I enjoy most about what I do.

What would you say are the 3 best places you’ve ever stayed?

Since we specialize in Myanmar, I’ll keep it local. My favorite luxury hotel (anywhere!) is Kandawgyi Palace in Rangoon. It may not be as futuristically luxurious as the new hotels in Bangkok or Shanghai, but by virtue of being set in still something of a real jungle instead of a concrete one, it’s definitely more exotic and inviting. Imagine graceful Burmese architecture on a beautiful lake shimmering with the golden image of the 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda standing tall in the near distance. If you can swing it, stay in one of the two Royal Bungalows, which include private pools with garden views over Royal Lake. For me, it’s the most romantic and exhilarating hotel suite I’ve ever stayed in.

In Bagan, with its more than 4,000 temples being one of the great archaeological sites of the world, the Aureum Palace is outstanding. The hotel is spread out over several acres and blends with the topography, and in fact it sits amongst the temples themselves! The island villa is a private world unto itself, at least when you relieve your butler of his duties for the day.

Another uniquely Burmese – or I should say uniquely Intha – luxury hotel is the Inle Princess on Inle Lake. The lake and the floating world of the Intha people are often hailed as magical, and there really is something otherworldly about the place. The boutique hotel features spacious teakwood bungalows on the water, a great bar and bartender!, excellent Burmese and international cuisine, and one of the most exotic private dining rooms (for 2 – 16 people) you will ever see. The “wine cave” as they call it, has a hand painted Intha mural ceiling, an illuminated glass dining table in the shape of a longboat , and walls filled with some 2,000 bottles of fine wine from all over the world. This includes Inle’s own Red Mountain winery. Try the 2009 Shiraz Tempranillo, which is wonderful.

What’s been your most memorable dining experience to date?

Well, here I go again… It’s got to be my Valentine’s Day dinner at Le Planteur in Rangoon, which began with a chauffeur driven 1953 Austin Somerset picking us up at our hotel, gratis. The entire experience was intoxicating, beginning to end. The old world atmosphere had me feeling like I’d stepped through a wormhole and into 1950’s French Indochina, (despite Burma having been a British colony!). The Indochine cuisine exquisitely prepared by Michelin star chef & owner, Felix Eppisser, is reputed by many to be the best in all of Southeast Asia. The chicken breast stuffed with truffles and Champagne sauce had my palate in state of sensory splendor I never wanted to end. My date, god bless her, who was giddy over the wine list, fortunately chose the 2005 Chateau Margaux Pavillon Blanc over the $6,000 Petrus!

Have you rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous, either through your work or your travels?

Does National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry count? Actually I’ve had occasion to rub many a rich and famous shoulder, usually without them having to alert the authorities. Just to name a few of the more memorable – Mick Jagger at the Traders Happy Hour in Rangoon; Steven Segal in a Bangkok go-go bar; Don Rickles with Bob Newhart at the Beverly Hilton; and Ted Turner outside a UN convention in California, where we engaged in a very interesting conversation concerning the efficacy of NGOs in developing countries.

What currently ranks highest on your travel wish list?

So many places, so little time. Number one at the moment is taking a sailing and dive charter yacht through the Myeik Archipelago off Burma’s southernmost shores, near Thailand. With 808 islands so near the mainland and only 12 of them inhabited, it’s the last virtually virgin and largely unexplored tropical island group left on earth. I can’t wait!

Thank you for taking part in our interview, Benn, and best of luck with your latest venture, Luminous Journeys.

If you would like to be interviewed on A Luxury Travel Blog in order to raise your profile, please contact us.

Comments (7)

  1. David says:

    The work you do sounds very interesting and rewarding – you get to have incredible travel experiences on a regular basis!

  2. Full disclosure: I used to live in the Le Planteur restaurant in Yangon! In those days it was the official residence of the deputy head of mission at the Australian embassy. At some point the Australian government, in a fit of pure bloody stupidity, decided to sell it for cash. Stupid stupid stupid. I mean, where else in the world do you get a genuine British colonial mansion like that, for free? Anyway, though I’m sad to see it open to the public (get your sweaty fingers off that punkah-wallah, he’s government property!), I take Ben’s word that this bog is for only the most discerning class of traveller, and so, yes, by all means, go, enjoy.

    Burma is pretty good, too. Burma, not Myanmar. I’l never get used to that. Rangoon. Isn’t that a lovely word? Roll it round your mouth, taste it at the back of the throat. Rang…goon. Speaking of Goons, did you know that Spike Milligan This is him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spike_Milligan) went to school here? Lots of history. Noel Coward at the Strand, putting the finishing touches to Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Somerset Maugham, hiring porters and laying in cigars and cases of gin. Old Ne Win, flying round the Shwedagon Pagoda in a light plane, sitting on a live horse and dressed as a Burmese king, because his astrologer told him it was the only way to live to be a hundred. Me. myself, cowering in terror outside the Town Hall as the machine guns opened up. I think it’s more peaceful now.

    Yes, visit Burma with Ben – who knows, if you ask him, and he asks me, nicely, I might shout you to dinner at Le Planteur.

  3. Alex Groswird says:

    Very nice article. The descriptions of the hotels and the Le Planteur resturant made me rethink the travel possibilities . Looking forward to traveling there in 2015. Will definetly look you guys up for arrangements. If you end up doing the Myeik Archipelago I would love to hear about it. Good job on getting a viable business started and doing what you love.

  4. Cyrus says:

    Really enjoyed this interview. Honestly, had never considered traveling to Myanmar and still not sure I could get the wife to agree – but with that said, I am going to make sure she spends some time with this interview as well.
    I do appreciate the fact that you truly try to “tailor” the ‘journey’ to your guests specific interests and needs – and do not just offer a “one size fits all” experience.
    Enlightening interview indeed.

  5. Pete Suarez says:

    Great Information. Having traveled recently to other locations with the Wife and Kids it is definitely a benefit to work with a company who offer theses type of services.

  6. Sara Douglas says:

    I have been trying to decide where to go for my next
    vacation and this interview helped make up my mind. I
    am going to Myanmar but I am wondering what months of
    the year would be the best time to travel there.

  7. Hi Sara and thanks for your comment. High Season in Myanmar is between November 1 and February 28, with leeway before and after. By mid-March the “Hot” begins, then cools off a fair bit with monsoon rains, early June into later October.

    It should be said however, that many travelers report most glowingly from off season trips, because during the monsoon almost NOBODY is traveling in Myanmar, so you get the place virtually to yourself. It rarely rains all day – it’s usually afternoon and night time showers, which can sometimes be quite a show. It’s also possible not to get any rain at all!

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