Discover Myanmar

19 September 2012

Before your friends started posting photos of their recent trip to Myanmar, did you have any idea what this country has to offer?  Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” It’s hard to imagine a place being so unique that you can’t compare it to other places. But that’s Burma (officially called Myanmar)

Who isn’t curious to see the land that time forgot?
 
Ideally, you’ll visit sometime between October and March; from April to September, it can get hot and humid with heavy rains. But don’t let that stop you. My last visit was in July, and while hot, we didn’t see a drop of rain. Similar to its neighbouring countries of China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh, Myanmar is a country of hills, mountains, beaches, temples and jungles. But what sets it apart is its people.

Burmese monks

Best flights from Hong Kong to Myanmar - Dragonair has launched direct flights to Yangon from Hong Kong. For indirect options, consider Thai Airways (flying via Bangkok) or Singapore Airlines (flying via Singapore). It’s easiest and fastest to take domestic flights between each city. However, it’s also possible to travel around by bus and train. If you arrive in the evening, I recommend staying the night in Yangon at The Strand, and starting your travel around Burma bright and early the following morning, starting with…

Bagan: temples and pagodas

Bagan, located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady (formerly Irrawaddy) River, is home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. Construction began in the 11th century when King Anawrahta converted to Theravada Buddhism, and set out to spread this doctrine to his people.

Temples in Bagan

Bagan Archaeological Zone is somewhere you could lose yourself for days. What makes the temples look so romantic is the process of graceful aging. Spinning micro twisters, common in the region, have peeled off much of the stucco coating in a process of gentle erosion. The exposed rust-red brick transforms to a golden brown-like patina when hit by the sun’s rays. Today, with the growing interest in tourism, there is an effort to protect and preserve many of these temples.
 
Note that while Cambodian stupas and spires are shaped like artichokes and corn cobs, Burmese ones are gourd- and durian-shaped. Sign up for a (charming and relaxed) guided tour, and you’ll learn a lot about ancient Burma – and ancient Buddhism. Added to which you get a real glimpse of everyday Burmese life – villagers ride through the temple site on ox cart going about their business, and you can hunker down with the old folk smoking thick post-prayer cheroots.
 
And my must-do? For a spectacular panoramic sunrise or sunset view of the temples, splash out on a hot-air balloon ride.

For dinner, go to Be Kind to Animals The Moon (bizarre name, I know). They serve excellent dishes, but my favourite one is the tomato curry.

Inle Lake: rest and relaxation

The gentle way of life on the lake is transfixing, whether you are visiting one of the floating gardens by boat, observing the fishermen with their unique fishing style, or simply relaxing on your balcony enjoying the serenity and tranquillity only found in this little gem of a place. Villages line the shore, and also pepper the tiny islands. But this being so, I have come across few vacation spots so peaceful and meditative. 

One leg rower common in Inle Lake

We stayed at Viewpoint Eco Lodge in Nyaung Shwe. Its luxurious cottage suites are built in the traditional Shan style – stilts on a lake. The staff paid close attention to every little detail so that our stay was a memorable one. We hired bikes and went for a wander. The road was rocky and bumpy, but the pedalling soon paid off when we got the first glimpse of the scenery. It was absolutely gorgeous! After getting lost a few times, we stumbled upon Red Mountain Vineyard and stopped for a sneaky glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

Indein Village

To explore the lake, hire a boat and cruise around. This is your chance to visit with Burmese blacksmiths, silversmiths and silk weavers. Most of the simple yet picturesque village houses are built on stilts. You can sail to a bustling local market to see the colourfully dressed farmers and villagers of the region, particularly the Pa-O tribe, who bring in oxen carts loaded with flowers, vegetables, dried fish and clothing – and lay their goods out on the ground. Indein Village on the west coast of the lake is a definite must! The ancient Shan, vine-encrusted pagodas on the hilltop are a dramatic sight.

Yangon: the heart of Myanmar

The gateway to Myanmar, Yangon is where contemporary and colonial Burma coexists. A few years ago, there was very little sign of any foreign (or domestic) investment in the city. If you visit now, you will be welcomed by billboards advertising the latest mobile phones, some high-rise buildings and line after line of cars. But don’t be put off.

As you stroll you’ll be greeted by the super-friendly smiles of the locals, most of whom still wear traditional longhis (sarongs). The Burmese girls in particular are a joy to behold, their faces patterned with thanaka (a white sunscreen made from ground bark) and their shining hair hanging down to their waists or even ankles.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

No trip to Yangon is complete without a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda; the glorious gold-encrusted temple that watches over the city from Singuttara Hill. Despite the number of believers who flock to the pagoda, it exudes an incredible sense of calm. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of the past four Buddhas enshrined within.
 
Leave time in the afternoon to visit Yangon Zoological Gardens, nestled in the heart of beautiful Kandawgyi Lake (formerly Royal Lake) to the west of Shwedagon. Here you’ll find a decent zoo, an aquarium and amusement park. Along the eastern shorelines of the lake is the imposing Karaweik, a concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge built in 1972.
 
Celebrate your visit by staying in the Victorian-era Strand Yangon that stands majestically in downtown Yangon. Enter the lobby with its black-and-white marble flooring and inlaid teak-wood furniture, and you immediately feel transported back in time. The service is wonderfully personal, with the attentive staff really making an effort to get to know you. If they see you enjoying a particular drink at breakfast, they will make sure that you get the same drink the following day. Talk about feeling pampered!

It’s impossible to pinpoint my favourite part of Burma, as each place offers something unique. It’s a heaven-sent destination for history lovers. It’s also one of the only places in Asia where you can watch at first-hand a people in transition. And as I said it’s the people that really make Burma fabulous. Their warmth and friendliness will fill you with peace and contentment.

Cecilia Yee

Our resident yogi, Cecilia is passionate about three things: travel, music and good food. Her sense of adventure will inspire you to see the world: skydiving over Great Barrier Reef, scuba diving in Silfra, trekking Mt Kilimanjaro, witnessing the Northern Lights, dancing until the sun comes up at music festivals, travelling to cool places like Zanzibar, Cuba, Tibet, Iran, and more.