HK Magazine Archive

Burmese Days

Myanmar is opening to the world and there’s no better time to visit this beguiling, golden country.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 4:53pm

Burma—or Myanmar—has blossomed in the last five years. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, the country is opening up after decades of ruthless military control, even holding its first free elections in a quarter of a decade. The pace of change is startling—the price of a phone SIM card has gone from US$300 to US$3 in the space of three years. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems: The elections don’t relinquish military control, and poverty is widespread. But this beautiful country is starting once again to show itself to the world. It’s a place of generous people and stunning sights: You can’t afford to miss it.

Yangon Myanmar’s biggest city is busy changing. The streets are chock-full of beautiful old colonial buildings which have steadily gone to seed after decades of neglect. Meanwhile there’s construction on almost every corner as new money floods into the city, and even industrial-looking hipster bars are popping up. But islands of tradition remain in the form of the golden pagodas which dot the city and gleam so brightly they hurt to look at in the midday sun. The vast Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred of its kind in Myanmar, a vast complex of golden spires stretching into blue skies overhead.

Where to Eat Thanks to its hugely varied ethnic makeup, Burmese food is amazingly diverse, from Chinese-style noodle dishes to curries which sit halfway between fragrant Thai food and spicy Indian. Taing Yin Thar (5A, corner of May Kha Rd. and Parami Rd., Yangon (+95) 1-966-0792) is a great introduction to some of the best of Burmese cuisine, with a menu that intentionally covers the country’s different styles. Try a range of dishes, and don’t miss the excellent green tomato salad.

The Burmese national dish is mohinga, a beautiful fish noodle soup most often eaten at breakfast. It’s subtly spiced and wonderfully aromatic, toppled with plenty of coriander and crunchy chickpea fritters. Get up early and head to Lucky Seven (49th St. and Mahabandoola, Yangon), hidden away behind a tree-lined street. A bowl of their mohinga, washed down with a cup of Burma’s rich, sweet tea, will set you up for a day like little else. For another kind of noodle, 999 Shan Noodle Shop (130B, 34th St., Yangon) serves up cheap and phenomenally good noodles: a little spicy, a little sweet and very, very good.

The frenetic, marvelous 19th Street in the middle of Yangon’s Chinatown is lined by grill restaurants which come alive as the sun sets. Each store is fronted by shelves with rows on rows of skewered meat: You pick whatever looks good, hand it to the staff and they’ll bring it back perfectly grilled. Wash it all down with plenty of Myanmar beer.

Where to Stay Burma has a hotel problem: There just aren’t enough, which means that they’re pricy compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. Rooms begin at around the US$40 ($310) mark for something that would cost you US$10 in Bangkok. Still, if you want to do it in luxury, the Sule Shangri-La (223 Sule Pagoda Rd., Yangon, (+95) 1-242-828) is one of the best hotels in the city, and widely acknowledged as having the best internet connection in the entire country.

It’s also right in the middle of town, a stone’s throw from the Sule Pagoda—one of the city’s most iconic structures—and the Bogyoke Aung San Market, which stocks everything from souvenir jewelry to longyis, the ubiquitous skirts worn by men and women alike. If you’re looking to spend a little less, the Thanlwin Guest House (Y25, Thanlwin Rd., Pyinyawaddy Estate (behind Sedona Hotel), Yangon, (+95) 1-542-677) is a lovely hostel staffed by some of the nicest people in the capital.

Yangon-Mandalay There are a few ways to get from Yangon to Mandalay: You can fly, catch the bus or take the train. We opted for the third choice, trusting the colonial British rail system… which hasn’t really been updated since the British left. The 16-hour overnight journey (about $100) is alternately beautiful and exhausting. The train doesn’t bump around so much as rattle you to your very core, but it’s almost all worth it as the sun rises in the morning over rice fields, every half-mile lighting up another golden pagoda that glints its morning welcome.

Mandalay Mandalay is less immediately appealing than Yangon: the city is much more sprawling and gridded, and it lacks the colonial charm of its southern brother. The city’s centerpiece is Mandalay Palace, a huge walled citadel that was once the royal residence of the Kings of Burma. It was more or less leveled and then rebuilt after World War II, but there are some charming sights to be seen nonetheless. It’s also worth walking up Mandalay Hill in time for sunset, which offers panoramic views of Mandalay and the surrounding countryside, as well as plenty of chances to chat with the monks heading up for their devotions and the view. Be warned: You won’t be the only tourist at the top trying to snap the sunset.

Make time for the half-day trip to Mingun, just to the north of Mandalay.  A tourist ferry ($30) makes it a leisurely, charming journey up the Irrawaddy River. The real draw is the Mingun Pahto, an enormous structure started in 1790 which was originally intended to serve as the base of a huge, 150-meter-tall pagoda. Abandoned long before completion, what’s left is a block of brick some 70 meters square and 50 meters high, which visitors can clamber up (leaping over the occasional earthquake-induced crack) for phenomenal views of the surrounding countryside.

Also near Mandalay is the U Bein bridge, the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world. This stilt-like construction is trod by hundreds of locals—and, yes, plenty more tourists—every day. Add your footfalls to the thousands that have come before, with the comforting thump of wood underfoot as dusk falls. It’s perhaps part of what makes Myanmar so special, a sense that the history that’s everywhere is still part of the daily lives of the Burmese.

Mandalay-Bagan There’s a day-long ferry (around $300) that cruises down the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Bagan, the country’s temple region. It’s a gentle meandering day through mud-brown waters under blue skies, past innumerable golden stupas standing against green hills and occasional ornate railway bridges that are reminders of the country’s colonial past. 

Bagan The plain of Bagan is home to a mind-boggling 2,200 temples, stretching out across the landscape in a never-ending series of red brick spires. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, the 104 square km of Bagan has everything from tiny shrines just big enough for a single person, to vast complexes containing towering Buddhas. It’s magical that a place like this has come to be—a testament to Burmese faith, culture and devotion. You’ll need to buy a US$15 ($116) ticket to the “Bagan Archaeological Zone,” which covers access to the entire area.

A horse-and-cart tour will take you around the well-known temples, such as the Ananda and Sulamani complexes. But the real joy of Bagan lies in hiring an electric bike for the day (from about $40-50) and heading out on your own to seek out Bagan’s lesser-visited stupas. Most of the middle-sized buildings can be climbed via internal passages (although watch out for beehives!), yielding gorgeous views of the plain. Find the right one and you’ll be treated to the perfect sunset, as the red brick temples glow ochre in the dusk.

Bagan is also famous for its lacquerware: strip after strip of bamboo, woven up and then layered with lacquer sap. Light, strong and flexible, it’s intricately inscribed and decorated, inlaid with a range of gorgeous colors. Myinkabar Village in Bagan is home to most of the lacquerware stores: We liked Golden Cuckoo ((+95) 61-65-156), whose lovely owner took us into the back room, where the good stuff is kept.

If you splurge on only one thing on your trip to Myanmar, make it a hot-air balloon ride with Balloons Over Bagan (from US$320 ($2,480)). Yes, it’s not cheap—but the experience is one of a kind. You’re picked up before dawn and driven to a field, where you’re plied with coffee as balloons are inflated while the sky lightens. Then it’s up and away, a fleet of balloons rising upwards as the temples of Bagan stretch out below. It’s beautifully silent and peaceful, interrupted only by the creaking of the wicker basket and the occasional roar of the flame burners overhead. It’s unforgettably stunning. Do it.

Getting There Airlines fly daily to Yangon, and Cathay Pacific holds regular discounted fanfares. You’ll most likely need a visa, which is easily applied for online and costs US$50 ($388).

Ethical Travel It’s a good policy to try to avoid spending money with institutions that will directly benefit the military regime which has effective control over the country. Do your research before you leave to make sure you don’t book hotels and services affiliated with the military—spend your money with the people you meet instead.