Why visiting the mysterious Southeast Asian country should be on your bucket list, plus where to sleep, what to eat and goodies to take home.
The largest country in mainland Southeast Asia is also arguably its most mysterious, having been closed to the rest of the world until the better part of the last century. The land of fertile valleys and rivers like the great Irrawaddy, rich in teak, gold, rubies and jade, still remains relatively unscathed by development and boasts some of the finest pristine natural landscapes and stunning temple complexes and ruins.
Despite the civil unrest and the hardships of the military regime of past decades, the Burmese people maintain a gentle dignity and shy charm, and display a modest pride when meeting visitors to their country known as ‘the land of golden spires’ for the abundance of gilt pagodas sprinkled across the land.
When the military government began allowing new areas for tourism in the mid-1990s, many travellers were still wary of spending their dollars in a country with an abysmal human rights record, where Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi had spent the better part of her time under house arrest in her fight for democracy. But the shift in political climate in recent years — Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest after the 2010 elections and certain restrictions on her communication with the outside world and political activities were lifted — and the inflow of news from the rest of the world have ushered in an atmosphere of hope and optimism among the Burmese people as they move towards a future of more meaningful democracy.
Now that Burma’s political situation has become more open, the country has become one of the most attractive destinations not just in Asia, but in the world.
This bustling, colourful former capital city boasts one of the highest numbers of colonial buildings in Asia. Home to the awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda, this city set in the delta of the Yangon river is a treasure of sights like schoolboys in longyi playing soccer.
Indisputably one of the most stunning sights on earth is the expanse of ruins of the old capital city (Pagan) dotting this semi-arid plain. Splurge on a hot air balloon ride across the plain at sunrise or sunset for a magical experience.
Burma’s second-largest city evokes images of exotic romance, thanks to Rudyard Kipling. It counts the highest population of monks in the country. Venture out in the early morning to see lines of monks and nuns walking along the street to collect food offerings for the day. Visit the Mandalay Palace, where the last king and queen of Burma lived, and the beautiful teak monastery of Shwenandaw.
This breathtaking sight framed by mountains is well worth a visit despite its inaccessibility. The Intha people live in floating villages on stilts in the 22-km long lake, scattered with floating gardens of flowers and vegetables. The fishermen of this community are famed for their unique method of using their legs to manoeuvre their nets.
Don’t miss these dishes for an authentic taste of the country.
Mohinga is to Myanmar what pho is to Vietnam. This classic breakfast of rice noodles in fish broth, with a choice of deep-fried toppings like scallions and fish cake, is sold at street stalls, cafes, and hotel restaurants. While there are regional variations — the Yangon version is clear, in Rakhine State in the west it is spiced with chilli — it is universally delicious.
BURMESE TEA LEAF SALAD (LAPHET THOKE)
Often called Myanmar’s national dish, this salad, pronounced ‘la-pay-toe’, contrasts the soft texture of slightly acid, astringent fermented tea leaves with crunchy roasted peanuts, beans, toasted sesame seeds, dried shrimp and fried garlic. It is often served as individual ingredients, so diners can choose their combination of flavours.
FRIED SESAME SEED BANANAS
Myanmar’s take on goreng pisang has the banana fritters dipped in a batter laced with sesame seeds. They have a refreshing tartness from a squeeze of lime juice. Some like eating them with a tiny dusting of chilli powder.
BURMA’S BEST BUYS
If you are thinking of souvenir for yourself or family/friends, here are some great souvenirs.
Bagan is the epicentre of Myanmar’s lacquer industry. Black lacquer comes from the thitsi tree and lacquered cups, trays and jewellery boxes make elegant gifts. A walk along Bagan’s main street yields plenty of lacquer shops and you can always ask to be taken into the workshops in the back to see the craftspeople at work.
Don’t miss a trip to the silk weavers when you’re in Mandalay. The clacking of wooden looms indicates the busy work turning out silk longyis for weddings. These are memorable presents. If you prefer, you could purchase the silk by the metre and get something modern tailored when you’re home.
The three-storey Gem Museum and Mart in Yangon is packed with stalls offering everything from US$1 jade bracelets to ruby pendants and jade Buddha statues. Government-approved certificates of authenticity are issued and credit cards are accepted.
If you’re visiting Mandalay, you might consider a day trip to the village of Ywahtaung, home to the silversmith’s guild. Silver betel boxes and vessels shaped like monks’ offering bowls are intricately worked with traditional designs.
THE GOVERNOR’S RESIDENCE, YANGON
This impeccably restored 1920s teak mansion located in the city’s quiet Embassy Quarter offers the serenity of lotus gardens, and a fan-shaped swimming pool. Stylish bedrooms, the ground floor Kipling Bar and the excellent Burmese-French Mandalay Restaurant make this Orient-Express hotel a winner.
THE AMARA OCEAN RESORT, NGAPALI BEACH
This oasis of seclusion less than 10 minutes from the airport offers thatched glass and sustainable wood cabanas on stilts, a sprawling swimming pool and an accomplished seafood restaurant. Borrow bikes to explore the powder white beaches.
MANDALAY HILL RESORT
The resort’s opulent gold-tinted decor and detailed temple-inspired pavilion are reminders of the times when Mandalay was the former capital city of the Myanmar kingdom. Enjoy a treatment at The Mandalar Spa Villa and a cup of tea at the private garden.
VILLA INLE RESORT AND SPA
The picturesque Lake Inle, in the southern mountain region at 1,000m above sea level, boasts this retreat with luxurious canopied beds and balcony views of the local fishermen gliding on the lake. Environmentally-friendly practices include harvesting produce from their own chemical-free vegetable garden and working with local communities on reforestation programmes.