Myanmar: Off the beaten track in Southeast Asia
A captivating drama of colonialism and civil war set against a backdrop of mountains, ancient cities, and wild jungles awaits Conor Haugh.
It wasn't much that first drew my attention to Myanmar. A small article in a newspaper, perhaps, or a story of an adventurous friend-of-a-friend who'd visited.
Whatever it was, it prompted me to do a little research into a country I knew very little about. I was soon drawn into a captivating drama of colonialism, civil war, seized control, protests, and political prisoners set against a backdrop of impassable mountains, ancient cities, and wild jungles. It was also the story of a devoutly Buddhist and much-abused people who had retained an optimism even in the face of decades of suppression, and now seemed, finally, to be entering a period of development. My attention had been grabbed, and my next travel destination had been chosen.
Myanmar is a country not on the radar of many travellers (despite sharing borders with popular Thailand and Laos) and there's a good reason. Until very recently, Myanmar had been, directly or indirectly, under the control of a restrictive and often brutal military regime. As a result, tourists tended to avoid the country. However, following a November 2015 election, the most recent military-backed party began the process of handing power over to a democratically elected government led by one-time political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi. Tourists are beginning to take notice of Myanmar as a new, more open and democratic destination.
I began my visit in the one-time capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Arriving in late January meant a bright, sunny, Burmese winter. The very first thing that struck me, as I wandered through the street markets and crumbling colonial buildings (left from former British occupation) of downtown Yangon, was the charm of the Burmese locals. In other Asian cities and tourist sites it seemed that most locals I'd met in the first few days were tour-guides, sales-people, or rickshaw drivers who saw me as a customer first and foremost. Here, however, there was a palpable, genuine, and innocent friendliness on offer. The locals that approached me (among them monks, bookshop owners, and students) seemed more interested in learning where I was from and what I thought of their country, or in teaching me some Burmese or practising their English, than in trying to sell me anything.
Following an afternoon in the food markets, sampling the dishes on offer from the many cheap stalls (including the much-tastier-than-it-sounds fermented green tea leaf salad), I made the short walk to the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset. Rising from an octagonal base and rounded dome to a long, jewel-encrusted spire, and enveloped in some sixty tons of gold, the huge pagoda sits on top of an immense teak staircase and can be seen from all over Yangon. At sunset, the scene was fantastic. Pilgrims prostrated themselves and bells rang as the monks illuminated the Shwedagon, making it stand out in gold against the pinkening sky. I lingered much longer than I had planned.
From Yangon I took an overnight bus to Bagan, a mystical 26 sq mile archeological zone containing literally thousands of Buddhist temples. I arrived at four in the morning and my guesthouse kindly allowed me to check in (very) early. After filling in the compulsory foreigner registration forms I noticed that the guesthouse rented bicycles. With sunrise being only two hours away, I thought 'why not?', hired one, and pedalled off into the darkness. After thirty minutes of cycling down a wide, unlit road, I stopped by a restaurant owner setting up for the day. Feeling rather silly, I asked him where all the temples were. He laughed and pointed me back in the direction I had come. The black of night was brightening to grey, and on my return journey I realised that what I had thought was a mostly featureless road was in fact lined by countless dark, ancient structures. I stopped my bike and entered one. My torch lit up the serene face of a sitting Buddha. On my third lap of the temple chamber, searching for the hidden stairway that I was sure must exist to bring me up to the exterior platforms, his half-smile began to look more like a smirk.
Eventually I found what I was looking for and climbed up. I perched on my private temple roof and was treated to a stunning sunrise over a jaw-dropping desert landscape. White, gold, and red sandstone temples, stupas, and pagodas stretched out seemingly endlessly in all directions, complemented by a score of hot-air balloons drifting across the horizon carrying tourists who'd paid the extra €290 for the privilege.
Bagan is a testament to the scale of the old Burmese kingdoms, and the fervent religiosity of its people. Although the last Burmese kingdom fell in 1885 to the might of colonial Britain, Buddhist culture is still well preserved here. A practice known as vipassana meditation (supposedly the same technique used by Buddha himself), all but lost to the rest of the world, was retained in a pure form for generations in Myanmar, and is now finding a renewed popularity in the global community (a growing number of travellers choose to attend a 10-day, donation-based, silent retreat during their time in Asia).
After leaving the spirituality of Bagan, I travelled east to Mandalay, another former Burmese capital. Most backpackers who stay use the sprawling, dusty city as a base for visiting the surrounding villages and countryside. I stayed in Fortune Hotel, one of many similar, high-rise, Chinese-owned hotels, indicators of the large influence that Myanmar has had from its superpower neighbour even during its years of isolation.
After a day of traipsing around beautiful teak monasteries and the admirably restored Mandalay Palace, I found a small local restaurant, titled 'Myanmar Food Centre' on 30th Street, for dinner. The old woman running the restaurant spoke no English, but she easily solved this problem by pulling me into the kitchen with her and gesturing at the surrounding pots and pans filled with bubbling stews. I pointed at a delicious smelling vat of what turned out to be a chicken curry. The meal came with many sides, standard in Burmese restaurants, including rice, corn, beans, sour soup, salad, fish paste, and spiced vegetables. Over the course of my hearty and tasty dinner a cast of family members and friends made appearances; a son, a daughter, an uncle, a teacher. Each introduced themselves to me as best they could and some of the younger generation chatted enthusiastically with me in broken English. I gratefully accepted the complementary green tea and replenished bowls of food I was offered, and my bill came to 3000 kyat (a little more than €2).
After a long, slow, rattling train journey south-east from Mandalay to popular Inle Lake (perhaps the most tourist-oriented spot in Myanmar, yet still underdeveloped next to comparable areas in neighbouring India, Thailand, Laos, or China), I took another bus further south to Kinpun, a small settlement at the base of Mt. Kyaiktiyo (home of the Golden Rock, an important Buddhist pilgrimage site). I stayed in Lotus Da Dar, a Dutch-run and locally-staffed guesthouse. During my stay several staff were leaving, and I was delighted to be included in the farewell party. They dressed me in a traditional Burmese longi and swept me along to a nearby teahouse. After a quick cup of Chinese tea we rushed back to the hotel for a huge group dinner and delightfully innocent parlour-style games. Once again I was struck by the Burmese hospitality.
From Kinpun I made my way to the Thai border at Myawaddy, stopping in the pleasant riverside towns of Mawlamyine and Hpa-An. For a final time I enjoyed the friendliness of the locals and the novelty of being one of few Western tourists.
In the coming years investments in infrastructure and tourism will make the country much more accessible, and no doubt the number of visiting tourists will continue to rise. It remains to be seen how this will affect local opinion of foreigners and the authenticity of the experience that visitors will have. Now, at the beginning of a new, more open and democratic era for Myanmar, but before speedy development dominates, is a great time to visit. Whatever happens, it seems to me that the indomitably jovial spirit of the Burmese people, that has survived colonialism, civil war, and military brutality, will remain a reason to visit far into the future.
When to visit
Myanmar has two seasons: dry (October to May) and wet (May to October). The best weather arrives between November and February, although this is also the busiest time. As accommodation can be limited, booking ahead is advisable.
The Burmese government have recently launched an online e-Visa program. The visa costs US$50 and is valid for 28 days, but is only valid when arriving by air. If crossing overland from Thailand a visa can be arranged in two working days at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok for roughly €20.
Emirates Airlines offer flights from Dublin to Yangon International Airport via Dubai (emirates.com). Malaysia Airlines fly from London Heathrow via Kuala Lumpur (malaysiaairlines.com). Alternatively, overland travel is currently possible from Thailand to Myanmar at the recently opened Mae Sot/Myawaddy border, or further south at the Kawthoung/Rangong crossing.
Take three: top attractions
The Thazi Slow Train
The highlight of any trip to Myanmar will likely be the locals you meet. And what better place to meet locals than on the train? Specifically, the slow train between Thazi (reachable from Mandalay) and Shwenyaung (close to Inle Lake). The carriages trundle through stunning mountain scenery and hilltop villages, where you can glimpse typical rural life in action. At 10 hours, it's long but very atmospheric.
Inle Lake boat tours
At 18,000 kyat (€13) for four people, an all-day boat tour is a fantastic way to see one of Myanmar's most popular destinations. Motor past local fishermen, floating gardens, and scenic countryside, stopping at artisan markets, stilted monasteries, and weathered pagodas along the way. Boats explore Inle Lake itself as well as the many adjoining canals, and can be hired from most hotels or by the waterfront.
Hiking Mt Kyaiktiyo
Most visitors to Mt. Kyaiktiyo take one of the ubiquitous over-crowded pick-up trucks (departing from Kinpun) to reach the summit and the gravity-defying gold-leaf covered Golden Rock that perches there. Follow the road in the other direction, however, and you will find a trekking path that will take you, through small villages and beautiful forest, on a 4-5 hour moderate hike to the peak.