I have planned this trip for almost a year. It is one of my most anticipated trip as Myanmar opened its door to tourism not too long ago, with tourists slowly coming in since 2009 and becoming more popular in recent years.
Being an Asian, born and grew up in Penang, Malaysia, I have been to other parts of Southeast Asia countries; mostly Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. But Myanmar is a mystery and less known to me. The only thing I knew is that Buddhism is widely practiced with a minority Burmese Muslim group, Rohingya, mostly populated in the western part of Myanmar. The country was under military ruled since 1962, which was dissolved in 2010 general election and a civilian government was installed in 2011. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide victory.
Myanmar is used to be known as Burma with its capital then known as Rangoon, now called Yangon. It is rich in colonial history and bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Laos. I did a bit of research on travel websites and read up a travel book before I chose Myanmar as my next trip. The most popular tourist destinations are Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. I called this the 3 golden treasures of Myanmar. I have a limited time off from work during the traditional Christmas and New Year festive season in Australia. I knew that my company has a requirement on all staff to take a minimum of 2 weeks forced annual leave during this period. It is the busiest and most expensive time to travel. As I don't have much of a choice, I may as well use the time to travel to destination that I have always wanted to visit. So 2016 Christmas and New Year season, I chose to visit Myanmar for a 5 nights stay. The rest of the time I spent in Penang catching up with my family.
5 nights is a short visit, which means I could only visit 1 out of the 3 golden treasures of Myanmar. To go to Myanmar is not complete until one has been to Bagan - an archaeological ancient capital of Myanmar. To fulfil this dream of mine, Bagan is definitely a must on this visit. The other 2 golden treasures of Myanmar - Mandalay and Inle Lake, can be visited another time.
To get to Bagan, my partner and I flew into the capital city, Yangon. We arrived at Yangon International Airport, a sparkling brand new airport recently opened in the first week of Dec 2016. It is modern and piping freezing cold in the airport terminal. The queues at the immigration counters were extremely long and a very slow process. It is important to know that a tourist visa is required to enter the country, and this can be applied online as e-Visa. It is fairly easy to apply for the e-Visa and is the best way to speed up the process on arrival at the airport.
Yangon is a large city and very busy with lots of motor vehicles. The traffic is surprisingly very busy and at certain times of the day can be grid-locked. Taxi is aplenty. I couldn't remember if I have seen any motorbikes. A big contrast from the cities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia with lots of motorbikes. Yangon remindered me of Bangkok more than 30 years ago.
It is easy and cheap to get around in a taxi. The first night on arrival we stayed outside the city, closer to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda - a 5 minutes walk, in a local area. In this local area, we get to see and experience how the local lives. There were street vendors selling fresh produces, flowers, food, goods associated with Buddhism prayers and other nicknacks. In the early morning and evening, there were more popped up stalls of different kinds. There was a number of stray dogs wondering the streets or sat next to the food stall vendors hoping for some food to be thrown onto the ground. It was not an easy sight to watch. The local life in this area seems harsh. There were parts of the streets that looked very unhygienic and dirty. But people seems alright and go on with their daily life and chores. The day and night scene in these streets seem different with different vendors trading along the street sides. It is something I will remember and hope one day, the living standard in this district will improve.
The next location we stayed is closer to the city at a beautiful small boutique hotel called The Loft. It is within easy walking distance to the Aung San Bogyoke Market (previously known as the Scott's Market) and the Colonial Quarter. It is almost diagonally across from the Park Royal hotel. This district is a big contrast from the first place that we stayed in Yangon. It is quieter, cleaner and does not have the rawness of an area that indicates hardship and poverty of a neighbourhood.
The Loft has limited rooms. I was fortunate to get a room during this peak season, which I have booked a couple of months before our trip. The hotel may look like nothing from the front. Step inside, it is like an oasis full of surprises. It is clean and comfy. The room is spacious, clean and nicely decorated. The bathroom amenities exudes luxury with brand name, L'Occitane. The wifi in the hotel is fast and reliable. The mattress and pillows are plush and comfortable for a good night sleep. To top this up, the staff and service was friendly, helpful and very welcoming. We got to try the breakfast in the restaurant, ala carte style and table service - complimentary from the hotel manager. The fresh juice and food were of high quality for a small hotel. Highly recommended.
Yangon is to us, a stop-over city. We did a few things. We walked around the Colonial Quarter and explored some of the little lanes. We visited the Shwedagon Pagoda at night, which is an incredible sight that I will remember for a long time. It felt very peaceful and surreal watching the locals gently strolled around the pagoda site, some sat on the ground in meditation, some praying, families and kids enjoying a quality time together. The lights were soft, exudes warmth and shined on the pagodas glittered in gold. We also visited some art galleries and shopped at the famous Aung San Bogyoke Market but bought nothing. We ate local Myanmar food, which was delicious - an interesting mixed of flavours from its neighbours. Tastes almost Indian, Chinese and Thai. Lots of herbs and complex flavours with interesting textures. Love the different types of salad; such as, Tea Leaf Salad, Tomatoes Salad, Eggplant Salad, Tamarind Salad. Also tried the Shan food, which apparently is a famous cuisine in Myanmar and among the Burmese.
The locals, Burmese, are one of the friendliest people I have ever come across in Southeast Asia. I felt safe and was never hassled by anyone trying to sell me things on the street. There were no kids chasing us asking to buy postcards, fake lonely planets, etc. I suppose tourism hasn't stained the young ones in Yangon yet, which is a good thing. Note I said Yangon. In Bagan, we were hassled a couple of times but nothing in comparison with other parts of Southeast Asia - like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. We never felt like we have been cheated. There is a good sense of honesty in the people. It is probably inbred from their religion - Buddhism. They always have a smile on their face and seem relax and casual. They don't stare at the tourists. They go on with their lives and walk slow. Our experience with the locals are nothing but friendly and helpful, including the 2 boutique hotels we stayed in Yangon - The Merchant and The Loft.
We will definitely return to Myanmar again. Maybe next year in 2018 to visit the other 2 golden treasures - Mandalay and Inle Lake.
Insight Penang blogs about travel and food, sharing with anyone who enjoys traveling to other destinations, taking photographs, meeting people, experiencing new cultures and traditions, enjoying cooking and trying other cuisines.