Updated: Feb 11, 2019
Do you have a destination in mind that you’ve always idealized of what it would feel like being there? And, at the same time worried about whether or not that place would live up to the imagination of your mind? Well, Myanmar was one such country for me. Thanks to the unfolding political and social reforms, the Republic of Myanmar has opened its gates of tourism into the state. Get in line people.
Why isn’t traveling to Myanmar as common? One of the largest south-east Asian country neighboring India in the West, China in the North and Thailand in the East respectively gained Independence from the Colonial British rule in 1948. After that, the country fell into the hands of military dictatorship and the government sought to streamline everything, from Business to media. The country was isolated from the rest of the world for over 60 years to form a hybrid nation built on socialism and nationalism. Favorably those days are over now.
Naypyitaw is the modern capital of Myanmar although the accessibility of flights is higher in its former Capital, Yangon. Up until 2005, Yangon was the capital of Myanmar, and it still is a place where most travelers and tourist start their Journey. The first thing you’ll probably notice in Yangon if you land during the peak hours are the long queued traffic. Watching the group of monks, sprinting through the gridlock, unaffected by the chaos is amusing. Strangely no bikes are allowed in the downtown area of the city. After you’ve made peace with the traffic, be sure almost everyone is going to direct you to visit the famed ’Shwedagon pagoda’ and rightly so. One of the wonders of the world, towering 98 meters high in a golden dome doesn’t fail to enchant people of all walks. The 2500 years old Pagoda enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. The original pagoda was constructed of brick and later covered with gold plating. Believe it or not, the very tip of the stupa is said to contain a 76-carat diamond!
Burmese in general are kind and welcoming of tourists, and most people comprehend English. It is not an uncommon sight in Myanmar to spot people, mostly women who have their face covered with cosmetic paste. When asked the guide about it, he replied, “For the same reason Indian women sport a Bindi“ (a dot worn in-between the eyebrows). Apparently, the cosmetic paste is a cultural practice followed by Burmese woman. Also seen as an effective sunscreen balm, they are happy to apply it to you as well, in case. Walking through the religious sites, the most exceptional craft that caught my attention was the multi-colored hanging puppets. Generally believed to have originated in India and China, puppets were widely popular In the beginning. They had a religious purpose before they became used for entertainment. Now the Myanmar puppet performance situation is almost lost. The puppets are collected for dollhouse displays rather than for the stage.
Many areas in Myanmar aren’t open to tourists yet, but thankfully Bagan is not one of them. The city with its mysterious and old world charm is going to have a lasting impression on you. There are over 2000 Pagodas, temples and stupas in the zone and some of them have been re-created and reworked due to the earthquakes that have left the structures deformed. The viewing of the dramatic sunsets and sunrises with thousands of pagodas and stupas in the foreground are probably the best in the whole world. Although the hot air balloon is a seasonal occurrence, opt for it when available as it makes for a magical ride. Many sunset points involved climbing on top of the pagodas, once open to the public, are now closed involving the safety hazards of tourists. Apart from the beautiful sunset you also can revel in the Kayay Street of New Bagan which has plenty of local and international eateries to dive into and a chance for rendezvous with locals and other fellow travelers.
Driving back to the hotel past midnight after dinner noticed barricades with Policemen circled and examining a young Burmese lad. Assuming it was the usual routine of document check, I ignored it until our driver briefed us about the odd situation. Production and trafficking drugs are a pressing problem of the country and are trafficked directly to Thailand which meanwhile flows to China. It turns out, Myanmar is the second largest Opium producer in the world after Afghanistan. Learning the illegal drug use in Myanmar certainly shook me. I mean, it is a land which has the highest number of monks living and practicing Buddhism. And, here I was thinking what harm could come of a nation that enjoys chewing betel leaves as its national pastime.
The countries that border Myanmar, especially India, China, and Thailand, have influenced Burmese cuisine. You’ll find the dumplings and grilled vegetables of China side by side the curries & chapatti of India. Rice is the core of any Burmese meal served with Burmese style curry, typically oily and meaty which follows a series of side dishes. One of the culinary delights found here are the different salads made with raw vegetables mixed with nuts, peas, sesame seeds and a splash of garlic oil resulting in sour, pungent and zesty flavored, all at once. The unofficial national dish of Myanmar is ‘Mohinga,’ it is rice noodles and fish broth supplemented with the crunchy pith of the banana tree. It’s also a common snack at any time of day or night.
Riding the bus with locals to get to Mandalay from Bagan was a rare undertaking. Was the ride bumpy? Indeed, it was. Nonetheless, the narrative of the landscape was a walk into the former time. From ladies bathing around the well to farmers working in the fields, every image through the window tells a story through time. Mandalay, the last royal capital of Myanmar, located on the banks of Irrawaddy River is the economic center of Upper Myanmar and the center of Burmese culture. Apart from the plenty of historical monasteries and temples, the city is known for its Iconic Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy and Mandalay hill serves as a sunset/sunrise point and a natural watchtower as it overlooks the city. Mandalay as night time entertainment offers satire and puppets as opposed to bars or beer stations. Visitors wanting to enjoy the customary nightlife in Mandalay can be discontented with what the city has to offer. Then again, my motto for travel is “Be a Burman while in Burma.”
My desire to travel to Myanmar dates back to when it was still called Burma and when the country remained distant to the western influence for generations. With newer invasions steadily, it can’t be called ‘Untouched land’ anymore. Nevertheless, this won’t be the first blog to tell you that traveling through this enigmatic destination is worth it. And now should be the time to do it.
Mingalar Bar! (Auspicious to you all, in Burmese)
Travel Related Information
Visa: Find the official link below for all,
Travel: By Air
Duration: 28 days
Currency: Myanmar Kyat / USD accepted across
Photo Credits : @flohwithme