Myanmar: Adventure, Culture, and Authenticity

Written by  Jess Kaufman

ASIA MYANMARFormerly off-limits to tourists, Myanmar has recently opened its borders to tourism. And now is the time to visit: Myanmar is in a sweet spot, welcoming to curious visitors, but still unspoiled by tourist trade, maintaining its own authentic culture. While some remote areas remain off-limits to tourists, there are myriad delights to be enjoyed in the more accessible regions. Three major cities and their surrounding areas offer a diverse experience of Burmese culture through vibrant urban life (Mandalay, for example); stunning architectural and spiritual sites, such Yangon’s Shwedagon Paya; and pristine lakes and beaches in the southern regions. Known for its rich resources of jade, sapphires, and emeralds, Myanmar has many other jewels on offer, and now is the time to see them.

Yangon (Rangoon)
Myanmar’s crown jewel is surely the city of Yangon. Formerly known as Rangoon, it’s no longer the utilitarian military capitol it once was. When the government moved north to Naypyidaw in 2005, young people, foreign investors, and tourists moved in, turning Yangon into a vibrant, blossoming city. Yangon is home to the unforgettable Shwedagon Paya, also known as the Golden Pagoda. One of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, it is believed to house (among other relics) eight hairs from the Gautama Buddha. Topped with a 325-foot-tall stupa (zedi) covered in gold leaf, it’s the most visible feature of Yangon’s skyline. Hover outside and guides will approach, eager to share the temple’s legendary 2,600 years of history. Nearby, People’s Park offers splendid view of Shwedagon Pagoda, and is a noteworthy site of its own. Blending traditional and modern Burmese culture, the park features an assortment of ponds, gardens, and fountains (including one with tree-top observation towers); an old steam train and a decommissioned airplane; and an amusement park.
Other noteworthy sites in Yangon include the National Museum (featuring a jewel-encrusted Lion Throne belonging to Myanmar’s last king); the Chaukhtatgyi Paya, a 65 meter long reclining Buddha; Botataung Paya; and the sprawling Bogyoke Aung San Market, home to Myanmar’s largest collection of souvenirs including Shan bags, jewelry, laquerware, slippers, and handicrafts.

Bagan
Travelers particularly interested in Myanmar’s Buddhist temples will love picturesque Bagan. Less a city and more a small region (its official name is the Bagan Archeological Zone) it is home to many incredible Buddhist sites including the glimmering Ananda Pahto, one of Myanmar’s best-preserved temples. Day tours by bike are readily available, as are three-, five-, and eight-day tours from Yangon.

Mandalay
While less architecturally appealing than its counterparts, Mandalay is a major cultural capitol. Traditional performing arts are found at an array of small theaters, and a wanderer might just as easily stumble upon a quaint monastery, an artisan’s workshop, or a bustling street market. Mandalay is also the gateway to many picturesque day trips, including former Royal capitals Inwa (Ava) and Amarapura, the “City of Immortality”.

Islands and Beaches
For a more relaxing excursion, Ngapali has the feel of a small fishing village, with ox-drawn carts, small boats heading out for the day’s catch, and the ocean-fresh cuisine. Even at high tourist season, Ngapali keeps a quiet, relaxing vibe with just over 20 resorts spread wide across 15 miles of pristine, tree-lined beach along the Bay of Bengal.

Food
If you love seafood, Myanmar will definitely delight your tastebuds: Burmese food is characterized by varied, creative use of fish, prawns, and other seafood. For example, the national dish, Mohinga, is a fish soup with rice noodles traditionally served for breakfast. Burmese cuisine does vary slightly by region: meat and poultry are popular in landlocked cities like Mandalay, for example, and less so in coastal areas. There is also a wide array of thoke, salads built around one primary ingredient. Popular examples include rice, wheat noodles, glass noodles, potato, long bean, tea leaves, kaffir lime, and tomato.
In Yangon, don’t miss 999 Shan Noodle House, famous for the best authentic cuisine in Myanmar. Informal and inexpensive, it’s best visited for breakfast or lunch. The slightly spicy Shan Noodles are a sure bet, and it’s also a great spot to try a local favorite, sticky noodles.

When To Go, How to Get There, Where to Stay
Myanmar has three main seasons: hot, cool, and rainy. Cool season (November to February) is considered the best time visit, with temperatures ranging from 89 degrees F at midday to 66F at night.
Direct flights from the west are rare, but connections are easily found in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, and many more. Once in Myanmar, the best way to get from destination to destination is also by air. Private airlines (Air Bagan, Asian Wings, Air Mandalay, and Golden Myanmar Airways, to name a few) are the safest, most reliable, and most comfortable way to travel within the country. In cities, cars can be hired for a reasonable daily rate, and drivers are also often happy to serve as guides. Myanmar’s infrastructure is young, so while inter-city train and car travel is possible, it’s recommended only for adventurous (and patient) travelers.
Tourist visas can now be purchased online for $50 (USD) before arrival. These e-Visas are valid only for arrival at major airports, so visitors are advised to book in advance and fly in. (Buying a Visa in person can be challenging. No tourists are permitted to arrive by sea, and land entry is severely restricted.)
Hotels book quickly, especially in the high season (November to March). Some monasteries will accept guests for a small fee, particularly in more remote areas, but its best to book accommodation in advance. For a four-star stay in Yangon, there are many options including Sule Shangri-La (www.shangri-la.com) and The Strand (www.hotelthestrand.com).
While some of the logistics take a little extra effort, it’s well worth it to visit this gorgeous jewel of a country.
www.myanmartourism.com

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