Most trips begin and end in Yangon, the former capital and country’s largest city. Unique and intriguing, there’s much to discover in this lively, cosmopolitan locale. Where two years ago it was too expensive to own cars, now the lanes are so crowded there seems to be a perpetual traffic jam. The main attraction, Yangon’s revered 2,000 year-old gilded masterpiece, Shwedagon Pagoda, features a 325 foot tall gold spire topped by a 96-karat diamond. This gleaming temple complex perched high atop the city, with hundreds of ornamented gold and marble shrines and Buddha statues, seems equal parts Disneyesque amusement park and sacred pilgrimage site. Here, in the magical light of dusk, I participated in a traditional blessing ceremony by three Buddhist monks.
Yangon is a riot of colors, flavors and pungent aromas. Streets bustle with outdoor markets teeming with stalls of clothing, local wares, antiques, sweets, fragrant herbs and spices. Girls working industriously peddle on age-old sewing machines, hardly looking up from the fabrics. Men clad in traditional sarongs seem more interested in chatting with their friends than selling their goods. Women wearing tanakha on their faces, a yellow paste touted as both a sunscreen and beautifying elixir, dressed in colorful long wrap skirts called longyis, shop for the day’s meals at the open-air market. Here you’ll find all varieties of fresh produce, fruit and just caught fish, some still wiggling, in boundless outdoor displays. Strolling past wooden-shuttered houses and tiny shops with ancient looking tools and machines, I felt like I was in a time warp.
View the grand colonial architecture - some in a state of tropical decay - with a walking tour of downtown. Marvel at white and lilac City Hall adorned with peacocks and serpents, and the High Court with its red brick facade, lofty clock tower and rooftop lions. Meander through the back streets ending with a cocktail at chic Union Bar & Grill. If you’re a fashion aficionado, head to the voguish ‘Mermaid Smile Shop’ where you can snag beautiful duds tailor made especially for you. Don’t miss popular Scott Market (Bogyoke Market) for Burmese jade, handicrafts and jewelry. Pamper yourself at Genky Physiotherapy Clinic where blind people are skillfully trained in the art of massage.
If you like atmosphere with your lunch it’s hard to beat the historic colonial Strand Hotel where Asian delights are served up with ceiling fans, rattan furniture and potted palms. It felt very Rick’s Cafe, a la Casablanca. Foodies won’t want to miss the tasty cuisine from all over Burma in a lovely outdoor setting at excellent eatery Thaing Yin Thar. Hop a ferry across the Yangon River to the township of Dalla. Then savor a languid rickshaw ride past villagers on bicycles, houses of woven bamboo, tea and food stalls galore, as you take in the local culture. Venture off the beaten path and take a train to the old colonial station of Dalat for a taste of rural Yangon life.
You’re sure to find some undiscovered gems and warm, friendly people in this most fascinating city, Yangon.
Belmond Governor’s Residence: Set in a lush garden dotted with lotus pools, this luxurious hotel run by Oriental Express, feels like a serene tropical oasis. Located in the leafy Embassy Quarter, it is ‘the’ place to stay in Yangon. A romantic teak colonial-style mansion dating from the 1920s replete with fan cooled verandas, tropical plants and Kipling bar, named after Rudyard Kipling, it conjures up a bygone era. Stylish rooms with carved teak, silks and terrazzo baths are spacious with stunning garden and pond views. Guests dine alfresco by lantern-light on exotic Burmese delicacies and local curries in the atmospheric lounge.
Travel company Earth London specializes in insightful, off the beaten track arrangements in Myanmar, in conjunction with local Yangon organizer Edwin Briels of Khiri Travel.
Cathay Pacific offers daily non-stop service to Hong Kong from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New Jersey connecting to their intra-Asia airline Dragonair to Yangon. Business class with its roomy lie flat seats, offers the ultimate in comfort and amenities which makes a huge difference on long flights. www.cathaypacific.com/us