Words: Adrienne Jordan
Photos: Trafalgar Guided Vacations
With a fledgling tourism industry, the largely undiscovered country of Myanmar is bursting with stunning landscapes, warmhearted people and preserved cultural heritage. I explore the destination’s pagodas, palaces and its flourishing food scene
Travelers to Myanmar may feel some trepidation – and with good reason. With decades of military rule and armed conflict between ethnic groups marring the peace, the country was all but closed to travellers until 2011. But it is a country on the brink of change, particularly if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi succeeds in leading the country to democracy – and as a destination, it has so much to offer. The Myanmar people are perhaps the most welcoming in the world. They are a mixture of backgrounds, from Chinese to Indian, a result of constant emigration over many years. For the adventurer, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, biking, and seeing the one-leg fisherman rowers. Perhaps the most intriguing – and surprising – part of the Burmese culture, however, is the food scene with its local, rustic flair that varies from region to region.
I am experiencing Myanmar on a tour with Trafalgar (E Katella Ave, 801 92805, USA +1 866-513-1995 www.trafalgar.com). The seven-day expedition guided by a personalized travel director allows LGBT customers to feel safe and welcome, as well as aware of the customs of the country. The Secrets of Myanmar trip offered by Trafalgar provides an intimate group of 26 people where you can travel with people from all over the world. Being a local Burmese guide who has seen the country at its best and troubled, my travel guide, Nyein Moe, offers a personal look into the life of Myanmar in an upbeat, informative, and often humorous touch.
The first stop is Yangon, the capital of Myanmar. To do as the locals do, I rise early for a morning jog on the long wooden bridge that spans the length of the Kandawgyi Lake. I am greeted by the cheerful faces of the locals exercising before their workday, and the beauty of the man-made lake, which sprouts lily pads and water flowers throughout. An early start ensures a spectacular view of the orange sunrise over the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda from across the lake. After my run, I embark on a walking tour of Yangon, which offers an intriguing look at the colonial heart of the city and takes in various sights including the City Hall, the former Immigration Department, the High Court, and the vintage-looking General Post Office. Strand Road is home to the stately building that housed the former New Law Courts, and after an hour-long walk, a coffee break is most welcome. I pause for a while at the Strand Hotel’s British-themed lobby bar, built in 1901.
I may be opting for a coffee today, but it is impossible to go a day in Myanmar without an introduction to the nation’s widespread tea culture. Tea consumption is a Burmese way of life, where instead of bars, teahouses serve as the social gathering place for Myanmar people. “People from different walks of life meet at teahouses,” says Moe. “There is loud music and noisy conversation about business, the love of sports and the heyday of Mandalay.”
I pay a visit to one of the newest teahouses in Yangon, the Rangoon Tea House (Pansodan St, 77-79; +95 9 979 078681; www.facebook.com/rangoonteahouse), which is outfitted in a chic, modern décor with floor-to-ceiling windows. The teashop serves green and black tea, the style most commonly served in Myanmar. There are no condiments on the table, as the local way is to take the tea plain with no additives. The exception would be la phet yay, a popular brewed black tea from the highlands of Shan state traditionally served with sweet condensed milk. Yay nway chan, weak green or black tea, called “Chinese tea”, is comprised of free leaves and twigs thrown into hot water, and is usually provided free of charge.
On day three, we head to Bagan, where I am able to explore a few of the city’s 2,200 pagodas and temples. Unlike the bustling city of Yangon, Bagan is a destination where the locals have more of an agricultural lifestyle spread across several villages. Modes of preferred transportation include small cars and biking. At the golden Shwezigon Pagoda, built by King Anawrahta in the early 11th century, I take in the 13th-century frescoes adorning the corridors and walls of the Gubyaukgyi “Cave” Temple.
The highlight of the trip had to be my experience on Inle Lake, the second largest lake in Myanmar, which sits some 1,000 meters above sea level. The lake hosts clusters of peculiar floating homes that run the gamut of bold, rainbow-color schemes on the exteriors, and I spent a great deal of time watching, fascinated, as the Intha fisherman expertly maneuvered their 10 foot wooden, canoe-like boats with one leg. The non-English speaking fisherman are seen in a distance using ingenious conical bamboo nets to catch fish like ngape, tilapia, and Inle carp. I learn that this practice has survived for hundreds of generations because of its distinct advantages. The upright position allows the fisherman to see across the lake to spot dense hyacinth weeds scattered just below the surface of the lake where fish can be hiding. They are also keeping close watch on bursts of bubbles created by shoals of fish. During the tour, we pass floating gardens of tomatoes and other produce made by piling weeds and compost on long poles fixed to the lake floor.
Along with surprising gourmet fare, another largely unknown discovery in Myanmar is the country’s two relatively new wine estates. As there is not enough wine production for export, tourists must visit the country itself to buy and sample Myanmar wines. Both estates are located 30 minutes from Inle Lake. I visited the Aythaya wine estate (Aythaya – Taunggyi, Southern Shan States, +95 (0) 952 12 830; www.myanmar-vineyard.com), which started in 1999 (the other winery, Red Mountain opened in 2002). The wine tasting at Aythaya is conducted in the Sunset Wine Garden restaurant, where the spectacular sunset over the vineyards and valley creates an otherworldly panorama. The restaurant also serves a combination of western and Myanmar food, like fish in banana leaves and mutton balls with brussel sprouts.
With neighboring Thailand to Vietnam, the region may be flush with highly lauded Southeast Asian gastronomy but from the wine to the delectable gourmet offerings, Myanmar’s cuisine – along with its political progress – makes it a country to watch. I leave Myanmar a transformed foodie.
Kandawgyi Palace Hotel
+95 1 249 255
The Strand Hotel
+95 1 243 377