Visiting Myanmar is like chasing history on the run. Blink, and you’d miss something new – be that paved roads where none used to be, or a restaurant menu that is getting more and more extensive with international dishes on the list.
Still, its old world charm beckons – there is no dearth of the historical and the exotic in this Southeast Asian country which has been isolated for almost 50 years owing to a repressive military rule.
When I first visited Yangon almost five years ago, the most iconic reminder for me of Myanmar’s junta government was the $200 a piece sim card. And even if you had the money, there was no guarantee you could buy one as the sale was done via a lottery draw.
But in November last year, the things that greeted me upon arrival at Yangon’s international airport were billboards upon billboards of Samsung mobile phones. And if there are Samsung billboards, there must be – sim cards! These can now be had for only $1 a piece. And like a red beacon of modernization, there was a KFC branch at the airport (still no McDonald’s, though, but I am not complaining).
No visit in Yangon is complete without paying homage to the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred and impressive of all, where strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics are enshrined. And if there is one thing that is characteristic of all pagodas and temples in Myanmar, it is that you are required to walk barefoot. The simple act of leaving your shoes behind and feeling the concrete beneath your feet is a gentle reminder that before Buddha and the universe, we were all equal, regardless of wealth or stature in life.
From Shwedagon, the next stop is the Chaukhtatgyi Temple which houses the colossal 215-foot long reclining Buddha. The statue’s face is placid but colorful, and has a diamond-encrusted crown. And if you feel like splurging some kyats (one dollar is about 1,350 kyat), head for Bogyoke Market where you can buy beautiful longyi, a sarong-like wrap-around cloth; thanakha, a natural sunblock made from ground tree bark; and precious and semi-precious jewelry, including Myanmar’s iconic jade bracelets.
About an hour and a half away by plane from Yangon is the ancient city of Bagan in Myanmar’s Mandalay region. It was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th to 13th centuries, and during the height of the kingdom, there were more than 10,000 temples and pagodas in Bagan, which is now down to about 3,000.
In Bagan, you can find the Ananda Temple, dubbed as the “Westminster Abbey of Burma” with its cruciform layout. The temple houses four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal directions north, south, east, and west. The south-facing Buddha, in particular, has a unique architectural display. Viewed from close quarters, the Buddha has a stern look. But, take a few steps back and the same statue exhibits a happy expression.
Riding a hot air balloon over the temples in Bagan at sunrise was one of the best things I did not do during my visit last year, no thanks to failing to wake up early. Perhaps, it is an excuse to return one day soon.
From Bagan, make a side trip to Inle Lake, Myanmar’s second largest freshwater lake dotted by marshes, floating gardens, stilt-house villages, and floating Buddhist temples.
Perhaps the first person to welcome you to the Inle Lake region will be an Intha fisherman. He will row his boat with his legs – one leg locked around a long oar and another gripping the stern of his teak boat.
With his free hands, he uses a big traditional conical fishing net to haul in his catch. And for about 2,000 kyats, he will perform different poses to satisfy your need for IG-worthy photos.
Tourists will also find in the Inle region the Kayan women from the Kayah state. Dubbed as the giraffe women or long-necked women of Burma, they wear brass coils around their necks, giving the impression that these are stretched. A full set of the neck rings can weigh as much as 10 kilos, and these push down the muscles around the collarbone, thus making their necks appear longer.
For the adventurous foodies, a trip to the bustling once-every-five-days market behind the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda is a must. Locals come here to buy everything they need, from safety pins to traditional medicines to sarongs and longyis. Here, local mountain dwellers also peddle a favorite snack of theirs – crunchy ants that are mildly sour to the taste.
As the British novelist Rudyard Kipling said in 1898, Myanmar is “quite unlike any land you know about.” And really, the best time to visit is now, while it still is.
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