Mmm….. I will be honest when Margaret Moulton of Miles Morgan Travel in Wells, Somerset sent me her Magical Myanmar blog I had to do a quick spot of googling to check which former country she was referring to. Now I knew it was South East Asia but was it Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos… I was wrong of course…. it was Burma!
What I am sure about though, is that this kind of guest blog is exactly the type that I am looking for in the sense that its different, full of interesting facts, it’s honest and above all I have learned from her travels and her experiences and I hope you do too.
One day I will set aside a few months to travel South East Asia – I perhaps should have done it in my twenties as I know I will adore the experience as I did in Japan, Macau and Hong Kong in 2019. However due to life’s twists and turns that world trip did not happen despite a couple of opportunities so that means I will have to discover it in my fifties.
I reckon the only difference is I will be awake at 5 am with a backpack, map and camera at the ready as opposed to just getting home from a full moon party or whatever it is these youngsters do these days… (PS: I don’t blame them… I am just jealous !)
So enough of my ramblings….. let’s hear what Margaret had to say about the intriguing and mysterious country of Myanmar.
A Tribal Land
“Where is it you’re going again?”
“Where is that again?”
That was most people’s reaction when I told them the destination of my latest trip.
This South East Asia country shares its borders with Thailand, China, Laos, India & Bangladesh. Myanmar is a golden land with a unique but well-preserved culture and a somewhat complicated history.
It is a tribal land with the Burmese people being the source of the name “Burma”, a name which Britain coined in colonial times. Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948 but the name was not changed back officially to Myanmar until 1989.
My 10-day adventure started when I flew with Emirates Airlines via Dubai into Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Be aware of the monsoon season from May to October when it is wet and humid. The best time to visit is between November and February when it is not too hot during the day and not too cool at night.
Our hotel was the luxury Sule Shangri La, downtown Yangon – large rooms, super comfortable beds and an amazing breakfast selection. The location was perfect for our first activity – a walking tour of the street markets, strolling through the Chinese and Indian quarters while the locals cook rice flour pancakes or lunch noodles. You can even buy your Manchester United logo underpants here as soccer is the number one sport in Myanmar!
Myanmars’ colonial history is evident in some of the beautiful architecture, like the Scott market. Take a hair-raising rickshaw ride through narrow alleys.
My highlight in Yangon has to be the golden Shwedagon pagoda – a huge complex of shrines around a central “stupa” dating back 2500 years and housing Buddhist relics all of which are truly magical, particularly at sunset.
I then took a flight on Golden Myanmar Air from Yangon to Mandalay, the last capital of royal Burma. The decision to take a flight was on the basis that it was a 1.5-hour flight rather than 8.5 hours over bumpy roads!
Mandalay is very much a cultural highlight and home to the majority of the country’s monks & fine craftsmen. Visit a gold leaf workshop to see how solid gold is beaten then rolled and pressed into the gold leaf which adorns almost all of the buddhas and temples here. This is also a good place to pick up a traditional handwoven ” longbyi” or wrap-around skirt worn by both men and women here. Designs vary and are unique to individual states or tribes or even villages of Myanmar.
Also worth a visit is the seated Buddha to learn the stories of his road to enlightenment and his search for nirvana. No visit is complete here till you see the “world’s biggest book” – actually 729 slabs of marble carved with the scriptures of Tripitaka housed in individual shrines around the central stupa at kunthodaw paya.
The Shwe Kyin Monastery
My highlight was the Shwe Kyin old monastery at the base of Mandalay hill. It was my birthday when I visited and it also happened to be that of a local “donor” – a faithful Buddhist who was honoured to provide food and drink for the monks. We were privileged to be allowed to observe the monk’s procession, chanting & heading to their shrine for prayers – a very moving insight into what is an everyday spiritual journey for the monks and something I will never forget.
We stayed at the Hotel Bagan King – a small boutique-style hotel with a lovely top floor restaurant and bar, very central and friendly and they even provided a birthday cake! The location is also not far from the walls of the former royal palace with its stylised watch towers on every compass point corner – it can only be viewed from the outside as it is now occupied by the military, but there’s a good view from the golden duck Chinese restaurant that we enjoyed lunch in.
Another recommendation is a drive to the former royal capitals at Amarapura to see a modern-day monastery of Mandalay. Here at Mahagandayon the monks receive their main and last meal of the day late morning, provided by faithful local donors. The life of a monk or a nun in Myanmar is one you choose to stay in for life or simply some weeks, months or usually a few years. I also visited Sagaing, the spiritual centre of Myanmar where most Buddhist followers here, both male and female, devote some time of their life to study and prayer and seem better for it with a calm and serene approach to life afterwards.
Amarapura is home to the famous U Bein wooden bridge which stretches into the Taungthanan lake and is home to lots of local artisans and boatmen willing to take you onto the lake for the best view of spectacular sunsets. Inle lake in Shan province was a real eye opener into how locals live IN the lake not just at the shores. This was a welcome chance to kick back and relax and watch the local boatmen row with one leg only, gliding effortlessly to a lovely spa hotel for an amazing selection of head-to-toe massages.
Hope & Prayers for Myanmar
Our guide was most honest and open about the political instability of Myanmar and a refreshing, balanced insider’s view from a local.
They realise Myanmar is a new and sometimes struggling democracy with military rule still not ideal for installing confidence for visitors.
Myanmar Inside Tips
Be prepared for the heat and humidity so carry and drink lots of water. Wear loose flowing clothes and flip-flops as at every holy place, barefoot is compulsory. Be respectful of holy places, long trousers and sleeves also protect you from insect bites. As a little tip don’t show or point the soles of your feet at anyone, it is considered rude.
The food was a revelation – Thai and Indian influences with my most unusual dish being a tea leaf salad, very tasty.
Don’t be surprised if the locals are fascinated by you and ask to take your photo with them… tourism is still new to the people of Myanmar and they are intrigued by European fair hair and skin.
Read a book called The Glass Palace which deals with the anglo British wars during the colonial times in Myanmar and particular Mandalay. This brings to life all the complicated political intrigue and royal family situations as well as being a charming love story.
Miles Morgan Travel is a group of 18 UK travel agents across the South West of England and South Wales.
Margaret Moulton works at the Wells branch in Somerset and if you enjoyed her Asia blog on Myanmar then you can contact her as follows:
T: 01749 671660