Burma am not a girl, not yet a free woman, anyone?
Interest and inspired energy. That is all you need to explore Burma, known as Myanmar today. Burma will be so happy to see more visitors, historic fans and eco-tourists despite its isolation and tales of drama. Once a jewel in the crowns of both Konbaun Dynasty and Victoria Regina, she is still fine, femme fatale, rugged, refined and unique.
Having my retired parents there, after Singapura and Manhattan I decided to go back every year. At the Yangon International Airport, it was a delight to see a bunch of older Italian ladies in a group tour waiting for their suitcases. Their excitement and voices filled the quiet air of the airport halls. Lovely places should not be quiet, right? Well, Ma Ma Mia. A taxi from the airport to the city center would cost you about 2000 kyats in Burmese currency, and despite the lack of meters, this fare is standard. The cab guys are chatty and informative, with a flair of English the Burmese can boast due to its colonial legacy.
Yangon is an old city, with avenues lined by Sein Ban and Ngu trees bearing red and yellow blossoms. There are a number of nice hotels like the Dusit Inya Lake, the Sofitel, the Traders or one can splurge like a dame or Mick Jagger at The Strand or Sedona. For a backpacker, it is best to go to the comfort of a guest house near the Sule Pagoda and wrap yourself a chic Burmese sarong, a lungyi or htamein (for ladies). Then you are ready to forget your beloved self, amid the famous hospitality Burmese.
Shwe Dagon Pagoda is a great place to see with tales of the relics of four Buddhas lying to bless the ones who come to pay homage. Located on a hill with toddy palms as guards, this wonder of the world will take your breath and worries away. There are little souvenir shops on the pagoda stairs where one can be surprised with nice jade bangels from Pharkang town in Kachin State where the Himalayas were kind to give birth to Burma’s rivers. After walking around the pagoda under the sun, you could get a bit hungry.
Don’t you worry, as Burmese relish diversity and delicacy in the cuisines of China, India, Thai and new fusion East-meets-West eateries. For Chinese, do try Bon Kyaun restaurant set in a Chinese monastery or evening stalls in Chinatown. For chicken biryani, head to Ni Lar or take a cab to Tamwe. Thai and Lanna cuisines can be found easily on Pyi Road. For Dim Sum, you must venture out to Godwin Road near the National Theatre. Once my folks took me to A Million Coins where I, feeling rather amused, had my not so Burmese, German cordon bleu.
If you are a breakfast eater, continental breakfast is carefully prepared and there is also the traditional Mohinga, a subtle rice vermicelli in shredded fish gravy that would make you forget your past lovers.
Yet if you want to remember your loved ones there is no better way than taking a train up north, on the Road to Mandalay, or the Shan plateau where Sao Phas celestial lords ruled once. Lake Inle will refresh your soul and you can have a glimpse of the Kayah, Palaun, Lisu, Lahu cultures and cherry blossoms in the winter. Oh, don’t forget to sip some rice and damson wines surrounded by a bunch of smiling new friends. From Mandalay, it can be arranged to head up to the Kachin State where one can ski.
Or if you prefer the hotter ancient vistas, Pagan is where one could gaze at centuries old Buddhist pagodas, and everywhere you point a finger there is a shrine in Pagan. It was how the Burmese poets composed their hearts and dreams in architecture dedicating the art of building to Buddhism, albeit Burma today is a nation tolerant of diverse faiths. It is also in Pagan where one can purchase fine lacquerware in ebony, red, gold or blue in the form of paintings, trays, sculptures and dinner sets. The beaches in Ngapali in western Burma, Moulmein and sweet coastal towns of the Andaman Sea also accommodate surfers and modern tourists.
Now the good news is that with Burma’s opening up for foreign tourists, travelers no longer have to exchange the compulsory 0 upon arrival. You are free to shop till you drop for silk, art, savour the yummy nutbrown ale from the Mandalay Brewery easily found at a supermarket. If you prefer, there are also Tiger and Myanmar beers produced locally by Singapore and local brewers. If you are a non-alcoholic vegetarian however, vegetarian food can be especially prepared to suit your taste in Burma where people often eat life-free meals. Good pasta joints and Indian sweets may also massage you taste buds on holiday.
Please do spare some time driving through young teak trees on the way to new satellite towns outside Rangoon where gentle Yangon and Hlaing Rivers snake through. There are also meditation retreats at temples like Mahasi for those us who are on a soul search.
In the evening, you can hang out at the roadside teashops and smoke the cheroots so light and fluffy, while foreign and local revelers croon their heart out on a karaoke screen. Embraced by the nightwind one can find the temporary electricity blackouts and some kids underage in hard labour, well, bearable hoping that all will be better. Candles dance in the wind, while the youth decked in latest fashion, hairdos and jeans strutt their stuff in a disco at a city hotel.
Frankly, people seemed to be happy and at peace in this exotic and sweet homeland of mine, for she was truly a gem.