How to Make the Most of Your Trip to Myanmar
In just a few years, Myanmar has gone from having virtually no international tourists to welcoming several million annually. If you’re in search of the latest emerging destination, look no further. Development is brisk, but there’s still time to see this culturally rich nation in all of its pristine pagoda-laden glory. Though comprehensive democratic reform has yet to arrive, locals are hopeful that the country is on the brink of positive change. After years of censorship and isolation, curious nationals are encouraging foreigner visitors with open arms, minds, and hearts.
The number of indie travelers journeying here is growing, but the destination is not the domain of backpackers alone. Trafalgar has just started offering guided trips to this spiritual stalwart. As part of their Hidden Journeys collection, the 11-day Secrets of Myanmar tour gives you an insider’s view featuring authentic local experiences, and groups are small—you’ll travel with 26 or fewer guests. During my trip, I enjoyed a tasty dinner with a family in their home, visited children at a school run by monks, and had lunch with nuns in a nunnery. Our travel director was an English-speaking Burmese who gave us an in-depth window into what life is really like in this fast-changing country. No subject was off limits; we discussed a range of topics from dating rituals to voting habits, and I was privy to the sort of cultural insights and human connections that I could have only gained from spending several months in Myanmar, not 11 days.
Of course, the sites and attractions in this exotic land are showstoppers as well. Here's what you shouldn't miss during your time in Myanmar and some of my tips for making the most of your trip.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Buddhism is a way of life in Myanmar and there are literally tens of thousands of pagodas gracing the landscape. Capital city Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. Adorned with 27 metric tons of detailed gold leaf, its massive size makes it visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Visit in the early morning to see locals worship before work or at dusk for a traditional oil lamp ceremony.
Take a ride on a motorized long-tail boat and you’ll see the ‘leg rowers,' graceful Intha fishermen who row standing up on one leg with the other leg wrapped around a single oar, leaving their hands free to manipulate their conical fishing nets. It’s an unforgettable feat of balance and grace. As you glide through the lush floating gardens where farmers grow fruits, vegetables, and flowers, you’ll have the perfect vantage point to glimpse the still-untouched rural lifestyle of this remote lake’s people. Animal lovers will want to spend some time at the Inthar Heritage House, a foundation that offers valuable career training to local youth and allows visitors to romp with kitties in their Burmese cat sanctuary.
The sacred city of Bagan is a packed with several thousand pagodas. If you have no fear of heights, a ride in a hot-air balloon provides a bird’s-eye perch to view the temples. When you start experiencing pagoda overload, lacquerware is a specialty product of the area—visit a workshop and watch the highly detailed, painstaking process before you purchase a decorative hand-made object with a shiny glaze.
Stroll the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. Visit the imposing royal palace. If you see just one pagoda in Mandalay, make it the Kuthodaw Pagoda—it’s where you’ll find the Thravada Buddhist scriptures individually inscribed on 729 marble slabs, earning the nickname of the world’s largest book. Sip tea with locals at one of the city’s many teahouses. Purchase artisanal souvenirs such as hand-woven tapestries, marionettes, and gold leaf at one of the bustling markets.
Remember these six important tips
• Though credit cards are accepted in major hotels, U.S. dollars are the sure way to pay. Keep in mind that only bills in mint condition are accepted, so watch out for notes with even tiny imperfections.
• The Internet is no longer censored, but it is slow. You won’t be subject to a complete digital detox, but remember, patience is a virtue.
• Myanmar is a very safe country. Travelers will want to take normal precautions, but petty crime is virtually non-existent.
• Dress code is on the conservative side here—shoulders and knees must be covered when you enter temples, and female visitors might want to bring a scarf or shawl for quick cover-ups. Shoes need to be removed before entering temples, so get your tootsies in shape with a pre-trip pedi.
• You’ll need a visa. Citizens of 67 countries can apply for an online e-Visa. It costs $70 and takes about five business days to process.
• For a deeper understanding of this complicated nation, read one of Myanmar’s literary treasures before you depart. Aung San Suu Kyi’s Letters From Burma is a good place to start.
The Secrets of Myanmar tour by Trafalgar took me to these and many more unforgettable places. Top-notch hotels with spectacular swimming pools, activities, and most meals are also included in the tour. Their next Myanmar departure is in January 2016. From $3,507 per person; based on double occupancy. International airfare is not included in the package price.
This article was written by Allison Tibaldi, a native New Yorker who has lived in Rome, Tuscany, Melbourne, Toronto, and Los Angeles. She is fluent in Italian and Spanish and laughably adequate in French. When she's not traveling, she's scouring NYC for delectable eats. As a freelance travel writer, she focuses on family, culinary, and car-free travel. She's also a senior travel writer at offMetro.com.
Paris bakery buzz: Du Pain et des Idees
A few steps from the Canal Saint-Martin, the handsome hundred year-old bakery Du Pain et des Idées has been revived by the passion of Christophe Vasseur. A late-blooming baker, Vasseur hung up his corporate suit at age 30 and dedicated himself to becoming the best in the city. His wish came true—after only six years in business, Vasseur was recognized by the gourmet magazine Gault & Millaut as the city's best baker "Meilleur Boulanger de Paris." The menu Vasseur insists on time-consuming methods and fresh ingredients. His chausson à la pomme fraîche is simply bursting with juicy apples and unlike any turnover you've ever had. Pair it with a pain chocolat banane, and grab a sack of niflettes (puff pastry tartlets filled with pastry cream, photo here) for the road. These little pastry squares are dotted with orange scented cream and perfect for nibbling along the banks of the nearby Canal Saint-Martin. For something savory, try one of the mini-pavés—small breads stuffed with combinations like spinach-chèvre or tomato-feta. His wildly popular pain des amis (friendship bread) makes me want to move to the neighborhood. Light but chewy, with a nutty fragrance and deliciously charred bottom—it's one of the best I've ever tried. The bill Most pastries, like the chausson and the pain chocolat cost around €1.80 ($2.50). A sack of ten niflettes is €3.30 ($4.60). A 250 gram hunk of the outstanding pain des amis is €2 ($2.80). The mini-pavés are only €1.30 ($1.80)—grab two of these plus a pastry and you've got a sweet little lunch for under €5. The buzz Who doesn't love this place? Pastry chef and author David Lebovitz has raved about the whole grain loaf. French magazine L'Express wrote that Vasseur makes "one of the best chaussons in the city." And three-star chef Alain Passard told the (London) Times last year that the pain des amis is "the best he had ever eaten." TimeOut Paris named it as a "Critic's Choice" and cooed about the artisanal croissants. The coordinates 34 rue Yves Toudic, 10th arrondissement, 011-33/1-42-40-44-52. Métros Jacques Bonsergent, République. Closed Saturday and Sunday, dupainetdesidees.com.
Russia's Hermitage opens a "wing" in Amsterdam
As you walk through the new Hermitage Amsterdam, you may feel a bit underdressed for the occasion. Luckily nobody will be staring at you because the elaborate ceremonial court dresses and uniforms that engulf the room are all worn by mannequins. It's part of the opening exhibition "At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the 19th-Century." The current exhibit shows off extravagant artifacts from the lives of six tsars, from Paul I to Nicholas II. A few noteworthy items to check out: the famous Romanov throne, jewelry pieces by Fabergé, and the last tsarina's grand piano. Open since June 20, the Hermitage Amsterdam has become the hottest attraction in the capital of the Netherlands. About 100,000 visitors have passed through it already. [CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the original version had the incorrect opening date. We regret the mistake.] The museum has a deal with the Russian government to produce exhibitions together with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, though it is not owned by Russia. It currently holds more than 1,800 objects on loan from Russia. It's housed in the Amstelhof building, which had previously been an elderly care facility for 324 years. The museum gives visitors a glimpse of St. Petersburg and the surrounding countryside via paintings, watercolors, drawings, photographs, and films. One of the highlights is an astonishing 15-foot-long panorama of the city as seen from the Peter and Paul Fortress on the North bank of the River Neva. During the current exhibition, you'll find mannequins dressed in magnificent uniforms and elegant dresses. Remarkably, even the colors of the dresses were governed by a strict protocol set by the tsar Nicholas I himself, a museum representative told Budget Travel. Also check out the clever re-creation of a nineteenth-century ball, which includes revolving round display cases with music and projection images from the film "Russian Ark," shot in the Hermitage St. Petersburg. The exhibit lasts until January 31, 2010. A tip: Weekdays are better for visiting to beat the crowds. Another tip: If you're more keen to see masterworks, it might be worth waiting to poke around the museum after March 6, 2010, when the "Origins of Modern Art. Braque, Matisse and Picasso" exhibit debuts. —David Cumming Amstel 51, Amsterdam, open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 pm, Wednesdays to 8 pm and closed on January 1 and December 25, 011-31-20 530 87 51, hermitage.nl, admission is €15 for adults. Anyone under 16 years of age gets in free. Word to the wise: Admission is free if you have the I amsterdam Card, which also gets you free public transportation, admission to dozens of other museums and offers discounts on restaurants. MORE ABOUT THE EXHIBIT ON THE WEB Jaunted, Gadling, and intheknowtraveler. REAL DEALS Holland & Belgium Cruise, 9 Nights, From $1,322 Per Person
Worth reading: Even presidents need a vacation
A few of our favorite links from around the 'net this week. School's out for summer: the Obamas will spend their August vacation on Martha's Vineyard. [Gadling] Following some Twitter-only fares (also known as Twares)? Read the fine print. [Upgrade: Travel Better] How to keep your e-mail safe while traveling. [AP via Yahoo! News] Air Tahiti Nui's flight attendants are ready for the runway with uniforms designed by Balenciaga. [The Faster Times] Finland's talking trash bins speak six languages. But do they tell jokes? [Jaunted] Trend-spotting: L.A. institution Pink's hot dogs will open a LAX location. [World Hum] Austin: The Superest Super 8 of them all? [HotelChatter] For more travel blogs, go to Alltop.
Great Paris 'hoods: The Canal Saint-Martin
Back in the day (the early 1800s) the Canal Saint-Martin was dug for the express purpose of relieving dysentery. How romantic! Connecting two big rivers—the Ourcq and the Seine—the canal provided fresh water and freight by boat. Two hundred years later, its primary purpose is pure leisure. Winding gracefully through the 10th arrondissement from a point near République, the "open" portion of the Canal (some parts are underground) is perpetually lined with picnic baskets. Parisians of all ages, and an increasing number of visitors, come here to sip rosé, stroll hand in hand along the water's edge, and reenact the stone-skipping scene from Amélie. They also come here to shop. The west side of the canal has become a destination in recent years, with fashionistas flocking to The Kooples (32 rue Beaurepaire), Médicine Douce (10 rue Marseille), Antoine et Lili (95 quai de Valmy) and Stella Cadente (93 quai de Valmy) and Agnès B (13 rue Marseille for women, and 1 rue Dieu for men). I also love the design bookstore Artazart (83 quai de Valmy) for glossy coffee-table tomes and a range of Moleskin notebooks. After shopping, it's nice to kick back with a drink at hipster central Chez Prune (36 rue Beaurepaire). This café is a neighborhood institution, along with its rival across the water, Le Jemmapes (82 quai de Jemmapes). The latter specializes in Belgian beer, sold in takeaway cups for sipping along the water. When appetite strikes, there are plenty of cheap and cheerful options near the canal. My absolute favorite, which is open only for lunch, is the Cantine de Quentin (52 rue Bichat, 011-33/1-42-01-40-32). They offer a two-course menu on weekdays for €14 ($19.50), with updated classics like smoked duck breast with carmelized apple. Another haunt is Le Verre Volé. This shoebox-sized bar à vins specializes in natural wine and serves a small but delicious selection of charcuterie, cheese, and hot dishes. They're always packed, so be sure to reserve (67 rue Lancry, 011-33/1-48-03-17-34). If you're ready to take a break from French food, Maria Luisa and Pink Flamingo both make great pizza, with the latter delivering by bike anywhere along the canal. For delicious and cheap Cambodian, the locals line up nightly at 8:00 p.m. to give their name at Le Cambodge. They then head to wait by the water's edge until the restaurant calls with a ready table. Brand-new on the scene is Rosalito (52 rue René Boulanger, 011-33/1-77-35-92-11), a tapas bar from the same owner as (foodie fave) Da Rosa. Small plates range from €2–9 ($2.80–$12.50), with homemade sangria for €5 ($7). And finally, as I wrote about in my earlier blog post "Paris Bakery Buzz", no trip to the canal is complete without a stop at Du Pain et des Idées. Christophe Vasseur was named the city's best boulanger and sells his wares at a beautifully restored hundred year-old bakery. Try the chausson à la pomme fraîche—it's unlike any apple turnover you've ever had (34 rue Yves Toudic). EARLIER Great Paris 'hoods: Around the rue de Belleville More from our Affordable Paris series