This article was written by Melissa Reichwage, an avid traveler and international development and health professional currently living in Colombia. She holds a Master's in Public Health from Emory University in Atlanta (USA). With familial ties in Myanmar, she has a special affinity for the beautiful landscapes and people of Myanmar.
As you probably know, Myanmar has had its share of difficulties, but there's finally some good news: the tourism ban that caused many travelers to steer clear of the nation for over a decade has been lifted. In many ways, being cut off from the globalized world has allowed Myanmar to retain its cultural authenticity, making it an ideal destination for the more adventurous at heart. In 1898, Rudyard Kipling wrote the famous words, "This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about." The same still holds true. The streets of Myanmar's largest city are stained red with betel nut, and filled with horse drawn carriages and bicycles, men wearing longyi traditional skirts, and women and girls with thanaka smeared on their faces. ATMs, internet, and cell phone connections are few and far between. Colonial buildings have hardly been touched since their British heyday. Now, more than ever, people from around the world are beginning to see Myanmar for what it is: a truly fascinating and unique place to visit. Abundant in unspoiled landscapes, rich cultural authenticity, and friendly people, Myanmar is strikingly different from its neighbors in Asia and there has been a sudden influx of international investment since the government has begun making reforms. It is now possible to buy some imported goods, stay in a luxurious hotel, and hail a taxi off the street.
Yangon is likely to be your first stop in Myanmar, and it's not a bad option. Flying into Yangon International Airport (RGN) is recommended as land and sea border crossings can still be a tad insecure. Touching down in the country's largest city of more than five million people, the main economic hub feels nothing like Bangkok, Hanoi, or other Southeast Asian cities. The main sites in the tropical city actually cover a fairly small area and are manageable on foot, although taxis are available. Here are eight of my favorite places to visit.
Shwedagon Pagoda: The most important religious site in Yangon stands atop Singuttara Hill. While built and rebuilt several times since the 6th century, the large gold pagoda remains popular with local Buddhists and tourists alike.
Sule Pagoda: In the center of the city, the Sule Pagoda serves as a traffic circle in downtown Yangon. This 46 meter high octagonal-shaped gold pagoda is hard to miss.
Inya Lake: The largest lake in the city has a nice walking path around its perimeter. It is also the most popular date spot for young lovers.
Kandawgyi Lake: Located northeast of the city center, the lake is best known for the Karaweik, a replica of a traditional Burmese royal boat. Enjoy a drink at the small restaurant located at the water's edge for a view of the sunset and Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance.
Buffet Dinner and Dance Show: The National Theater hosts folk and royal dance shows as does the Karaweik located on Kandawgyi Lake, mentioned above. A night out to one of these two shows is guaranteed to please your eyes, and ears, and fill your belly with a wide array of food.
Chinatown: Located in the center of the city, Chinatown spans a few blocks. Street vendors sell a variety of items from goldfish to colonial coins.
Bogyoke Aung San Market: A good market to buy Burmese souvenirs, such as wood carvings and traditional fabrics.
Thingyan Water Festival: The most important public holiday, the Burmese New Year Water Festival, usually lands around mid-April. The Buddhist festival is celebrated for four or five days with intense water fights which metaphorically wash away sins from the previous year. It is the hottest time of year and a good dousing is welcomed by most.
Turn back the clock with a trip to this time-warped country, enjoy simple pleasures, and discover a culture unlike any other. Here are some good reads to learn more about Myanmar: The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, Burmese Days by George Orwell, and Freedom from Fear: And Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kyi.
**Note: In 1989, the capital was renamed to its original Burmese name, Yangon, from Rangoon**