Myanmar Journey to the Land of a Million Pagodas and TemplesSep 18, 2015
“Their names roll off the tongue savourly, crowding the imagination with sunshine, strange sounds and a multi-coloured activity” wrote Somerset Maughham, the 1930s playwright and novelist, travelling in the region. His journey covered Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Saigon, Rangoon, Hanoi, Hong Kong and Shanghai—a Grand Tour—along the shipping routes to colonies and foreign entrepots alike.
All these cities are still top Asian destinations these days, including Yangon, the renamed Rangoon, former capital of Burma, now Myanmar. After many decades, the country retreated into a self-imposed isolation and considerable internal unrest—the subject of international media coverage and even the Hollywood film industry. Only in recent years has it opened up to outside visitors with rapidly growing interest from investors and travellers alike. From the very moment I set foot on the ground in Myanmar I knew I was in for a truly unique experience.
Sampling the Tastes of Yangon
The capital is buzzing with new hotels, construction activity, and major brand advertising in keeping with neighbours across South East Asia. Yangon is still not yet that well known for its cuisine, but the restaurant scene is changing fast.
Traditional food culture in Yangon, as with the rest of Myanmar, is based on sharing, similar to conventions in other Asian countries, but here it is characterised by daily provisions for passing Buddhist monks. Yangon is a chaotic but charming city, exuding culture and beautiful architecture, from the delights of the ancient pagodas and stupas, as magnificent as ever, to the crumbling and often overgrown remnants of a British colonial past, in dire need of restoration and reclamation from the grip of nature.
Be ready to pay for everything in cash, from hotels to restaurant bills. At the time of writing, credit cards are not generally accepted. New and crisp US dollar bills in 100 denominations can be exchanged at the rate of 1,000 Kyats, the local currency, per US dollar.
The local cuisine shows influence from its neighbours, while retaining a distinct style of its own. Bordering India, it is not surprising that there are many curry dishes with turmeric and mild paprika powder, which is ubiquitous. Flavours are generally mild without the high notes of Indian favourites. There is also influence from Thailand but again the fiery and vibrantly tart citrus of Thai cooking has not found its way fully onto the local plate. There are plenty of noodle dishes with pork, duck and seafood, an influence from the other major neighbour—the Yunan province of China.
With fresh local ingredients, vegetables, seafood and fruits abundant on the streets of Yangon, Myanmar cuisine will transform. There are today a handful of modern coffee shops, several Japanese and European restaurants, many of them already within five-star hotels. Relatively few well known independent restaurants, reminded me of conditions in Jakarta around 20 years ago but I sense this will change at a fast pace.
Dining at the café or restaurant of the Strand Hotel or the Mandalay Restaurant at Governor’s Residence Hotel is recommended. The Strand offers a similar look and ambience as Raffles in Singapore. Sampling modern Myanmar cuisine at the Garden Bistro is a treat, while for the adventurous, Myanmar’s street food offers much variety. I treasure my memory of not seeing one fast-food chain restaurant or coffee shop during the visit.
Bagan, a Majestic Place
I left Yangon with my fascination of the country’s 2,500-year old Shwedagon pagoda, which is covered with 45,000kg, 24-karat gold leaf and priceless gemstones. But Bagan is something unique. It takes one hour and twenty minutes to fly from Yangon to Bagan. It is one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites, a sight to rival Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat but—for the time being at least—with less visitors. The setting is magnificent—a dry land of 41.8km plain (after no rain for months), part-covered in stands of palm and tamarind caught in a bend of the lazy-flowing Ayeyarwaddy River and framed by the hazy silver-grey of distant mountains and hills. I have never seen such beautiful tamarind trees in my life. The locals make tamarind candy which you can buy everywhere. It reminded me of my childhood—the sweet and sour flavours of tamarind candy.
After driving for 10 minutes from the airport to the central, you can see hundreds of them, beautiful, other-worldly silhouettes that were built by the kings of 50 Bagan Kingdoms between 11th and 13th centuries, when their kingdoms were swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Some 2,230 of the original 13,000 temples survived, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.
Most are extremely well preserved or have been restored by UNESCO, among others, and many contain fresco paintings and carvings and statues of Buddha, big and small. The circumstances were different two years ago. My guide mentioned that there are more and more visitors these days, which I can see in some well-known temples and pagodas. Many hawkers, even children, are beginning to appear to offer their goods. But there are still many remote temples. It is a glorious place filled with beauty, mystery and peace.
Do visit Popa, around one and a half hour from Bagan. It is known as the Oasis of Dry Zone. Popa is a steep-sided volcanic peak, set amid lovely hill and forest scenery. Popa is a great extinct volcano last active 250,000 years ago and is a forest clad landmark rising to 1,525 meters from the flat, surrounding Myingan Plains. It is a place of special importance to both the country’s history and culture with natural spring, flowers, fruits and wooded hillside which contrasts greatly with the arid lands surrounding Bagan.
There is a tower-like volcanic plug called Taung Kalat. On the top is a picturesque complex of monasteries, pagodas and Buddhist shrines. If you are not afraid of height and monkeys, you will be well rewarded with a simply breathtaking view after climbing 777 steps through a winding walkaway. It is simply majestic.
and Cafés in Yangon:
Bar Boon Coffee Shop
FMI Center, 380 Bo Gyoke Rd
T: +95 9 42032 1058
The Strand Café and The Strand Grill
Strand Rd, Yangon
T: +95 1 243 377
535 Merchant Street, Kyoutoda Township, 4th Quarter
T: +95 1 386 986
The Garden Bistro
Corner of Kan Yeikthar St.
Bahan St. near U Htaung Bo Roundabout
Mandalay Restaurant at the Governor’s Residence
The Governor’s Residence
35 Taw Win Road
T: +95 1 229 860
Yar Khin Thar Street, Thiripyitsaya 4
Bagan – Nyaung Oo
T: +95 61 60 782
Popa Mt.Resort Restaurant
Mt. Popa, Kyaukpadaung Township