Our holiday began with a sense of unease; after all, when you are tourists in a country run by a military regime that illegally occupies the seat of power, there are bound to be reservations. To visit Myanmar, land of the brave and beautiful Aung San Suu Kyi, is to visit a country that the rest of the world has forgotten. Yet, for me, Myanmar has always held a special place, because of memories of my grandmother’s sister serving us tea in exquisite porcelain cups she’d brought back from Burma (now Myanmar) to Kolkata and of Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, which brought alive Myanmar’s history.
My husband Jatin and I landed in the capital Yangon on a warm winter afternoon and were greeted with a cheerful “min-ga-la-ba” by Coco, who was to be our guide. We soon negotiated with an army of money changers to convert our US dollars into kyat, a little over 1,300 to the dollar. Around us were men and women dressed in longyis and white shirts, friendly faces smeared yellow with thanakha paste, making us feel at home immediately.
Our journey from the airport to The Nikko Royal Lake View hotel wound through lush tropical trees, parks and lakes. We were surprised to see Yangon so full of posh hotels and condominiums. Clearly, Myanmar has opened up to tourism. We spent the rest of the day walking the streets, observing a cross section of Myanmarese society going about their daily business—on bicycles, rowing boats, smoking cheroots, shopping.
Early next morning, Coco took us atop a wooded hill to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which Somerset Maugham rightly described as “a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul”. At 328ft, it’s the largest-standing pagoda in Myanmar and is made of solid gold plate and jewels. I bought a bunch of flowers as we walked towards the main gate that opens into an expanse of smaller ornate temples and pavilions. Thousands of devotees and believers, young and old, come here every day to offer flowers, fruits, gold leaves and prayers to Lord Buddha and other deities integrated into the faith.
It was a warm, sunny morning and we spent it strolling around the base of the golden pagoda. Monks in their maroon robes, women in colourful longyis, flowers, the gentle fragrance of incense, the chanting of prayers in ancient Pali and the ringing of brass bells, created an atmosphere of peace that we carried back home with us.
Although it was not a part of the plan, we forced Coco to take us to the mausoleum of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor whose tomb in Yangon is a testimony to the torture he and his family faced at the hands of the British. Standing close to the grave, the exiled emperor’s poetic epitaph echoed in our ears: Of his unhappiness in this tainted land; of him being so unlucky, that not even two yards of land were to be found in his beloved land, for his burial.
At the National Museum, we saw an impressive collection of puppets, musical instruments, textiles and royal costumes. Jatin spent most of his time sketching ancient hand fans, adding to his fan collection. We also visited several private art galleries, looking at contemporary art, and finally landed up at the Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scotts market). Most of the remainder of our stay in Yangon was spent at this market with its lacquerware, bamboo, coir, wood and ivory carvings, tapestries, silverware, brassware, silk and cotton fabrics, precious stones and jewellery, all for sale at phenomenally low prices. We bought a beautiful 12x12 inch lacquerware platter for just 500 kyat (Rs20).
Sprawling across the dusty plains of Myanmar are the ruins of Bagan, our next stop and one of the most important religious cities in Southeast Asia, where we visited Ananda Paya, one of the oldest stupas there. Over the years, many of Bagan’s temples have been looted and destroyed, while nature has reduced others to ruins. Today, just over 2,000 temples of various sizes, shapes and designs, mostly made of brick and stone, remain. Many of the architectural designs have obvious influences of Indian architecture and, though the wall paintings inside the temples have faded, one can see that they were once spectacular.
The pathways to most of the stupas were lined with shops selling handicrafts. The lacquerware is exquisite, among the best in the world. We visited a master craftsman’s factory, and were astonished to see the painstaking work and time it takes to make these delicate handcrafted objects. He gave us a detailed demonstration of how the body is made of horse hair and bamboo fibre, and the process by which alternately lacquer is applied, designed, etched, scrubbed, smoothened and finished to give it a glassy sheen.
Driving through town, I realized that everything here moves at a relaxed pace. One can take a ride on a horse cart or trishaw, or take a boat ride. In fact, the most extraordinary experience we had was a boat ride on the Irrawady River, which stirred memories of many stories and of Kipling’s famous poem, Mandalay.
Since my only exposure to Myanmarese food was khao sway, relished at stalls in Kolkata, I was looking forward to the cuisine. Coco took us to restaurants probably meant for tourists, since I didn’t see any locals eating there. The Padonmar, for instance, is a colonial house in Yangon, converted into a restaurant, with terrific food and ambience. Its inside walls have copies of traditional Buddhist paintings, while the outdoors has collections of puppets, lacquerware and other handicrafts.
While walking though the Yangon market, we were fascinated by the eating stalls. Snakes and other creepy-crawlies are delicacies. People sat on small plastic stools with their steaming food platters on tiny tables. Rice is served in small, cylindrical bamboo boxes to keep it warm. While we tried some authentic Myanmarese food on our trip—subtly flavoured vegetables and local fish—we couldn’t gather the courage to eat at the market. I particularly enjoyed ohn noh khau sway, noodles with chicken and coconut milk gravy, and mouhinga, which is almost the national dish, comprising fish and rice noodles.
For too long, the West has been the preferred destination for Indian travellers, largely unaware of the opportunities countries such as Myanmar present. We’re glad we learnt otherwise, but seven days were too short to capture the essence of this ancient culture, forgotten by the world, but hopefully not for much longer.
Flights: Fly to Kolkata from Mumbai/New Delhi and on to Yangon by Indian’s once-a-week flight (return airfare Kolkata-Yangon Rs16,644). Or, fly from Mumbai/Delhi via Bangkok to Yangon (Rs33,225). Visas: The Myanmar embassy is in New Delhi; it’s fairly easy to get a visa.
Where to stay:
Hotels are probably best booked with a travel agent, though several hotels can now be booked online. Both Yangon and Bagan have a range of 3- to 5-star hotels for under Rs4,500 a night. We stayed at The Nikko Royal Lake View (Tel: 95-1-544500; www.nikkoyangon.net; Rs3,500). Recommended are The Governor’s Residence (Tel: 95-1-229860; www.governorsresidence.com; Rs9,000) and The Strand (Tel: 95-1-243377, Rs12,500), both luxurious, colonial-style hotels. If you can, get a hotel room with a river view in Bagan. Good hotels: Thiripyitsaya Sakura Bagan (Tel: 95-61-60048; www.bagan-thiripyitsaya-sakura-hotel.com; Rs4,500) and The Hotel @ Tharabar Gate (Tel: 95-1-211-888; www.tharabargate.com; Rs4,000). All rates are for double rooms and discounts are often available.
Where to eat:
Restaurants across Yangon serve Myanmarese and Chinese food. Coffee shops at most hotels also serve western-style food. In Yangon, eat at Padonmar and Green Elephant; both serve good Myanmarese, Thai and Chinese cuisine. Do try roasted duck at restaurants along Strand Road.
What to do:
Take a walking tour of Yangon’s colonial buildings. You could also visit Sule, Chaukhtatgyi and Botahtaung pagodas, Hlawga Wildlife Park, Bogyoke Aung San Museum (and market), Natural History Museum and Myanmar Gems Museum. Other places to visit include Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, floating villages of the Intha people and Mount Popa.
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