Over the Christmas and New Years holiday, we took a very long series of flights to get to Myanmar. Why go there, you ask? It is a fascinating country that is not yet overrun with tourists (less than 70,000 Americans visited in 2015). The food is delicious and cheap, the temples are awe-inspiring, the people are friendly, and the weather is warm and dry in December.
We started our trip in Yangon, the biggest city in Myanmar. It is an interesting mix of newly constructed high rises just blocks away from open air housing and chickens crossing the road. The infrastructure hasn’t quite kept up with the growth. Hotels are in short supply, making them more expensive than other Southeast Asian destinations. The traffic is very heavy, despite the fact that only 38 per 1,000 people in the country have cars (as of 2014 data). There’s an open ditch of sewage next to the sidewalks, and electricity can be spotty, so many businesses rely on generators on the sidewalk to power their shops. Have I sold you on visiting yet? Ha! It gets better.
There are lots of dogs and a number of cats, too. It’s hard to tell if they are all strays, or actually someone’s pet.
Betel nuts: This reddish nut is wrapped in betel leaf with lime, spices, and sometimes tobacco. Watch your step! After chewing, the remnants are spit out, and look like little pools of blood all over the sidewalks and in the street.
Thanaka: Women, children, and some men wear a paste made from the bark of the thanaka tree on their face. It is a light yellow color and is thought to prevent sunburn and heal acne. A magical bark!
Mail: See the blue and green bags? That’s the mailbox for apartments on the upper floors. They can pull the rope up to retrieve their mail.
THINGS TO DO:
Sapel Burmese Foot Spa: You can’t beat a 30 minute foot massage for less than $6 USD! After walking the city all day, a relaxing spa was in order. It was so nice, we went back at the end of our trip, too! The spa is tucked into a side street in Chinatown. Take some time to stroll the streets and take in the sights and smells. Lots of smells…
Circular train: We ran out of time, but multiple people recommended taking the train around the perimeter of the city to get a better taste of how the locals live.
Bogyoke Market: A one stop shop for paintings, jewelry, souvenirs
WHAT TO SEE:
Shwedagon Pagoda: We went at sunrise to see the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. It was incredibly peaceful and breathtaking. It is gold plated and encrusted with rubies and diamonds on the crown. We were one of the only tourists at that time, so we really got a look into the lives of the Burmese people worshiping, including monks and children in monastic schools. Within the temple, there are areas for each day of the week, except Wednesday is split into a.m. and p.m. The Burmese visit an area based on the day of the week they were born on.
Maha Wizaya Pagoda: If you have time after visiting Shwedagon, walk across the street to see this. It was built in 1980, so it doesn’t contain nearly as much history, but does have some beautiful carvings from the King of Nepal inside.
Sule Pagoda: Located inside a traffic circle, Sule is thought to be over 2,500 years old. It served as the meeting place for anti-government and pro-democracy protesters during the ’88 and ’07 protests.
WHERE TO EAT:
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but 999 Shan Noodles is probably the winner. Noodles and Burmese milk tea is the breakfast of champions!
Aung Mingular is a close second.
Feel Restaurant: This place was highly recommended on TripAdvisor, yet when we arrived, we were the only foreigners there. Shortly after, an Australian couple came in and were seated with us. They have traveled the world over, and inspired us to plan out another big adventure! The noodles were full of flavor, and the desserts were addicting.Bar Boon: They offer coffee, fresh juice, and smoothies next door to the Bogyoke market.
Rangoon Tea House: if you are noodled out, try the bao buns here.
Union Bar & Grill: Another great option if you are tired of the traditional food. After food poisoning, comfort food was the only thing that sounded appetizing. Enter mac and cheese and smoothies. All the gluten and dairy…oh well!
Sharky’s: great breakfast spot! They have 2 locations in Yangon and one just opened in Bagan. Bonus: hot drinks come with cute little chocolates!
WHERE TO STAY:
We stayed at ParkRoyal Hotel on the front end of our trip, and then Merchant Arts Boutique on the back end. ParkRoyal was an upscale hotel with a pool and a comfortable bed. Merchant Arts Boutique was very reasonable at less than $50 a night. No frills, but did the job to get a good night’s rest before getting on a plane home.
TRANSPORTATION:Keep in mind: pedestrians do NOT have the right of way. Crosswalks appear to be a suggestion, as are some traffic lights. Walk at your own risk! Taxis are very reasonable, and felt safer than navigating some of the congested roads by foot. Every destination within the city was about $2-3. Negotiate the cost before getting into the cab. They don’t have meters, so you need to agree on a price beforehand. Getting to the airport was slightly more, around $6. The streets were jammed at almost all times of day. One taxi we were in decided to drive on the wrong side of the road briefly to avoid traffic. Not for the faint of heart!
-We observed that almost all cars are white. A little research finds that white is the preferred car color of the Japanese, so the Burmese follow suit.
-Cars drive on the right side of the road, however the drivers seat is on the right, too!
-Despite all the traffic, and pedestrians weaving in and out, drivers are calm and we didn’t see any accidents. Drivers do a ‘friendly beep’ when passing, to indicate they are approaching. It is much better than D.C. drivers who lay on the horn the second after a light turns green.
You’ll need to get an e-Visa online prior to visiting. Be sure to check with a travel doctor on what shots and medicine you’ll need beforehand. We had all our shots from visiting Cambodia last year, but had to get malaria pills.I recommend packing snacks like meal replacement bars, rehydration powder (in case you get sick), a first-aid kit, hand sanitizer, and baby wipes. I may go overboard with packing ‘just-in-case’ items, but you won’t be able to find these items easily in Myanmar. Slim pickins in their grocery stores…but you can find lychee juice boxes for about 25 cents!
Bring a converter for the outlets. Oddly, one of the hotels we stayed in had some outlets that fit US plugs, but that’s not the standard. It’s also advisable to pack portable phone chargers that you can use when you don’t have access to power.
Stay tuned for part two, Bagan!