I always love visiting a new country, but Myanmar excited me more than a new destination has in a long time. Part of it was in the planning, I’d been organizing my trip to Myanmar for over a year and the anticipation nearly killed me. But it was also the honest curiosity about Myanmar itself. Until just a few years ago, Myanmar, or Burma if you prefer, was as mysterious as North Korea. People just didn’t go there and the average person knew little to nothing about it. But with the change from military to civilian rule many changes have occurred, including the opening of the country to the rest of the world and the rest of the world has responded in kind. Tourists have begun to descend on Myanmar in huge numbers, curious about the country but also eager to experience a region of Southeast Asia that hasn’t seen the same tourism infrastructure development as some of its neighbors. Thanks to some research and articles on Myanmar, I had a very loose idea of what to expect but, as usual, what I actually experienced was far different from those initial preconceptions. I’m still mentally dissecting the experience, but I thought I’d begin my coverage here with some first, off the cuff thoughts about visiting Myanmar.
My mental image of Yangon was that it would look like Bangkok 50 years ago. I imagined dirty open spaces, streets clogged with motorbikes and tuk-tuks and who knows what else. So imagine my surprise when on the drive into the city I saw none of those things. No, instead I was met with broad boulevards, oddly clean streets and not a single motorbike in sight. I could’ve been anywhere in the world, the massive golden temples the only clue I was in a slightly exotic locale. Later on during my visit I did find some of that chaos I’d been looking for, but not nearly as extreme as even Bangkok is today. The best way I found to experience more of Yangon was to hop on an evening food tour of some of the city’s most popular neighborhoods. Even though Phone only started his business giving tours a few months ago, the tours have definitely taken off and when I joined him there were six of us there, all eager to learn more about the culinary traditions of Yangon and Myanmar. I wanted to get to know the city a little better though, so the following day a guide showed me around his favorite spots, including the Circular Train. This inexpensive, and slow, conveyance around town is also a popular tourist experience because it takes riders to nearly all areas of the city, giving first time visitors a more comprehensive view of Yangon. Not surprisingly, as in so many developing nations, the disparity between rich and poor is extreme. On one street there are Montblanc stores and a few blocks away much more humble conditions for the folks who exist on only a few dollars a week. Spending a few days in Yangon before continuing my Burmese explorations though was smart. I loved my time in the city but I also learned a lot about the country in the process. It served as a sort of primer for the week that lay ahead.
River Cruise Great First Introduction
We all have our own unique ways in which we like to travel. Mine is called experiential luxury and while not every trip matches the style, when possible it is how I prefer to see the world. Visiting Myanmar was equal parts work and vacation, which means I wanted a luxurious but immersive first introduction to Myanmar. I say first because, even before leaving home, I knew that Myanmar is a country that would require multiple visits, a fact reaffirmed now that I’m home. To help introduce me to the wonders of Myanmar, I joined The Strand Cruise along the Ayeyarwady River from Bagan to Mandalay. Now in its third season on the water, this luxury river cruise experience is an extension of the elegant Strand Hotel in Yangon, a beautiful property with an incredible history in the region. The cruise is an extension of that luxury experience, from the accommodations to the service and everything else onboard, it was the ideal place to call home for a few days. Even better though were the immersive experiences offered on the cruise. The passengers onboard The Strand Cruise were there for one reason, to experience Myanmar and the tours, lectures and activities offered provided us all with that remarkable opportunity. Whether it was learning about the temples of Bagan from the head of Myanmar’s archeological efforts or getting up at dawn to see the sun rise over the marshy landscape, I left the ship at the end of the week satisfied with my first introduction to the country, learning about both the country’s history and the wonderful people who call it home.
Perfect for the Curious Traveler
I love Thailand and after having visited several times over the last decade or so, that natural affinity has only grown stronger. I’m a people watcher and whenever I’m in Thailand, whether it’s Bangkok or an island or Chiang Mai, I closely watch the tourists to see what they’re doing. It’s actually a strange mix of individuals. You have folks who are excited to be in the almost mythical country of Thailand, eager to learn more about its culture and history and to experience it in ways that are immersive and fun. They’re curious travelers, folks who travel to learn and I count myself amongst their ranks. But I also have noticed plenty of other folks, there with a desire not to learn but to party. It seems odd to me that someone would travel around the world to buy a slightly cheaper beer, but there they are, embarrassing themselves and their countries in ways they’d never dream of doing at home. I didn’t see that in Myanmar, although I’m sure it must exist in some degree. But on the whole, the tourists I met and observed in Myanmar were there because they were curious. They wanted to learn and experience and I loved that. It’s partly due to the fact that the tourism infrastructure is still developing. There simply aren’t the same activities in Myanmar as are available in Thailand or other countries. No, instead visitors are there to visit the many temples, eat the delicious food and get to know the warm-hearted people who live there. Before I left on my trip, I was told that Myanmar is how Thailand was like half a century ago. In terms of urban development I don’t think that’s true, but I do think it’s true in terms of how people experience the country. There aren’t the countless Starbucks and McDonald’s as exist in Bangkok, it’s easier to enjoy truly local food and experiences and it’s certainly easier to get to know the locals who live there. Myanmar hasn’t been corrupted by the drunk tourist yet, and I hope that it never does.
I have volumes to write about my experiences in Myanmar, a process that will in all honesty take months. But I wanted to start that sharing with these honest and initial thoughts, my perceptions about a country that for many of us still is hidden behind a veil of mystery and intrigue.