If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you’ll have noticed that I ventured to the other side of the world last month with my friend Beca to ASEAN (Association of Southeastern Asian Nations; note: you actually can say “I’m going to visit ASEAN…”, pronounced ‘æsiˌæn’ if that helps), which is comprised of 10 countries: Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei, and my first stop, Myanmar (also known as Burma). We landed in Yangon (which is where you’ll most likely land, too), Myanmar’s largest and most bustling city, the evening of September 18th and went straight to the Shwedagon Pagoda. This was our very first barefoot experience, something you’ll have to get used to while in the area, and learn not to slip and fall by clenching your toes into the ground for every step on glistening surfaces. It’s a beautiful shrine where the central pagoda (solid inside) is covered in pure gold leaf and jewels — including a real, 76 karat colossal diamond — sits atop its peak. I wish we had visited during the day to capture its beauty, but it’s a captivating sight at night as well.
What you should know
Myanmar just opened its doors to tourism in 2012 after an oppressive military regime that ruled the nation since 1962. While the country is now democratic, remnants of the former military government still exists for the most part in the Rakhine State (west coast of Myanmar) where most of the horrific news stories you’ve been hearing about “ethnic cleansing” are emanating from. That said, don’t be afraid to visit as long as you keep clear of this area for now. Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay (where I traveled to) are completely safe.
Preparing for your trip
As of the date of this blog post, you’ll still need a visa (50 USD for a tourist one), but it’s super easy to get. In fact, you can get it online and you’ll most likely be approved within a day. Print out the PDF they send you and carry it with you to the airport. You’ll also need to get vaccinated. Make sure you’re up to date on all of your shots, especially Typhoid and Hepatitis A, and you’ll need to take antimalarial medication (know the side effects: I got a horrible migraine for 4 days (plus nightmares about a week later), so bring along proper anti-migraine medication; and take natural probiotics to balance out the meds).
The best way to get around
Carry cash. Yes, even American dollars will get you by as long as they’re crispy clean (literally). And while the predominant language there is Burmese, you’ll be able to get around speaking English. As with any country you visit, be courteous and don’t expect that everyone will speak English — especially in their country. Try your best to learn the very basics (hello, thank you, etc.) to create a good rapport with the locals. They’re incredibly kind and welcoming to tourists, especially as tourism in these countries is what’s going to boost their economy in the long run. And finally, if you visit any of the temples/pagodas, you must dress appropriately and go barefoot.
After a short night at the Sule Shangri-La Hotel (great place to stay in Yangon, by the way), we headed to the airport at 6:30AM for a quick 45 minute flight north to Bagan — and it’s beautiful. If there were only one city to visit in Myanmar, this would be it. Also known as the ancient city, the land boasts over 2,000 ancient pagodas. And while we didn’t do the hot air balloon ride here, apparently is the thing to do if the weather’s nice. Speaking of which, the entire day we were there, it was pouring rain and still traversed the muddy roads that intertwined the pagodas on electric motorcycles (I may have almost fallen several times, moreso due to the fact that I was trying to film with one hand — may or may not recommend that). We took off our shoes and climbed a few pagodas, some of which had steps that were over a foot tall; but once you get high enough, the views are breathtaking.
If you can get this arranged by a tour guide, see if you can grab lunch in Old Bagan at a local’s home. We were fortunate enough to do so and the food was absolutely delicious. If you can make the recommendation to do so by a local who runs a restaurant nearby, you’ll up your chances of getting some pristine, quality Burmese dishes, all in the comfort of their humble home.
Where to stay in Bagan, Myanmar
Bagan Lodge has a lot of character. It’s a cross between glamping and villa dwelling. Each “lodge” has approximately two suites included with an epic shower and giant bed. While my spa sessions weren’t the best (save your money and wait until Thailand, if that’s on your itinerary), the rest of the resort was very comfortable, charismatic and welcoming.
We wrapped up the intense day with dinner at Sanon, a vocational training restaurant (English-friendly), with simply outdoor seating, a friendly staff, and good food. The next day at 7AM, we were on yet another flight to Mandalay (widely known as moto-city). As we were just coming off the rainy season, many farmers’ and fishermens’ homes were flooded — something they expect yearly — so they build temporary housing in slightly higher elevations where the highway is. So if you go during this time, you’ll see a lot of livestock and locals’ temporary homes lining the main road to town.
The quick six hours in Mandalay was back-to-back with visits to the Mahamuni Pagoda; a tour of a family workshop (1 of 12 left) that make the gold leaf that gets applied to the Buddha (it’s quite fascinating); tea shops; a lesson in Buddha bronze casting; a short ferry ride across the river; and a horse-and-carriage ride through the Burmese countryside to the old wooden Bagaya Monastery. Before we knew it, we were back on a 7PM flight to Chiang Mai.