In October 2017 I caught a flight to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). Myanmar was never on my bucket list. However, after researching the country, my curiosity was piqued as I’m always looking for an adventure. Family and friends who had never heard of Burma thought I was going to Bermuda or Bahamas (gasp!). This was not surprising as Myanmar’s oppressive military rule ended in 2011 after almost a half century, heralding the opening of the country to tourism. I am an independent traveler, but after planning my itinerary and considering the language barrier (English, being my first language and Jamaican patois, my second), I concluded that joining an organized tour was my best option.
I landed in Yangon after traveling for 22 hours, and within minutes of checking into my hotel, I joined my first tour – a ride on the Yangon Circular Railway – the local commuter train (a must do!). This train ride provides a window into the daily routines of the locals. I was introduced to the people, sights, sounds, smells and cuisine of Myanmar, also known as The Golden Land for its golden pagodas. Myanmar is beautiful, exciting, culturally diverse and filled with the spirituality of Buddhist beliefs. According to Lonelyplanet.com, “the economic and social changes Myanmar is undergoing are largely confined to the big cities and towns, and large swaths of the country remain off-limits due to ongoing ethnic conflict. [As such], exploring Myanmar can sometimes feel like you’ve stumbled into a living edition of National Geographic, c 1910. You’ll encounter men wearing the sarong-like longyi and women with faces smothered in thanakha (a natural sunblock).”
After decades of being cut off from the rest of the world, the traditional values and the landscape of Myanmar are preserved. Be open-minded and pack your patience as Myanmar is a work in progress; its infrastructure is still developing, and you may find accommodation standards to be lower than more developed Asian countries.
Myanmar cuisine is influenced by Thai, Chinese and Indian flavors. The streets of Yangon are lined with stalls serving cheap aromatic and sumptuous looking food but proceed with caution! In 2014 the MyanmarTimes reported results of research released at the 42nd Myanmar Health Research Congress. The study found that more than one-third of 150 food samples collected contained bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Since then, local Myanmar and international organizations have partnered to increase the focus on enhancing food safety and sourcing in Myanmar. After carefully considering the environment, I tried street food with no adverse effect; other travelers in my group who chose to eat at a stall that I passed on were not so fortunate. Tourist restaurants are generally considered safe, and my first tour in Yangon ended with lunch at a local restaurant where I had my first taste of tea leaf salad (made with fermented tea leaf, peanuts, chili, garlic, etc.).
I also took a walking tour of Yangon at night which ended on 19th street, which is famous for bar-b-que restaurants. Bar-b-que is popular in Myanmar, and there is a vast selection of meats, seafood, and fresh veggies to suit every palate. Mohinga, a rice noodle, and fish soup dish is Myanmar’s national dish – a must try! The dumplings at AUNG Mingalar Shan Noodle Restaurant in Yangon are simply divine! Another highlight of my trip was a tour of a local market followed by a cooking class in the home of a Burmese woman.
In Yangon, I visited Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha – the Reclining Buddha Temple and the Shwedagon Pagoda – a must see! Shoes are not allowed in Temples. So flip-flops and wet wipes are recommended as you are constantly removing your shoes.
Next stop – Bagan, located in central Myanmar – where more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments, called Stupas, tower over green plains. Bagan is a popular location for hot air ballooning.
Next stop – Mandalay, a city worlds apart from its Las Vegas namesake! The highlight of Mandalay is a visit to U Bein Bridge – the world’s longest teak bridge.
Final stop – Inle Lake – a picturesque and culturally fascinating town located in the Shan region. My favorite destination in Myanmar! Eat at Live Dim Sum then get a cheap massage! In Inle rent a boat, tour the local villages built on stilts and see the Intha fishermen perform acrobatics with conical fishing baskets while using their legs to row their boats. The fishermen demand money for photos – definitely a tourist trap! I also visited the Padung Ladies, a subset of the Karen people from Thailand, famous for their elongated necks. The women are tourist attractions because of the heavy coils (weighing as much as 50 pounds) they are trained to wear around their necks and feet. During my visit, I asked one of the women – How do you sleep? She responded – well I don’t. Some tour companies discourage travelers from visiting the Padung as they do not consider this to be responsible tourism.
I often get questions about my travel experience as a person of color. The Burmese people are warm, welcoming, engaging and inquisitive. I was heartily greeted with Mingalabar – which means hello in Burmese. The beauty of my skin tone was consistently complimented by adults and children in each city I visited. On U Bein Bridge a woman punched me in my chest accompanied with excited chatter in Burmese and a huge smile which made me realize that I wasn’t being assaulted. She was merely trying to get my attention and probably had never seen a black person before (except maybe on television). Based on the reaction I received throughout my trip I think that was probably true for most Burmese nationals.
For tips on how you can visit Myanmar responsibly visit: www.dosanddontsfortourists.com