Visit Myanmar and you encounter a stunning landscape, rich culture and a myriad of colours. Shrouded in controversy, it is also a land blessed by the gods, and boycotted by the world.
With the world’s two most populous countries on either side, Myanmar has been hidden from world view for a while. Unlike nearby Bhutan, which too thankfully remains unspoilt, it hasn’t been overlooked. Rather, the world decided to look the other way and pass it by. Or that’s what happened until recently.
An ancient nation, Myanmar traces its history at least a thousand years back. Earliest civilisations in the region included the Pyu-city states in the north and Mon kingdom in the south. From the 7th century, until the 10th, Bamar people (originally from Yunnan, China) started settling along the Irrawaddy Valley, an area now known as Bagan.
It was a time of great prosperity and spiritual growth with the spread of Buddhism. Unfortunately, the Pagan (Bagan) Kingdom fell to the Mongols after 250 years and a few centuries of shifting power ensued. It was only in the 19th century, that Burma was unified under the British Empire and it became a British colony.
20th Century Burma
Soon after India’s independence in 1947, Myanmar also gained independence in 1948 as a democratic nation. It was not to last though, and a coup in 1962 brought the country under military dictatorship. For four decades, civil war ensued. It was a dark period, one where the world watched aghast as human rights were blatantly ignored. World-favourite Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Myanmar’s ‘Father of the Nation’, General Aung San, was placed under house arrest, even while her party won the 1990 elections. They were not allowed to form a government and she was held as a political prisoner.
This was also the time when the world took a unified decision to pass Burma by. The country was not receptive to outside intervention and did not follow human rights guidelines. From her lakeside house in Yangon, Suu Kyi urged an international tourism boycott. In her opinion, and that of many great thinkers of the time, tourism money would only land in military pockets and would support the dictatorship.
Myanmar or Burma?
For people in Asia, the country was popularly known as Burma. The origins of the name could come from the Bamar people who built the glory of the nation or even from ‘Lord Brahma’, the Hindu god known as the creator. However, it was a name that was associated with the British rule as was Rangoon, the capital of the country during their time, now called Yangon.
In 1989, the military government decided to change the name to Myanmar and shake off its colonial hangover. This was a move contested by many and till date, Burma and Myanmar are used interchangeably across the world. Within the country though, Myanmar is the more acceptable name for the country, with ‘Burmese’ referring to food, people and language.
A New Start
With the release of Suu Kyi in 2010, things started looking up for Myanmar from a tourism perspective. The favoured-child of the world, likened to Gandhi himself, made a public statement that they “would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country”.
The doors opened a crack and it took a few years to gain momentum. But by 2015, Myanmar was hosting close to 5 million tourists each year. The unfortunate Rohingya humanitarian crisis halted this growth graph and in 2016, the number plummeted to 2.9 million.
The new government realised the benefits of tourism and has instituted many policies to encourage the industry, naming it a priority sector. It does recognise, however, the ills of sudden commercialisation and hopes to encourage ‘responsible tourism’ in the region, employing local communities and giving tax benefits for eco-tourism. Visa laws are also being reviewed with a visa-waiver policy piloted last year for visitors from Japan and Korea for a trial period of one year and visa-on-arrival for China. With these measures, they hope to increase Asian tourists, as the West has turned away post the Rohingya crisis.
Safe for Tourism
Though the doors to Myanmar have now opened, the world is still wary to set foot inside. Tourists cannot be blamed. The country has been in political turmoil for far too long. But with a stable government and an open-ear towards UN and other international bodies, Myanmar is ripe for exploring.
However, it is important to remain cautious, and stick to the four major tourist destinations in the country—Yangon, Bagan, Lake Inle and Mandalay. These are well organised and safe, with air connectivity and easy transit.
If you do take a deep breath and decide to venture in, Myanmar will astound you with its forgotten-world feel and abundance of architectural beauty.
The erstwhile British capital of the country, Yangon is a flashback to what the major cities in Asia were like in 1970s. Broad roads minus the traffic snarls, street stalls and old cars dot the city. The golden Shwedagon Pagoda pierces the skyline, and can be viewed from afar, being built strategically on a hilltop.
The pagoda is actually a complex of temples, with one big central temple and innumerable smaller ones around it. Visit in the evening when the floor is not so hot, as you will have to walk around barefoot in the temple compound. Sunset is also a lovely time to visit the temple, not only because of the changing hues of the gilded stupa but also to witness groups of monks chanting and praying at the end of the day. Sit awhile, put your camera down, close your eyes and allow their rhythmic chants to permeate your very being. You will leave feeling lighter, as if you’ve had a spiritual experience—even if you are not a believer.
There is much more to Yangon than the dusty (albeit trash-free) roads and pagodas. Unknown to many, it also houses the forgotten tomb of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II. Exiled in Rangoon, he was hurriedly buried in an unmarked grave in 1862 by the British who did not want to glorify the emperor. In 1876, soon after his death, Queen Victoria proclaimed herself the Empress of India. In fact, it was only in 1991, more than a hundred years after his death, that his body was discovered by a worker digging a drain. He now lies buried in a small dargah at the very spot, unvisited and forgotten, ironically as was intended. A poet at heart, the last emperor of one of the largest kingdoms in the world wrote these lines before he died –
Umr-e-daraaz se maang ke laye the char din, Do aarzu mein guzar gaye, do intezaar mein;
Hai kitna badnaseeb Zafar dafn ke liye, Do gaz zameen bhi na mili koo-e-yaar mein.
(From the lord of life, I asked for and got a life of four days; two passed by while pining, and two while waiting;
How unlucky is Zafar…that even for his burial, Mere two yards of land were not to be had, In the land (of the) beloved.)
Cut to today, and Yangon has a flourishing dining scene, perhaps the most exciting in the country. A great place to try out various cuisines from across the country, Rangoon Tea House serves delicious Burmese food in chic surroundings and even has a hip cocktail bar. It is a great place to try ohn no khao swè, a Burmese speciality with wheat noodles and chicken in a coconut milk broth. The dish is popular in India and elsewhere, as khao suey, though the authentic version tastes nothing like its global cousins which were anglicised in erstwhile Calcutta.
For street-style local food, visit Feel Myanmar Food, a chain with outlets across the city. It serves delicious no-frills fare for a quick meal. House of Memories is a Burmese restaurant set inside General Aung San’s erstwhile office. The bungalow is where the famed general worked every day, and where the Indian patriot Subhash Chandra Bose was hidden, when he fled from India. You can even walk into the room which used to be his office, preserved as is with his desk and all other accessories in place.
For something more contemporary, Sharky’s offers fresh salads, pizzas and a range of western dishes. A farm-to-table cafe the ingredients are fresh and they even retail freshly baked bread and other bottled gourmet foods to take back home.
If you had to pick just one place in Myanmar to visit, it’s got to be Bagan. Home to the Pagan Kingdom, Bagan is a 1 hour 20 minute direct flight from Yangon. The ancient town is spread out, way beyond its crumbling walls, along the Irrawaddy River, into the heartlands. One of the richest archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, Bagan houses more than 4000 pagodas, or Buddhist temples, within a 20 mile radius.
The dusty lanes of the countryside are littered with pagodas, most of them forgotten and lying ignored. It is a humbling sight, to witness the glory of a kingdom a 1000 years ago. At the empire’s peak, there were as many as 10,000 pagodas constructed here. Many fell to natural disasters like earthquakes over the years.
A major earthquake in 1975 damaged a large number of pagodas. The military junta government decided to accept international assistance at the time and some important temples were restored by experts from across the world. However, in 1988, a new set of generals came into power and rejected any outside help, to avoid world scrutiny in internal affairs. Bagan fell back into ruin, one of the most world’s most wondrous archaeological sites, left without UN protection. In fact, the government encouraged rich locals to donate money and ‘adopt’ a pagoda, allowing them to redesign the monument as per their preferences, using local labour and with complete disregard to the original structure. This was termed ‘blitzkrieg archaeology’ by the late Myanmar historian, Than Tun.
Today, the structures lie forgotten and in ruins, scattered across the land like a handful of peanuts. Perhaps in their forgotten state lies their beauty. You can hire an electric scooter and go discover pagodas by yourself. Leave the paved road behind, drive into the dusty bylanes and find hundreds of pagodas, some small, others massive; a few with stunning frescos, others with barricaded rooms and mythical tales of what lies behind the closed doors.
For an unforgettable experience, Bagan must be viewed from a hot air balloon flying above. Multiple authorised companies run hot air balloon tours in the region that allow you to take off before sunrise, gently rising above the town until you are sailing by, with a carpet of pagodas at your feet. It is truly a magical experience, one that cannot be rivaled anywhere in the world. It is history unfurling itself under your eyes.
A short flight from Bagan, Lake Inle is a vast freshwater lake located in the Shan State. Nestled within mountains, it is the second largest lake in Myanmar and offers an experience distinct from the ruins of Bagan or the urban charm of Yangon.
Five-star luxury villas and resorts dot the sides of the lake, spread out such that you feel that the body of water is your own personal haven. A boat tour is the best way to explore the area and the villages that live on and around the lake. You may spot the famous ‘one-legged fishermen’ posing on long tail boats, sometimes stretching out their hats for money if you get too close to take photographs.
A memorable site, Shwe Indein Pagoda, must be included in your boat trip. It involves walking up numerous staircases (or a gentle hill), spotted with narrow and tall pagodas, often gilded. The sight of scores of thin golden pagodas rising up towards the skies is a precious one, great for photography but also a reminder that such beauty lies undiscovered in the interiors of the world.
Myanmar is home to 135 tribes and more than 30 of these stay in villages around Lake Inle and the hills around. One tribe in particular is popular across the world, for their ‘long neck ladies’ or the custom of making girls wear heavy gold neckpieces so as to elongate their necks. Known as Kayan or Padaung, this ethnic tribe with 7000 members, is an ancient one and their customs are followed till date. Though this may seem harsh to outsiders, Padaung women gleefully wear their neckpieces, starting from age five, truly believing that it adds to their beauty. It is not seen as a sign of coercion or patriarchy, rather as an ornament or a distinction to be proud of.
Myanmar is a unique destination, with ancient history, archaeological beauty and colonial traces. It is a land that seems to be in a time warp. Not in step with the rushing clocks around, Myanmar walks at its own slow pace. It remains untouched, not in a pristine sense but more unmarked by globalisation and commercial footprints. The food is delicious, with influences from China, India, Thailand and Cambodia. The people may not exhibit the warm exuberance that you see in Thailand but they are happy to visited.
Child monks chant nonchalantly in crumbling wooden monasteries and Padaung ladies go about their weaving with a smile on their face. As someone rightly said, when you visit Myanmar, you are not so much a tourist, but rather a witness to this land that was passed by. A land that holds magical treasures within its folds, slowly loosening its grasp to allow you to peek inside. A land worthy of a visit. Or two.
This article was first published in the Wine & Dine July/August 2019: Made in Singapore issue.