By Ria Bhagat
In November-December 2017 I was sponsored by the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to complete a three-week internship in Yangon, Myanmar through the New Columbo Program. As an undergraduate university student my work with an NGO at East Yangon University was not eligible for a business visa. Therein lay the challenge: how could I see the most of Myanmar while tied to the city of Yangon for three weeks?
On a 28-day tourist visa, one can hardly even scratch the surface of this complex country – and that’s without being tethered to Yangon for business days. Myanmar is home to more than 100 ethnic groups. Almost two thousand kilometres of land stretch from Arunachal Pradesh to the Bay of Bengal; including glaciers, coral reefs coastal wetlands and more. Do not make the mistake of looking for signs of Delhi in Yangon, or fall into the trap of comparing Ngapali Beach to Ko Samui. Though influenced by the cultures of the countries surrounding it, Myanmar is worth exploring because of its uniqueness, not its familiarity.
Yangon is a city full of life: enchanting, often perplexing and a worthy introduction to the country. In between aging colonial buildings are hints of a more vibrant reality: night markets with fresh river fish still squirming on ice, women and men in longyi of every colour of the rainbow and a skyline lit up by numerous gold pagodas.
In a city of over seven million, you can feel like you belong in a matter of days. This is especially the case if you make the effort to do so. Myanmar language is not broadly spoken outside of the country but smiles are easy to come by – as is curiosity. While you drink in your new surroundings, locals can spy you from afar. Whether a business colleague or a busy street side tea shop, foreigners are peppered with questions. The best way to respond? Tweya da wan ta bad de. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ and add a few questions of your own. When Myanmar citizens travel, it is not uncommon to hear people admit they know nothing about the country. A little effort goes a long way for foreigners to show their interest in Myanmar culture.
At East Yangon University, as with the majority of Myanmar, students dress in longyi every day. Girls often wear matching tailored tops (ingyi), and the traditional acheik water wave pattern competes alongside more contemporary designs featuring the likes of Hello Kitty and emojis. Individuality is permitted and even celebrated on social media; but the attire still lends a sense of uniformity to both the classroom and broader community.
Dressing and speaking like a local – even if in somewhat fragmented ‘Myanglish’ – provides a cloak for exploring. Perhaps only true locals will look forward to the unmistakable condensed-milk taste of Myanmar milk tea in the morning, but an aromatic bowl of mohinga is a breakfast to be savoured. The unofficial national dish of Myanmar is best enjoyed roadside, at a plastic chair and table, watching city life go by. Other staple dishes include Shan noodles and salads seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice and crunchy fried onions.
The best part of spending multiple weeks in a city is the opportunity to savour it. Directions are easy to remember; particularly in Yangon where streets are numbered. Restaurants can be visited 2 or 3 times. What was once unfamiliar becomes speckled with ‘favourite’ spots – the iconic Bogyok Market and its in-house seamstresses and artists; Maha Bandula Park with its perfect view of Sule Pagoda. Despite leaving the city at every opportunity provided – once even to dart across the river to a fishing village called Dala – Yangon was a wonderful welcome home.
Each opportunity to see a piece more of Myanmar’s tantalising puzzle was unforgettable. Local travel agents are a valuable asset particularly as reliable online information can be hard to come by. ‘VIP’ bus is by far the most comfortable way to travel – if you choose the right provided and pay between $20-25 USD, the seats will be spacious, the coach will be air conditioned and sleep will be easy to come by. Internal flights are much quicker but also less reliable. When time is precious, choosing air travel is often unavoidable.
Mandalay also has an international airport and is well connected to the country’s most popular tourist sites. The city merits a visit by its own right; particularly for a weekend away from Yangon. Mornings in Mandalay are tranquil by comparison and leaving the south means escaping the heat. Beauty is everywhere and in different forms. On the outskirts of the nearby Anisakan village is Dat Taw Gyain, a 120m tall roaring waterfall. Kuthodaw Pagoda features the world’s largest book: comprised of two-metre-high standing stone pages. Mandalay Hill is an essential visit for sunset. Dotted with pagodas and monasteries along the way; Suntaungpyei Pagoda sits atop them all.
Mandalay is rife with opportunities for exploration and adventure. For just the opposite, the closest beach getaway by distance to Yangon is Ngwe Saung. The coastal village sits aside the Bay of Bengal, with access to snorkelling, swimming and snoozing for a deserved break from normal. Accommodation options vary from backpacker-style bunkers to resorts and villas; which means the company is diverse. Many in Myanmar wear thanaka, a traditional cosmetic product made from ground bark and it is particularly popular in Ngwe Saung for its sun protection properties. Seafood is a must here, as well is an Inle Lake, an undoubtedly more popular water destination for tourists.
The nearby township Nyaung Shwe is full to the brim with lake-oriented exploration activities; such as cycling routes around the shoreline and boat trips to floating markets and restaurants. Cooking classes and day spas are easy to come by, and a winery set atop a mountain provides another stellar sunset location.
Even with less than 48 hours to devote, Bagan is a non-negotiable part of any visit to Myanmar. Seeing the sun rise and set over thousands of thousand- year old temples is a breathtaking spiritual experience. Paying a $25 USD entry fee to the Bagan Archaeological Zone is worth it to contribute to the preservation and restoration of the temples; especially considering the complicated relationship with UNESCO. There is no need for an itinerary in Bagan. You simply hop on a bike, take along a map that is hardly worth glancing at and instead gaze at the endless miles of pagodas. Locals will tell you stories about their history and guide you to hidden staircases where you can ascend to a new view of the horizon. The experience is one that summarises travelling in Myanmar: difficult to plan, infinitely easy to enjoy and utterly unforgettable.
It is human nature to look for signs of home when faced with the unfamiliar. Leave this tendency behind when travelling in Myanmar. To the majority of the world, Myanmar is unfamiliar and that makes the prospect of discovery an opportunity that should not be passed off.
Ria Bhagat is an Australian law student with many passions; two of which are protecting human rights and travelling the world.