It’s an exciting time to be visiting visit Myanmar (Burma). In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy swept the board in the country’s first democratic elections in half a century, winning 77 percent of the parliamentary seats.
A lot has changed in in recent years. Though still effectively in charge, the military junta no longer makes it difficult for journalists to visit; getting my online visa (US$50) for a press trip to Yangonwas a breeze. Its biggest and commercially most important city, Yangon (Rangoon) used to be the only gateway to Myanmar; now you can fly direct to the cultural city of Mandalay or to the ancient heritage site of Bagan on a number of airlines
Downtown Yangon comes as a pleasant surprise – especially as I’d heard it described as “a bit of a sh*thole, five years ago”. Laid out in grand British colonial style – Burma was coloured pink on world maps from 1855 until it won its independence in 1948 – it boasts generous parks, wide roads and solid Victorian architecture.
At its centre is the expansive Mahabendula Park, now sporting a gigantic monolith to independence. Around the park is a phalanx of grand Victorian buildings, the majority in various stages of mouldering decline; happily, though, quite a number have been restored in recent years, often funded by international private enterprise, explains our guide, Aye.
From City Hall, built in 1927 and refurbished in fetching blue around 2006, we pick our way along pavements crowded with tiny culinary enterprises. One US dollar (around 1,000 kyat, pronounced “chat”) gets me five big, crispy samosas stuffed with fried cabbage, onion and potato. Vendors perched scant centimetres above pavement level on tiny plastic chairs toss together salads of noodles, papaya, tofu, fresh coriander leaves and more, served with bowls of fish soup. Street-side teashopsare everywhere, and popular as meeting places.
Pansodan Street is famous for its second-hand bookstalls – an eclectic mix, to say the least. The Telegraph Office is seemingly unchanged in a hundred years, except for the addition of a fax counter adjacent to the one where you would have sent – or perhaps still can send? – telegrams.
Where Pansodan and Strand Street intersect, a pedestrian bridge offers a splendid view of downtown to the right and the muddy Rangoon River to the left; behind us is the famous Strand Hotel (1896), said to be the most expensive accommodation in town.
No Asian city tour is complete without a couple of hours’ shopping, right? In Yangon, it has to be Bogyoke Marke. Silks, lacquer-ware and jewellery seem to be the main focuses, if you’re in the mood. Today I’m not, and end up paying two vendors (of postcards and monk sketches, respectively) several dollars each to go away.
This is by far the main thing to see and do in Yangon. However many impressive temples and other religious sites you’ve seen, this massive complex of Buddhist edifices is something to behold. It’s best visited in the evening, as shoes are not allowed and the marble underfoot becomes unbearably hot during the day.
It’s completely acceptable to join in the public devotions, and unexpectedly enjoyable to stroll around the pagoda to find your own corner of worship, based on the day of the week you were born on. (Wednesday, for some unexplained reason, has two corners, one for those born in the morning, the other for those born later in the day.)
Each day is associated with a zodiacal animal: tiger, lion, tusked and tusk-less elephant (for Wednesday children), rat and guinea-pig; for mine, Sunday, it’s the mythical garuda. When you get to your corner, you’re supposed to pour water over the Buddha statue there to bring you good luck.
Eating and Drinking
Mohingar is the national dish, and I’m told that people take it seriously – each region has its own version. Served at the breakfast buffet of the Sedona Hotel’s all-day restaurant, D’Cuisine, it’s thick, slightly spicy and coconut-tinged fish soup ladled over fine rice noodles and hard-boiled egg and garnished with coriander. Utterly delicious!
We enjoy dinner there on our first night, too – a wide selection of Asian and Western dishes, from sashimi and other seafood to regional curries, an excellent prime rib and a patisserie-rich dessert spread featuring the divinely decadent, rich and sweet umali, a sort of bread-and-butter pudding made from croissants instead of bread.
Choosing an outdoor table means you can also watch the outstanding cultural dance performance by a government-endorsed troupe. Though it has elements of Indian and Thai, Burmese dance is unique: it seems to defy gravity. Luckily, it’s hard to discern any rhythmic patterns so one is unlikely to feel moved to join in, even after several cocktails.
Keen to try some traditional Burmese food, we head for the Green Elephant in University Avenue, a fan cooled alfresco restaurant that’s just five minutes from the hotel. We’re parched after a full day of sightseeing, and the quart bottles of chilled Myanmar beer barely touch our sides. Though the diners are mainly tourists, the food is fresh and authentic: piping hot tempura style vegetables, a light lentil soup, and tasty chicken and potato curry with side-dishes of steamed rice, stir-fried morning glory (a green vegetable) and an utterly delicious Thai-like salad.
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This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of Expat Living. Subscribe here.