This past January, I visited Myanmar for ten days with my friend Val–a fellow flight attendant and adventure lover whom I’d met a few years ago during work training in Atlanta. In the months following our training, Val and I vowed to take a trip together somewhere overseas. But as often happens, our travel plans fell through. And the next thing we knew, nearly three years had passed.
It wasn’t until this past January, that we finally managed a ten day getaway to the land of shimmering stupas and crumbling pagodas.
Myanmar is a stunning and mysterious country that only recently opened its doors to international travelers. For years, Myanmar’s repressive military junta cut the country off from the rest of the world. And as a result, the Land of Golden Pagodas became a sort of black hole on the map of seasoned travelers.
But times have changed and the Burmese people–while still suffering human rights abuses at the hands of the government–are looking toward the future with newfound optimism. In 2015, Myanmar voted in its first democratically elected government in more than half a century. Sanctions have lifted, censorship laws have been relaxed and people are partaking in open discussions about once-taboo topics.
The past few years have ushered in a new era for tourists, too. Myanmar’s once-impenetrable borders are opening up, tourist infrastructure is increasing and the country’s highlights are becoming staples along Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail.
Yet, unlike Thailand, where foreigners are a dime a dozen, tourists in Myanmar are still somewhat of a novelty. And everywhere we went, Val and I were greeted enthusiastically by curious locals.
We began our tour of Myanmar in Yangon–the country’s international gateway. Since we had plans to catch an overnight bus to Bagan on the evening following our arrival, Val and I only spent about 24 hours in Yangon. However, during our short visit to the city, we enjoyed wandering about the old town’s narrow alleyways, sampling Burmese street food and reveling in the shadow of the great Shwedagon Paya.
We found Yangon to be pleasant and walkable city. Yangon’s wide avenues are lined with leafy trees and its numerous city parks provide respite from the chaotic traffic. In its narrow alleyways, Yangon boasts an impressive mix of colonial buildings with crumbling facades that are begging to be restored.
Our visit to Myanmar coincided with Chinese New Year celebrations in Yangon. From outside the centrally located Shwe Yo Vintage Hostel, we found ourselves in the heart of the celebrations. Chinese lanterns hung above our heads, while dragon dancers and drummers filled the streets.
We spent our first evening in Myanmar strolling through the markets in Yangon’s old town, eating fermented tea leaf salad and soaking in the city’s festive air. We also walked toward the Swedagon Paya, hoping to see its golden spires at night. When we arrived at the pagoda, however, we decided to postpone our visit until the next morning. We knew we’d be coming back the following day and wanted to avoid paying the entrance fee twice.
In retrospect, I wish I’d swallowed the $8 entrance fee and taken the opportunity to see the golden spires as they twinkled under the night sky.
The Shwedagon Paya is a pinnacle around which everything in Yangon revolves. Legend has it that the pagoda dates back 2,500 years and contains relics of past Buddhas. It is covered in hundreds of gold plates and encrusted with thousands of diamonds.
The Shwedagon Paya basks in a dazzling golden glow and can be seen towering over nearly every view of the city. Upon seeing the temple, Rudyard Kipling once wrote that a “golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”
It is easy to see why. For the Shwedagon Paya is undoubtedly the highlight of the Yangon and one of Southeast Asia‘s greatest religious treasures.
After touring the Shwedegon Paya for much of the morning, Val and I spent the remainder of our day walking through Yangon’s pleasant lakeside parks. Within easy walking distance of the dazzling pagoda, lies Theingottara Park. It is a wonderful place to bring a picnic lunch and simply watch the world go by.
Myanmar’s political and economic woes are nowhere near over. The country’s civilian-led government, which took office in March 2016, has failed to carry out significant reforms and the military still possesses an inordinate amount of power. Along the country’s western border, the Rohingya Muslims faces ethnic cleansing at the hands of the military. Nationwide, torture and rape of political prisoners is still widespread.
But the Burmese people are resilient and kind and the country is slowly moving forward into a new era of stability and openness.
With the increased ease of travel to the country, I have no doubt that tourists will continue flocking to the Land of Golden Pagodas. And if the trend continues, Myanmar will soon be another Thailand–achingly beautiful, yet largely overrun.
All I can say, is visit soon.