Myanmar has been on my radar as a destination ever since seeing Tony Bourdain’s inaugural episode of Parts Unknown in 2013. He happened there at a unique moment when the country was slowly emerging from under the weight of military rule and opening up to the world. Bourdain was able to capture the place in all of its rawness, exposing its unmistakable mystique. For beneath the decaying colonial facades and stark inequality was an inherent beauty that could not be extinguished. With so few places like it left in the world, Myanmar, for a traveler, is made to order.
I finally had a chance to visit this past October while on a trip to Sri Lanka. Since I could only spare a week, I decided to focus on Yangon, the commercial capital, and Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the north where the flat scrublands are studded with ancient Buddhist temples for as far as the eye can see. With no direct flights out of Colombo, I had to fly through Thailand, but total air time was no more than 4 ½ hours (The flight, booked through Priceline, cost me $450. I also managed to book an internal flight from Yangon to Bagan via local carrier, Air KBZ, for about $238. Though neither of these flights was exactly a bargain, at least I didn’t have to spend much once on the ground).
A few things to keep in mind before going to Myanmar. 1.) While the military rulers may have given up formal power, they still control a piece of everything–including the 3-star hotels I stayed at as well as some of the restaurants where I ate. So simply being a tourist there means helping to support the unfortunate status quo. 2.) Unless you have a Burmese passport, everyone needs a visa to enter. This can be obtained pretty easily online directly from the government of Myanmar for $50 (see my travel tips at the end) 3.) Foreign credit/bank cards are not always accepted, so it behooves you to take as much cash as you think you’ll need—the best option being crisp, perfect $100 bills dated after 2006 (I’ll explain later).
Of course, food provided a major motivation for this trip, and I couldn’t wait to dive right in. After checking into my hotel, The Grand United, which was downtown, smack dab in the thick of things, I headed out for my first meal at a place called Feel Myanmar. Bourdain had eaten here, Lonely Planet seconded it, and the guy at the front desk not only confirmed the hype but pulled out a map and showed me how to get there. Though the day was meltingly hot and humid, I decided to walk to work up an appetite and also get the lay of the land. Several minutes out of the congested downtown area, I found myself on a wide boulevard surrounded by tropical gardens. I passed several majestic, colonial-era homes in need of repair as well as grungy apartment blocks covered in a layer of what looked like soot. On each of their balconies, a blue satellite dish pointed up in the same direction. I couldn’t resist taking a small detour and wandering into a temple complex with ornate statutes.
Finally, after about 45 minutes, I arrived at Feel Myanmar Food on Pyi Htaung Su Yeikthar Street. More than simply a restaurant, this unassuming spot is a serious emporium of Burmese food much like Eataly in Manhattan or The Harrod’s food court. I have never seen such a wide selection of delectable dishes and quick snacks —most of which I was not very familiar–in one spot. Bordered by Thailand and Laos to the east, China to the north and India and Bangladesh to the west, Burmese food reflects its locale with a mish-mosh of influences, so you get fried rice next to curries; crunchy salads opposite grilled skewers; and flatbreads and fried pastries. Inside the main restaurant, various dishes sit on display behind a glass and I just pointed to what I wanted to try–mutton curry, eggplant curry, and sour leaf with bamboo shoots. The dishes arrived at my table with a side of raw vegetables and a spicy, pungent dip; a mound of white rice, and a bowl of sour leaf soup, which true to its name was tart yet earthy. Though a phenomenal first meal, my only regret was that I ate so much that I couldn’t possibly try anything else at Feel Myanmar.
In this bustling city of about 8 million, as you might imagine, there’s also no shortage of street food. In the densely-packed, numbered streets of downtown Yangon, especially Chinatown and Little India, the sidewalks and alleys are spilling over with hawkers offering all kinds of enticing fare. Later that night, I checked out 19th Street in Chinatown, which becomes the go to spot for all things grilled, and the perfect place for people watching and a beer.
I began my second day with a cooking class to better orient myself to the cuisine. An online search had turned up Three Good Spoons, a small non-profit, cooking school, where I signed up for a session for only 40,000 Kyat (about $26). Located on the third floor of a very unassuming building on Dhammazedi Road, it’s not easy to find because there’s no sign outside, but I asked one of the neighbors. Once inside, I felt right at home as manager Rui Tajima, a Japanese expat, greeted me with a cup of green tea with jaggery. Afterwards the class, helmed by Chef Kevin Monin with his two cheerful assistants, Ma Sunder Win and Ma San San Aye, began. The chef, who formerly cooked for the U.S. ambassador, also prepared a meal for Obama during his 2012 state visit. As the sole pupil that day, I was lucky enough to receive personalized instruction, and also to tap into the chef’s intimate knowledge of the cuisine. We made four dishes that day—Shan noodles with chicken, green tomato salad, bean sprout salad, and steamed banana with coconut cream—all lip-smackingly good. In addition to introducing new flavors to my palate, learning to make these dishes gave me greater insights into Burmese cuisine.
Of course, I didn’t come here just to eat, so I spent the rest of my time checking out another one of the country’s main attractions—its famed Buddhist temples. Buddhism, practiced by about 89% of the population, has been here for more than 2000 years, so it’s ingrained into the history and culture. You see that influence everywhere around Yangon. No better example exists than the fabulous golden spire of Shwedagon pagoda, visible from practically every quarter of the city. During the day, the sun light magnifies its brilliance, while at night, spotlights positioned around its base give it an otherworldly aura. Shining like a crown in the distance, the most revered Buddhist monument in Burma cuts an impressive sight from the roof of my hotel but standing beside it is a whole ‘nother experience.
After arriving at the site, you must first climb up the hilltop on which it’s perched. You could also take an elevator, but you’d be missing out on all the fun. I entered from the east, walking up a wide staircase flanked on both sides by vendors hawking flowers, incense, and religious trinkets. Once at the top, you must remove your shoes, and pay the entrance fee of 10,000 Kyat (about $6.50), which is waived for locals. I slipped off my flip-flops and shoved them in my back pocket, so I wouldn’t have to pay someone to look after them. I purposely wore long pants because shorts or tank tops are not permitted at this active religious site. Then, I joined the crowds strolling around Shwedagon in a clockwise direction as is customary.
The din of chatter and occasional laughter hung above the complex, which encompassed many other smaller temples, gardens, and ornate monuments. The atmosphere was as festive as a carnival, and it seemed like every other person had their cell phone out taking selfies. Even a gaggle of young monks in burgundy robes were glued to their smart phones in what appeared to be a new form of meditation. Amidst the hubbub, people still offered prayers or alms to one of the many statues of the omnipresent Buddha, some flaunting a halo of flashing, colored lights. Off in a quiet corner I saw a monk in stillness under a sacred Bo tree. After making two complete rounds of Shwedagon, I asked one of the security guards when was the best time to visit. He told me 4 a.m. when it first opens to the public. Unfortunately, I never made it back.
But there were many more temples to see in Bagan–or, at least, that was the plan. I had allotted two full days there, even splurging on a one-hour flight to save myself an 11-hour bus or train ride. But, unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate, and I only got to see the main temples of Bagan on the day I arrived. (You can buy an entrance ticket for the Bagan archeological site right at the airport for 25,000 Kyat, about $16, which is good for 2 days). Since it was raining, I hired a car and driver to see as much as I could of the vast 25-kilometer site (for 40,000 Kyat, about $26). It was well worth it for the six-hour excursion, and also because my driver Mr. Soe Soe, whose teeth were outlined in a reddish stain from chewing betel, could speak decent English, and was a cool guy.
The next day, I planned to rent a moped and check out the site again myself, but the deluge continued so I ended up hiring the car (for only 20,000 Kyat, or $13) and taking a side trip to Mount Popa instead. This time I rode with Soe Soe’s brother, San San, since Soe was not available himself. On the way, we stopped at a roadside palm sugar ‘factory,’ which was well worth checking out.
Mount Popa is another complex of temples atop a rocky outcrop just near the crater of a volcano of the same name. It is famed as a place of Nat worship, the gods revered by the local people before the advent of Buddhism. Besides the killer view, the highlight of the place are the monkeys, who run rampant around the site, not afraid to grab food or whatever else you are carrying, right out of your hands. And no elevators here–you have to walk up the 777 steps barefoot, dodging monkey poop and the ubiquitous vendors and monkey-poop sweepers along the way. Climbing at a steady clip, I reached the top in only 20 minutes, and from my vantage point it felt like I was actually in the clouds.
But because I didn’t get to fully experience Bagan, I definitely have an excuse to come back. Maybe next time I’ll splurge on the $250 hot air balloon ride over the Bagan plain, so I can really see all those temples.
Returning to Yangon for a couple days, I saved all of my shopping for the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a colossal hall of stalls selling everything under the sun. Here I bought some beautiful lacquer coasters as well as some local hand-woven textiles and a black jade beaded bracelet. Not far from the market is the central train station, which offers one of the city’s best bargains, the Yangon Circle line.
This commuter train, which leaves at regular times, makes a complete loop of the city, allowing you to jump off and on as you wish. Between people watching and hanging out the open doors and checking out the scenery, the entire three-hour ride whizzed by rather quickly even though the train was moving fairly slow.
If there’s one thing I’ll take away from my trip to Myanmar it’s that a smile goes a long way here. People smile a lot, from the white-haired security guard at the hotel, who would be beaming every time I saw him, to random people on the street. While smiling at a stranger is not something widely practiced in the west, I soon caught on to this unspoken mantra: Smile at someone and they will smile back. Even if you don’t know one lick of the language, this most basic form of communication will take you far in Myanmar and beyond.
The best place to get a visa is online, directly from the government of Myanmar. Go to:
https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/ (they accept Visa/Mastercard/Amex). The approval letter, which you print out and take with you, is emailed to you an hour after you pay. It’s valid for 90 days after you purchase it and good for a 28-day stay.
Since Myanmar is just opening up to the world, don’t expect your bank cards to always work here. Therefore, it is wise to bring as much cash as you think you’re going to spend. Bigger bills, like crisp, new hundreds, get the best exchange rate, but no matter the denomination, they demand new bills. Any folds or tears will not be accepted. Also, no matter what the guide books tell you, you’ll get the best rate at private banks, of which there is no shortage. Just keep in mind the daily business hours. The base rate during my visit was 1500 Kyat to US $1. That fluctuated practically every day, going as high as 1583 Kyat. The hotels I stayed at all accepted U.S. dollars.
Hotel Grand United – No. 66-70 21st St., Latha Township, downtown (Chinatown) www.hotelgrandunited.com, firstname.lastname@example.org My favorite of the places I stayed in Myanmar. The place had small but luxurious rooms with strong A/C; clean bathrooms with a good shower; cable TV with international channels like CNN and BBC; free wi-fi; and a rooftop dining room and terrace where breakfast, which came with the room, was served. Plus, the place was right smack in the middle of the action, though off on a side street. The amiable front desk guy could speak basic English, and the cool doormen helped me with cabs. All for only $32 a night.
East Hotel – No 234-240, 1 Quarter, Sule Pagoda Road, Kyauktada Township,
www.east.com.mm, email@example.com A much fancier place than the first, it cost slightly more ($38.29), but was also more centrally located. However I liked the overall vibe at the first place better.
New Park Hotel – Thiripyitsaya Block No. 4, Bagan, Nyaung Oo, www.newparkmyanmar.com,
firstname.lastname@example.org The New Park, with its spacious bungalows, ceiling fans and hardwood floors (and A/C), also had a great vibe. My room even had a small terrace where I could hang out at night. Right around the corner was the main street of Nyaung U and all of its restaurants and shops, with the Bagan site only a 5-minute drive. This place was a great bargain at only $23 a night with breakfast included. I also prearranged an airport pick-up for only $5.
You Gotta Go:
Feel Myanmar Food, 124 Pyi daung su Yeiktha Street – Probably the best place to get into the food of Myanmar and hands down the best selection. It’s also clean, and the dishes are not swimming in oil like most places. I made the mistake of going in to their sit-down restaurant and ordering a full meal before checking out all the options, but, as a first meal in Myanmar, it was great. I ordered mutton curry; aubergine (eggplant) curry; sautéed greens; sour leaf, which, true to its name, has a sour taste, and was mixed with bamboo shoots and tiny dried shrimp; sour leaf soup; and white rice. All that food and a tall bottle of Myanmar beer set me back 14,385 Kyat (or $9.35). I was thoroughly stuffed, otherwise I would have tried some of the other enticing offerings at this popular establishment.
Min Lan Seafood, Shin Saw Pu Road, Yangon – The best place for seafood in town, and its dirt cheap—except for the Mantis prawns (which were about $50/kilo). I ate here twice it was so good. The first time I had a prawn curry with crab, mixed vegetable salad; a snail salad; and soft-shell crab tempura. The bill came to 29,400 Kyat (about $19). The service was great, and they had a huge outdoor seating area with fans.
Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle House, Bo Yar Nyunt Street — An excellent and cheap choice for noodle dishes and dumplings. I also ate here twice since it was so good. The first time, I ordered a spicy pork noodle dish which was excellent, and some sautéed morning glory greens. I struck up a conversation with my neighbors, who were locals, and they offered me some of their fried pork dumplings, which were also delicious. The tab was only 5,250 Kyat (about $3.38)
Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee Myanma, 175/177 29th St.– Since this place came recommended by Lonely Planet, and was not far from my hotel, I decided to give it a try. It’s a typical local joint where all the curries sit in pans behind a glass window and you point to what you want. I ordered beef curry, a greens and mushrooms dish, and sweet and sour whole fried fish. The meal was served with a plate of raw vegetables with a dipping sauce, rice, and sour leaf soup. Unfortunately, all of the curries, though tasty, were very oily. The fish, which had been fried to a crisp, was also swimming in oil. There was only one other occupied table in the place, so I could see it was not that popular. Live and learn. At least it only cost 11,500 Kyat (about $7.41).
Aung Thukha Restaurant, Dhamma Zedi Road – Though I hate to pan a place, I feel it’s my duty to save others from a bad restaurant experience. I had many enjoyable meals in Myanmar, but this place, without a doubt, served the worst, most uninspiring meal of my trip. Once again, I went because of Lonely Planet’s stellar review, so that’s all the more reason to give my honest assessment of the place. From the moment I looked at the dishes behind the glass window, I knew nothing looked particularly appealing, yet decided to give it a try and order a few things. My bad. The beef curry was oily and tough. The mixed vegetables—cauliflower, green beans, and carrots–were boiled and had absolutely no taste. The soup they served, cabbage and some cilantro stems in a light broth, was similarly bland, while the fish was super salty. Also, everything was cold except the beer. I should have realized why the place was so empty except for seven glum waitresses, who sat around and talked among themselves, looking at me while I ate.