Myanmar Moments: the beginner’s guide
The Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay route might be an increasingly well-trodden path, but as Myanmar continues to open itself up to tourism there are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy an under-the-radar adventure. Check out Southeast Asia’s hottest new destination for yourself and be sure to tick off our list of essential experiences while you’re at it.
1. Take to the water
With several mighty rivers forging a course through the country, long boats and ferries are a popular mode of transport. When deciding on a route, it’s worth bearing in mind that the pace of life on the water is leisurely – for example the route from Mandalay to Bhamo, just 200km north, can take up to 48 hours! Before signing up for anything ambitious, try out your sea legs (or lake legs) with a day tip on Inle Lake. With centuries-old temples and floating gardens lining its shores, this huge body of water makes for a lazy day trip and a rare opportunity to witness the Intha technique of rowing, which sees fishermen deftly casting nets while wrapping their leg around a long oar to steady the flat-bottomed boat. Or float downstream on the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to the temple-strewn plains of Bagan.
2. Sample the (unofficial) national dish
Start your day the Myanmar way with a rich bowl of mohinga. This spicy fish-based broth is dished up at street stalls across the country and comes piled high with rice noodles and crunchy fried lentil or peanut fritters. Expect regional variations to include cucumber, bamboo shots, onions and beansprouts – if you’re still hungry, order a tangy salad that’s mixed up on the spot. Don’t miss out on the laphet thouq, made with fermented green tea leaves, or athouq, packed with juicy green tomatoes, chillies and roasted chickpea powder. These flavourful creations are delicious and cost less than a dollar.
3. Make time for tea
From gossiping grannies to children feasting on sponge cakes and pastries, a visit to a teashop is a daily ritual for most Myanmar locals. A million miles from the chic café scene back home, the only milk you’ll find here comes condensed in a can, adding a deliciously sweet taste and syrupy texture to the brew. Grab a seat, order a glass from one of the young ‘teaboys’ and watch as your table is slowly covered with treats to nibble on – you simply pay for whatever you eat at the end. The perfect place to wait for an early-morning bus or crowd around a TV showing an evening football match, these are prime people-watching venues. For an alfresco experience make for Mandalay’s Unison Teahouse, which sits in an oversized bandstand on the banks of a canal overlooking the city’s largest monastery with its Big Ben-style clock tower.
4. Pick up local beauty tips
The country might be slowly waking up to Western ways and international brands, but the locals still embrace many traditions such as wearing colourful longyi (sarongs sported by both men and women) and smearing a yellow-gold paste made from sandalwood on their faces called thanakha. An effective sunblock, expect to see it applied liberally to cheeks, necks and arms – pick up a branch at a produce market if you want to give it a try yourself.
5. Make tracks and ride the railways
Enjoy a slice of local life as you bounce your way around Yangon on the city’s 51km circle line. Taking around three hours, you’ll pass traffic-congested streets before venturing through more rural suburbs. The experience is a great taster for some of the country’s longer and incredibly scenic journeys. For example, grab a spot on an Ordinary Class wooden bench and travel from Yangon to the stunning city of Mawlamyine, passing twinkling gold-topped temples and villages along the way, or board a train bound for Hsipaw from Mandalay and you’ll chug across the Gokteik Gorge on a 320-feet high viaduct – sit on the left side of the carriage for the best views.
6. Go temple hopping from dawn to dusk
Bagan does temples like nowhere else on earth, and whether you decide to make your way between them by horse and carriage or on a zippy electronic bike, you’ll going to need a few days to do these magnificent plains justice – there are more than 3,000 documented sites. Join the snap-happy crowds at Shwesandaw Paya for sunset and, for a once-in-a lifetime experience, take to the skies with a sunrise hot-air balloon ride. If you’re hungry for more, Yangon’s vast Shwedagon Pagoda with is awe-inspiring 325-foot zedi, Mandalay’s monastery-studded Sagaing Hill and the relatively undiscovered collection of 2,478 stupas at Kakku (near Taunggyi) are all guaranteed to take your breath away.
7. Practice your Chinlone skills
Who knew passing around a woven rattan ball could be so much fun? This popular pastime sees teenagers and old men alike taking advantage of cooler evenings and engaging in a spot of healthy competition. The aim of the game is to keep the cane ball airborne for as long as possible by kicking or heading it football-style around a circle. Pick up tips from the professionals at a match – most cities have a stadium hosting regular tournaments since the game was included in the South East Asian Games a couple of years ago.
8. Raise a glass
The country isn’t short on beer stations serving frothy-topped pints of Myanmar beer, but there are only two wineries so make sure you sample a few glasses at Taunggyi’s Aythaya Vineyard or Red Mountain Estate, which is within cycling distance of Nyaungshwe (a popular jumping off point for boat trips on Lake Inle). The former has a stunning landscaped garden and outdoor restaurant if you’re planning on sampling all six of the cool-climate grape varieties grown here.
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