I had a lot of expectations from my trip to Myanmar and, thankfully, they were met and even exceeded. Spending a week exploring both the large city of Yangon and then the countryside onboard a luxury cruise, it was the ideal first introduction to this somewhat mysterious country. There were many special moments during my adventure, including these which I think are top experiences for any visitor to Myanmar.
The Strand Hotel
For my time in the country’s largest city, I couldn’t have picked a better home base than The Strand Hotel. As a history geek, I always love hotels that have a history and The Strand is arguably one of the most famous hotels in the world. Built in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers, who also built a certain hotel in Singapore named Raffles, The Strand has been host to anyone who has been anyone over the last century, from George Orwell to Mick Jagger. I love that, I love the conversations that must have happened in these hallways and I love the modern elegance of the hotel, true to its colonial past but also incredibly up to date.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Standing at an incredible 325 feet, the pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline and its history is inextricably tied to the city itself. According to legend, the pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago and contains 8 strands of hair from the head of the Buddha. It gradually fell into disrepair until the 14th century and since then successful rulers have made subtle changes to the temple complex creating the massive site we see today. The gold seen is made of genuine gold plates and the crown is tipped with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies. Throughout the centuries Shwedagon has also played a central role in the both the lives of the city and country, making it not only one of the most recognizable sites in Myanmar, but also one of the most important.
Many say that the archeological region of Bagan in Myanmar is rivaled only by Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and after having spent the day exploring the beautiful temples of Bagan I couldn’t agree more. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Bagan was a capital city and the many wealthy elite who lived there erected thousands of temples, more than 10,000 to be exact. Today around 2,000 still exist, survivors of time, earthquakes and neglect. But for many visitors, including myself, visiting Bagan is one of the highlights of any trip to Myanmar. There’s something special about this place, holy and sacred for so very long that the temples inspire a certain kind of introspection. The ultimate though is of course getting up far too early to climb the steps of one of the temples in order to watch the sun rise over the countryside. Like little termite mounds popping up, the sun gradually bathed them in soft morning light, creating one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve ever had the great privilege to witness.
The Strand Cruise
One of the reasons why I visited Myanmar was to join the luxurious Strand Cruise on the Ayeyarwady River. Arriving into Bagan on an early flight, I was excited to join the cruise not just to relax a little, but to see parts of Myanmar otherwise impossible to see unless you’re on a boat. My first night onboard was the perfect introduction to river life, as I enjoyed this beautiful sunset over the mighty Ayeyarwady.
One great advantage of cruising in Myanmar was the opportunity to visit smaller and not as touristy areas, like the day we spent one of Myanmar’s ancient cities – Ava. The incredible number of temples and pagodas is what first struck me, it seemed as if everywhere I turned there was another amazing spot to explore. One though in particular clicked with me, with this Buddha image still acting as its sentinel. Yadana Hsimi pagodas may be in ruin today, but they were part of a larger system that, in its time, had few rivals in this part of the world. There’s still beauty to be found of course, you just have to know where to look.
There were many special moments on The Strand cruise on the Ayeyarwady River, but a morning visit to the ancient kingdom of Ava was certainly a highlight. Making our way through the marshy terrain, I resisted the urge to pinch myself to make sure the moment was really happening. Passing by golden temples surrounded by rice paddies, this is the Myanmar I had traveled so far to see. This was the country as I imagined it, a rarity in the travel experience. The moody skies and threat of rain only added to the sensation of having entered a dreamland, a place that exists in the ethereal realm of our hopes and desires. Myanmar is a special country for so many reasons, but this, a feeling I can’t even really name, is perhaps what I’ll remember the most.
As a history buff, I had a great time this week exploring many of Myanmar’s most famous temples, monasteries and pagodas, but a fun diversion from those scholarly pursuits was a visit to the U Been Bridge in Mandalay. Dubbed the world’s longest teak footbridge, this 1.2 kilometer bridge spans Taungthaman Lake and is a popular diversion for tourists and locals alike. As an affirmed dog lover though, of course my favorite part was meeting the scores of homeless pups who call the bridge area home. It’s frustrating that I can’t do anything to help them, but I did what I could which was give them a little attention and love.