Myanmar is an isolated nation that all should visit to meet the gracious people, marvel at their Buddhist temples, and see how they balance the traditional with the modern.
Myanmar is probably not on many travel itineraries, but it should be. Until recently, the country was closed to the world, and so you may wonder: What placed Myanmar on our radar? KFC. In 2016, we heard that KFC was the first fast food restaurant to open in the country, and we decided that in 2017 we would visit Yangon, the capital city, for five days, check out some temples and try KFC.
The first thing that hit me upon my arrival was the hospitality of the Burmese, from the immigration agent who stamped my passport to the security personnel who verified my visa. Coupled with the country’s dark past, applying to visit Myanmar made the country intimidating. Case in point: We went online for our visa and completed a questionnaire; it seemed as if I made one misstep, I would be kicked out of the country. For the visa application we each paid $50, and a few days later were emailed our visa. The intimidating visa website was upended by the gracious workers in the airport.
In the taxi to our hotel, I saw a Pizza Hut. In under a year, other fast food chains had moved in. I was surprised at the expansion, but I know I shouldn’t be. Plus, now we had a second restaurant to patronize.
We stayed at the Hotel Lavender, which is a tourist class hotel, meaning that it is clean, the staff is courteous and helpful, but there are two elements to be aware of. First, the a/c only works when you have the room card placed in a slot by the door, which isn’t odd for many Asian hotels; however, when you return to your room, you must push a button on the a/c, thereby triggering it to operate. And it does: in 5 minutes. Secondly, and I’d say most importantly, the shower. There is a lovely stainless-steel showerhead, but there is no shower stall or bathtub. The entire bathroom floor becomes the shower, and I never became accustomed to stepping into a wet bathroom. A redeeming quality is the hotel’s rooftop, providing views of the temples—the golden stupas, dragons, golden Buddhas—and the city skyline. A few pink plastic lawn tables and chairs were arranged on the north side of the roof, and there was a two-seater swing; all of which we used to enjoy sunsets.
I recommend staying at the Hotel Lavender for its location. It is in a working-class Yangon neighborhood, with a street market outside the hotel’s gates. Temples abound, with the most impressive, Shwedagon Pagoda, atop a hill behind the hotel. Shwedagon Pagoda is the name of the temple as well as the centerpiece of the temple. The pagoda is covered in gold and capped by a diamond orb containing 4,351 diamonds for a total of 1,800 carats. The orb is topped by an apex diamond of 76 carats. While the Shwedagon Pagoda is the focal point of the temple, foreigners cannot walk on or near it. Only Burmese can. We were never given an explanation as to why.
Aside from temples, we went to City Junction Mall, and from what the hotel front desk told us, this is the finest mall in the country. It was first-rate: a cinema, loads of restaurants, coffeeshops, jewelry stores, fashion stores—Western, Asian, Burmese—and a grocery store. On the 2nd floor was KFC. The chicken was spicy, but a little dry and the skin was greasy. The staff, all college-age Burmese, were polite, helpful, and spoke English well. The view was of a church steeple and the three-story market across the street, which added a nice ambience. Sticky fingers are a by-product of fried chicken, and we all know that the Colonel’s chicken is finger licking good, but thankfully, the Burmese provided a small washroom off the dining area.
The City Junction Mall also had a Pizza Hut, which we went to on the following day. On trips in Thailand, we have had delicious seafood pizza at Pizza Hut, so we tried the same here. I noticed that the seafood pizza (plus many of the other specialty pizzas) had Thousand Island dressing as an ingredient. The dressing almost killed my desire for the seafood pizza, but my sense of adventure won out, And the dressing wasn’t bad, but the pizza, while good, was not as scrumptious as the one in Thailand.
We were at the mall on a Friday and a Saturday. On the first day, there was a hip-hop dance competition. On Saturday, there was a beauty contest, with the teen and twenty-something young ladies wearing short, tight skirts and make-up to whiten their faces. Crowds of shoppers watched them. Anxiety strained the contestants’ faces. They seemed uncomfortable with the attention and in the clothes. Their traditional dresses, complimentary of their figures, were prettier and presented them without being scanty. Did the young ladies want to dress in Western fashion? Behind their apprehensive visages, I wondered what they thought?
Since Myanmar only recently opened to travelers, we didn’t experience a touristy vibe. The taxi drivers and street vendors were honest. For example, we bought two bags of sliced pineapple—very sweet and for less than a dollar—but forgot one. The vendor called after us and brought us the second bag. Taxi drivers, when given the fare including a tip, invariably said: “Too much,” and handed back some of the money.
Myanmar was a delightful experience. After seeing that this closed off nation consists of hospitable folks, we want to return and see more of the country and its lovely people.
Essays and Photos by Natthinee and Hardy Jones