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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Myanmar (Burma).
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Myanmar (Burma).
One of Asia’s longest-running hotels and a Burmese institution since the early days of Empire, The Strand has reopened in Yangon, Myanmar, after major renovations. Here we chart its riches-to-rags and back-to-riches story…
Yangon (then called Rangoon) is developed as the capital of British Burma. Work begins on the structures of the Empire: Government House, the law courts and the building that would become The Strand, offering a place for officers, adventurers and traders to meet and unwind.
Under the Sarkies brothers (left), hoteliers who also founded the Raffles in Singapore, the 60-room, three-storey Strand hotel officially opens its doors and becomes known as ‘the finest hostelry east of Suez’, with lofty verandahs to keep guests cool and Strand Sours to keep them well lubricated.
The hotel becomes the epicentre of social life in colonial Yangon. Notable guests include Orson Welles and Noel Coward (above), who went on to pen the famous lyrics, ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun. The toughest Burmese bandit can never understand it.’
During World War II, the hotel is used to stable the horses of the Japanese cavalry. A bomb plunges through the roof, but, fortunately, fails to explode, leaving the décor largely intact.
As Burma closes itself to the outside world, the hotel is nationalised and falls into disrepair. Staying in the 1970s, Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler wrote in the first edition guidebook, “By 11pm, you are likely to be feeling pretty lonely in the lounge, just the occasional Strand rat scampering across the floor to keep you company.”
After a major facelift at the end of the 1980s, The Strand, in the following decades, welcomes a trickle of famous international visitors, including Baz Luhrmann and Mick Jagger (above).
The Strand is restored to its full former glory, with inlaid marble flooring, lacquer ceiling fans and antique Burmese furniture. The bar, with its teakwood panelling and leather seating, is renamed The Sarkies, in honour of the hotel’s founding brothers.
What makes Bagan so special? What makes this ancient city so sought after by travelers? You can’t not love Bagan, with its morning view of fog enveloping the pagodas giving them a calming silhouette, trees warming their leaves in the sunlight and colorful air balloons rising up into the clouds that gives you a sense of paradise on earth. I wish I can go there! I have to watch all of it! And this wish of mine came true.
Home of Thousands Pagodas
Bagan is almost synonymous with pagoda. This ancient city, also known as Aramaddana-pura (literally, the “City that Tramples on Enemies”) or Tampadipa (bronzed country”), is home to over 10,000 Buddhist temples. From 11th to 13th centuries more than 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built in Bagan. Still standing now are just 2,000 because others were destroyed in several earthquakes. Just this year, an earthquake in central Myanmar damaged over 150 pagodas in one of the world’s best archaeological zones, prompting UNESCO to help in reconstruction.
Let’s explore Bagan. Choose among the thousands of pagodas the one that suits you best – the highest, the grandest, the most beautiful carvings, or the most historical. All in this enchanting city.
My first stop was the Ananda Temple, which some compare to the artistic and classical Westminster Abbey in London. It was built around 1105 during the reign of King Kyanzittha from Pagan Dynasty and is said to be one of his greatest accomplishments. The Buddhist temple is an architectural wonder in a fusion of Mon and Indian architecture. Laid out in a perfectly symmetrical cruciform with several terraces leading to a small pagoda, it is covered at the top by an umbrella structure known as hti which is found in almost all Myanmar pagodas. Four alcoves each house one golden standing Buddha statue made of teak wood facing East, North, West and South. You’ll be totally captivated by the statues’ faces glow with a surreal radiance an effect of natural light entering through the high dormer windows.
If you think that the golden Buddha statues are all there is to Ananda, you’re way off the mark! This temple packs in quite a lot of interesting stuff, including some of the best stone sculptures in Bagan. Especially beautiful and well preserved are the stone sculptures depicting episodes from Buddha’s life which are just excellent works of art. Equally interesting are the restored mural paintings of Buddha, Arahats and lotus flowers on the walls of the devotional hall.
While my stay in Myanmar was a short one, it was not difficult to notice how the traditional Burmese culture blended in with some of the more modern cultures, practices, and technologies. It was commonplace to see Burmese women dressed in trendy and fashionable blouses coupled with the traditional Longyi (pronounced long-gee). This long woven fabric, typically made from vibrantly coloured cotton or silk, is wrapped around the waist and hangs like a long skirt.
Facets of Tradition of Modernity
A more physical representation of the modern-meets-traditional vibe of Myanmar is the Sedona Hotel Yangon. Established with the concept of “warm Asian hospitality with contemporary indulgences”, the Sedona Hotel Yangon brings in a touch of modern luxury with the addition of its Inya Wing. The Inya Wing stands tall in contrast to the older Garden Wing and overlooks its namesake, the Inya Lake. With its colonial design, the Garden Wing stands for a more traditional aspect of the hotel, both inside and out, whilst the Inya Wing brings forward a more modern stand point with its towering structure and luxury apartment-esque room designs.
Hints of Myanmar’s ethnic culture is further represented in the interior of both wings through design accents of the Burmese Umbrella. Whilst the Burmese umbrella may seem like a rendition from a different age, it is still used as a functional accessory among the locals to shelter them from the strong sun.
Rudyard Kipling wrote: “The golden dome said: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.” Stunned by the size and richness of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Kipling might well have been struck speechless had he ever actually made it inside the temple area.
Sheathed in gold worth some $90 million, the glowing bell-shaped stupa stands at the center of the 14-acre Shwedagon complex.
Tradition dictates that devotees and visitors walk clockwise as they pass a profusion of mosaic-covered columns, spires, ornate prayer pavilions, images of Buddha, seventy-eight smaller filigreed pagodas, and everywhere those who have come to pray, meet, meditate, chat, and watch their children at play. Bells tinkle. Incense burns.
The perfume of flower offerings, the brilliant colors of the traditional pasos and longi (sarongs worn by men and women, respectively), the deep-saffron robes of the Buddhist monks, and the sound of gentle chanting and prayer create a sensual melange. The radiant thirty-two-story stupa rises ever upward, topped by a golden orb that is studded with 4,350 diamonds and precious stones, including a 76-carat diamond on its tip. To Buddhists, this is the most revered site in the country, said to house relics from the four Buddhas who have so far appeared on earth. It is most resplendent at sunset.
At the Savoy, a historical colonial-style hotel, ask for accommodations that overlook the pagoda, or take in the view from the hotel’s appropriately (if too obviously) named Kipling’s restaurant. After a day of battling tropical humidity and the dilapidated, fume-belching buses on Yangon’s wide, tree-lined boulevards, first-world trappings such as air-conditioning and Yangon’s only wine bar are a comfortable joy.
The capital of Burma (now Myanmar) prior to British rule (which lasted from the mid-19th century until 1948), and known as the Golden City, Mandalay was built in the 19th century by the last of the royal leaders and is still redolent of its royal past as the heartland of Burmese culture and religion. Its huge market is a thriving phantasmagoria of earthy smells and a polyglot mixture of cultures.
Mandalay is the starting point for a cruise down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, the country’s great natural highway and the focal point of Burmese life. The urban centers of its 2,500-year-old civilization line the banks, including the city of Bagan (formerly Pagan), where, along 8 miles of riverbank, some 2,200 Buddhist pagodas nestle so close together that they resemble a forest of spires and pinnacles.
Founded by a Burmese king in A.D. 849, Bagan reached its apogee about 1000 and was abandoned in 1283 when Kublai Khan, in control of northern India, swept south with his soldiers. It was believed that building religious structures gained merit for a king and his people, so an army of skilled artisans embellished this spiritual center with what may originally have been more than 10,000 religious monuments. Much has disappeared – perishable teak burned by fires, all else eroded or destroyed by earthquakes and the passage of time.
Nevertheless, what remains is one of the world’s great archaeological sites, which some believe surpasses those of Indonesia’s Borobudur and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Shwezigon Pagoda, the most important of those you can see today, is said to house the collarbone and a tooth of the Buddha. For an almost sacred experience, watch the sunset from the crumbling terraces of the Gawdawpalin Pagoda.
Your deluxe floating hotel, the Road to Mandalay (owned and operated by Orient-Express), is a microcosm of Burmese hospitality and European efficiency. In an enchanting country emerging after forty years of self-imposed isolation, where hotels, transport, and infrastructure are only now being developed and the people couldn’t be more gracious, it’s the only way to visit many of the special sites, which are often accessible only by water.
Inle Lake’s quiet magic is worlds away from the congested capital Yangon, offering a time-warp setting of serene waters, gentle light, and warm smiles. The tribal people subsist on fishing and farming their man-made floating islands, which are anchored to the lake’s shallow bottom by bamboo poles that eventually become rooted.
Settled centuries ago by the Intha, or “sons of the lake,” Inle is roughly the size of Manhattan, so motorized boats are used for long stretches, but most trips through the maze of canals at the lake’s edge are by flat-bottomed canoes. Of the twenty-some simple villages – some no more than a small cluster of fragile bungalows sitting gingerly on stilts – Ywama is the best known because of its floating market, which takes place every five days. The hardworking Intha pile their canoes high with leafy greens, rice, melons, bright flowers, and the plump, tasty tomatoes for which Inle is known.
By 9 A.M. the market is winding down for the locals, and when the canoes show up bearing curious Westerners, all attention swings to the animated sale of bamboo hats, bundles of Burmese cigars, woven shoulder bags, traditional silk and cotton sarongs, and carved wood Buddhas. If you miss the market in Ywama, make sure you go looking for it: It travels to other villages on other days of the week.
Of the many teakwood temples and monasteries on stilts, Nga Phe Kyaung is the most curious. Known as the “Jumping Cat Monastery,” its monks have trained their cats to do various tricks, demonstrating that maybe they have just a little too much free time on their hands.