Myanmar is on the precipice of immense change. Enchanting and surprising, the newly reborn country has risen from the ashes of the past, rejuvenated in its bright future.
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The heat hits like an open oven as we emerge from the airport. Porters dressed in longyis (traditional sarong-like skirts) shuffle past, their trolleys overladen with suitcases, heading to dozens of waiting beat-up old Japanese sedans, the local taxi of choice.
We have arrived in Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon, in the country formerly known as Burma, just weeks after Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party took power in the country – the first civilian government in 50 years. The cynical exchange of tourist and local does not yet exist here; the smiles are genuine, and the interest is innocent.
There’s a sense of freedom here now that would have been unheard of even a few short years ago. You can pick up Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirts, bags and mugs at Yangon’s markets. Mobile phones, once a luxury for the elite, are in the hands of hawkers and monks as much as any expat, and it seems like everyone we meet has an Instagram and Facebook account.
The sign of the times is no more obvious than here in the bustling city of Yangon (the largest city in Myanmar), where there’s been a surge of restaurants, bars and luxury hotels opening up to meet the tourist demand – hotels like the five-star Novotel Yangon Max, where we will be spending our first evening.
In love with Inle
The drive from Heho airport to Inle Lake seems nondescript at first, but look a little closer and you’ll see captivating rural life all around (there are still people travelling by horse and cart alongside crowded buses and colonial-era trucks). Women and children, smeared with thanaka, a yellow paste made from a tree bark that both cools and protects the skin, smile brightly as we pass. The scenery changes with every kilometre, the dusty, winding road eventually transformed into shaded boulevards and dry fields giving way to the lush green of rice fields and bursts of yellow sunflowers.
We pull into Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min, where a traditional Burmese welcome is in full swing. Men, young and old, sing and beat the Shan Osi, a long stone drum, propelling the dancers on in their acrobatic moves as they twirl and kick and swing in unison.
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Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min is a luxurious lakeside resort with spacious, contemporary villas set right on the water, and is a picture-perfect spot from which to view what must be one of the world’s most spectacular sunsets. The peace is palpable here, and sets the pace for our stay on the lake – days exploring, afternoons relaxing and evenings indulging.
The soon-to-be UNESCO Heritage-listed Inle Lake rates as one of the most beautiful places (and unique experiences) left to discover in south-east Asia. It’s a virtual floating village, where waterways act as highways and longtail boats are the only mode of transport. Life on the lake still follows a very traditional path: rustic wooden stilt houses, golden pagodas and monasteries offer a view of Burmese life that is, thankfully, caught in time.
Most visitors head to the pier in the main town of Nyaungshwe to explore the lake, with a typical day trip costing around 15,000-18,000 kyat (about AUD$16-$20). The long, narrow boats fit about five or six people, sitting on wooden chairs, and most offer umbrellas to shade you from the sun.
It’s the famed Intha fishermen, with their distinct one- legged paddling, who have made Inle Lake so well-known to western tourism. They balance effortlessly atop their flat-ended canoes on one leg – a graceful pose with practical advantages. It enables the fishermen to see across the lake to spot the tell-tale bubbles of fish beneath the surface of the water, while at the same time keeping their hands free to negotiate the conical net baskets typical of the region. It’s a style of fishing that’s entirely unique to this area.
The lake offers sustenance in other forms, too. The floating gardens of Inle, tended by farmers in canoes, are bursting with tomatoes – known to be the finest in all of Myanmar – while men and boys, chest-deep in water, capture bundles of water hyacinth, or seagrass, used to fertilise the watery crops of produce. It’s an original form of hydroponic farming that is, in Inle fashion, once again unique.
The arts and crafts of the floating villages here draw crowds of daytrippers, like us, with everything from wooden carvings and silversmithing to hand-rolled cigars. The famed lotus silk weavers turn the finest of threads, taken from the stalks of the lotus, into the most beautiful fabric. Prices can be high if you want to purchase from the weavers, but when you consider that it can take up to two weeks to prepare the threads, spin, thread the loom and weave a single piece, haggling is hard to justify.
The holiest area in southern Shan State is Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, with its famous temples and shrines. The village of Inthein is also home to an impressive hilltop temple: Shwe Inn Thein Paya, with its 1054 crumbling zedi (stupas) dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries, is a mesmerising view.
The next day we hop on bicycles provided by the hotel for a morning ride through the local village, stopping to rest at the 1,000-year-old wooden bridge that connects Maing Thauk Village to the mainland. Smiling kids yell the Burmese greeting, ‘Mingalabar’, waving and giggling to each other as they run past. Young boy-monks pass us in silence, intent on their morning alms rounds, collecting rice from pious locals who wait outside their homes at the crack of dawn. It’s magical moments like these, when you get to see the heart of Myanmar and the beautiful, warm, humble spirit of its people, that are so special. As afternoon arrives, the path takes us up the hill to Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery to toast another spectacular sunset with local wine from vines grown in Inle soil.
Our last day in Myanmar is spent back in Yangon, exploring more of the city’s colourful streets and evocative colonial architecture. A trip to Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott Market) is perfectly chaotic, bustling with hawkers, locals and nuns in baby-pink robes all deftly navigating the stalls. Then the race to beat the sunset to see our final, shining destination – just in time for one last blessing.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site, stands as a sacred beacon in the heart of the city, but it’s not until you get up close to this soaring, golden monument that you are completely awestruck by its beauty. The pagoda is 2,600 years old, covered in 60 tonnes of gold leaf, and attracts a continuous stream of pilgrims, tourists and devotees, day and evening. Now, at dusk, with the pagoda burning brilliant and bright as it reflects the setting sun and worshippers lighting hundreds of lanterns, it is intoxicating. Our guide, the knowledgeable and passionate Robert from Diethelm Travel keeps us informed as we circumambulate the grounds. “Everybody should come to Shwedagon Pagoda once in their lifetime, just to sit and worship in front of this Buddha,” he says. “And then they are closer to nirvana.”
And so there we are, standing in this sacred place of quiet stillness, ready to leave Myanmar in a transcendent state. The perfect ending to a more than perfect trip.
IN THE KNOW
Novotel Yangon Max and Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min are both part of the Accor Hotels group and provide luxury accommodation and comfort while in Myanmar.
Book a table at La Planteur, one of Yangon’s most reputed (and unequivocally romantic) fine-dining restaurants. Overlooking Inya Lake, the food by Michelin-star chef Felix Eppiser is as elegant as the setting is breathtaking. Request a table out on the lawns by the water for a candlelit dinner under the stars.
For late-night drinks with a speakeasy vibe, head to The Blind Tiger in downtown Yangon. This hole-in-the-wall bar is a favourite among the local expat community, serving up cocktails and tapas in a neon-lit lounge setting.
All photos by Natalie Bannister.