Category Archive for Myanmar
A guide to Yangon’s modern art galleries! Burma Pansodan & River gallery, Aung San Suu Kyi paintings.
Let’s continue our Myanmar escapades… with a tour of the progressive art and photography galleries of Yangon!
Burmese artists are spreading their wings, now that they are free from military rule and censorship. With the support of these independent galleries, local creators are able to express themselves in ways that were previously forbidden (such as by painting nudes and political topics).
Yukiro and I are certainly “women who explore” — so let’s give you a tour of Yangon’s top galleries.
We stayed at ParkRoyal hotel, and they bestowed us with a car and driver that made getting from place to place much easier. I looked up a few Burmese art exhibits, and gave our driver the list. He figured out the most efficient route, which made it possible for us to see five venues that day: Pansodan, River, Nawaday Tharlar, New Zero, and Deitta.
We started our art tour at Pansodan Gallery, which we heard was one of the best in the city.
Love the greenery and vivid street signs near the entrance of Pansodan Gallery. Walk up the stairs, and you’re there.
Address: 1st Floor, 286, Pansodan Street, (Upper Block), Kyauktada Township, Yangon, Myanmar.
Pansodan Gallery was established in August 2008 by Aung Soe Min and Nance Cunningham, a Canadian who has lived in Burma since the 1990s.
We chatted with Nance and her French friend Christophe Munier, who recently published a book called Burmese Buddhist Murals. He told us that a lot of spiritual art from past centuries has been destroyed. His book attempts to document these works before they are gone, as preservation is unfortunately a challenge in a country with limited budget for the arts.
On the bright side, a gallery like Pansodan is a welcoming space, which gives Burmese artists a chance to present their works to worldwide audiences. The selection ranges from budding artists to older masters, working in a variety of mediums.
Pansodan Gallery also aims to make the local art accessible. Some of the paintings are in higher price ranges, but there’s a great selection of watercolors, cards, books and other small items for $10-30 US.
We loved seeing these fun, modern expressions of Burmese culture on the walls. Works like these were brimming with color and energy.
After years under the military government, Myanmar has opened up. In the past, only non-controversial, sanctioned subjects like landscapes were permitted. Now, artists are free to express any topics and themes without censure.
Before the current democratic government, it was difficult (to say the least!) to be an artist in Myanmar. Art supplies were often scarce, and if the military deemed your works to be offensive, they’d be confiscated. It was even forbidden to display photos and paintings of “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi.
Now that she’s the leader of the democracy, the arts have flowered. This liberalisation has enabled artists to depict nudes, and political or edgy subjects for the first time. Many choose to paint Aung San Suu Kyi, as you can see in the examples above.
Pansodan Gallery encourages this creative renaissance in many ways, including running a laid-back social event every Tuesday night. Anyone can come to enjoy beer and snacks, talk art, and meet others.
The owners have also opened up a new space called Pansodan Scene recently. In addition to displaying paintings, the Scene has poetry readings, talks, concerts, and a small cafe.
(Address: 144, 2nd Floor, Pansodan Street, Corner of Mahabandoola Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon)
Yukiro and I consider the streets of Yangon to be works of art in themselves! So many colors and textures in a single block.
We watched this man hang up spiritual flags, as he prepared a stage for a Buddhist event.
We said hello to a few cats, on the way to our next stop: Myanmar Deitta gallery. (Address: No.49, 44th St, Yangon, Burma).
This is a not-for-profit organisation that supports photographers, filmmakers and other multimedia producers in Myanmar. The upper level space hosts workshops and exhibitions, with the goal of presenting and discussing social issues that were formerly repressed by the military.
We caught the bilingual exhibit by The Kite Tales Project, titled “Unsung Heroes: Telling Myanmar’s Lost Stories.” Run by two journalists, Ma Thin Lei Win and Kelly Macnamara, this digital initiative captures the daily lives of people all throughout the country.
The journalists traveled all throughout Myanmar, including to remote and conflict regions. Through photo, video and audio, they recorded stories that had been silenced for decades, from a variety of perspectives.
Naturally, I was drawn to these photographs of tribal tattoos and body modifications in Burma. On the left, a 90-year old woman from the ethnic Chin village sports a full-face blue tattoo. One of the reasons these women modify their appearance is to prevent other tribes from preying on them.
Another woman, a daughter of a Lahe chief, spoke about how her community once got tattoos to celebrate heroes and victories. She lamented that today the practice has become lost.
In the attic, we watched documentary footage from throughout the country. I was intrigued by these videos from the Saffron Revolution, a series of peaceful political demonstrations in 2007. Many Buddhist monks took part in this nonviolent resistance, wearing saffron-colored robes.
Onward to River Gallery, which was once housed in The Strand hotel. (Address: Chindwin Chambers 33/35, 37th and 38th Street, Yangon)
Yukiro opened his Pokemon Go app, and realized there were almost no Pokemon to catch in Myanmar. Nonetheless, this gallery had what looked like a wooden Poke-Stop sculpture, which you could even spin!
River Gallery is a high-ceilinged space that beautifully showcases the works of Myanmar’s leading contemporary artists. It’s a great place to pick up artistic souvenirs, as there are cups, jewelry and other fine items for sale.
Before the democratic leadership, Myanmar was isolated from the global art scene, and struggled under the draconian censorship. River Gallery was keen to create a space for local artists to get better representation and exposure.
Here, you can see playful and abstract works by over 40 contemporary artists, who are now free from these restraints. River Gallery organises an annual show abroad for its talents as well.
In contrast, New Zero Art Space is a more obscure and underground gallery. We went into an apartment building, and searched for the door to this non-profit. (Address: No,202, 2nd Floor, United Condo, Ah Lan Pya Pagoda Road, Dagon Township Yangon 1181)
We stepped into “Identity of Fear: A Solo Exhibition by Mayco Naing.” The stark, white tiles of the space were the perfect backdrop to her black and white photographs.
The concept: young Burmese, immersed in baths, with their hands clasped over their faces. Naing’s photographs reflect the generation born around the 1988 Revolution. She and her fellow 20-30 year olds faced a volatile dictatorship, low educational standards and conservative values while growing up.
The underwater bathtub images represent the stifling educational opportunities she feels her peers have suffered. The nudity also confronts feelings of shame about the human body.
Before heading back to our ParkHotel, we stopped by the nearby Nawaday Tharlar gallery. The smiling kawaii logo is impossible to resist!
Address: Yaw Min Gyi road Building No. 20B Room No. 304, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
When we stepped into the entrance, we were mesmerised by the tangle of electrical wiring — that’s an art piece on its own!
Nawaday Tharlar opened in 2012, and is dedicated to creating a place for people to come together and share art, music, poetry and stories.
The gallery holds a bi-monthly open mic, where anyone can come to perform. It also hosts different creative activities, such as a tea and drawing workshop.
In the main room, we enjoyed the “Yangonoftheday One Year Exhibition.” This photography project posts images once a day, depicting some aspect of Yangon city life.
The concept shows all the facets of Yangon (Rangoon) and its people, and lets residents share their stories through Instagram-like square photos.
I spotted monks and punks. Birds and buildings.
In the back rooms, there are stacks upon stacks of canvases, from dozens of Burmese artists. Anyone can come to flip through them.
Buddhist themes abound, in this spiritual country. Isn’t the Burmese writing lovely?
Props to our ParkRoyal hotel driver, for navigating these confusing and busy streets! Interestingly, motorcycles are banned in the city, so you won’t see street scenes similar to Vietnam. Still, people will cross the roads willy-nilly.
We saw children in school uniforms, and adults in matching longyi (the long Burmese tied skirts worn by men and women).
Our car passed by the Ganesh Hindu Temple. Buddhism is practised by about 88% of the population, but there are other religions here too.
As we drove through the narrow streets, our car windows were perfect for people-watching.
We noticed these covered drinking gourds, or pots of water that anyone can drink from.
Myanmar has a lot of investment from Korea and Japan, hence this street filled with technology stores. Smartphones are common here…
… as Samsung, Sony, LG and others have a large presence.
Modern and traditional are a true balance in Yangon. We’re very glad we came to Myanmar, and hope to see Bagan and more of the country next time.
For more about Burmese Buddhism and monks, come see our story about the golden Shwedagon Pagoda.
Isn’t Myanmar a fascinating country? I’m glad to see the liberalisation of arts here, and look forward to these continued positive changes.
Volunteering with Punk Rock bands in Yangon, Myanmar! The Rebel Riot, Human Rights concert, Rangoon restaurants.
Believe it or not — there’s a 1970s-style punk rock subculture in Myanmar!
Yukiro and I loved getting to know Kyaw Kyaw, the leader of Burmese punk band Rebel Riot, and his studded, tattooed, Mohawk-ed friends.
As you’ll see in this post, Yangon’s punks play hard. But they also give back to their community in a huge way: Kyaw Kyaw runs two charities that directly aid the homeless, and children in need.
Yukiro and I called the theme of our Burma trip “Monks and Punks.” The two groups have more in common than you’d think: they’re all about inclusivity, compassion, and taking action to support others.
(You might remember from our Shwedagon Pagoda photos that this is the world’s most Buddhist nation.)
Before we arrived in Yangon, I reached out to The Rebel Riot band on Facebook (as they are one of the most prominent punk groups in the scene). We were keen to volunteer for their charities, and get to know Burma’s alternative, underground side.
Singer and songwriter Kyaw Kyaw welcomed us warmly. He invited us to Human Rights Day, where The Rebel Riot was performing an acoustic set.
The free event took place outdoors, in People’s Park (not far from the famous golden temple).
As I mentioned in my first post about Myanmar, the country was formerly under a military dictatorship, which put up strict barriers for freedom of expression. Now, Aung San Suu Kyi is the democratic leader. The state of human rights is still a work in progress here (as it is everywhere — I’m not going to get into the specific politics). Still, it’s significant to have event like this one, run by young Burmese who believe in this mission.
We were thrilled to meet locals at the event. I was impressed by their passion: they were here to stand up and speak out, for human equality and freedoms.
A lot of friendly faces came up to us, and asked to take photos together. Yukiro’s makeup and fashion were quite the sensation!
In recent years, the LGBT community has become more open and accepted in Myanmar. Still, same sex activity remains technically illegal, and the gay night at J-One Music Bar is sometimes shut down.
The King n Queens Organisation is doing wonderful work to advocate for equality in Burma. As their motto says, “Human rights are LGBT rights.”
In addition to fighting the discriminatory laws, these LGBT groups are working to increase awareness and education. One giant placard contained a “glossary” with definitions in both English and Burmese. The terms include queer, pansexual and transgender (which are not instinctively known in this population).
Next to People’s Park, we noticed a creepy abandoned theme park! This is the old “Happy World,” which looks like a derelict, haunted version Disney’s Fantasia. (It should be re-named “Unhappy World,” don’t you think?”
Anyone can access the run-down rides — so naturally, we posed inside the creepy roller-coaster cars. (More images at the end of this article; all photos by Sniper Chau.)
To celebrate Human Rights Day, various Burmese bands took the stage and performed. The Rebel Riot band did an acoustic set with their friends. Between songs, Kyaw Kyaw spoke from the heart about the importance of this cause.
As he put it — he’s an advocate for human rights because as a human being, how could he not be? The fundamental rights to equality, free expression, and protection against unjust persecution should be extended to everyone in society.
The Rebel Riot’s songs conveyed these messages with power.
As Kyaw Kyaw’s nonprofits gain more recognition, many are coming to Myanmar to volunteer directly alongside him. My friends and I brought a suitcase full of school supplies for Books Not Bombs, which provides children with educational support (especially in conflict and rural regions of the country).
Every Monday night, his group Food Not Bombs purchases food and distributes it to the homeless and needy in Yangon. At first, locals weren’t sure what to make of these tattooed and pierced punk volunteers! However, their dedication spoke for itself, and the rockers are now welcomed each week with hugs.
The logo at left (two people giving a high five) summed up the positive spirit of Human Rights Day, Yangon.
In the audience, we saw others with large gauge earrings, alternative dyed and shaved hair, and DIY studded and painted clothing.
It’s interesting (but perhaps not surprising) that punk ideologies have taken hold in Myanmar — as the country has recently broken free of military rule, yet continues to struggle with regional clashes and authoritarianism.
We have full confidence in the young Burmese volunteers we met. They’re progressive and full of energy, and will shape their homeland in a positive, inclusive direction.
We wanted to get to know The Rebel Riot and friends better, so we made arrangements to hang out the following evening.
It turned out to be a grand gathering of Goths and Punks, at Rangoon Tea House! (Address: Ground Floor, 77-79 Pansodan Rd (Lower Middle Block), Yangon, Myanmar).
We sat down at a long table, and the boys laid out their tattooed arms. I see A for anarchy, hell on the knuckles, a skull, and two gasmasks on these sleeves.
In true punk spirit, many of these tattoos are DIY. I spot 666…
A lot of young locals and travelers come to dine at Rangoon Tea House, which is one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. The restored two-level space is reminiscent of the British colonial era, with classic molded ceilings and lanterns.
Rangoon Tea House is well known for its drink menu. The world-class cocktails are inspired by Asian flavors, such as a jasmine gin and tonic, and “Smoking Cheroot” with smoky cinnamon, bourbon and Hennessy, served on a thanaka tray.
At the entrance, we saw the staff preparing tea from the finest grade pindica leaves, aerated with a long pour from above.
Goths in the back, and punks in the front! I’m standing next to Esther, a Gothic makeup artist, and Ze Ze, vocalist and composer of the band Maze of Mara. We quickly became fast friends — amazing how you can find like-minded spirits in the most unexpected of places.
“System Error” — so good. Tattooing isn’t taboo here, as it is in Asian countries like Korea and Japan. There’s also a history of tattoos among ethnic groups in Burma, up until the 20th century.
As you can see from our smiles, we loved the food at Rangoon Tea House. The mohinga (Burmese fish noodle soup) was so delicious that we ordered two bowls! This national favorite dish is made from fresh Rakhine daggertooth fish, and perfectly balances sweet, sour, salty and spicy.
The menu is a homage to Rangoon’s past — when traders from different countries mingled with colonial settlers and locals. We ate up every bite of the Indian-inspired curries, biryanis, samosas, rotis. Other highlights included British Pimm’s, and traditional Burmese “ohn note kauk” chicken and noodles in coconut broth.
As you can see, the boys were fans of the Burmese beers.
A meal to remember, followed by a night of more laughs, drinks and shenanigans!
On a different evening, we dined at the amazing Yangon Green Gallery — a Thai restaurant that is the favorite hangout of expats and young artistic types. We were sold on the chalkboard sign: “Let us tickle your tastebuds and fill your stomachs.”
Green Gallery Address: Mahabandoola No 58, 52 Street Lower Block, Between Mahabandoola and Merchant, Yangon 1116, Burma.
The friendly owner, Bo, welcomed us with gusto, and insisted that we make ourselves at home. Once again, we found a kindred spirit — we bonded over the 1980s songs that she broadcast all night, from Europe to Eurythmics!
Bo used to live in Thailand, and brought these traditional flavors to her cooking. At the same time, Green Gallery is as modern as it gets: she brought us gin and tonics with colorful straws, and we admired the industrial, bohemian design of the restaurant.
The Lady, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, looks over the space. It’s wonderful to see women like Bo put their hearts into their independent businesses, and succeed.
My mouth is watering as I reminisce about our meal at Green Gallery! The menu is simple, with a focus on fresh and healthy — yet comforting — Thailand dishes. The items change with the seasons; we started with spicy salad Larb Mhoo, and adored the panang and green curries with rice. Leave room for the coconut sticky rice and mango dessert, which is full of love.
As you can see, the tables fill up quickly, especially with groups of expats. The restaurant also hosts a monthly Green Party that draws in lots of friendly, young faces.
We could have stayed all night, grooving to the 80s songs and joking with Bo about thumb sizes. There’s no better place in Yangon to get a heart-warming meal than Green Gallery. Please say hi to her for us!
We chatted with someone at the next table, and he suggested that we visit Root Kitchen and Bar for a “Wa-Tang” cocktail. His recommendation was on point: the drinks are perfectly concocted with ingredients like tea, lemongrass, ginger, and a special Wa-region liquor made from rice and barley grains.
Root is a new restaurant and bar, which pays homage to the Wa people who live in Shan State. This region of Myanmar is often dismissed as a drug and conflict-ridden borderland, so these owners wanted to showcase Wa culture, art, and food in a comfortable space.
Later, we met Bo and other new friends at the nearby 50th Street Bar (there are lots of bars and hip restaurants in this district). This venue is known for its live concerts — that evening, we watched several alternative bands perform.
A sunrise visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar! Burma golden temple, Buddhist travel destinations.
I’ve been to temples all over Southeast Asia, but none has been as extraordinary as Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. In this photo diary, Yukiro and I will show you why!
Before we begin our pilgrimage, I’m humbled and thrilled to announce that I won the Best Blog of the Year award! A zillion thank yous to everyone who voted in the Auxiliary Magazine awards. None of this would have been possible without your support throughout the years. Congrats to the other winners and fabulous nominees, and I am excited to keep on bringing alternative travel stories to you in 2017.
Yukiro and I are standing inside Shwedagon, with lovely locals. This huge golden Buddhist temple complex dominates the Yangon skyline, and is one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar (Burma). The name breaks down to “shwe” (gold in Burmese) and “Dagon” (the township where it is located).
That day, we met the kindest, gentlest Buddhist nuns, dressed in pink robes…
… and children with thanaka (sun-protecting face paint) on their cheeks. (All photography by Sniper Chau.)
Let’s begin our visit to Shwedagon Pagoda with a note on the dress code. Out of respect to those who come to the temple to worship, all visitors (male and female) should wear clothes that cover their legs and shoulders. Shorts aren’t permitted, but there are longyi that you can borrow at the front if you forget.
Despite the clothing restrictions, you can still glam it up — as we did! We wore long wrap skirts (mine is from Thailand), and lightweight tops that kept us from overheating in the humid weather. (Yukiro had the shawl over his arms except for this moment of posing!) Sunglasses are a must, as the golden glare hits hard once the sun rises. In addition to sunscreen, we painted some thanaka over our skin as well.
We met our ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon driver in the lobby at 6am, as we wanted to catch the dawn. It’s worth waking up early, as sunrise and sunset are the best times to visti Shwedagon Pagoda. (You also avoid the crowds and the high noon-time heat this way).
The temple is open from 4am to 8pm, and the entrance fee for foreigners is $8 (about 8000 kyat — make sure you have the local Burmese currency). Everyone must remove his or her shoes at the entrance, and go barefoot inside the complex. If you’re a foreigner, there’s a special rack where you can store your shoes (otherwise, you’d have to carry them with you).
We walked down the long corridor, and bought a fragrant strand of white flowers. It opened up into this mesmerising plaza filled with gilded architecture and colorful Buddhist statues — we felt as if we’d entered a new universe.
Shwedagon is a feast for the eyes and senses. It’s filled with an energy of compassion and happiness — as personified by these praying, chanting Buddhist children.
The pagoda sits on Singuttara Hill, and holds the relics of four Buddhas. The first version was most likely built by the Mon people between theb Shwedagon Pagoda was pillaged many times, rebuilt and expanded, and struck by earthquakes — but has stood strong, and is grander than ever.
Could there be a destination more fabulous than this one?
Shwedagon is the largest stupa in the country, at 99 meter high. It’s plated with over 20,000 gold bars, with a tip decorated with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. The various buildings hold treasures of Burmese art, including the Tharrawaddy Min Bell that weighs 44 tons.
(In the 17th century, a Portuguese adventurer stole the 300-ton Great Bell of Dhammazedi — but it fell into the Bago River and was never recovered.)
Myanmar is the world’s most Buddhist country, with most locals identifying as Theravada Buddhists. It’s a regular sight to see monks and nuns of all ages in the city, and we encountered many smiling faces here.
I think Yukiro and I fit in rather well with the decadent, golden art!
Visitors can spend hours wandering into the various buildings, where there are thousands of Buddha statues and relics to behold.
Although Shwedagon Pagoda is centuries-old, and has traditional architecture, you’ll also see modern incarnations. Such as this reclining Buddha with a flashing, electric cyber-disco halo around his head.
The spirituality is open and welcoming in Myanmar. We saw punk rockers praying, and monks with tattoos. Some locals choose to become monks or nuns for a short period of time (such as few weeks or months).
I wasn’t too familiar with Burmese sculpture / art until I visited, and was in awe. In this tradition, Buddhas are smiling and friendly, and draped in golden robes.
We had no issues walking around barefoot, as the tiles are kept clean by volunteers with mops. Locals have always pitched in to preserve Shwedagon, taking part in activities such as sweeping the floor, washing the statues, and repairing damaged areas.
The stupa is a top Buddhist tourism destination. We saw a tour group of men and women in pink headwraps, travelling together on a spiritual pilgrimage.
I loved seeing the joy and tranquillity on everyone’s faces.
Burmese architecture ranges in styles. This reddish-brown spiky roof spoke to our Gothic aesthetics.
As the sun continues to rise, the tiles heat up. It’s good to go early (as we did) so that you can leave before high noon.
As author Rudyard Kipling described it: “Then a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.”
Wearing cat-eye sunglasses by Moat House Eyewear, which match my pink hair and top.
A lot of locals came up to us, and gently asked to take photos together. We got nothing but compliments on our outfits and style.
We became fans of the elegant, traditional fashion — particularly these Burmese long skirts, or longyi. This group of women shows it’s possible to be chic while following the dress code.
Offerings of fruit and flowers for the Buddha, made by these young devotees.
Loved seeing the small moments of generosity all around Shwedagon Pagoda.
Myanmar has only recently opened to tourists, which means landmarks like these are still very locals-only. We saw only about 10 foreigners during this visit, and there weren’t any gift shops or touts.
Many Burmese also follow traditions that come from Hindu astrology. They pour water and perform purifications at their “planetary post,” which refers to the day of the week they are born on. For example, if you were born on “Wednesday Morning,” you would look for a basin with this signpost, and make offerings and wishes there.
On the left, you can see the sign for “Tuesday Corner.”
We didn’t know which day of the week our birthdays fell on… but the giant leogryph (mythical lion creature) looked like our spirit animal.
This protector lion being is a “chinthe”, often found at the entrances of pagodas and temples in Burma, Cambodia and Laos. Love the sideways-facing paws.
Snakes are another guardian, depicted with vampire-like fangs. The precise carvings found all over Shwedagon are impressive.
Photography is allowed in Shwedagon Pagoda. Anyone can respectfully ask monks or nuns if they’re willing to take a photo. However, as our guidebook counselled, one must not touch their robes (not even for a friendly pose).
As you can see — it’s ok to stand next to a monk after getting his consent to take a photo together. But langorous arm-draping is a no-no!
Burmese children grow up learning the founding legend of this stupa. Once upon a time, two brothers were traveling when they met the Buddha beneath a tree. They offered him food, and as a thanks, the Buddha gave them eight hairs from his head!
The brothers put the 8 hairs in a ruby casket and carried them back to Burma, where they started to build Shwedagon Pagoda with the help of their king.
There are other relics preserved in the temple complex, ranging from sacred robes to… an ancient water filter.
This sign illustrates the story of the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment. Love the rainbow colors, and the gorgeous Burmese script.
It’s apparent how much meaning the Buddhist teachings have to locals here, through each stage of their lives.
We’re very glad we got to spend time in Myanmar, a travel destination that people often overlook.
Such an interesting contrast between monastic simplicity, and golden richness.
When we saw these flares of light, we knew why “Shwedagon Zedi Daw” is also know as the Golden Pagoda.
Don’t forget to walk around the edges of the complex, which tend to be quieter, and filled with surprses. Such as: a bodhi tree.
Siddartha Gautama meditated under a bodhi tree until he attained nirvana. Perhaps this monk, crouched under the canopy, will follow his path.
We encountered this lion guardian on the outskirts as well. The pale pink claws are on point.
Shwedagon is heaven for people-watching and photography. (All images by Sniper Chau.)
The women we met were stylish and self-possessed. The Burmese are known for their welcoming nature, perhaps testament to the Buddhist culture.
This nun smiled at us as we passed by, and her group of children followed suit. Moments like this remind me of why I travel.
I hope this photo diary conveyed the magic of Yangon’s Great Dagon stupa. Although the pagoda is not a household name, it now ranks among my favorite wonders of the world (and I’ve been to Petra, Angkor Wat, Hagia Sophia and more).
Coming up: we’ll show you more of Yangon, including Sule Pagoda and art galleries. A big thank you to ParkRoyal Hotel for the driver and travel tips. (See our review of ParkRoyal Myanmar here.)
Have you heard of Shwedagon before? Isn’t this spiritual site inspiring? Thank you again to everyone who voted for me in the Best Blogger of the Year awards — none of these adventures would be possible without your love!
Long time no see… Yukiro and La Carmina are back!
At the end of 2016, we journeyed to Yangon, Myanmar — and it turned out to be one of our most meaningful trips to date.
There’s so much to share from this beautiful Buddhist country. We met creative locals, volunteered, and immersed ourselves in Burmese culture. (Above: Yukiro sits in front of a patala, or traditional xylophone, and I’m wearing the traditional longyi skirt and thanaka face paste).
Until a year or two ago, Myanmar was difficult for tourists to access. Now, the country has changed its government (with Aung San Suu Kyi in power) and opened its doors. Visitors can easily get an E-Visa: we filled out the government application online, paid $50 US, and were approved in a day.
More airlines have also launched routes to the newly-built Yangon Airport. We flew on my long-time favorites, HK Express: they have a direct, fast and inexpensive flight from Hong Kong to Yangon. In just over three hours, we were in the land of Buddhist monks.
We were treated like queens at ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon, our home base for this trip. The hotel sent a BMW to pick us up from the airport, and later take us around the city. The staff greeted us at the door, and showed us to our rooms on the exclusive Orchid Club level.
Yukiro and I loved the old-world charm of this luxury hotel. As you can see above, ParkRoyal gracefully incorporates Burmese art into the design. The location is also ideal: right by cultural attractions including the golden Shwedagon Pagoda.
As part of the Orchid Club privileges, we were spoiled with freshly-baked treats every day. Such a joy to come back from sightseeing, and find little sandwiches and sweets awaiting us.
It’s a relief to visit a country without any tourist trappings (such as fast food chains and tour buses). However, this also means Myanmar can be a challenging place for some travelers to navigate (for example, streets and numbers are not easy to find). We were glad we had the ParkRoyal staff to assist us, and these comfortable rooms to return to.
● You can book a room at ParkRoyal Yangon here, at a discounted rate.
● Here’s where you can get a black off-the-shoulder top like the one I’m wearing.
In our rooms, we found these cute primers on the local etiquette. The illustrations explain regional quirks that everyone should respect, such as not pointing to objects with one’s feet, or taking photos of pregnant women without permission. (I thought the above cartoon was common knowledge… until I saw someone grab a monk to “pose” him for a photo!)
Local art and music fills the hallways of ParkRoyal Yangon. We watched a lady play the saung (national string instrument) in the lobby, and admired these traditional Burmese carved wood panels.
The hotel staff even provided us with longyi, or long single cloth skirts that are tied at the waist, and worn by both men and women in Myanmar.
As Orchid Club guests, we were privy to additional benefits including a concierge desk right on our floor. Every day, the kind staff helped us coordinate our itinerary and car/driver. They were wonderful at answering our questions about local culture, and giving us off-the-beaten-path travel tips.
We also had access to the lounge, which is always stocked with complimentary drinks and snacks. During cocktail hour, we tried Red Mountain, a Myanmar wine that comes from the hills of the southern Shan State. Yukiro took a few bottles back as gifts for friends and family (very few people have tried Burmese wine!)
On our first day, we relaxed at the hotel spa. I lay down on this inviting bed, and got a traditional Myanmar Thanaka massage that worked out all my knots.
It’s hot year-round in Yangon, and the ParkRoyal swimming pool beckoned us to dive in… but it was time to explore the city.
(Hotel photos by Sniper Chau, city photos by La Carmina. My black top is similar to this.)
Our concierge suggested that we walk to the nearby Bogyoke Aung San Market. A staff member took us there by foot, and pointed out a few neighborhood attractions on the way.
There’s an overhead bridge leads to the market, with vendors selling fruits and dried seafood on the wooden planks.
Safety note: While some outskirt regions of Myanmar are in conflict, Yangon (the biggest city and former capital) is considered one of the safest cities in all of Asia, with very little crime. All the locals we met were friendly, and no touts approached us. It’s important to stay cautious wherever you travel, but let me assure you that Yangon is not a dangerous destination.
The bridge to Boygoke spans these railroad tracks. Locals walk right on them, balancing objects on their heads.
Yangon’s infrastructure and development were better than I expected. There are a lot of Japanese and Korean electronics here, including cars and smartphones.
It’s easy to spend an hour or more exploring what was originally known as Scott Market, established in 1926 during the British rule. Upon Burmese independence in 1948, the market was renamed after Bogyoke (General) Aung San.
After the coup d’état of 1962, the country became a military dictatorship, ushering in years of violent suppression. In 2011, the junta was dissolved; in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a majority in both houses, and she is the democratic leader today.
(In 1989, the military government changed many official names — Rangoon became Yangon, and Burma became Myanmar. There’s some contention over the official name, but Aung San Suu Kyi stated in 2016 that foreigners could use either. J. Peterman from Seinfeld put it best: “You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”)
You can find all sorts of local food at Bogyoke Aung San Market. However, be careful about eating street food, if you aren’t accustomed to it.
So many sights and smells to behold. Isn’t the Burmese alphabet beautiful? The written language dates back to the 11th century. (Myanmar is bordered by China, Laos, Thailand and India — hence some of these influences).
“Langorous” was our word of the day. In Myanmar, do as the locals do: slow down, hang out, enjoy the moment.
The market has hundreds of vendors, lined up on cobblestone paths. You can find all types of antiques, jewelry, clothing, Burmese art, handicrafts, you name it.
Long, silky hair is a trademark of Burmese beauty. Yukiro and I loved this futuristic-looking hairstyle worn by “Aunty Mary.”
Bogyoke market is the best place in Yangon to pick up a longyi, or Burmese long skirt. You can choose from the various embroidered silky fabrics, and get the garment custom-tailored to fit you like a glove. The ladies can also help you match it with a sleeveless top and sheer scarf.
The shops are a rainbow of intricate, elegant fabrics. Longyis are worn by both men and women, and are a perfect mix of style and function. (The airy fabric keeps you from overheating, and protects you from mosquitoes).
As I mentioned, Burmese vendors aren’t aggressive — they don’t run up to you or try to rip you off. Shopping at this market was easygoing and enjoyable.
We went indoors to look at the gems and jewels. This cyber disco Buddha greeted us at the entrance
Myanmar is known as the world’s most Buddhist country. Close to 90% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, which certainly contributes to the peaceful, welcoming, compassionate nature of the locals we encountered.
In a country that was formerly isolated, you’re bound to find some oddities. I did a double-take at this store window. Is that… Annabelle? (The haunted doll and horror movie star must have escaped from her locked case at the Warren’s Occult Museum!)
These funky faces reminded me of Japanese daruma. Underneath, notice the Burmese comic strips, with speech balloons in the local script.
Many vendors put up images of The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. During the time of military rule, she was placed under house arrest and it was forbidden to publicly display her photo. Now that she’s the leader of the country, locals can have her smiling from their walls.
Since it was humid (even around Christmas), we tended to go out for a short period, and then return to our hotel to rest before heading out again. ParkRoyal’s central location and car/driver service made all this possible.
One time, we came back to gingerbread houses and cute chocolates in our room! The pastry chef is a maestro; we gobbled everything up, like Hansel and Gretel.
We dined with the General Manager at Shiki-Tei, an exquisite Japanese restaurant inside the hotel. We started with sake-tinis and warm sake…
… followed by the freshest sashimi, yakimono (fish and steak grilled right at the table), and nabemono (hot pot with fish and vegetables in a subtle yet complex broth). A meal to remember.
Every day, we looked forward to the breakfast / brunch buffet, which is one of the best in Yangon. There’s all types of international food, but I focused on the Burmese dishes, such as spiced salads, curries…
… and one or more bowls of the national dish of Myanmar, mohinga. This is a fish and rice noodle soup — but it’s so much more than that. Mohinga is heartwarming, with every flavor and texture (salty, sour, crunchy, sweet) in perfect balance.
At first, there may be a “fishy” smell, but once you get in a few spoonfuls, you won’t be able to stop. It’s a little like laksa and pho, but uniquely Burmese. I hope you can try mohinga for yourself, as it’s a game-changer.
We’ll miss the friendly staff of ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon, who always greeted us with a “Min Gā Lar Ba!” Without them, we wouldn’t have had such a magnificent time in Myanmar.
(Find out more about this hotel here.)
Isn’t Myanmar a fascinating country? I hope this first post got you intrigued about Burmese history and culture.
There’s a lot more to come from this fascinating destination — including monks and punks. Let’s just say… you won’t be disappointed!