Traveling to Myanmar? You might want to read this whole thing to guide you for your upcoming trip!
Myanmar has been ‘closed’ to the world during the last 50 years or so and this was a product of several political decisions of its government. It recently just opened its borders to tourists, but only a limited number of spots are accessible for sightseeing. But there is so much authentic beauty to Myanmar.
While it was also colonized by a Western power, it has its separate identity compared to other Southeast Asian countries which were colonized by other Western power. Considered as one of the poorest nations in the world, a huge amount of optimism is seen in Myanmar as it moves forward towards economic and political development.
Traveling to Myanmar: My Experience
I was lucky enough to explore some parts of Myanmar last 2016 and it indeed set a very high expectation to my next travel destinations. I have seen Yangon, Mandalay, and the Ancient Capital of Bagan, and I wish I have seen more (but there’s always a next time, girl!). I have documented some of the spots I was able to visit in the article below:
Needless to say, Anthony Bourdain is every traveler’s spirit animal. Personally, he has inspired me to travel more and learn more about the world. More than the cinematography of his travel TV series, I love the scripts of his every single episode and how he asks the right questions to his interviewees. His very objective and uncensored points of view in so many aspects of life is also admirable.
It was really unfortunate that we lost a great person like him, but to honor his life and how he inspired me to travel braver, I am creating this travel article series tracing his journeys in some of the episodes of his travel series, mixed with some personal anecdotes and perspectives from my own travel experiences.
I wish I was able to see this first episode of Parts Unknown before going to Myanmar so that I was able to follow Tony’s itinerary. 🙁 But since you were able to read this prior to your trip to Myanmar, I was hoping I could help you out with planning your itinerary. Enjoy! 🙂
Walk around the dark but safe streets of Yangon at night
Tony mentioned about blackouts being a regular thing in Yangon given its old (and maybe outdated) power grid system. However, from the looks of it, it may be still safe to walk around at nighttime. This was something I was able to do with my female companions during our last night in Yangon, and let me share a beautiful story.
After dining in at KFC Yangon (the first Western fast food restaurant in Myanmar which opened just recently when we went there in 2016), my female companions and I were stunned by the beauty of Sule Pagoda when we passed by it on our way back to East Hotel, so we tried taking a photo with the Pagoda as the background. However, it was really dark and we can’t really find a good angle to take a nice photo. A man from a random car parked near us turned on its engine and lit his headlight facing us and signaled us to try if the photo looks better now with the light from his car. I think that was a sweet gesture and we thanked him after out mini-photo shoot. However, as he was leaving, he almost hit a pedestrian (because the streets are indeed a little dark, guys) which almost resulted on a fist fight, but thankfully it ended up with an accepted apology from the helpful man.
And btw, here is the photo of mine I was telling you about. I honestly don’t know what the photographer was thinking about this angle, but it was really a struggle taking a nice photo. Not your Instagram-worthy photo, but it was indeed a memorable one.
Have a tea and eat mohinga at Seit Thaing Kya Tea Shop
In the words of Tony, “Morning in Yangon has always been about tea.” (Same, Tony, same.) While there are different kinds of tea around, Myanmar’s is a black Indian-style tea which people would usually add some sweet condensed milk. Depending on your preference, it could be from less sweet to very sweet. Moreover, Tony pointed out that tea shops like this used to be more than just a place to have breakfast but also a ‘secret place’ to discuss the daily news back in the day.
Aside from your morning tea, this tea shop was also the place where Tony tried a mohinga, a rice noodle and fish soup, which is considered as the national dish of Myanmar. While most food served in the country are of Chinese and Indian origin, mohinga is a local thing. It is found both in urban and rural areas in Myanmar.
(I was not able to try any tea shop in Myanmar as far as I can remember, but I was able to buy a lot of Myanmar loose tea which I gave away to some colleagues.)
Ride those iconic overcrowded Yangon buses
A country where motorbikes are outlawed? Welcome to Myanmar.
Upon arriving at Yangon, we went straight to buy some essentials at Ocean Supermarket before taking the overnight bus going to Mandalay. I saw some beautiful fridge magnets and did not let them go (haha yes I just arrived and I’m already buying souvenirs). One of the fridge magnets I got was a bus fridge magnet with overflowing people by the door. I was like, “Oh, looks just like Manila” so I got some. Little did I know when I was walking around the streets of Yangon one afternoon that I will witness some buses passing by with people hanging by the door. Not safe, guys. Not safe.
Eat different kinds of salads at Yangon’s Feel Restaurant
Salads are a huge thing in Myanmar (which is healthy, right?) and this is where Tony was able to taste a variety of salads — “pig head salad with kaffir lime leaf, long beans salad with sesame and fish sauce. Penny leaf salad, even this salad of Indian-style samosa”. A typical Myanmar dining experience is where all dishes will be put on the table at the same time because it is about “the interaction between a lot of colors, textures and flavors in one dish”.
Also, you are welcome to be creative about making your own dip with pickles and condiments. (Same with the Philippines! You can customize your own condiment depending on how much of each you prefer. I know someone from college who just love to mix everything. Yes, everything. Eh.)
Btw, Feel Restaurant is very common around Myanmar. I was able to have some snacks one a stop while on a bus from Mandalay going to Bagan. (Apologies for the photo quality, though!)
Eat Prawn Curry at Min Lan Seafood Restaurant
Tony was able to witness the unique way people in Myanmar summon a waiter in a restaurant: they make a smooching/kissing sound. (In the Philippines, this is also what some men do when they want to ask a jeepney to stop so that they could alight!) Seafood served here is apparently prepared in Rakhine style. The bestseller in this place is prawn curry, where the prawns are caught fresh from the river then cooked and mixed with some yummy tomato curry. Sounds delicious! (Call me a loser, but I only focused on ordering Thai food and rice meals during my stay in Myanmar.
I was surprised with how big their rice serving was! Clearly shows that there is an abundance of rice in this country. Awesome.) Below is the ‘closest thing to Myanmar curry food with salad’ that I was able to eat while traveling there:
Visit Sofaer Building and appreciate other old British colonial buildings
Myanmar was a former British colony, and a lot of old British colonial buildings are still standing, from former businesses to offices to public buildings.
Tony visited the Sofaer Building which was once said to be “the swankest department stores in Rangoon” where people can buy products imported from Europe like liquors and cigarettes. The tiles of the building were said to be imported from Manchester. It has been a subject of debate in Myanmar on whether or not to preserve colonial buildings like these. As of now, Sofaer Building houses restaurants and shops at the ground floor and squatters on the top floors.
Watch some people preparing for the Full Moon Festival at Yangon Port
Tony had a taste of some chicken head/neck and beer while watching the busy scene at Yangon Port as people prepare for the upcoming Full Moon Festival.
Watch the human-powered Ferris wheels spin during the Full Moon Festival street fair
Tony witnessed the festivities at Kason/Kasong Day, or the “Full Moon Day”. He compared the food stalls in Yangon with that of the New York Food Festival. The streets have a happy and lively vibe where they tried crispy little birds. One unique thing that Tony witnessed was the human-powered Ferris wheels which he said was “tempting to try” but obviously looks dangerous. (But I want to try this out someday when I go back!)
Try some Laphet Thoke at Morning Star Tea House
Morning Star Teashop was where Tony tried laphet thoke, or fermented tea leaf salad. Tony does not think making salad out of fermented tea leaves is not a good idea, but he found it fantastic when he tried it.
Eat grilled food while watching an indie rock band at Yangon’s 19th Street
Deemed as a “must-go place” when in Yangon, 19th Street is a lively strip with so many restaurants where you can have some grilled food and beer while watching indie rock bands, which, btw, used to be not a thing in Myanmar. Before, song lyrics have to be screened and the government would ask the bands to censor some parts of their songs or even completely change the songs. Also, the city curfew used to be 11PM, but shops at 19th Street are mostly open until late night.
Also, this is where Tony said that Creed was “the worst band in the history of the world”. Ouch! But to be fair, in my own opinion, ‘One Last Breath’ is a good song.
Ride the Night Express to Bagan
Tony endured the 10-hour ride of a 600-kilometer journey from Yangon to Bagan in an overnight train which is made from French engines back in the 70s. It was said to have 75 stops and would start at a very slow cruising speed. Eventually it will be a very, very shaky ride as if the train will be derailed anytime.
Buy breakfast from vendors outside while at the train to Bagan
As the daytime breaks and the train is almost there in Bagan, some vendors would approach the train to sell some food. Tony was able to try some samosas and fried fish from the vendors.
Eat chicken curry at a random food stall in Bagan
He called the random roadside joint he dined in at Bagan “the best restaurant in the country so far”.
Oh, look! I was able to try it also! 🙂 (Well, not the chicken curry, but the Myanmar beer :D)
Visit the Old Ruins of the Ancient Capital of Bagan
Bagan used to be the ancient capital of Myanmar containing so many temples that were built around 250 years ago. This is where you can find people worshiping nats. During Tony’s visit here, he observed that there are not a lot of tourists going here. In fact, “you’re far more likely to bump into a goat than a foreigner”. Moreover, he mentioned that the temple complex looks like “an ode to slave labor”.
The ancient complex of Bagan used to be a habituated area until the government relocated the residents in the 1980s so it purely remains a tourist spot. Tony has been anticipating the ups and downs of the upcoming tourism industry in this area, ranging from kids dropping out of school to sell souvenirs to prostitution.
I have my share of stories of vendors in tourist destinations and markets. Upon opening the doors of our tour van, vendors will suddenly swarm around you and will aggressively try to sell you some stuff when you haven’t even gotten down the vehicle yet. It was intimidating, to be honest. I have my friends getting harassed by some vendors. 🙁
In the market, the kids would first get you with their charm and suddenly would apply thanaka on your face. They will force you to buy the whole container eventually. I mean, it happens everywhere in the world, right? But seeing this as a product of the booming tourism industry in Myanmar is a little frustrating. But to be fair, there are a lot of awesome and respectful vendors. Some of them I had a memorable conversation with.
Towards the end of the show, Tony has been expressing his delight towards the end of a 50-ish year of “nightmare” to a more forward-looking better future for Myanmar.
There you have it! We all know that Anthony Bourdain’s main preference when traveling is to try the local food and talking to locals about life in the destinations they are in. Of course, you are always welcome to add and weed out some of the items here to have a more customized travel itinerary. In my opinion, though, I believe the things done by Anthony Bourdain during his travels are worthy of trying out. So, I wish you happy travels and wait for your photos on Instagram? Travel safely!
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