It’s the beaming ray of sunlight I wake up to in the morning. It’s a beacon of shimmering gold as I look outside my hotel window.
This is my first time in Myanmar and I find myself waking up to the most amazing view. As I look out the window, in the distance I see the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in all its glory. By day it glitters with the sun and by night it is lit up for all to see.
I’m here in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the largest city in Myanmar (formerly Burma). This country, which was once under British rule, is in a period of transition. Since its independence in 1948, coups and internal conflicts have followed. Human rights advocate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi is now the State Counsellor of Myanmar. Locals have high hopes for ‘the Lady’, as she is known, to make improvements to this ethnically diverse nation.
The country is slowly opening up to tourism, making it the perfect time to visit. I’m itching for a close-up look of Shwedagon Pagoda, but first I am off to explore the city with some newfound friends.
ART OF THE MARKET
The Bogyoke Aung San Market, also known as Scott Market, in central Yangon, is touristy, but nonetheless fun. With jewellery, art, souvenirs, clothes and local goods all here, it’s pleasant to simply wander up and down the stalls, but alas I am on a search to bring home some Myanmar art to adorn the blank walls of my new apartment back home.
When we show interest in the colourful paintings on display, we are led upstairs to a small gallery stocking some gorgeous works. The works are all quite large and out of my budget, and when I ask if they have any smaller artworks, I am led back downstairs, in and out of aisles, around through the market, till we finally reach another stall selling smaller paintings. And that’s when I see it – a stunning work of lilac and purple brushstrokes depicting a market scene, not dissimilar to the one I am standing in now, with figures carrying baskets on their heads and buildings in the background. I can already picture it on my bedroom wall back home … I’m sold.
A TASTE OF PARIS
Myanmar sure knows how to surprise. Following the hustle and bustle of market shopping in the afternoon, we are transported to another world at Le Planteur restaurant in the evening. This French restaurant and lounge is housed in a beautiful building, which has an expansive garden by Inya Lake in Yangon. It is located just down the road from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, where she was kept under house arrest.
Walking down the steps of Le Planteur and onto the lawns is like emerging out of a scene from The Great Gatsby. You half expect Leonardo DiCaprio to swan on in, raise a toast and get the party started.
Dine on the lawn, as we did, for the full experience and be wowed by the service and the sublime food. The delicately exquisite gourmet menu by chef and founder Boris Granges, is matched by the sheer beauty and atmosphere of the surrounds. The limed carpaccio scallops on a parmesan biscuit with avocado and tomato salsa, and – wait for it – wasabi ice cream, was unexpectedly delightful. I enjoyed the main of New Zealand lamb rack filet with vegetables and carrot mousseline, but the dessert of a black chocolate dome and passionfruit heart with a tonka bean biscuit really took this meal to the next level.
GOT THE GOODS
And there’s no better way to end a divine meal, than with a tad more … shopping. The Yangoods gift shop, located within Le Planteur, is home to some very intriguing and unique wares inspired by Myanmar’s cultural heritage. From cushions and calendars to pencil cases and bags, you can pick up some quirky and not-so-traditional souvenirs that still draw on the history of Myanmar.
INLAND TO INLE
From Yangon, we head inland and take a one-hour flight north to Heho airport. We are heading to the beautiful Inle Lake in Shan State. On the journey there, we travel via the state capital, Taunggyi, where we stop at the very colourful local markets, Myoma Market.
Make the trip to the golden Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda for magnificent views over Taunggyi city, and visit the Shan State Cultural Museum to discover the many different peoples who call Shan State home.
We arrive at Novotel Inle Lake, as the sun is slowly making its descent. Its expansive maze of villas is a sight to behold. Each Superior Villa has separate lounge and bedroom areas, an oversized bathroom and private outdoor balcony.
We have just enough time to drop off our bags, shower and change. Feeling refreshed and fitted out in our finest, we relax on the deck of the very aptly named Sunset Bar.
The bar’s speciality is a mojito – who am I to say “no”. So with mojito in hand, we waited – not long – for the magic hour.
And then it was upon us. The expanse of the lake stretched out in front of us, myriad birds flying by, and the sudden yet slow movements of the sun as it slowly crept towards the horizon. The sky changed from orange to pink to salmon to blush. The only sounds were the clicks of cameras as we tried desperately to capture the ever-changing backdrop.
I stopped to take a moment to appreciate the serenity of the scene, interrupted only by the need to take the all-important group photo.
DAY ON THE LAKE
The morning was warming up fast as we headed out the next day for a boat ride on Inle Lake. The lake itself is approximately 22 kilometres long by 10 kilometres wide, and on this clear, sunny day we can see right across the lake.
Life is all around this stunning lake. Fisherman and locals wave as we sail by. Children in boats make their way to school. We pass by rows and rows of floating gardens – all kinds of fruit and vegetable are grown on the lake.
Be sure to pay close attention to the fishermen here. They have a very unique way of rowing their boats – standing with one foot on the back of the boat and rowing with the other foot on the oar. It’s fascinating to watch.
Houses, shops and workplaces all dot the lake, built on stilts above the water. The area is well known for silk weaving and you can pick up some beautiful silk scarves and clothing here. Visit the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda located right on the lake, and stop by the market at the pagoda’s entrance for trinkets and souvenirs.
A FEAST FOR THE SENSES
On the lake we were treated to some amazing food at Green Chilli restaurant. The traditional Inle cuisine was a feast of incredible curries and salads including fish soup, tomato salad, eggplant salad, stuffed whole fish, tofu curry, steamed rice and banana cake.
As I was sitting on the balcony with boats whirring by, a quiet serenity calmed my soul, and the tasty plates in front of me quickly filled my stomach.
Another super sunset was had at an unexpected place. Wineries and Myanmar aren’t two things that usually go together, but Red Mountain Estate winery is about to change all that. And if the atmosphere outside in the wine garden on a Tuesday afternoon is anything to go by, they are well on their way.
Seated around the picnic table with new friends, laughs and stories were shared, nicknames were created (“Hi Fish”, “Hey Veg”), and wines were sampled. Another amazing salmon sunset lit up the sky, this time the sun slowly crept behind a mountain vista, with lush greenery all around. Cheers to that!
Another winery of note is Aythaya Vineyard. This was Myanmar’s first vineyard, growing and marketing wine within Myanmar. Drop into Aythaya for lunch at The Aythaya Sunset WineGarden restaurant, which has an international menu, with a focus on specialities from Shan State.
We head back to the city from Inle, and it’s finally my chance to see Shwedagon Pagoda up close … and it doesn’t disappoint. We are rushing through Yangon traffic (approximately 34% of all cars in Myanmar are here in Yangon) to make it to the pagoda before the sun sets. Stuck in a queue of cars at a set of lights, my companions and I jump out and we leg it the last kilometre, desperately trying to reach Shwedagon before golden hour.
And we make it … just. We wander around the pagoda, and bask in the peacefulness as the day gives way to the night. Many locals flock here after work to worship and meditate, giving the area a peaceful yet joyous atmosphere.
The building itself is 2,500 years old, and is covered in gold plates and gold leaves, with relics of Buddha enshrined within the Pagoda. The Pagoda rises 100 metres high, and towers over the city – no buildings are allowed to be built higher than the highest religious building.
The sun fades and the Pagoda begins to glitter in all its beauty, especially the diamond orb, which sits atop the stupa and features 4,531 diamonds totaling 1,800 carats.
All my favourite moments from my time in Myanmar occurred in the magic hour, where the troubles of the day fade away, and the cool clarity of night takes hold. This time of day lets you see the world in a whole new light. And now it’s time for the world to see Myanmar in a new light – the golden hour awaits.
Photography by Roshan Sukhla.
Where to eat
Le Planteur: leplanteur.net
Myanmar Tourism Federation: myanmar.travel