Stylist contributor Caroline Eden heads to Burma’s former capital Yangon as a once-isolated and secretive country opens its doors to the world
Myanmar has had a rough time of it. Yes, many nations suffered extensive bombing, occupation and the questionable blessings of totalitarianism during the 20th century, but few were still struggling under a 49-year military junta as recently as March 2011. But with the release from house arrest of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the establishment of a Human Rights Commission and press and worker freedoms, it would appear Burma – and its long-suffering people – might be on the mend.
Why it’s hot
For the more adventurous traveller, the re-emerging tourism industry already has superb facilities, thanks in part to the colonial remnants, which have been preserved and remodelled into luxurious hotels. Even so, only those who have a taste for new lands choose to venture from the main tourist spots – so it’s hugely unspoilt, as well as fragile and utterly beguiling.
For the majority of visitors, including me, a Burmese adventure begins in the former capital Rangoon (now known as Yangon). Entering the peaceful Embassy Quarter of the city from the airport’s new international terminal in a battered taxi, I arrived at The Governor’s Residence – an Orient- Express hotel – which, alongside imperially positioned white-washed mansions, lies hidden by the native yellow-flowering padauk trees. At the gates, I was met by a bellboy who, dressed in a traditional silk sarong, acknowledged me with a traditional ‘mingalarbar’ greeting (disappointingly, it’s just ‘hello’), before bowing and striking a giant gong to formally signal my arrival. It’s an incongruous welcome for a girl from Battersea, but I wasn’t complaining.
I was then led across a wooden bridge, before being presented with an ice-cool juice in an open-to-the- elements reception area, cocooned in the centre of a huge Twenties latticed mansion. Deep red parasols line the shimmering pool; fluttering blue clipper butterflies and orange birds of paradise float through the air; a French lady, immaculate in a kaftan and Jackie O sunglasses, wafts past. It’s actually verging on ridiculous: if you were asked to describe the pinnacle of tropical glamour, this would be it.
I stayed in one of the hotel’s Governor’s Rooms, which is simply but luxuriously decorated. Plus, it’s blissfully cool (the temperature in Myanmar rarely breaks 27°C, but the humidity can make life uncomfortable) and the staff’s delivery of traditional, old-school service just bumps up the opulence levels. Silk-panelled doors lead to an elegant bathroom (replete with a generous basket of Bulgari beauty products) and a large power shower. I took full advantage of all, before giving in to jet lag and falling asleep on an absurdly soft bed to the call of Treepie birds and the chatter of milky skinned geckos. I’ve had worse introductions to foreign countries.
Eating and drinking
I made my way to Monsoon in downtown Yangon, a well-regarded restaurant housed in a beautiful tumble-down colonial building. I ordered a fresh juice and some small plates of traditional Burmese cuisine – Myanmar tea leaf salad and butterfish curry. Bossa nova and jazz played in the background while the friendly platoon of staff, who were impressively keen, catered to a busy lunchtime rush. Stressed local ladies and their friends gave themselves over to the air-conditioning, lounging on rattan chairs.
For a more refined culinary experience, spend a night at the Mandalay Restaurant back at The Governor’s Residence. The hotel successfully seduces its guests into staying well and truly put with its reputation for fine-dining. I chose to dine alfresco on the veranda and opted for a Myanmar Culinary Tale, which included a trilogy of salads (banana blossom; ginger; and potato and vermicelli), tiger prawn curry and sweet coconut sago balls. The locally inspired cocktails are worth trying too – particularly the cool Green-Tea-Ni (vodka, vermouth, green tea syrup) and a Mandalay Sour (rum, lime juice, honey, bitters).
If you only do one thing
Hledan Market is not to be missed. Locals head there early for their daily fruit and veg (fresh produce needs to be consumed quickly in this heat) and if you can bear to drag yourself out of bed, you really can experience life among the locals.
Girls with faces painted with thanaka – a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark that is said to promote smooth skin – sell herbs piled in heaps on the floor; huge melons and bunches of bananas are strung up on fruit stalls; and local tribal Pa’O women in bright orange head wraps cook street food in huge battered metal pans.
It’s also worth heading down to Bogyoke Aung San Market in Pabedan district, where you will find rows and rows of pearls and jade, and well-priced lacquerware and silver. A five-minute walk will take you to the bizarrely named J’s Irrawaddy Dream, a textile market where you can easily spend an hour (or three) trying on local Burmese-inspired dresses, silk shawls and antique jewellery. I could not have been made to feel more welcome by every single person I came into contact with at the market, which summed up my entire trip. Burma is fast coming in from the cold and it is welcoming visitors with open arms. My advice is to go now ahead of the hordes.
Practical and useful
Public transport hasn’t caught up with the burgeoning tourist trade, so it’s best to travel around by taxi, which is cheap and easy — bank on paying around $2 (£1.30) per km. If you opt to keep your driver with you, expect to pay a waiting fee of around $6-10 (£4-6.50) per hour.
A Deluxe Room with buffet breakfast at The Governor’s Residence starts from £264 per night including all taxes; governorsresidence.com. Finnair has daily flights to Bangkok from Heathrow (0870-241 4411; finnair.com); returns currently start from £687.67 inclusive of taxes. From there, fly onwards to Yangon with AirAsia (airasia.com), which has returns from approximately £90, including fees.