Rajiv recently went on a holiday. If you’re familiar with Nicobar, you might recognise our head of visual merchandising, and his return from a quick summer jaunt to Burma has us envying his tan as well as well as his ultra-chill post-holiday vibe. Lucky for us, he’s got tips on travelling to India’s oft-overlooked neighbour, a country that’s been in isolation for decades, and his stories tell of a land with a rich and hopeful culture, of faith, and a pagoda-silhouetted horizon.
For a country still finding its footing with the many cultures and races it is home to, the people of Burma are caring, happy and helpful. This was my second trip here, and I’d go for thirds in the blink of an eye.
Travel as much as you can but travel smart. Taking a direct flight means digging deep into your pockets, so I recommend breaking your journey so you don’t break the bank. All flights within Burma are quickies and great time savers, but if you’re not in a tearing hurry night buses are always an option for the adventurer. Pack light as you will shop loads (and even if you don’t plan to, you must).
Stop in Kolkata
I broke journey in Kolkata for a day-long stopover. Spend the day tucking into saccharine (but deliciously moreish) rasgullas and mohan mukh at Chitranjan in North Kolkata. The colonial houses with their long tiled corridors and arched doorways in Shyam Bazar, Shova Bazaar, and Rajabari echo a symphony of jangling payals as women go about their day draped in Dhakai saris, with alta-dipped feet, and hair that wafts with sweet smelling Jasmine. Amble around and you’ll see men in crisp mul dhotis with delicate borders, and a way of living that’s unhurried and simple. Here you’ll find echoes from a world left behind, still audible if you only stop to listen. This was the perfect primer to visiting a country that would reinvent the meaning of ‘unhurried’ or ‘slow’.
From Kolkata, I took a two-hour evening flight to Yangon (the former capital and the country’s largest metropolis) on Myanmar Airlines.
Life in Yangon revolves around the Shwedagon Paya, the golden pinnacle that towers magnificently over the city. No trip is complete without a visit there, which I believe is the one feature that infuses the people with hope for a revived country, anchored in a rich heritage but at par with a progressive world.
Scott Market (a former name still popular amongst tourists) is a haven for souvenirs in modern Rangoon, but you’ll find the odd authentic dealer if you amble around for a bit, settled amidst stacks of ethnic silver jewellery and handwoven textiles in a spectrum of colours and textures.
Street food in Yangon (and the rest of Burma) is light and delicious, and best enjoyed as small but frequent meals staggered throughout the day. Definitely try the tea leaf salad with its very umami fermented tea leaves textured with nuts and fresh leafy greens, and explore Chinatown and downtown Yangon on foot, fuelling up at the many, many restaurants that serve an explosion of flavours. Take a stock of your day with a stiff gin and tonic at the Strand Hotel, allowing your feel a little rest before a new day dawns.
Heho and Inle Lake
A short flight away is the hill town of Heho, restful in its demeanour, and blessed with cool weather. You could attempt a three-day trek here; the region is very friendly to backpackers and the views are stunning.
An hour away is Inle Lake fringed by fertile marshy lands, floating gardens, houses perched on stilts, and an expanse of deep purple hyacinths. The Tea House here serves delicious samosas and gooey red bean cakes (yes, they’re a thing!). Finally, a visit to the evening market, and local flower and vegetable market is the perfect way to round off your visit to these little towns.
I flew from Heho to Nyaung U, a lively river town in the northeast district of Bagan. Bagan is what dreams are made of, with sunrises and sunsets glinting off hundreds of pagodas (it is a temple town). Take a ride on a horse cart and enjoy the leisurely pace of life here. Handmade lacquer is exquisite here and a long-running tradition so worth procuring.
Nothing beats a sun-soaked beach to end a glorious holiday. At Ngapali, the 15 miles of coast offer the air of a laidback fishing village. In May when I visited, the sea was the perfect temperature, and coconuts the perfect meal. I’m a vegetarian and I had one of the most delicious meals here, surprising as it was, all courtesy a young Burmese fellow who insisted on creating a five course vegetarian meal for me, along a coastline where people live of the ocean’s bounty. Thandwe is the closest town inland and I took a public bus, interacting with the locals to really get a sense of their lives and lifestyles. This was the perfect end to my second visit to Burma.