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Erika Reategui and Fernando Gonzalez
One morning on his recent visit to Myanmar, our luxury leisure specialist Carlos Melia woke up at dawn to visit a tiny town just outside of Mandalay. It was here that he spent quiet time giving alms to the local Buddhist monks. Carlos describes it as a ‘Travel Bucket List’ moment, one of many he experienced in this land of mythical landscapes.
Why did you choose Myanmar?
I’ve traveled extensively in Asia, always looking for unexplored destinations that remain true to their roots. I felt that Myanmar, like Luang Prabang and Laos years ago, fell into this category. Also, my clients were asking me about it, so I had to pack my bags and do my research.
Walk us through your itinerary.
I flew from New York to Bangkok on Etihad Airways via Abu Dhabi. Two nights in Bangkok at the iconic Mandarin Oriental Bangkok was a great way to get over jet lag. From Bangkok, my flight to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) took a little over an hour. Spent two night in Yangon, which I felt was the perfect length. From there, flew to Bagan, where we boarded the Belmond Road to Mandalay luxury river cruise. This began our 4 night voyage along the Ayeyarwady River, to our final destination Mandalay.
What were the top 5 things on your Must Do list?
1. Visiting the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
2. Seeing Nobel peace laureate Aung San Sii Kyi’s residence, where she remained in house arrest for over 15 years.
3. Visiting the archeological site of Bagan.
4. Early morning rounds, collecting alms with local Buddhist monks in small villages along the Ayeryawady River.
5. Eating as much mohinga as I could. Mohinga is a rice noodle fish based soup, considered the most traditional Burmese dish.
Tell us about the cuisine.
Fabulous, particularly mohinga, mentioned above, and the curries and samosas. Burmese cuisine has heavy Thai, Indian and Chinese influences. It’s characterized by the extensive use of fish products, like fish sauce and ngapi – fermented seafood.
What dining experiences stood out?
On board the Belmond Road to Mandalay, my meals were fantastic, with a mix of local and international options. Other standouts included the popular Rangoon Tea House in Yangon for traditional Burmese fare. Le Planteur is the grande dame of Yangon’s restaurant scene, featuring French cuisine with touches of local Burmese, located on the banks of Inya Lake. The Curry Table at Belmond Governor’s Residence serves buffet style meals in a beautiful, historic mansion.
When is the best time to visit?
It’s a year-round destination. The very best months are from November to February. However, this is also the busiest time, when securing accommodations can become problematic. In my opinion, the ‘mid-season’ – either side of this peak period – is the best time to visit. I went in October and found the balance to be absolutely lovely.
Where did you stay?
My Myanmar experience was all coordinated by Belmond Hotels and River Cruises. In Yangon I stayed at the Belmond Governor’s Residence, in the elegant Embassy Quarter. It’s a romantic, Colonial-style mansion from the 1920s, when it was home to the ruler of Myanmar’s southern states. The next 4 nights I spent on board the Belmond Road to Mandalay luxury river cruiser. What a beauty! My spacious State Cabin had two big windows to watch life pass by along the Ayeryawady River.
Any advice for the first time traveler to Myanmar?
Yes, put aside any prejudices and enjoy this beautiful country, its culture and people. The US dollar is no longer accepted in Myanmar, so you will need to get local currency. Credit cards are largely accepted, but check with your bank before departure, since most yet do not recognize Myanmar. It happened to several people traveling with me. As in any Buddhist country, be mindful of the dress code, especially when visiting temples. As for the entry visa, the process is super easy and can be done directly online.
How much of a language barrier did you encounter?
None. In one way or the other, it was always very easy to communicate. Especially at hotels, restaurants and stores. Learn the expression “mingalaba” – hello. It will get you quite far and several smiles along the way.
See more on Carlos Melia’s trip to Myanmar at Carlos Melia Blog and on Instagram @carlosmeliablog.