Shrouded in mystery, Myanmar – formerly known as Burma – is often referred to as the Golden Land. Due to being cut off to the rest of the world for so many years, very little is known about this country where monks, holy men and magnificent temples are just part of the everyday scenery. Therefore we asked Raphael Kern, our Assistant Country Manager from the ICS Travel Group office in Myanmar, to share his knowledge and his love of the country with us.
Where would you recommend for first time visitors to Myanmar?
Having lived in Yangon for years, I can honestly say that it is a fascinating introduction to Myanmar. Downtown Yangon is full of old world charm; it is a warren of historic streets and boasts the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia. The centrepiece of the city is the Shwedagon Pagoda that dates back over 2500 years and which towers over the entire city. The stupa is covered in 60 tonnes of gold leaf, the upper part is studded with diamonds and on the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond. The best time to see this is at sunset when the colours of the sky are reflected in the golden stupa. Kandawgyi Lake next to Shwedagon is another great place to watch sunset reflected in the lake.
How do you unwind after the sun goes down?
The House of Memories is a great place to unwind with a glass of wine or a cocktail. It is a restaurant and bar set in an old colonial house over 100 years old that was once used as the headquarters of the Burmese Independence Army and the Burmese Defence Army. General Aung San used one of the rooms as his office from 1945 to 1947 and the original room, desk, chair and even the typewriter where he wrote important contracts, still remain. It feels more like entering a family home rather than a restaurant and is full of memorabilia, old photos, antique cabinets, and the original bronze fans and chandeliers.
What are your best insider tips to Yangon?
Don’t miss the Bogyoke Market, it dates back to the 1920’s and is located in a grand colonial building. Here you can buy Myanmar arts and handicrafts such as lacquer ware, wood carvings, tapestries, silverware, silk, clothes and jewellery – all at reasonable prices. Even if you don’t want to shop, it’s worth going just to see a great oriental market.
Also try out the unique “Elephant Coach.” These old Chevrolet buses were originally used by the British army but have been modified to run on silent 6-cylinder Nissan engines. The interiors have been renovated to include air conditioning and mini bars but still have creaky wooden floors and accommodate only 6-8 passengers in comfortable armchairs. It’s a unique way to see the city.
If you could stay in any hotel in Yangon, which would it be?
There are some great hotels in Yangon. For the best location, best service and hotel bar – Sule Shangri-La! It is walking-distance to Bogyoke Market, Sakura Tower, Sule Pagoda and is in the middle of the downtown atmosphere. It is worth it to book a Horizon Club Room because you get access to the 21st floor Horizon Club Lounge with a stunning view over Yangon while having complementary drinks and snacks.
If money was no object then the Governor’s Residence immediately springs to mind. It is a beautiful teak wood mansion in lush tropical gardens and I would spend the evening in the al fresco Mindon Lounge sipping the signature ‘Governor’s Smile’ cocktail.
A less expensive option for great location and scenery is Kandawgyi Palace Hotel. The hotel was originally a museum, and it has a great location in jungle-like gardens overlooking the Kandawgyi Lake. The lake is surrounded by parks and there is a raised board walk around the edge of the lake which is great for walking, jogging or just relaxing and enjoying the peace and tranquillity.
Where do you go to escape the hustle, bustle and crowds of the city?
I would take an overnight trip to Kyaikto, one of the most sacred and spiritual sites in Myanmar, also known as Golden Rock. Here a huge rock covered in golf leaf balances delicately on the edge of a cliff and seems to defy gravity. According to legend, it is kept in place by a single hair of the Buddha, although another legend claims that the rock actually hovers in the air above the cliff. It’s a steep 45 minute walk to the top but definitely worth it to see the views. About 15 minutes drive away is Kyaikto from where I enjoy trekking and cycling around the nearby forest-covered Kelatha Range. People believe that this region was part of the Suvarnabhumi ancient city in the 6th century. The Kelatha Pagoda is particularly well known, not just for the amazing views but also for the giant banyan trees with their intertwining branches.
If you would like to experience Yangon, consider our Walking Tour of Old Yangon