My trip to Asia over New Year's was centered around sailing on the new Strand Cruise on the Irrawaddy River. But first, we spent two nights in Yangon (Rangoon). Myanmar (Burma) has been on my radar since it opened to the world in 2011 after decades of isolation under oppressive military rule. Visitors started pouring in to see stunning temples and unspoiled landscapes. But the tourism infrastructure has had trouble keeping up with the demand.
Our time in Yangon was utterly magical, because it was so unlike anywhere else I'd ever been. The Strand Cruise is the sister experience to the iconic Strand Hotel (built in 1901), where we stayed. It is one of those totally evocative hotels where the wood creaks a little bit when you walk and you're transported back to the height of what I picture as total British colonial glamour.
I was completely obsessed with the sign at the bar: "Please be informed that smoking is allowed in The STRAND bar for traditional reasons. Thank you for your kind understanding."
Some more highlights of our time in Yangon:
- Booking an in-room massage at The Strand Hotel
- Venturing out to the dark city of Yangon, with crumbling but beautiful buildings and people sitting on tiny tables on sidewalks eating street food
- Visiting the Pomelo store, a bright and cheerful shop filled with cool products like jewelry, frames, bags, and blankets. But best of all, the proceeds directly benefit the local artisans that made the products, many of whom are struggling with poverty and illness. It's open late and makes a great stop before dinner at Monsoon next door.
- Dinner at Monsoon, a charming restaurant with a huge menu - whether you feel like Western food or tasting Thai, Laotian, or Burmese cuisine, this menu has it.
- The leisurely, delicious breakfast at The Strand Hotel
- The kind concierge at The Strand who helped plan and map out our entire day and even booked Alex a haircut at La Source spa. I got a 30-minute shoulder massage here, which was incredible.
- The shops at The Strand - you'll want to try on rings and buy artwork in the hotel's shops, one of the best shopping sources in the city.
- Finding our amazing driver, Mr. T, outside The Strand. We hired him on a whim. I needed to see a lot in one day and for 8 hours, he drove around hitting everything on my list. Very reasonable and he speaks great English. (see my Myanmar guide for contact info)
- Buying a birthstone ring at Emerald Gems (the main gem market was closed when we were there). Myanmar is known for peridots, and I wear my gold-and-green "August" ring every day. You'll get a 15% discount if you bring cash.
- Stopping for a cold drink at Acacia Tea Salon - Yangon's British history means that afternoon tea is still popular. I loved this patisserie, which also serves lunch. The second floor has a small balcony with one table and if it's not too hot, this is the place to be.
- Admiring the architecture - Much of the architecture in central Yangon dates from the period of British rule which lasted from 1824 to the creation of Burma in 1948. There is a struggle to save these historic buildings, and if preservation efforts succeed, it will only make the city more appealing. Without these buildings, the city would not be as fascinating.
- Meeting a fortune teller who changed my life. Before I left for Myanmar, my friend, National Geographic photographer Catherine Karnow, sent me the business card of a fortune teller in Yangon (written entirely in Burmese). A comedy of errors ensued, after calling the number on the card and finding out she had changed addresses. Depending on who we talked to, the new one either didn't exist or was "impossible" to find in a "maze" of streets. But with the help of the Strand Hotel staff, one amazing driver, and some locals on the street, we were able to find her, on a quiet residential street (most of Yangon's fortune tellers are clustered around the Shwedagon Pagoda). She spoke no English so our intrepid driver Mr. T also served as translator the best he could. I laughed so hard my stomach hurt, I cried because she just KNEW so many things. She is a true fortune teller in the most magical sense. But....she will only be at this address for another "year or so" so if I return, it will be another adventure to find her.
- Rangoon Tea House - the hippest place in town for a drink and live music.
- Reclining Buddha (Chauk Htat Gyi)
- Sule Pagoda - You won't miss this beautiful temple if you're in downtown Yangon - it's in the center of everything.
- The mind-bogglingly beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. I could have stayed for several hours here. Come in the late afternoon and stay for sunset to watch the light change on the brilliant gold of the temples.
The adventure continued at the Yangon airport, where we boarded a 6am flight to Bagan's Nyaung U Airport to board our ship.
Everything about the airport reminded me I was thousands of miles from home, and so far from everything that I knew to be normal. I LOVED it for those reasons. The building seemed stuck-in-time, with huge old-school scales where you could weigh your luggage (or yourself), one Western-style restaurant, and one local restaurant where people slurped down noodles. "Tickets" were different colored stickers that we stuck on our clothes. Then we nervously searched for fellow passengers wearing our color to group up with them so we wouldn't miss our flight. It was definitely organized chaos.
My favorite airplane slogan ever is Yangon Airways' "You're safe with us." This mantra was plastered on the seat cushions, the snack boxes, and on the planes themselves. It was an easy and safe (of course!) journey to Bagan.