Long iso­lated from the world, Myan­mar (the for­mer Burma) has be­come a must-visit des­ti­na­tion in South­east Asia, writes MARTA COLOMBO

#Legend - - HIGHLIGHTS -

Myan­mar, once iso­lated from the rest of the world, is a fas­ci­nat­ing land worth ex­plor­ing

MYAN­MAR IS AN an­cient coun­try with a long his­tory that dates back more than 2,500 years – a his­tory, of­ten tur­bu­lent, that’s still vis­i­ble in its phys­i­cal­ity and faces. Nes­tled be­tween In­dia and China, it’s the largest coun­try in Main­land South­east Asia, and one of the most eth­ni­cally and ge­o­graph­i­cally di­verse in the re­gion.

While it opened up to the out­side world a few years ago, af­ter more than half a cen­tury of cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion, to a great ex­tent, Myan­mar is still a land of fas­ci­nat­ing mys­ter­ies and un­ex­plored kalei­do­scopic di­ver­sity. The num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing the coun­try is still small com­pared to most ul­tra-pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions in the re­gion, but the nas­cent tourism in­dus­try is be­ing heav­ily funded by the govern­ment.

Vis­it­ing Myan­mar, formerly known as Burma, is an ad­ven­ture that tran­scends time. The coun­try isn’t stuck in the past – in fact, it’s mov­ing quite rapidly into the fu­ture – but it’s em­braced it in a uniquely cap­ti­vat­ing and some­times melan­cholic way. Writer Rud­yard

Ki­pling ex­ten­sively de­scribed his ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the

Burmese land­scapes and vil­lages in his travel di­aries; Ge­orge Or­well, in his Burmese Days, tells a story of a kind, re­spect­ful and pas­sion­ate peo­ple, of colo­nial and lo­cal power strug­gles, and of love. Read­ing those words to­day, on my way to the Man­dalay re­gion in the south from the north­ern city of Yangon, and ob­serv­ing what’s around me, I’m thrilled to ex­plore a coun­try that, at first glance, feels like no other.

Ba­gan, the gem of Man­dalay and prob­a­bly Myan­mar’s most-vis­ited site, is by many con­sid­ered the “Burmese Angkor Wat”. But un­like the equally im­pres­sive an­cient cap­i­tal of the Kh­mer King­dom in present-day Cam­bo­dia, the for­mer cap­i­tal of the Pa­gan Dy­nasty is much more than an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site. While there are the main pago­das and tem­ples that most tourists tend to flock to, Ba­gan is in­cred­i­ble be­cause ev­ery­one ex­pe­ri­ences it in a dif­fer­ent way – not sim­ply ac­cord­ing to the pre-dic­tated tourist routes. Of the 10,000 re­li­gious struc­tures built be­tween the ninth and 13th cen­turies, the 1,200 re­main­ing ones are scat­tered across the whole ter­ri­tory. There are huge ones, tiny ones and hid­den ones – and they’re all worth a quick look or a longer visit. Fas­ci­nat­ingly enough, some of the least prom­i­nent small tem­ples are in­de­pen­dently pre­served by lo­cals, who still use them as places of wor­ship.

Strate­gi­cally lo­cated at the out­skirt of New Ba­gan and only a few min­utes away on an e-bike – the pre­ferred means of trans­porta­tion for both lo­cals and tourists – away from Old Ba­gan and Nyaung-U, the Ba­gan Lodge is a gate­way to the coun­try’s hos­pi­tal­ity, con­tem­po­rary lux­ury and re­lax­ation. The re­sort is com­posed of around 80 tent-look­ing vil­las, spread around a trop­i­cal par­adise of un­touched na­ture and scenic flowers. Each room is care­fully dec­o­rated in a colo­nial-chic style and fea­tures all the comforts you could pos­si­bly think of, al­low­ing you to rest af­ter a long day of tem­ple-hop­ping.

While the ho­tel’s fa­cil­i­ties and ser­vices are world­class, the vibe and hos­pi­tal­ity are au­then­tic with­out be­ing

os­ten­ta­tious. Much like the mag­i­cal place where it’s lo­cated, where King Anawrahta built the first Myan­mar empire and where the an­cient soul of the Burmese peo­ple is still sym­bol­i­cally pre­served, the Ba­gan Lodge and its staff, as well as many of its de­tails, proudly cel­e­brate a glo­ri­ous tra­di­tion that’s trans­mit­ted to lo­cal and for­eign vis­i­tors alike. At the en­trance of the grand lobby, on the right, there’s a bowl of thanaka, a whiteyel­low­ish cos­metic paste made from ground mulch and a dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the coun­try’s cul­ture; on the left, there’s a sug­ges­tive paint­ing of two farm work­ers in in the Burmese coun­try­side. Most pieces of fur­ni­ture and ob­jects hail from dif­fer­ent re­gions or evoke a tra­di­tional cul­tural norm.

The Ba­gan Lodge is a great place to stay while ex­plor­ing Myan­mar’s golden city. In a way, it’s one of the only few places around town that car­ries el­e­ments of the coun­try’s long-held colo­nial past. Un­like many other cities pre­vi­ously an­nexed into the Bri­tish Empire, Ba­gan still re­tains an an­cient charm, al­most un­touched by the dra­matic changes of the 19th and 20th cen­turies and the on­set of for­eign dom­i­na­tion.

Yangon, on the other end, is a show­case of all the mul­ti­fac­eted as­pects of the coun­try’s past and its fu­ture. Myan­mar’s most cos­mopoli­tan city is chaotic and – though com­pared to most of its coun­ter­parts in the re­gion, it def­i­nitely lacks ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture and ser­vices – since it jumped into the new dig­i­tal mil­len­nium in 2011, it has been fast catch­ing up with the rest of the world.

Once the coun­try’s cap­i­tal un­til the mil­i­tary junta re­lo­cated it to the pur­pose-built Naypyi­daw in 2006, Yangon has the emerg­ing hip­ster vibes of Ho Chi Minh City, the Bud­dhist charm of Bangkok and the ma­jes­tic colo­nial aes­thetic of Kolkata. This fas­ci­nat­ing mix is also con­tribut­ing to the emer­gence of a vi­brant Burmese ur­ban cul­ture that’s vis­i­ble in many up-and-com­ing ar­eas, eater­ies and cafes.

The newly opened Grand Mer­cure, sit­u­ated in the South Okkalapa town­ship, is an ex­am­ple of this. Both the rooms and the com­mu­nal spa­ces com­bine mil­len­nial

tropes such as palms, emer­ald green and golden de­tails with con­tem­po­rary Burmese de­sign. The ho­tel’s fa­cil­i­ties and the restau­rant also at­tract an in­ter­na­tional crowd that lend the space a spe­cial sort of at­mos­phere. Not far away from the Grand Mer­cure’s en­trance, you can hop on the Cen­tral Line train, which will give you an in­sight into the lives of or­di­nary Yangon res­i­dents as you travel down­town to colo­nial Ran­goon.

With its count­less colo­nial-era listed build­ings, Yangon is the one city in South­east Asia that has the most. Partly thanks to its past iso­la­tion and ur­ban back­ward­ness, many ar­eas of the for­mer Ran­goon have been left in­tact. If you smell co­conut sticky rice, lemon­grass and Burmese fish curry – which is very dif­fer­ent from a Cam­bo­dian amok and more del­i­cate than an In­dian curry – chances are that you’re ap­proach­ing the Bo­gyoke Aung San Market, one of the city’s most iconic land­marks. Be­side street food, the huge build­ing in­cludes mul­ti­ple stalls sell­ing gems, gar­ments and pretty much any­thing else you can think of. While it’s be­come a bit touris­tic, it still re­tains its charm as a 1920s sym­bol of art deco and the bustling city life.

Walk­ing around the her­itage neigh­bour­hood, which ex­tends in a checked struc­ture from the gilded stupa of the Sh­wedagon Pagoda, is prob­a­bly one the most fas­ci­nat­ing things to do in Yangon. But just like around Ba­gan and most of Myan­mar, they best way to ex­pe­ri­ence the city and the coun­try is to sim­ply ex­plore, given its ac­ces­si­bil­ity and lo­cal hos­pi­tal­ity.

Myan­mar has the power of mak­ing you want to come back the sec­ond that you leave. What makes it in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing, be­side its his­tor­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal won­ders, is the di­ver­sity of its peo­ple, and how they’re pre­serv­ing and in­te­grat­ing past and fu­ture as they’re ex­posed to out­side in­flu­ences like never be­fore. If you’re trav­el­ling in South­east Asia, the main­land coun­try will also im­press you for its di­ver­sity com­pared to the rest of the re­gion, which are in many ways lin­guis­ti­cally and cul­tur­ally con­nected to each other. Myan­mar proudly stands out, in be­tween the tiger and the dragon.

From left: The Ba­gan Lodge Ho­tel in the Man­dalay re­gion of Myan­mar; the lives of many Ba­gan lo­cals re­volve around the thou­sands of Bud­dhist tem­ples in the area

Clock­wise from left: The Ba­gan Lodge at night; the spa at the Ba­gan Lodge; a golden Bud­dha in­side the Anada Tem­ple in Old Ba­gan; the Emer­ald Room at the Grand Mer­cure in Yangon

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