The Sweet and Sour of Southeast Asia

Hilton Smith at temples in Bagan, Myanmar

The avid traveler in me is always looking for the new frontier, but I never have visited a country I would not want to experience again.  My Southeast Asia trip last month was a combination of the two. Thailand and Vietnam were old favorites, but Myanmar (Burma) was new ground.  It turned out to be one of the best trips I have ever taken, an assault to the senses and an education of the mind. 

What a terrific start with a United Airlines B 787 Dreamliner Business/First seat, LAX to Tokyo/Narita.  Despite the delivery delays, this aircraft is quieter, better designed and more spacious, and you indeed feel better upon arrival. United added to the specialness with complimentary playing cards and a B 787 wallet as token gifts of the experience.  Then it was a connection for a late arrival at Bangkok's modern airport.

Our home was the legendary Mandarin Oriental Hotel which defines service and could not be better located.  We explored crazy Bangkok for two days before flying to Yangon, Myanmar, which was entering a totally different and new world that is just beginning to reveal itself to the West.  With sanctions mostly lifted, Myanmar is trying to catch up with the rest of Asia.  For us, the treat was that they have not yet done so.

First impressions of Yangon were different than I expected.  The city of about 7 million people is no longer the capital, but it is still the most prominent city in the country.  It is more modern than I expected, full of cars and really overcrowded busses, with locals hanging off the backs of each one. Yangon is unique in Asia in that I noticed no motorcycles, anywhere!   The guide explained that the ruling generals some years ago were afraid of motorcycles gangs so they simply banned the vehicles.

There are two five-star hotels in Yangon, with more to come.  We stayed at the Governor's Residence, slightly away from the center of the city, in a well kept residential neighborhood. It is managed by Orient Express.  It was quite good and we liked the green surroundings. The other choice is The Strand, built around 1901, which is in the middle of town. We had a couple of meals there and they were quite good.

All over the city you see many historical and commanding buildings built by the British, most of them in a poor state of repair.  With the new openness, some of them are being rescued and will be made into new hotels and apartments. 

One of the first things you learn about Myanmar is that pagodas are very prominent and prolific.  Each time you visit one, you must take off your shoes and socks and walk on bare feet mostly on marble, which can be hot, wet or slippery depending on the weather.  The temples are huge, filled with gold elements and amazing to see.  Keep in mind there are no places to sit, so be ready and able to do the full circle and know that it will be awhile before you rest.

We spent several days in Yangon including a two-hour day excursion to Bago which  included a visit to the Golden God Temple, the tallest in the country.  Nearby was a huge reclining Buddha, the first of several.  Some of these originate from the 15th century and earlier.  There is a rich and layered history in this country that has not yet been diluted by much Western culture. That is part of the fascination with Myanmar. 

From Yangon we flew to Bagan, which reminds me of Angkor in Cambodia. At one time there were over 4,400 temples in and around Bagan.  Approximately 2,200 remain standing.  From a high tower at our 4-Star Aureum Palace Hotel, we could see temples as far as the eye could measure, big and small.  The core architecture was the same, but there were many variations to be seen.

We also did a day trip to Mount Popa, which rises 1,518 meters and saw Taung Kalat temple sitting atop a mountain with the 700 steps leading up to reach it.  The first 200 are walked with shoes; after that the last 500 are shoeless.  From a distance it looks like a set from a James Bond movie, but it is real.

All over Myanmar -- from locals at the huge city market to our guide -- everyone was excited about their new freedoms; small but significant political steps.  All remarked that only a couple of years ago they could have been arrested for some of the actions they now do routinely.  Freedom of speech to the degree they have now is new.  All were kind and gracious to us and looking forward to more tourists and more development.      

Myanmar is rich in natural resources, including minerals and oil.  On our flight to Bagan, the plane stopped at the new capital, which is primarily business focused and where outsiders go to get approval for new development projects. Out of the packed 72-seat plane at least 60 passengers got off there.  They all had briefcases in their hands.  The firm indications are that the time to visit Myanmar is now. Development is coming and it will never be the same.

Our last stop was Vietnam, my third visit since 2002, and there was clear evidence development has accelerated here.  Even 7 years ago the Hanoi Airport was in the countryside accessed by a two-lane road.  Now the airport is being expanded to four times its size, a new freeway is being constructed and a multi-million dollar bridge, with foreign assistance, will open up this entire area.

Hanoi does retain its charm, and I prefer it over the more commercial Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon).  We stayed at the venerable Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, built in the early 1900's by the French.  I much prefer the historical wing with its high ceilings and carved wood details.  New is an uncovered bomb shelter which was forgotten but now revealed due to the expansion of their Bamboo Bar.  They now have historical tours, including the shelter,  led by locals who lived through the experience.

Aside from regular sightseeing, we had an hour with a local writer/historian and also a home hosted dinner with a musician family, where the husband is a flutist with the National Orchestra and his wife is a piano teacher.  The home was surprisingly modern on the inside and it was the best Vietnamese meal I have ever had. 

Then it was a two hour flight south to Ho Chi Minh City, which almost all still call Saigon.  The city has grown so much and now boasts skyscrapers as tall as 68 stories.  It is even busier now than my last visit. 

We stayed at The Caravelle, which is centrally located and has a rich history.  The famous Saigon Bar overlooks the famous square. More hotels have opened and been upgraded, but I still like the feel here, its real sense of place.  We had Signature Club access and you can take two meals here.  The generousness of the offerings rival Ritz Carlton's in scope. The bathrooms in the rooms are still small, but that is being addressed in a new 22-million-dollar renovation project. 

Local sightseeing takes about a day, but there is good shopping all over the city.  In 2002 we joked about so few cars; now it's the opposite.  Saigon is crazy and bustling and fun for a couple of days.  I fear in about 15 years Yangon will be under that spell.

Hilton Smith