From militant isolation, Burma now admits scrutiny by the outside world's travellers, writes Tim Roxborogh.

As someone with a passion for Southeast Asia, I'd held off visiting Myanmar - formerly Burma - mainly because of the advice of one woman, a lady who is arguably almost as famous as the country she's from.

Indeed, according to one local Burmese I spoke with, "Everyone's heard of Aung San Suu Kyi, but nobody's heard of Myanmar."

Clumsily put, Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar's Nelson Mandela. Further details reveal the daughter of the murdered general who led the country to independence, the Oxford-educated advocate of non-violence and democracy, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, the victor of a landslide election in 1990 and almost two decades of house-arrest in most of the years since.

When she told foreign tourists, "Don't come here. You are supporting a corrupt military government," by and large they listened.


Then quite unexpectedly, the once-brutal military regime changed their tune in 2010, releasing Suu Kyi and taking tentative steps towards democracy.

For many, Myanmar had remained the last undiscovered country in Southeast Asia, with even poor and previously war-ravaged countries Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos well entrenched on the tourist trail. But what was the country that separated Southeast Asia from India, and (of more geopolitical interest) India and China from each other?

In the colonial days of Orson Welles and Rudyard Kipling, the Western world may have had a fair idea, but even with Suu Kyi's international profile (and now with her blessing for foreign tourists), Myanmar remains - if only for this brief moment - a largely unknown quantity.

Touching down in steamy Yangon at the tail-end of the monsoon - a city of five million people now regarded as one of the safest metropolises in Southeast Asia - it was tough comprehending this country's recent history.

It was just six years since mass peaceful protests (against a backdrop of huge inflation and an average annual income of NZ$365) turned to countless arrests, violence and even deaths.

Here I was, at a new, spotless airport, with a drive to the city passing modern apartment towers, leafy lakeside and university districts as well as the haphazard constants of a developing Asian nation with non-existent footpaths and overloaded songthaews (trucks).

Later, I would stand in the town square where government troops attacked monks in 2007 and wonder whether maybe we were being watched as we took our photos. Maybe, but I came to think not.

I had a hotel with a rooftop restaurant on the 14th floor. Overlooking the city you have that brief shot of paralysis: the streets are so packed with people, cars, commerce and wild tropical foliage that you don't know where to start.


Rooftop views of central Yangon reveal some of the most densely populated streets in Southeast Asia, but amid the clutter is indefatigable greenery, a smattering of newer skyscrapers, some of the best British colonial architecture (albeit crumbling through neglect) as well as the spires of churches, mosques and temples.

It is religious architecture that perhaps defines Yangon the most, particularly the skyline-dominating 2600-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, on a hill just north of the CBD and rising to 99m.

Regarded by some as the most impressive religious structure in any of Southeast Asia's biggest cities, it's best viewed at sunset when floodlights make the gold-plated pagoda glow brightly.

There's no doubting the awe of seeing something man-made that predates Europe's cathedrals, is older than our own nature-made Tane Mahuta, was completed nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ and is of such remarkably assured design.

This is only slightly dulled by the tacky flashing lights and roughly cut mirror-glass at the foot of the pagoda, which provide halos for the Buddhas. The lights have, ironically, been installed by the older generation believing it makes these ancient religious centres more modern, though younger Burmese seem less than enamoured.

Buddhist monks reading outdoors.
Buddhist monks reading outdoors.

The Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset is Yangon at its most overtly world-beating, but braving the chaotic CBD streets on foot was probably just as compelling. Here, even the middle-class still wear traditional dress, women and kids protect their faces with a tree-bark moisturiser-sunscreen and the chewing and spitting of betel nut is so prevalent you think there's blood splattered in the streets.

Yangon is also home to countless five- to ten-storey buildings without lifts, meaning that buying and selling goods elsewhere than at street level uses pulleys, bells and clips. Beside the city's hilarious (but undoubtedly dangerous) power-lines, it makes the CBD a jangly mess of wires and cords that only adds to the fun.

But where were the motorbikes? As I'd learn in my 15-day Intrepid Travel tour in a beautiful country full of oddities, this was just one of them. They've been banned in Yangon because of a murky incident involving a diplomat and a motorbike gang, so the streets of this former capital are motorbike-free, and all the worse for it considering the traffic jams.

Details: Student Flights and Intrepid Travel have a 15-day 'Best of Burma' tour taking in the sights of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Kalaw and Inle Lake, with accommodation in hotels, guesthouses and, for one night, on a boat. Breakfasts and some other meals are covered along with some sightseeing and a tour guide. Intrepid's Best of Burma tour departs on selected dates throughout 2014. Tour departs and ends in Yangon. Contact Student Flights on 0800 255 995.

Tim Roxborogh travelled through Myanmar (formerly Burma) on a 15-day Intrepid Travel tour courtesy of Flight Centre.