Q&A with our Myanmar author, David Abram

Author of our best-selling Insight Guide: Myanmar, David Abram, tells us his own personal highlights from one of his visits to Myanmar, and gives some useful insights into planning a successful trip.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, one of David Abram's Myanmar highlights
The Shwedagon Pagoda, one of David Abram's Myanmar highlights

The Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo: Shutterstock


 1. How long was your trip to Myanmar? What do you think would be the perfect amount of time to go for?

Two weeks only – by my reckoning at least a week too short. I got around the four main centres (Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan) but would have loved more time to trek in the hills above Inle, to visit Mrauk U in Rakhaing and the Golden Boulder pagoda at Kyaiktiyo. A month would be pefect.

 

2. Did you feel the amount of time you went for was enough to really get under the skin of Myanmar?

It takes a long time to really get beneath the surface of Burmese life – this is one of Asia’s most unusual and reserved countries, with its own idiosyncratic ways of doing things, and you simply can’t hope to develop a deep understanding in a quick two- or –three-week trip. That said, even in a short holiday you’ll get to grips with many of the country’s quirks and start to feel like you’ve a good working knowledge of the place. Getting some language under your belt certainly helps. English isn’t all that widely spoken.

 

3. Did you get a sense of the history of the country when travelling around?

The Burmese have a famous dislike of things looking old, and even ancient monuments tend to be comprehensively renovated – the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon being a prime example. It was allegedly constructed thousands of years ago but looks like it could have been built last week. Then again, you’ve the astonishing archeological ruins of Bagan as compensation (though the site has itself been subject to over-zealous renovation in places). For a real feel for the country’s history, take along a copy of Thant Myint-U’s River of Lost Footsteps – a fantastic historical primer covering more than three millennia.

 

4. What was the atmosphere like when exploring Myanmar as a tourist?

Simply delightful. Due to the decades-old boycott, the Burmese were largely cut off from the rest of the world since 1988 and are evidently delighted to be catching up at last. It’s a cliche, but really, the people of Myanmar are exceptionally gentle, helpful and welcoming – even the cabbies in Yangon!

 

5. As someone with such an interest in the area, what was it like to finally visit after such a long wait?

I did indeed hold off visiting until the National League for Democracy (NLD, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) lifted the boycott in 2010, and couldn’t have been more enthralled by the country when I finally got to go there. I was planning my next trip on the plane home – not usually the case when I visit Asia!

 

6. What was your highlight of the trip?

The Shwedagon Pagoda, of course – every inch as amazing as it looks in the photos. And I loved the motorcycle ride up the left bank of the Ayeyarwady River from Sagaing, near Mandalay, to Mingun, site of an unfinished ancient stupa the size of a pyramid. Boats filled with watermelons were chugging along the river, and the sandy banks were studded with golden shrines that formed striking contrasts with the sun-bleached landscape.

 

7. The best thing you ate?

The Burmese do kick-arse tomato salads with dressing made from soy sauce, ginger and garlic, and crunchy ground peanuts. I ordered one virtually every day; each was different, and tastier than the previous!

 

8. The worst thing you ate?

Fermented tea leaves – just couldn’t get my chops around that one, and I did try on several occasions; and the condiments served routinely with traditional Burmese meals can hold some unpleasant surprises, being invariably made from dried fish or hot chilli, or both.

 

9. Was your trip very tour-based, or did you get a chance to head out on your own?

I was travelling independently, and that’s how I like to get around. But most of my fellow foreign visitors were on group tours and seemed to be having a splendid time.


This blog was originally published on April 30, 2013.


Taking a holiday to Myanmar: how to get started

Insight Guides can help you with planning, organising and booking your trip to Myanmar. Simply, get in touch and share your budget, interests and travel style. Our local experts will create an itinerary exclusive to you and your requirements, which you can amend until it's just right. Alternatively, browse and modify ready-made holidays to create your dream trip today. For more inspiration, take a look at our online guide to Myanmar to plan your visit and discover when's best to go, the top attractions, historical highlights and some of the best cultural features.