Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Serious shopping in Yangon



Today was our first day back in civilization, after four days of exploring central Myanmar on the Road to Mandalay river boat of the Orient-Express, which is perhaps the most luxurious river boat in the world. It was the most unheard-of civilized form of travel, actually, in the middle of nowhere, so I can't really say I was out of civilization for four days.

We had champagne on the rooftop of the boat, three-course meals on silver platters every evening, and extremely comfortable state rooms with turn-down service as we dined.

And perhaps the height of enjoyable civilized living was lying on the sun beds by the pool on the rooftop after dinner with really cool music playing in the background, and our desserts and coffee served to us as we looked up at the stars and talked about life. There are few moments more perfect than these.

Once, I even had to see the doctor -- yes, a doctor lives on board the boat; that's how civilized it is -- and I was almost shocked to walk into the clinic and observe that it was literally a floating hospital with a pharmacy. It was stocked for every medical emergency.


BACK TO CIVILIZATION

So, yes, we were away from civilization but not quite. But for some reason -- perhaps because we had been in the wilderness -- when I returned to the beautiful Governor's Residence in Yangon, a luxury boutique hotel also run by the Orient-Express that is supposed to be the best place to stay in the entire country, I felt like I'd reconnected with reality.

Today we hired a car with a driver and a guide to take us around the city. Of course we had to see the major sights like the pagodas and the old buildings from the British colonial era. Then I wanted to have lunch at the Strand and also to see Aung Saan Suu Kyi's home -- the lakeside residence where she spent close to twenty years under house arrest.

MYANMAR'S TWO BEST HOTELS


The Strand is supposed to be Yangon's second-best hotel. It's a member of the Leading Hotels of the World and it's nicely done in keeping with its reputation as a hotel of choice since the time of the Brits. But when we walked into the Strand, I knew we'd made the right choice by staying at the Governor's Residence as the Strand just can't compare.

For one thing, the Governor's Residence is located in the embassy district, one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the city, while the Strand is nice but I found it a little too somber for my tastes, especially after the explosion of flora and color at the Governor's Residence. Also, the Strand is by the waterfront, but it's surrounded by construction and traffic congestion.


Finally, the Governor's Residence has the most beautiful gardens and its rooms are housed in traditional low-level buildings all over the estate, giving you the feeling that you are really experiencing the best of Burmese hospitality. The entire hotel is made of teak wood, and there are graceful carvings and artworks everywhere. Every corner of the hotel is a picture-perfect moment.


LUNCH & SIGHTSEEING

Still, I was glad to see the Strand, which has been welcoming tourists for over a hundred years now, and we enjoyed lunch there. I ordered a Burmese curry lunch while my companion had his usual club sandwich as his limit for Asian food is about three days.

Afterwards, I went to see the stores in the hotel and I ended up buying a set of seven monks carved out of teak and a intricately carved brass elephant. I had a feeling the store at the Strand would be more expensive than the regular stores, but I didn't want to risk not finding what I wanted again.

Meanwhile, Aung Saan Suu Kyi's house is by the lake, just a few meters from the U.S. Embassy. It's a pretty big house but you can't see anything from the road as it has a very high fence. The only things that give it away are four Burmese flags on the fence and a big photo of her father on top of the gate.

THE SERIOUS BUSINESS OF SHOPPING


In the afternoon, as it was very hot, I persuaded my travel companion to humor me with an afternoon at the Bogyoke Market, which sells just about every type of handicraft made in Myanmar. He hates shopping, actually, and claims it gives him a headache. But we had one car and it was either he tagged along with me or I left him to sweat it out in some coffee shop while I hunted for exotic textiles. I really love buying exotic textiles whenever I travel around Asia, and I have these made into clothes when I get back to Manila.

It was while I was going in and out of the alleys inside the Bogyoke Market that I discovered my set of seven monks in one of the stores. It was exactly the same item and priced US$60 less. That was mildly upsetting, to say the least, as $60 can buy quite a lot of textiles in Yangon.

THINGS TO BUY IN MYANMAR


There are so many lovely things to buy in Myanmar. At Bogyoke Market alone, I'd loaded up on all kinds of textiles including woven silks and hand painted cottons, as well as on longjyi with different designs. The longjyi is the traditional Myanmar skirt and they come in really beautiful colors and weaves. They also have wonderful lacquerware from Bagan and intricately-made marionettes from Mandalay, as well as jade and rubies of all sizes and quality.

A DIP BEFORE DINNER

We got back to the Governor's Residence very late in the afternoon, but it was still fine for a dip in the pool, which is perhaps the most beautiful swimming pool in the entire Myanmar. So hurriedly I changed out of sightseeing clothes and took my trusty Macbook Pro to the pool for a bit of blogging and chilling out before a most enjoyable dinner in the garden under the stars.

Yes, I'm doing a lot of star-gazing in Myanmar...

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