Karen Hogue, owner of Wonderful World Journeys in Seattle // © 2016 Karen Hogue
Feature image (above): Myanmar is a destination that Hogue believes is ideal for the “cultural adventurer.” // © 2016 iStock
In January, travel agent Karen Hogue will make her fourth visit to Myanmar, traveling this time with friends and her 70-year-old parents. The owner of Wonderful World Journeys in Seattle, Hogue says she’s seen a significant increase in interest for the destination “since it has become socially acceptable to go to Burma in the past few years.”
Recommending that people visit soon, because “change is happening quickly,” Hogue spoke with TravelAge West about the country’s unique culture and food while offering further insight about how to get there, where to stay and what not to miss.
First off, how do you tackle the name challenge? What do you call it? Burma or Myanmar? Which do clients know?
You would start with a difficult question. In 1989, the military junta changed the English name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. In the local language, their word for Burma is the informal variation for their word for Myanmar. The best analogy I can come up with is America or the U.S. versus The United States of America. In our language, they are both correct, but one is more formal. The same is true there.
For many years, the name that foreigners called the country was very political. Those who were pro-democracy refused to call it Myanmar, and those who were unaware of the politics called it Myanmar. That said, I have spoken to many people in the destination, and they really don’t seem to care what English name we use. Personally, I use both names interchangeably. Most of my clients who hope to go there know both names but are uncertain which one is correct. Other clients know both names but think they are separate countries, or a city within the country. Everyone finds it very confusing, which is probably why you started with this question.
Why is Myanmar a destination U.S. travelers would enjoy visiting?
It is an amazing place. Despite more than 100 years of British occupation, it does not feel like the culture has been corrupted by Western influence. The people are wonderful. They are warm and friendly and love practicing their English. They take pride in their families and communities and love to share their culture with outsiders. For years, tourists were the best opportunity locals had to get outside information. Now, censorship has lessened, but the love for visitors remains. Myanmar offers a unique and fascinating culture, incredible temples and opportunities to learn about Buddhism.
What kind of traveler would be a good fit for Myanmar? Is the destination good for families?
Myanmar is great for the cultural adventurer. It is an educational destination, but not necessarily a rest and relaxation destination. It is definitely a spot for active and healthy travelers. Because medical care there is limited and rudimentary, I do not recommend that people who are in fragile health or have heart conditions go there. It’s just too risky.
But it is a good destination for families with older children. The local people are thrilled to meet children from another culture, and the kids are thrilled to have someone their own age to play with and practice their English with. While I would not consider it a top-10 destination for families, I would say that it is perfect for some.
What sort of cultural experiences might appeal to U.S. travelers?
Myanmar is primarily a Buddhist country, and it has been a destination for Buddhists around the world for many years. I have traveled with a devout Thai Buddhist, who told me that he learned more about Buddhism in 10 days in Myanmar than he had in a lifetime in Thailand — that was impressive.
Probably the most fascinating cultural experience is seeing how people live. In the Inle Lake area, people live in houses on stilts, hovering above the lake. They farm using floating hydroponic gardens, where they grow magnificent produce. You see the traditional fishermen, rowing with one leg and trapping fish in conical baskets.
The handicrafts are also incredible. I have seen some of the most amazing lacquerware, made entirely by hand and without electricity. Silk is hand-spun and hand woven on manual looms. Oxcarts are still built by hand. It’s like reliving history.
What parts of the country are can't-miss destinations?
Most people will fly into Yangon, which is the largest city, though no longer the capital. It has a fascinating combination of Asian and British architecture and history. It’s a vibrant city with lots of history and activity, and it is home to Shwedagon Pagoda — probably the most important Buddhist temple in Myanmar.
Bagan Archeological Area is home to about 2,500 temples and stupas that are between 600 and 1,000 years old. For a truly remarkable experience, Balloons Over Bagan offers hot-air balloon rides over the temples. I can’t recommend that highly enough.
I think the most important destination is Inle Lake. It is so unique and unfamiliar. The daily market is particularly fascinating. This market is for the locals to buy and sell wares, but they are always happy to see tourists, too. This is where local people go if they need a filling, done with a foot-powered drill. It’s where the bring umbrellas for repair. It’s where they buy clothes, jewelry, food and, likely, livestock. This is not something that I have experienced anywhere else before, and my fear is that this way of life will soon be replaced by big-box stores and 7-Elevens.
Are there some standout hotels you suggest for U.S. travelers?
With so much change in recent years, this is a difficult question to answer concisely. A few years ago, I would have said Belmond Governor’s Residence in Yangon. However, the cost has soared but the quality has stayed the same, so now it’s really only for the luxury traveler who wants to say they’ve been there. The Strand Hotel in Yangon is wonderful for a short stay for history buffs — a century ago, it was one of the most exclusive hotels in the British Empire — and the bar is worth a visit for anyone in Yangon. At Inle Lake, my favorite would be Inle Princess Resort. No matter where clients stay at Inle Lake, convince them to get a lakefront room. It will be money well spent.
Tell us about Burmese food.
It is not like anything else I have had before, but almost everything I have eaten there is delicious. There are a lot of Indian-influenced curries and a lot of Chinese-influenced dishes of stir-fried vegetables. There are Thai-influenced satays and there is a lot of street food. The most famous food is “mohinga,” a fish-noodle soup.
A word of warning about street food: In Thailand, I eat street food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and I don’t think I have ever gotten sick. However, in Myanmar, I am a bit more cautious, as tap water is not at all safe, and refrigeration is questionable. If there’s something I want to try, I will usually first ask my guide if it’s safe enough for an adventurous tourist. I also get my typhoid vaccines and bring anti-diarrheals and antibiotics with me.