BALANCING ACT: A fisherman at work on Lake Inle in Myanmar.
BALANCING ACT: A fisherman at work on Lake Inle in Myanmar. Charlotte Lam

Myanmar has diversity down to a tea

WOBBLY plastic chairs sit unevenly on the concrete floors of this teahouse in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.

Some English Premier League football game on the BBC is being screened so the place is packed.

Everyone's ordering Burmese tea so they can stay for the entire game.

I sip my own hot cup, which means I can tick one more thing off my bucket list. Most people come to Myanmar to see the historical and archaeological sites but I'm here to catch up with an old friend over the tea he once told me so much about in Australia.

It's delicious; dark and rich with a slight smokiness, stirred with sweetened condensed milk and served in a number of variations.

Myanmar is one of the most mysterious countries in the world because of its cultural diversity. As it opens up to the outside world, more travellers are venturing there.

I was lucky to have a personal introduction. My friend was born, raised and still resides there. His name is Su Maung. I flew to Yangon in late October, he picked me up and we went on a one-week road trip up into the Shan state and back.

I think the best (and easiest) way to see this gorgeously diverse country is by road, with rest stops at these teahouses.

As you drive through varied lands, impossible to describe in a few words, the rocky roads are shaded by tree canopies arching over and meeting in the middle. You pass towns well known for different things like the Burmese sunblock thanaka and palm wine, an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of palm trees.

We visited Bagan, Mandalay, Kalaw, stayed on Lake Inle and stopped for lunch at the national capital Naypyidaw.

Su Maung and Charlotte Lam in Bagan.
Su Maung and Charlotte Lam in Bagan. Charlotte Lam

The televised morning Buddhist prayers woke me up nice and early, making sure I made the most of each day.

In Mandalay, Su Maung had to return to Yangon so I found myself at the summit of Mandalay Hill, where you can get a panoramic view of plains and old city walls that stretch far to the horizon. I thought I agreed to dinner with a couple of young monks who were at the summit to meet tourists and practise their English. However, lost in translation, I wound up fronting an English language class.

There's no typecast when it comes to Burmese people. There's no "giveaway” in a person's skin colouring, accent or even their clothes. While the predominant religion is Buddhism, as you walk the streets of its main cities, you see cathedrals, synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples and more. I feel like you could stop and ask anyone for help and now I see why it's so often named the most generous country in the world.

While the sights of traditional fishermen on Lake Inle and the rolling mountains dotted in monasteries were all breathtaking, I feel the essence of Myanmar was sitting on those unstable, plastic chairs with my knees at the same level as my ears.

Myanmar undeniably has a culture that revolves around food and coming together for it. You might have to talk a little louder so your companion can hear you but you don't have to listen long for bursts of laughter.

WHAT I RECOMMEND

Bagan: Hire a scooter and go temple-hopping then find the few tourist strips and have a feast. Bagan has more than 2000 Buddhist monuments towering over green plains and you really have to see it to believe it. Make sure you catch it at sunrise or sunset.

Mahagandayon Monastery, Mandalay: Sometimes you just have to suck it up and be a cliche tourist so you can have an experience. I went along to Mahagandayon Monastery one morning to see breakfast with the hundreds of monks who live there. To be honest, I felt intrusive as I stood there with other tourists and their flashy cameras. I snuck away to make a donation. A leader took me into a hall, prayed for me, told me what the money would be used for and it turned into a really precious moment. So please, if you go, give, don't just gawk.

Kalaw: This funky hill town in the Shan state is en route to Lake Inle. The air is cool, people are friendly, streets are lined with trees and it just boasts a chilled, resort-like vibe.

Shwe Indein Pagoda: The Shwe Indein Pagoda is a group of Buddhist pagodas in the village of Indein near Lake Inle. The famous lake is a postcard sight of its own but this was another side to the region I wasn't expecting. The creek to get there is narrow with many twist and turns. When you arrive at the village, locals are keen to pull you on land. At the landmark, I felt like I was in Tomb Raider - Myanmar style.



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