With the complicated politics surrounding Myanmar, it is easy to forget the beauty and culture that the nation has to offer. With a population of 54 million, the country boasts a rich mix of ethnicities, such as Burmese, Shan, Karen, Kachin, Chin and Mon. This array of cultures translates into a diverse range of languages that include English.
However, the official tongue is Burmese. Considering that Myanmar’s stunning pagodas and countless potential adventure spots make it the perfect destination for an SUV jaunt, we were thrilled Mercedes-Benz selected it as the destination for its “Hungry for Adventure Myanmar 2019”. We set off in the early hours on a flight to Yangon, formerly Rangoon. The city is filled with colonial architecture and mixed cultural influences from neighbouring countries. Superseded as the capital by Naypyitaw in 2005, Yangon has a population of five million and is Myanmar’s largest city.
Our journey began with a quick stop at Rangoon Tea House, a colonial-era restaurant with fusion cuisine inspired by the local tea shops. Munching on delights such as egg paratha, duck empanadas, and an array of noodles, we soaked in the ambience of the bar of the first floor. Then we made our way to the Bogyoke market, a place for jade bracelets, colourful clothes and other local knick-knacks. There is also a local designer, Yangoods, which displays beautiful local-inspired prints on a range of quality bags.
As we are driven to the Mercedes-Benz showroom, we notice how the locals still dress in traditional attires — the men in checked longyis (sarong) and a shirt while women donned colourful and grand longyis with a matching top. Myanmar has a very conservative culture but their people are warm and friendly towards foreigners, and quick to offer up a smile.
At the showroom, drivers are required to register and listen to a safety briefing about Myanmar’s haphazard roads and drivers. Finding out that honking was expected of you, and that the usage of an indicator was replaced by a hand out the window or with nothing at all, was a little perturbing. The country has one of the largest markets for used Japanese cars (driven on the left side of the road). As an old British colony, Myanmar has right-hand drive vehicles but the road rules were changed in the 1970s, shifting the direction of traffic from left to right.
The problem was that the cars did not change with the roads, which is probably what has led to the honking and hand signals. It was only in 2017 that the government decreed to only allow the purchase of left-hand drive vehicles in the hopes of reducing road confusion. That said, the presence of old Japanese vehicles was apparent, especially buses, which were required to have a second driver for switching lanes with ease.
Once we were assigned our cars and partners, we returned to our lodgings, the Wyndham Hotel, to freshen up. Transported to the Seeds Restaurant and Lounge for dinner, we indulged in an evening of a sumptuous meal and fine wine. As the sun set, we enjoyed the picturesque view of Inya Lake with a glass of bubbly in hand. Relaxed, I was eager to see what the next day might bring.
Day two was when “Hungry for Adventure” truly began. Starting at 5:30am, we jumped into the GLC 250 and cruised to Shwedagon Pagoda. The roads were pleasantly clear of traffic, making the ride quick and enjoyable. Once there, we tied on the vibrant longyis given to us during the briefing and climbed the flights of escalators to the main area. Shwedagon Pagoda, also known as the Great Dagon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda, sits atop Singuttara Hill, which is said to be a sacred spot since the beginning of time. The central gold-plated dome is topped with a stupa embedded with over 7,000 precious stones.
We missed the sunrise but discovered the breathtaking sparkle of this Buddhist place of worship. Locals told us that there were specific corners dedicated to each day of the week, and individuals would pray at select corners that represent the day of their birth. I was quick to find the one for Tuesday, which was guarded by big black crows that acknowledged passersby with a shake of their head.
After taking in the splendour and spiritual serenity of the pagoda, we went back to the hotel for breakfast and to checkout. Around 8am, we drove the GLS 350d and headed to Mon State, which is usually a three-hour journey. Rush hour traffic was certainly an interesting experience, with people zooming by en route to work. The GLS, although large, was able to zip between other vehicles with ease. However, early on in the drive, we got lost, which felt like being on a mini misadventure. Without our convoy lead, we experienced the bumpy Yangon streets, with persistent street vendors and flexible lane discipline.
It was only when we were reunited with the convoy that I had my turn at the wheel. Cruising on the outskirts of the city, there were very few other vehicles to disrupt our line of 14 cars. The GLS was a comfortable drive, making the road imperfections a little easier to manage. Arriving at Sane Let Tin Adventure Land, we were excited for the thrilling activities promised. It was here that we felt the powerful heat of Myanmar, with the sun mercilessly glaring down on us.
Strapped into a harness, we began with a zipline that was a challenge for those afraid of heights. A thrill seeker at heart, I enjoyed the aerial view of the lush greenery and surroundings. Next up was the bike line, similar to our previous activity except that you had to cycle to move. I had avoided cycling on solid ground, so convincing myself to pedal while suspended above a lake was a stretch. In the spirit of “Hungry for Adventure” I did it, but vowed that this would be the first and last time.
We departed Sane Let Tin and lunched at IT Restaurant. Next on our agenda was a visit to the Golden Rock. Unfortunately, passenger cars were not permitted to drive up to the highest part of the Paunglaung mountain range. As such, we rode trucks that were fitted with planks for seating. Slipping and sliding on our seats for about 20 minutes, the journey was like a trek up Genting Highlands but treacherously narrow.
At the top, dressed in a longyi, we climbed the steps to see the Golden Rock, also known as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. The rock was covered in gold leaves, applied by male devotees. Considered to be one of the most sacred places for the Burmese, the gravity defying rock is believed to be perched on a strand of Buddha’s hair. It was a surreal experience to see this place of worship, with countless devotees flocking to offer fruits and incense to the Buddha.
Descending on the same precarious roads, we ended the day with a drive over to our next hotel, Thuwunna Bomi Mountain View Hotel & Resort. After a barbecue dinner and some fun in the pool, we turned in for the night. The next day, we had a leisurely breakfast before checking out.
Our final ride in Myanmar was with the GLC 250 coupe, a compact SUV that handled the bumps a little harder than the GLS but was still a comfortable drive. Behind the wheels of the luxury German carmaker’s crop of SUVs, Myanmar’s bustling streets — teeming with colour and life at every turn — somehow seemed a little less intimidating, cocooned in the safety and stability of the star of Stuttgart’s cars. The entire journey might have fallen under Mercedes-Benz’s “Hungry for Adventure” tagline but, one thing’s for sure, we journeyed home safe and sated. And that’s the kind of story we like telling.
This article first appeared on May 6, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.