Myanmar’s New Dawn
Our 1,000km road trip through Myanmar in a Mazda3 reveals an exciting, dynamic and fast-changing country.
Shortly after Myanmar’s November 2015 general election – its freest and fairest ever since the military seized power in 1962 and held on for nearly 50 years – we visited the South-East Asian nation.
It was quickly apparent to us that, following the landslide victory of Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National Democratic League, the flames of hope and optimism are incandescent.
This is now a hugely exciting time for the country in many ways. The recently-opened economy is booming and global companies are establishing footholds in this market of 51 million people. Mazda’s Myanmar operation, now in its second year, offers its acclaimed range of KODO-styled new vehicles to local buyers reared on a strict diet of highly taxed, high-mileage, old imports.
(Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the skyline of Yangon,
Myanmar’s largest city)
(Mazda3 adorned with flowers for safe travel)
We undertook a 1,000km road trip in a Mazda3, from its largest city, Yangon, to the former royal capital of Mandalay, by way of the administrative centre Naypyitaw and the ancient temple-strewn plains of Bagan.
In Yangon, a buzzing hub of 5 million people, we breezed down the wide Strand Road, lined with grand if rather tatty British-colonial-era buildings, and nipped through tight grids of streets crammed with tiny shops. And of course, we visited the iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, whose towering golden stupa dominates Yangon’s skyline. Said to house strands of the Buddha’s hair, it is Myanmar’s holiest shrine.
Heading out of the city, we made a customary stop at an enormous sacred banyan tree said to house a guardian or ‘nat’ spirit. After our Mazda was suitably graced for the trip ahead with incantations, holy water and flowers tied to the grille, the day sped by on the recently-built, two-lane toll highway to Naypyitaw.
Naypyitaw is one of the world’s most unique cities. It was built from scratch by the former military rulers to take over as the capital from Yangon, and the entire government machinery relocated wholesale in 2005.
The miles of impossibly wide roads linking the various ministries appeared largely deserted, none more so than the 20-lane highway in front of the vast Parliament building. Swathes of woodland are dotted with cookie-cutter apartment blocks, which house government employees.
Our next session of driving was on mostly single strips of tree-lined, rough-edged blacktop, and we passed numerous herds of goats and cattle, clumps of thatched huts on stilts, and little towns with roadside markets.
Bagan, a seat of ancient power, is a land that time forgot: more than 2,000 pagodas, up to 970 years old and largely intact, are scattered across 100 sq.km. of shrubland.
The biggest temples, like Ananda and Thatbyinnyu Paya, are awe-inspiring from up close, but the best way to get a panoramic view of Bagan’s feast of temples is by taking a dawn ride in a hot-air balloon, which was a truly spectacular experience.
The final leg of our trip was via a mixture of narrow roads cutting through cow-ploughed fields, sharply-twisting hill roads, rocky mud paths, and toll highway – all of which the Mazda3 took in its stride.
At Amarapura, we stretched our legs with a stroll across the iconic U Bein bridge. Built in 1851, this 1.2-km-long teakwood footbridge spans the swirling waters of the mighty Irrawady River.
Mandalay is an unabashedly commercial town, all flashing neon, blocky malls, and swarms of buzzing mopeds. We wound our way up to the pagoda at the summit of Mandalay Hill, which is a kaleidoscope of glass mosaic hallways and arches, a golden stupa, huge Buddha figure and colourful statues.
From the viewing platforms, we surveyed the horizon, and gazed upon the rising sun. For Mandalay, and all Myanmar, a bright new future has dawned.
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