Myanmar’s Dirty Little Secret

Why Every Traveler To Myanmar Should Visit Yangon

 

We’re not big city people but traveling around the world we have developed a special attachment to large cities especially after long stints in the countryside. Yangon is unlike any other city we’ve been to and while close in proximity to Thailand, it’s a world apart from being anything like Bangkok.

The population of this former capital city lies somewhere between 6-7 million and it may seem that you brush elbows with every one of them just walking around town. With thousand year-old Buddhist temples, crumbling British colonial architecture, white walled mosques, colorful street markets and even a BMW dealership, we think Yangon is the most diverse city in Myanmar.

 

Street festival in Yangon’s Chinatown

 

Yangon is a city for the people of Myanmar (the majority are the Burmese speaking Bamar people, though 135 recognized ethnic groups exist in the country), and we found this chaotic and splendidly dirty metropolis an absolute one of a kind.

 

There are indoor supermarkets in Yangon, but most meat and produce are purchased in street markets like this one

 

Lacking in basic infrastructure and teeming with piles of garbage and the blood red stains of betel nut spit on the streets  (well pretty much every where), many travelers we spoke with were put off by Yangon. We just chalk this up as one of the ‘colorful experiences’ you should expect to find in foreign lands and embrace it.

 

A betel nut stand in Yangon. Chewing this nut stains the teeth dark red, get used to seeing in throughout Myanmar

 

Yangon’s airport is one of the country’s main points of arrival for foreigners, though many skip out on Yangon altogether and opt for some of Myanmar’s more serene cultural destinations. Do yourself a favor and give Yangon a day or two. Immerse yourself in the cacophony of sounds, city sights, and languid smells of this former colonial backwater.

 

Trishaw action on Sule Pagoda Road

 

Things To Do In Yangon

Face it, at one point in your Myanmar travels you will be visiting a Buddhist temple, from the ancient pagodas in the Bagan plains to the neon light shrouded temples in Sagaing, these are the things one does in Myanmar.   Certainly not to be missed is the 2500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar’s most sacred religious site.

 

Female monks at Shwedagon Pagoda

 

Slathered in gold leaf and crowned by a diamond-encrusted stupa, we thought the sunset’s red glow on Shwedagon’s zedi was one of the most beautiful sights in the country.   But more than the gold and the jewels it was the history of the Shwedagon complex, comprising of hundreds of temples, shrines and relics (including a lock of Buddha’s hair) that is so fascinating to witness.

 

The golden zedi of Shwedagon on the night of the Tazaungdaing Festival marking the end of monsoon season.

 

We arrived on a national holiday, the Tazaungdaing Festival (aka Festival of Lights) marking the end of Myanmar’s rainy season (monsoon). This happened to be held on night of the the supermoon (Nov/2016), so needless to say it was a special occasion watching the sea of worshippers pray in the golden light of the temple with the full moon rising in the east.

 

Shwedagon Pagoda the night of the Tazaungdaing Festival

 

Experience The Streets of Yangon

For a humongous (and sometimes overwhelming) slice of Myanmar city life, we suggest strolling through Chinatown during the late afternoon market as the chaotic streets become packed with vegetable hawkers, fish mongers, and the ubiquitous betel nut stands.

 

Fish monger on the streets of Yangon

 

Head down the smaller lanes for some shade and a break in the madness. Chances are you’ll discover a tasty Shan noodle shop or curry stand that will blow your taste buds away.

 

Shan noodles vary from shop to shop, our suggestion is to sit down and try them all.

 

By evening, the streets come alive again as make-shift restaurants appear from thin air. The go to place for outdoor restaurant experience is 19th Street in Chinatown (aka BBQ street). For fresh seafood and cold beer, the mixture of locals and foreigners makes this a one of a kind experience in Yangon. We ate crabs, calamari and clams and suffered no ill effects, but of course proceed with caution.

 

If you feel like some seafood, Yangon’s Chinatown is the place to go

 

The Other Stuff

 Yangon is no longer a quiet little backwater and walking around the busy city streets is exhausting. But if you take the time to stroll through the outdoor markets, you will see that not everything being sold is made in China (yet!). Make a point to walk from Sule Pagoda (the ‘all roads lead to Sule Pagoda’ of Kipling fame) down to the air conditioned Strand Hotel (for the free cold air and/or an expensive drink at the bar) passing by the crumbling leftovers of British colonial rule.

 

Across from Independence Park and cattycorner to Sule Pagoda, stands the High Court Building. Built in 1914, this university-like facade looks like an ivy league campus

 

Sule Pagoda is surrounded by traffic, and it’s true what Kipling said, ‘all roads lead to Sule Pagoda’.

 

If you are feeling really brave take a ride on the Circle Yangon Line, the ‘metro’ of Yangon and experience the full 3 hour full loop. Even though it will feel like a sauna, you will gain a brand new perspective of this sprawling Southeast Asian city.

 

The Circle Yangon Line is a slow and uncomfortable hot box, but a great way to see the outskirts of the city and the locals daily routine

 

The Mingaladon Bazaar stop is about halfway through the Circle Line’s journey and is the real ‘slice of Yangon’ experience

 

The Bogyoke Aung San Market is another big draw for visitors looking to buy gems, gold jewelry, clothing, antiques and plenty of other things. We passed through here pretty quickly as we weren’t looking for souvenirs and the food stalls were a bit pricey.  If you have the time, stroll around Kandawgyi Lake, a green island in the middle of Yangon, not far from  Shwedagon Pagoda.

 

Kandawgyi Lake and the Royal Barge, a green haven is the bustle of Yangon

 

We tried the side trip across the Yangon River to  Dala Township that suffered greatly from tropical cyclone Nargis in 2008. Touted as a chance to see ‘real’ village life in Myanmar and a great opportunity to support the fickle local economy by taking a hired trishaw ride through the struggling community, we suggest not wasting your time (believe us when we say you’ll be subjected to scam after scam).   Aside from the endless barrage from trishaw touts, we saw very few of the smiling and friendly faces we saw everywhere else in Myanmar.  But if you want to see something different in Yangon, this is definitely it.

 

Returning to the chaos of Yangon was heaven after enduring ‘scam central’ on our sidetrip to Dala Township across the Yangon River

 

Eat, Eat, Eat

It’s hard to explain what Burmese food is because really it’s an amalgamation of Chinese, Thai and Indian Cuisine and yet with all these influences it is very unique and highly underrated.

 

You’ll see this delicacy all over Myanmar, meat and organs on a stick and cooked in hot broth

 

Breakfast is usually a bowl of mohinga, a sweet fish soup served with noodles that is pleasant tasting and filling.

Shan noodles (hailing from Shan state but available almost everywhere) can be served dry, topped with meats or come as a pho-like soup. We ate plenty of Shan noodles and no two noodle shops made it the same.

 

For some of the best curry in Yangon, give the semi-upscale Feel Restaurant a try

 

Curries are everywhere and our favorite in Yangon was at Feel Restaurant. As throughout most of Myanmar, your curry will come with a big bowl of rice and a plate of cooked vegetables (though on the street you’ll most likely get a community vegetable plate).

Keep your eye open for the pickled tea leaf salad. This Burmese delicacy quickly became our favorite and we had it at every chance.

 

Our first plate of pickled tea leaf salad at an unknown street stall in Yangon

 

19th Street is also known as BBQ Street. For grilled meats and seafood at affordable prices this is the go to place (dinner only)

 

Myanmar Lager is pretty darn good beer!

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