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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.