Things to Do in Myanmar’s Ancient City, Yangon

Aug 6, 2014

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One of the stops on TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen‘s recent round-the-world trip was Myanmar. Here’s his account of what to do in the country’s largest city, Yangon. For more information on the country, see his previous post on Myanmar Travel Tips.

Yangon (formerly Rangoon), is the largest city and former capital of Myanmar. As such, it is the international entry and exit point of the country, so chances are if you travel to Myanmar, you will be spending at least a day here before heading to other parts of the country. I spent two days exploring this sprawling metropolis on my weeklong trip to Myanmar, checking out its sights and getting the lay of the land.

If you travel to Myanmar, chances are you'll be spending some time in Yangon.
If you travel to Myanmar, chances are you’ll be spending some time in Yangon.

The way my trip broke down was that I landed in Myanmar late on a Tuesday afternoon, spent Wednesday there and then departed on Thursday, returning the following Monday afternoon for a final night in the city. So in terms of time in the city, I had the full day on Wednesday to explore.

To make the most of it, I booked a day-long individual city tour through a high-end international travel operator I worked with called Tour Mandalay, so I had a guide to myself all day taking me around the city. My guide was a young woman who was born and raised in Yangon, but spoke perfect English and was very knowledgeable about the city and its history, not to mention good company with a good sense of humor.

Stupas, Statues and The Strand

A lot of tours will end the day at dusk at Shwedagon Pagoda, probably the city’s most visited sight, because the sunsets set off the gleaming gold-plated main tower. We started the day here because it was June and dusk tends to be rainy and stormy. When we set out at 9:00am, it was a gorgeous, sunny day.

Gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda is probably the city's most visited sight.
Gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda is probably the city’s most visited sight.

Shwedagon Pagoda is fairly central, but depending on traffic, it is about 20 minutes from the central historic district and the Shangri-La Sule, where I was staying, in the direction of the airport. We began at the southern entrance where there is a long, covered arcade filled with souvenir hawkers and places to leave your shoes as well as borrow a traditional longgyi, a long piece of fabric worn over the waist and legs like a wraparound instead of pants.

Our first stop was the line of statues signifying the days of the week where you can pay respects to the spirit animal of the day you were born by offering it a refreshing cup of water as a ritualistic bath. We then walked around the complex with my guide pointing out interesting historical and religious facts as we perambulated and interacted with some of the other pilgrims.

Paying respects to the animal spirit of my birth day.
Paying respects to the animal spirit of my birth day.

The pagoda is one of the most recognizable monuments not only in Myanmar, but also all over the Buddhist world thanks to its gleaming 99-meter (325-foot) high gold-plated spire and sealed chambers containing holy relics of the Buddha including some of his hairs. Legend has it that this has been a holy site for over 2,500 years, though it has existed in its present form since the 18th century and was recently renovated by the government. The whole complex contains many smaller stupas and prayer areas, meditation and rest areas as well as a museum displaying some of the ceremonial offerings, trinkets, and the former chattra (umbrella-like metalwork) of the stupa encrusted with gemstones. All in all, it is an awe-inspiring sight, and though crowded with international tourists, there are also chances to interact with Burmese people here on their pilgrimages as well.

The enormous reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi.
The enormous reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi.

Our next stop was to see the enormous reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, which is 65 meters (213 feet) long and 16 meters (53 feet) high. To put that in perspective, the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok is only 160 feet long, so though not nearly as resplendent, this one is truly breathtaking in its own way, and the hundreds of pictographic symbols on its feet can absorb you for hours of study.

Our next stop was a quick visit to the National Museum of Myanmar. No phones, cameras or bags allowed inside this rather militaristic-looking (and un-air-conditioned) building. All the more shame because there were fascinating exhibits on traditional royal life including miniature versions of the eight thrones Burmese kings once used and a full-scale replica of the magnificent Lion Throne, as well as day-to-day objects like clothing, furniture and special occasion regalia. The other exhibits are a mishmash of cultural installations including traditional Burmese instruments, as well as natural history displays with fossils. Definitely worth a quick visit.

The reclining Buddha's feet are fascinating.
The reclining Buddha’s feet are fascinating.

After lunch (more on that later), we went back to the central part of town to have a quick browse around the souvenir, fabric and gem stalls of the enormous Bogyoke Aung San Market (there are several hangar-like halls, so if you find a shop you like, make sure you remember where it is!). This was a fun part of the day since you can browse for as long as you like, check out all the wares and talk to the shopkeepers and just people-watch locals as they stop to chat and have a cup of tea.

After that, we went to see the Sule Pagoda, a beautiful little gold-plated stupa in the middle of what is now a traffic circle that originally dates back over 2,000 years and is said to enshrine yet another of the Buddha’s hairs.

Just a short walk from there are several significant architectural landmarks that date to the turn of the 20th century and the city’s colonial past, including the Art Deco City Hall, the High Court and the red-brick Queen Anne-style Secretariat Building as well as the stark mid-century Independence Monument (it kind of looks like a cross between the Washington Monument and a missile) at Maha Bandula Park. As you walk down the street that flanks its eastern side down toward the Yangon River, you pass several more colorful if somewhat dilapidated former government buildings dating to the beginning of the 19th century before you come to the Strand.

A view of city hall from Independence Park.
A view of the historic city hall from Independence Park.

Here’s where you’ll find still more crumbling yet beautiful government buildings as well as the city’s grande dame hotel, The Strand. This beautiful Victorian building was first opened in 1901 by the Sarkies Brothers, who were also behind the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and which played hosts to luminaries like George Orwell and Noel Coward as well as royals throughout the 20th century. You can enjoy high tea here, which is a Yangon institution, but instead, think about getting a refreshing afternoon milk tea (you can dictate the strength of the tea and how much sweet condensed milk they include) at one of the reputable shops around here, which your guide can point out.

The colonial-era lobby of The Strand.
The colonial-era lobby of The Strand.

By that time, we had a pretty full day, so it was time to call it quits, but not before a quick visit to Pomelo, a delightful little boutique around the corner from the Strand that sells fair trade arts and crafts sourced from all over the country that make for great, authentic souvenirs.

Mohinga and Myanmar Mores

The day of my tour, I was staying at the Shangri-La Sule, so breakfast was included with my room and gave me access to the over-the-top buffet offerings including eastern and western options like an omelette bar (and even cronuts!) as well as a profusion of fruits, cold cuts and cheeses. While nibbling on a few of those options, I decided to begin my day as many folks in Myanmar do with a nice, steaming bowl of mohinga.

Mohinga was a delicious way to start my day.
Mohinga was a delicious way to start my day.

Mohinga is a hearty fish soup with rice noodles, chunks of fish, fried onions, chiles, lemongrass, ginger and more – basically you can throw anything and everything into it, so I got the works with a spritz of fresh lime on top, and it was just the right fuel for my day.

My guide and I stopped for lunch on our day out at a restaurant called House of Memories in the century-old Nath Villa. This national heritage-listed building, a colonial-style wood-timbered villa, was once the office of Burmese independence hero (and the father of the current democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi), Aung San. A meal here is like a museum visit, albeit a delicious one. There are antique furnishings including gorgeous carved wooden chairs, historic letters, speeches and photos on the walls, and more. Try to reserve a table in the light-filled upstairs indoor dining room with a view to the front of the house. My lunch included enormous fried fish crackers with sweet dipping sauce, sweet pork curry with pickled mangos, and fried curry cauliflower with egg. All of it was delicious and just the fortification I needed before the rest of the day out.

A private dining room in the House of Memories.
A private dining room in the House of Memories.

Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to eat out much more than this while in the city thanks to professional engagements and just meeting up with friends, but one other restaurant that came highly recommended to me and that I would have liked to try was called Monsoon and was right around the corner from the Strand, next door to Pomelo. It looks like a lot of tourists go there, but that seems to be because the quality of the traditional Burmese cuisine served here is consistently good, the sanitation is good and the vibe is contemporary and laidback.

I did not have too much time in Yangon, but my one full day out was action-packed and full of interesting sights. If I’d had a little more time, I would have loved to take a circuit on the Yangon Circular Railway that dates to the late 19th century, and which many locals use to commute these days. I just think it would be a fascinating opportunity to interact with the locals.

Lunch at the House of Memories.
Lunch at the House of Memories.

From what I saw, and read in many other sources, Yangon (and all of Myanmar) is still a rather conservative place compared the rest of Southeast Asia, so you won’t find a party scene here, and the whole city is pretty quiet by 10 or 11pm. The crime rate against foreigners is low, and it is quite easy and cheap to get around, though you’ll be stuck taking taxis for the most part. On the food side of things, whereas you can snag a meal from streetside vendors without worrying in many parts of Southeast Asia, I would still be very, very careful in Yangon. There is a preponderance of sidewalk stalls, especially around the historic center, and you will see locals slurping down all kinds of delicious-looking dishes, but the sanitation conditions are still a bit doubtful, so you might want to avoid eating as adventurously as usual while in town and stick to vetted places.

Though tourism is fast taking hold, westerners are still fairly sequestered and the object of fascination for locals, so don’t be surprised by a few stares along the way, and be sure to study up on customs and mores here so that you know what to expect when interacting with people.

However, for the short amount of time I had in the city, I felt like I got a chance to see the major sights, meet and talk with a lot of local people (thanks in no small part to my guide who was happy to translate for me), and just enjoy looking around and taking in a city that still manages to feel relatively untouched for that part of the world, but is clearly on the cusp of a tourism explosion.

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