It may no longer be the capital, but there is no doubt that Yangon remains Myanmar’s number one city. On the surface (and the internet), you’d be forgiven for thinking that not a great deal is happening in the city, but delve a little deeper, speak to some locals and expats and you’ll find a whole lot more happening than you would have initially thought. Most tourists arriving in the country spend two or three days here before continuing their journey further north and, in truth, that is a good amount of time to see what the city has to offer. Although, those willing to spend a bit more time in the city will be greeted with some hidden gems.
A local child painted in traditional Thanakha paste, made from ground tree bark. It is worn not only for beauty, but also for health, by the children and women of Myanmar.
Places to stay
Most guesthouses are around the Downtown area, and with this being the most happening part of town, it is a good area to stay. It also means that you can reach most places within the city by foot, which is handy because although they’re cheap, Yangon’s taxis aren’t the most modern you’ll ever encounter and nor are the buses!
For location, try to stay near to Sule Pagoda as this is the most central part of town and is close to the Chinatown and Little India districts.
Things To Do
- Visit Yangon’s Pagodas: The first stop for any new-arrival (and if it isn’t then it should be) is the city’s focal-point, the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda. This 2,600 year old “Mountain of Gold” sits high up on a hill overlooking the city and is hugely important to the local people – so much so that your taxi driver will most likely say a little prayer to himself each time he passes it. If you are not interested in the religious element of this magnificent structure, then at least see it for its aesthetics alone as there are few sights in the world that are as breathtaking as this. The best view is by night, particularly looking up toward the temple from Pyay Road.
The spectacular lights and colours at the Shwedagon Pagoda
Closer to downtown there are another two pagodas that, even if you have suffered temple-fatigue across the rest of South East Asia, are well-worth a visit. In the southeast of the city is the Botataung Pagoda, a beautiful complex that sits on the Yangon River and is said to contain a relic of the Buddha’s hair. There is also Sule Pagoda, a striking, golden roundabout that sits in the very centre of this easy-to-navigate city.
However, Yangon offers so much more than just temples. Many British colonial-era buildings survive in the downtown area and although many of them are slightly dilapidated at the moment, their shells remain to give some sort of idea of what the city looked like fifty or sixty years ago. Although return in a few years and you will hopefully see most of them restored to their former glories, as a group, the Yangon Heritage Trust, has been formed to try and ensure that the city’s historical buildings are renovated.
- Visit a traditional Myanmar market: Bogyoke Aung San Market, just north of downtown, is a bustling place selling all sorts of items, both useful and otherwise (although it is closed on Mondays). However, if you want a slightly more authentic Burmese experience then head a few streets south to Mahabandoola Road where pretty much the same things are sold for about a fifth of the price. From here are the lively Chinatown and Little India districts and most restaurants around the area offer great food.
Local delicacies in one of the Yangon food market
- Learn a little of the history: Stretching north out of the downtown area Yangon offers many more sights for those staying beyond the usual couple of days. Museums are not exactly abundant, but there are a couple that are at least worth a visit: The National Museum, Gems Museum, Army Museum, the newly-opened General Bogyoke Museum and Drugs Eradication Museum (I’ll say no more on this last one, just go and see it if you have the chance).
- Relax lake-side: Kandawgyi Lake on the northern edge of the city is a beautiful spot to relax, with some gorgeous cafes to while away the lazy days. Its bigger brother further north, Inya Lake, is a slightly more busy spot but also offers some relaxing spots and opportunities to sail and canoe for those that are interested. Inya Lake is also host to the home of the nation’s hero, Aung San Suu Kyi, the site in which she was locked up for nearly 20 years.
- Check out the nightlife: Search “nightlife Yangon” in Google and you would be forgiven for thinking that a drinking scene is non-existent in the city. While it isn’t exactly Bangkok, New York or London, the city does offer something for those looking for a few beers and a bit of drunken interaction. If you’re in town on a Tuesday, get yourself down to the magnificently rustic Pansodan Gallery where a mixture of locals, expats and backpackers get together to learn, get drunk and put the world to rights. 50th Street bar is the place to go for a comfortable, expat scene but be prepared to pay for the privilege. If you want something a little more genuine with your beer, head further west to 19th Street where locals and expats alike sit out in the grimey street and Asian life at its finest goes on. There are also a couple of nightlclubs too, DJ Bar and Cafe Libre being the most popular and these are a fun night out if you want to drink past midnight.
- Spa Treatments at Inya & Thaya Day Spa: As the former capital continues to develop, insatiable demand is leading to a rapidly burgeoning spa scene, offering everything from backstreet, hard-to-find Burmese massage for the intrepid traveler up to international-standard premium day spas for those who wish to indulge in high-end pampering, all at a pace and prices set to give Bangkok a run for its money as the world’s massage capital! Treat yourself to a relaxing massage or spa treatment at the best spas in town, Inya Day Spa (16/2 Inya Road) and Thaya Day Spa (3rd floor, building 17, Junction Square, Pyay Road). A perfect activity during the rainy season and it won’t break the bank either! Open 10am to 9pm, 7 days a week, the spas invite you to step out of the crowded chaos of the city and into the peaceful oasis of serene, zen-like surroundings.
Thaya Day Spa, Yangon – go on treat yourself!
Only accessible by air, AirAsia run two flights a day from Bangkok (morning and evening) and one from Kuala Lumpur. More and more flights are opening up to the city though, so expect more developments over the coming months.
Where to go next?
Within Myanmar, most visitors travel north to the other popular sites of Inle Lake, Mandalay and Bagan to which overnight buses are available. Guesthouses usually have information on these, or try opposite Yangon Train Station where most ticket stations are located.
By Oliver Slow