I was excited for my first trip to Myanmar for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was spending some time in the nation’s largest city, Yangon. My mental image of Yangon was that it would look like Bangkok 50 years ago. I imagined dirty open spaces, streets clogged with motorbikes and tuk-tuks and who knows what else. So imagine my surprise when on the drive into the city I saw none of those things. No, instead I was met with broad boulevards, oddly clean streets and not a single motorbike in sight. I could’ve been anywhere in the world, the massive golden temples the only clue I was in a slightly exotic locale. Later during my visit I did find some of that chaos I’d been looking for, but not nearly as extreme as even Bangkok is today. To help you navigate your time in the city, I thought I’d share how I spent my time in this colorful city, one I’m eager to revisit and explore even more.
Where to Stay
When talking about not only the world’s great hotels but also the most remarkable travel experiences, they fall into a variety of different camps. Among the standouts though are those who have not only proven the test of time, but whose service and refinement has become the stuff of legends. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore and yes, The Strand Hotel in Yangon are all members of this exclusive group of leading hotels. While in Yangon, I had the great pleasure of calling The Strand my temporary, and luxurious, home and it couldn’t have been a better experience. Its fantastic location made walking to what I wanted to see and do easy and of course the hotel itself became a highlight of my time in the city. Recently undergoing a massive refurbishment, the bright and elegant interiors match the hotel’s lengthy history. Everything is stately but modern, elegant but comfortable. That’s a hard line to walk, but The Strand does it with ease. Add in amazing service, fantastic suites and delicious food, and staying at The Strand is about so much more than patronizing a hotel, it’s an experience unto itself.
What to Do
I knew that my time in the city was limited, so in advance I hired a guide and driver to spend a few hours with me as orientation and to show my the highlights of the city. Costing less than $100 for 6 hours for two people, it was a fantastic investment and helped me maximize my enjoyment of the city. I had planned out what I wanted to see and do in advance, and the experiences were just as amazing as I had hoped.
It’s not every destination that has a form of public transportation that is also a tourist attraction, but Yangon isn’t your typical city either. Originally built by the British in the colonial era, today the Yangon Circular Railway features a 29-mile, 39-station loop system connecting nearly all parts of the city, as well as satellite towns. It’s by far the cheapest way to get around town (about $.20 per ride) but for a first time visitor, it’s also one of the best ways to experience real life in the city. Thanks to the low price, the train is heavily used by all types of people, allowing visitors like me to be a voyeur for a little while and to, hopefully, learn more about the city and country in the process.
As I learned during my week in Myanmar, the country is a nation of temples and pagodas, all paying homage to Buddha in any number of ways. Yangon has many worth visiting, but of course the most important is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Standing at an incredible 325 feet, the pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline and its history is inextricably tied to the city itself. According to legend, the pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago and contains 8 strands of hair from the head of the Buddha. It gradually fell into disrepair until the 14th century and since then successful rulers have made subtle changes to the temple complex creating the massive site we see today. The gold seen is made of genuine gold plates and the crown is tipped with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 rubies. Throughout the centuries Shwedagon has also played a central role in the both the lives of the city and country, making it not only one of the most recognizable sites in Myanmar, but also one of the most important. The temple complex is very large, so be sure to allow plenty of time to explore. I also recommend a guide who can point out some of the finer points that one would otherwise miss.
I have spent a disproportionate amount of time around the world visiting religious structures, from cathedrals in Europe to the many temples and relics of Asia. One though in Yangon impressed me deeply, the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha. This reclining Buddha image is one of the largest in the country, laying down at an impressive 217 feet long. Notice I said “one of” and not “the largest.” As immense as the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha is, there are larger ones, but if you’re just in Yangon then be sure not to miss visiting. There’s even a viewing point where you can better admire the image itself.
I enjoy visiting markets when I travel, but they tend to be food markets or halls. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed my brief visit to Bogyoke Market in downtown Yangon. Also called by its original colonial name, Scott Market, it really is more bazaar than market. Almost anything you could image is for sale here, from gold and silver to clothes and everything in between. It’s also a good place to pick up some souvenirs to take home, as long as you don’t mind a little haggling. The building though is also deeply impressive, a classic colonial-style structure and inner cobblestone streets, it’s a fun place to explore and wander, especially during a hot and/or rainy Burmese afternoon.
As with most cities I visit though, one of my favorite experiences was just walking around. This is where the incredibly well located Strand Hotel helped immensely. Many areas of town were an easy walk, which really shouldn’t have surprised me since, in many ways, the modern city grew up around this historic property. Yangon is a curious mix of people, styles and eras, all thrown together in a way that at first may seem a little confusing, but ultimately makes sense. It’s also a much more orderly city than I had anticipated, motorcycles aren’t allowed downtown so there’s not the same madness and crush of vehicles as is common in cities like Bangkok. No, Yangon seemed more polite, more dignified and even easier to explore. My guide, along with the advice from The Strand’s local staff, helped me experience the best of Yangon in just a couple of days.
What to Eat
Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of my time in Yangon was learning about the city’s very unique cuisine, in which I received a fun crash course while on a Yangon Food Tour. While I could have clumsily eaten my way around the city, I wanted to take a food tour for a more organized immersion into Myanmar’s foodie scene. I did some research and didn’t find many options, but then I discovered Yangon Food Tours. In operation for just a few months, this is very much a business with passion and I was excited not just to enjoy a food tour dinner, but also to support a truly local startup. The Yangon Food Tour is a good mix of stall and restaurant food, which, honestly perfectly reflects the style of eating in Yangon. And eating is serious business in the city, I marveled at how many restaurants and other opportunities to eat there were everywhere around town. Not unlike other countries in the region, food is at the heart of the experience and to truly start to understand the culture and people, you have to understand what they eat and how they enjoy food. Yes, the Yangon Food Tour was the ideal introduction to the cuisine of Yangon and Myanmar, but it did more than that. It was also the perfect way for me to get used to the city, to shed any concerns or fears I may have had in a new place and to learn to enjoy Yangon for everything that makes it so great. It was one of the highlights of my time in Myanmar, well worth the investment of $35 and a few hours of my time.
Have you been to Yangon? What were your favorite experiences?