Rangoon. Yangoon. Yangon. No one pronounces it the same way (it’s actually Yangon – Rangoon is the old name, and Yangoon is, well, just a misguided mix of the two!), but almost everyone visiting Myanmar transits via the country’s largest city.
As one of the two international getaways (with Mandalay) and the main hub for internal transport, you can’t really avoid the former capital – and neither should you! This fast-changing, ex-colonial centre remains Myanmar’s commercial and cultural heart, and the city is currently sprouting a surprisingly modern art scene amidst its centuries-old pagodas.
While most travelers spend only a few days in Yangon, I found myself going back to the city three times and living there for a total of 15 days – which gave me plenty of time to soak up the city’s atmosphere and sample its range of attractions, from the most obvious to the slightly more ‘in-the-know’!
So here are some of my personal highlights to check out during your stay in Yangon, whether you’re just on a flying visit or, like me, are taking it a tad slower…
1. Go Buddha-hunting
Well, I did mention some of these would be a bit obvious! Myanmar is often called the ‘Land of Pagodas’, and Yangon happens to house some of the country’s greatest ones. No visit of the city would be complete without hopping around the sparkling temples and paying your respects to the thousands of Buddhas: sleeping, sitting, standing – they’re all here!
Shwedagon Pagoda is THE STAR of Yangon, if not the entire country. Chances are, you’ve come to Yangon just to feast your eyes on this giant stupa made of gold, diamonds, and rubies.
The most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, Shwedagon is set on a hill and dominates the Yangon skyline, meaning that you can admire it from almost anywhere in the city.
To access it, you will need to leave your shoes at the bottom of one of the four giant staircases circling the temple, pay the $8 entrance fee, and climb the 166 steps to the main platform. Once there, you might be surprised by the sheer size of the complex: the central stupa is surrounded by 64 smaller ones, and an even greater number of shrines!
When I visited in December, I was initially disappointed to find that the pagoda was undergoing renovations, meaning that the gold cupola was covered with a (similarly golden) tarpaulin and net. However, a local then told me that I was actually lucky to have come at that time, as the dome gets really dirty and looks better covered-up! I suspect he was just trying to console me, but in the end the tarpaulin layer did not seem to detract too much from the beauty of the building:
The best time to visit Shwedagon is just before sunset: not only does this mean you can catch views and snapshots of the complex in daylight, fading light, and in the dark, but also that you will not burn your feet on the floor tiles!
Before you visit, don’t forget to check what day of the year you were born so you can join in with the pilgrims and water your birthday Buddha and animal (seven times each!) for good luck.
An unexpected perk for internet addicts: Shwedagon has free wifi! However, don’t expect to set up office there, as the connection is limited to 45 minutes per user.
While not anywhere near as impressive as Shwedagon, Yangon’s second-most famous pagoda stands out mainly for its location: it is bang in the heart of the CBD and historical centre, forming the roundabout for two of the city’s main axes. You couldn’t miss it if you tried!
This makes for nice pictures of the urban landscape, and while a visit is not entirely crucial, you should definitely walk around the pagoda to peek into the tiny shops at its base: fortune-telling, money exchange, mobile phones, internet cafe… you’ll find pretty much anything there!
If you do get inside Sule Pagoda, you might be entertained by the funfair-like Buddhas coiffed with electric lights, and the choreographed ballet of sweepers cleaning the temple’s floors!
What? Another pagoda?! Mmm, although you might be sick of them by then, heading to Yangon’s riverside religious complex, Botataung Pagoda, is highly recommended for a slightly different experience of Yangon’s temples.
Here you are allowed to visit the entrails of the stupa to admire one of Myanmar’s holiest shrines, supposed to contain relics of the Buddha’s hair. While I never managed to spot the hair (perhaps it was drowned under the sea of money notes… or I’m just blind!), I certainly had fun looking for it!
It is also worth stepping inside Botataung to lose yourself in its maze-like structure that will take you from one room filled with golden treasures to another, before unexpectedly delivering you back to your starting-point (Oh, we’re back here… Wait, but how?!?).
Make the most of your trip to the Botataung area by walking up to the jetty next to the Pagoda: although Yangon’s downtown riverfront is generally not much of a sight, this is the best place to catch a glimpse of the river life and the colourful fishermen’s boats.
If you’re a hardcore temple addict and want to experience more Buddhaliciousness, don’t worry: Yangon features plenty religious sites beyond the Big 3, and they all have something unique to offer!
Two of my favourites include Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, home to a 65 meters long and 16 meters high Reclining Buddha (bigger than Wat Pho’s Thai version, according to the Burmese!), and Ngahtatgyi Paya, which houses a 5-storey Sitting Buddha.
2. Explore Yangon’s colonial architecture on a walking tour
On my second visit to Yangon, my friend turned to me in the taxi taking us from the airport to our hostel with an air of surprise:
“Wow, the city doesn’t look nearly as run-down as I imagined! There are even some amazing buildings!”, she said, echoing my thoughts on my first visit exactly.
As the ex-capital of colonial Burma, Yangon is dotted with majestic British-era structures, 188 of which (but by no means all!) have made their way onto the Yangon City Heritage List. As a result, the architecture is both incredibly varied and extremely colourful.
Although you can go looking for those buildings on your own (Lonely Planet for instance includes a suggested itinerary), a great way to truly engage with the city’s history and architecture, and to learn about contemporary Burmese culture along the way, is to join one of the free walking tours organized by Free Yangon Walks.
The 2-hour walks take place every Monday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 4:00pm, and are usually run by an English-speaking expat with a local student.
While there is always a danger that this kind of guided tour will get super-boring, I was thoroughly entertained by our guides’ anecdotes and the diversity of the buildings we stopped at, from the grandest to the most run-down.
You will learn a lot about Yangonite customs, including about the inhabitants’ curious habit of chewing red-staining betel and their avid love of books!
And, as if a free tour wasn’t enough, your tour leader will also take down your email address and send you a guide of Yangon’s best restaurants, bars, activities etc. to help you plan the rest of your stay in the city. Way to go!
3. Sample Yangon’s (street) food scene
You may have worked an appetite after all this pacing around…
We all know that one of the best ways to discover a place is to follow your taste buds and try the local food – however, although Myanmar has some great culinary specialties (I am IN LOVE with the country’s national dish, tea leaf salad), with the sometimes-dubious hygienic standards, sampling Yangon’s street food can be a daunting process! As my friend and I found out, Burmese food can be the way to your heart, but it can also be a fast way to your sickbed!
After some touch-and-go experiences, Carolin and I decided to book ourselves onto a Yangon Food Tour as a fun (and safe) way to make the most of what the Yangon food scene has to offer! Yangon Food Tours runs breakfast, lunch, and dinner tours (or custom combos of those) that let you sample 3 to 5 local delicacies in a range of market stalls and restaurants. (Tip: make sure you don’t wolf down your first course and leave some room for the next three!)
Our Burmese guide James picked us up at our hostel and spent the next three hours feeding us delicious dishes – from shan noodles to samosa salad and a massive dessert platter – with a sprinkling of interesting stories. James was probably the best English speaker we met in Myanmar, and he turned out to be a great source of knowledge.
Although the price may be a bit steep for budget travelers (the lunch tour costs $25, the dinner tour $30), in the end, the food, conversation, and opportunity to discover Yangon’s food markets exceeded our expectations. For all food lovers who have the money and time to spare, treating yourself to a Yangon Food Tour is a must!
4. Stroll along the lakes
Like all big South-East Asian cities, Yangon is a bustling, traffic-jammed, and charmingly messy city. However, if you need a bit of peace and quiet, don’t despair: the city also has its green oases!
For some relaxation, a good option is to grab a book (or your (boy/girl)friend) and head to one of Yangon’s two large lakes for a stroll or a lie-down on the banks.
Kandawgyi Lake is the closest to the centre and the most accessible. As a bonus, a walk around Kandawgyi provides some pretty sweet views of the lake’s Royal Barge and of Shwedagon Pagoda!
You can take a break at one of the cafes and restaurants on the North side of the Lake. My personal pick for refreshments would be Off The Beaten Track, a cafe owned by an ex-tour guide (and one of Myanmar’s first independent backpackers), who will be delighted to help you plan your onward travels to the more remote and uncharted parts of the country.
For an even bigger lake and a more romantic getaway, catch a bus or a taxi to Inya Lake. Inya is located in the upscale suburbs of Yangon and features a very nicely-landscaped bank. Being close to the university, it is a favourite student hangout, and a staple romantic setting for Myanmar drama and music videos!
5. Shop at Bogyoke Aung San Market
Granted, Bogyoke Aung San Market – also known as Scott Market – has become pretty touristy. However, it still deserves a quick visit for its colonial architecture and cutesy cobblestone streets, and to survey the arts and crafts from all over the country.
So do walk the market’s covered alleyways and haggle for a souvenir or two!
6. Discover Yangon’s burgeoning art scene
One of Yangon’s more unexpected sides, and a testimony to its ongoing change, is the recent emergence of several quality art museums and galleries.
The Culture Trip has published a list of the city’s best modern and contemporary art galleries.
Add to that the Lokanat Gallery at 62 Pansodan Street, which in addition to showcasing the works of contemporary Burmese artists, also gives you the rare opportunity to visit one of the city’s colonial landmarks.
On the same street, the Pansodan Art Gallery is not only a cutting-edge creative centre, but also hosts one of Yangon’s most popular gatherings from 8pm on Tuesday nights. Much like Couchsurfing meetups, it provides an opportunity for travelers and locals to interact, improve their English, and to discuss art and whatever else they fancy over food and drinks. Proof that this is one of Yangon’s most frequented events, even our food tour guide James was a regular!
7. Feast on Chinatown’s 19th street
When in Yangon, do as the Yangonites do and devote one evening to a Chinatown dinner. The specialty on 19th street is barbecued seafood, although you can also find – well, more or less anything else! Pick one of the restaurants lining the walking street, sit down at the terrace, and order a main course before heading to the nearest BBQ stall to make your selection of side kebabs. The stall-owners will then grill your chosen kebabs for you and bring them directly to your table when done. Easy!
An evening out on 19th street is best enjoyed with a group of friends, allowing you to order a variety of dishes and share them for a particularly convivial and Asian experience.
8. Sip on a signature cocktail at the Strand Hotel
This is one of Yangon’s best-kept secrets: Friday nights are happy hour (more like happy full nights!) from 8pm to 11pm at the colonial Strand Hotel. The Strand is the sister of Singapore Raffles Hotel (of Singapore Sling fame) and is very much a part of Yangon’s history, as one of its oldest establishments.
The good news is, The Strand has its own signature cocktails, and they happen to be much better than their more famous Singaporean counterpart. At $4-5 the cocktail, you have no excuse not to try the gin-based Pegu Club while lounging in one of the bar’s comfy armchairs, just as we did!
Have you been to Yangon or are you planning to go? Did you like the city? I love to hear from you, so let me know in the comments below!
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