Yangon, the former British capital of Burma still better known as Rangoon in many circles, gets short thrift as a destination for tourists. Now, it certainly is true that Yangon doesn’t have the Indiana Jones appeal of Bagan, nor the floating calm of Inle Lake, but there are a couple of basic facts that need to be considered and fun to be had.
If you are flying in from overseas, you will have to fly in and out of Yangon and it’s especially hard to organize flights from overseas that allow you to connect to one of the more popular destinations.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Yangon was the most beautiful city in Southeast Asia. The charm of the decaying buildings in a country that is still shaking off the decades of isolation has a charm that Bangkok or Singapore has long lost (not to mention Hanoi or Saigon.)
So here’s how to make the most of Yangon from the moment you touch down till you head to Bagan (which I love) or Inle Lake (which I only kind of like but that’s for another post.
I was skeptical about this – but when I landed a few weeks ago, having paid my $50 online and gotten my official letter, it worked like a charm. Definitely do. The new Terminal is super easy, there weren’t any lines and I was out of there in a second.
The next bit of good new tourist news – the new taxi system at international arrivals.
After you get your luggage, you walk through customs with nothing more than a hand wave and on your left is a staffed airport taxi service – you tell them where you are going, and they write down a price and get you a taxi. Downtown will be around 7,000 – 8,000 kyat depending on where you are going.
So get your visa early and don’t worry about booking a taxi early, it’s cheaper, easier and faster not to.
Where To Stay
The traffic is worse than it was in years past. I have always stayed on Golden Valley Road either at my personal favorite, Classique Inn and also at a close second, Alamanda Inn. These high value, very friendly establishments will set you back around $70 a room per night (note, Yangon is not Bangkok or Saigon, it’s hard to stay cheap and well here.) Oh and both properties feature prominently in my book so there’s that bonus too.
Either way, you’ll arrive tired in the afternoon and want to chill and have a nice dinner – the place to do that is under the fans at Alamanda – outdoor restaurant and a local favorite for the food, and the good wifi.
Taxi’s from here to downtown will cost around 3,000 kyat ($2.50 right now) and can take between 10 and 25 minutes. But since you are only here for a day at best and since you are starting (and ending) at ShweDagon, I still think this is the best part of town to stay in.
Avoid the temptation to stay down at The Strand or even set foot there. The recent renovation literally ruined the place and it looks like a second tier Westin Hotel. Horrible.
Governors Residence on the other hand is well worth the splurge. Savoy is nice but is really on a busy street now. I know lots of people that like The Central Hotel downtown in that it’s right in the middle of everything and reasonably well run.
What To Do
Visting Yangon starts and ends there. It’s a remarkable beautiful amazing place. It’s well worth asking and getting a real tour guide arranged through your hotel. And it’s well worth getting up early and beating the crowds though to be clear the crowds here are not anything like the ones you’ll run into in other places in the region.
There are four ways to get in and for the full effect, the walk up the Eastern stairs is the best. The new escalator on the Western side is the least dramatic but should you not be able to make it up the stairs, it’s the easiest although the south side does have an elevator.
It’s going to cost you a little over $5 to visit (the site says $8, but the signs say 8,000 kyat so who knows, it’s worth it either way.)
Like most of Yangon and in fact Myanmar, you should definitely hit the highlights at Shwe Dagon and do a bit of research before visiting. But also like most of the city and country, take some time to sit down and watch the Burmese as they visit and pray. Myanmar is a country best not rushed and it’s not all about checking off the temples on a list.
I have spent hours at Shwe Dagon – and my fondest memories are of the children playing as their parents pray or watching the monks. Enjoy the visit.
If you have stayed long enough, right after you have two great local choices. If you walk back out the Eastern side and all the way down to the lower street, it’s an amazing day market with restaurants.
Or hop in a $1 cab ride and head to Feel Restaurant. I love this place – but you have to know how to order – walk up to the counter with all the plates (after you are assigned a table by a waiter) You can ask, point, and pick a ton of small plates which will almost instantly arrive at your table. The lime juice is to die for, the tomato salad great and oh, the plate of greens that arrives is for spicing up, or down all your food. It’s great value so order away.
Staying in this same part of town, I am going to suggest something a bit of out the box and that’s walk around the corner to the National Museum. I confess to loving old museums like this (the Louvre it is not) but again it’s a wonderful insight into Burmese culture and what has happened to the country.
The Trip Advisor reviews are fair. It’s not an amazing museum but it is amazing insight into the country you are about to explore.
Next, we’re going to do some shopping – now, most people would send you to Scott Market but I am going to send you to a local Yangon treasure and that’s the antique store of Mr. Kyi.
From the museum, it’s another $2 cab ride there and then, if you are staying in Golden Valley, you can go back for a bit of an afternoon rest. The best thing to do is your first visit, see what Mr. Kyi has and then when you come back through Yangon, do some shopping. Mr. Kyi and his nephews can pack everything up – or arrange shipping. He’s very honest about what is good and what is not and his prices are half of what they are in other parts of the country.
Your Big Night Out In Yangon
Head downtown. Seriously.
All the way downtown to the night market and then you have two choices – you can eat at the night market (I do) or you can go to one of four really good downtown restaurants. (Like really good.)
Now, the Yangon city authorities in the last weeks, have moved the night market all the way down to Strand Road from Chinatown so your guidebook is wrong – it’s not clustered around 19th Street anymore.
But the Burmese hate, and I mean hate, the new location so ask at your hotel. It could be back by the time you get there.
My favorite night market thing to eat is either the tofu made of chickpeas (great) or go to a BBQ stand. You grab a plastic bowl, fill it up with skewers and sit down. They grill everything from tofu, to okra, to potato to any meet you can imagine. There is also great noodles at the night market and again, lime juice to die for.
If you only want to people watch, here’s where I would go to eat.
Cheap and great – Nilar Biryani
Dinner means sitting upstairs in the ‘fine dining’ room – for lunch, you can order at the counter on the ground floor. Great and inexpensive.
Japanese and great – Gekko
Right in the area of town that is the most fun to explore. Yep, good sushi in the middle of Yangon and great old building.
Shan and great – Shan Yoe Yar
This is a quick taxi ride from downtown but amazing building and great food. Shan food is from the eastern part of the country near Inle Lake. Love this place.
Just great with gelato – Sharky’s
Even five years ago, when there really was nothing in Yangon, there was Sharky’s – created by a Burmese man and serving the best gelato in the country, pizza and gourmet food like you can’t believe you are in Burma.
After dinner, especially from Sharky’s, Gekko or Nilar Biryani, wander around the old colonial part of town – the buildings you see in the faded street lights are remarkable – many people are trying to save them, including Yangon Heritage Trust.
At night in the dark, unless you are a single woman, you can freely wander the back alleys and the side streets. Single women, I think, should stick to the main roads (though there has only been one incident I know of in five years.) The charm of old Rangoon will immediately make itself felt.
Enjoy your wander and then cab home. Places in Burma have great breakfasts so enjoy a good night sleep, enjoy breakfast and leave yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and enjoy the rest of the country.
“Floating: What I Found When I Went Looking For My Father” is about my father’s life in Burma in the 1950s, his death there in 1984 and my journey to find out what happened. It is in pre-release with the hardcover first edition benefiting three Burmese organizations.
To learn more about those organizations or to order your copy, just click here.