I didn’t expect to fall in love with Yangon, Myanmar.
After all, I arrived in the middle of rainy season and was greeted by a mid-morning monsoon that soaked my clothes, my hair and, most importantly, my entire backpack.
Once I got dry, I stepped out to explore the city and promptly got very, very, very lost. More on that later.
Yet, despite our rocky start, Yangon quickly worked its way into my heart. My three-night booking quickly extended into a full week, and when it came time for my onward flight back to Thailand I was seriously considering quitting my job, selling my condo and giving it all up to work an NGO in Myanmar’s largest city.
Honestly, it’s hard to count all the reasons why I loved Yangon, but I did manage to narrow it down to the ten very best things to do in Yangon.
#1 – People’s Park, Yangon
People’s Park is probably the most beautiful park in Yangon. Besides the copious landscaped green space brimming with trees, flowers, ponds and fountains, there are also a few more unique attractions, like giant replicas of vegetables (seriously!), a viewing tower, a decommissioned fighter jet, and an old steam train. A large map is posted at the entrance; I suggest snapping a photo on your way in and then using your photograph to navigate your way through the park.
During my visit, just before sunset, there were hardly any other people here, which made it easy to take great photos and find a few moments of solitude. Canadian travelers will want to check out the french fry restaurant in the mall at the park’s entrance: they advertise that all of their fries are made with potatoes from Atlantic Canada!
Admission to People’s Park is about $3 USD for foreigners, and it’s generally open from around 7:00 am until 7:00 pm.
#2 – Sule Pagoda & Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
By the time I arrived in Yangon I had already traveled to Bangkok, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. This means I had already seen a lot of pagodas!
Still, there was something very impressive about Sule Pagoda, right in the heart of downtown Yangon. Traffic loops around the gigantic stupa at the city’s busiest roundabout, and you’ll be dodging traffic to reach the entrance to this historic site.
If you’ve been to many other pagodas in the region, then the interior of Sule Pagoda may not stand out as much as its unique location (so you can save the $7.50 USD admission fee). If you’re new to Myanmar’s stupa scene, then this is definitely one of the thing to do in Yangon that you won’t want to miss. It will absolutely be worth popping inside to see the ornate gold decorations circling the central stupa.
Shwedagon Pagoda is significantly larger than Sule Pagoda. I only checked out Shwedagon Pagoda from the outside because I genuinely didn’t believe that paying another $7.50 USD to enter would offer anything different than the other pagodas I’d seen. I don’t regret that decision at all, and I would suggest that you choose either Sule Pagoda or Shwedagon Pagoda to enter, and just check out the other from outside.
I would recommend choosing a hotel near the Sule Pagoda, rather than near the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is a few kilometers outside the center. The Pullman Yangon Centerpoint is a brand-new business class hotel that opened in spring 2018, and that makes Yangon travel a more upscale, international experience thanks to its European management team.
#3 – Colonial Architecture in Yangon
Britain colonized and occupied Myanmar from 1824 to 1948, back when the country was still known as Burma (although we now use the name Myanmar in English, there isn’t much consensus as to which is actually more respectful, and Burmese variants of both names are used by the Burmese people). The Burmese people resisted this colonization and fought their colonizers for decades.
Today, the legacy of the British occupation is still visible in much of Yangon’s architecture. Colonial buildings can be found throughout the city center, in varying states of repair. Some, like the stunning white City Hall building, are fastidiously maintained. Others, like the yellow building shown above, and the turquoise Bombay Burma Press building, appear to be minutes away from crumbling apart. The Yangon Heritage Trust is working to preserve Yangon’s historic center, and offers both public and private walking tours (in English) that showcase the city’s architecture. For architecture lovers, a walking tour of the city’s magnificent buildings is one of the most memorable things to do in Yangon.
If you’d like to get a sense of the grandeur available to British colonists a hundred years ago, consider booking a stay at The Strand, a waterfront luxury property built in 1901 and fully renovated in 2016. The Strand also offers two-, three- and four-night cruises on their new, custom-built cruise ship.
#4 – The Yangon Circle Train
Every day, more than 100,000 residents of Yangon board the city’s famous Yangon Circle Train, a circular rail line that makes a forty-five kilometer loop around the city, stopping at thirty-nine different train stations along the way.
For tourists, the Yangon Circle Train is a unique look into the daily lives of Yangon’s citizens. I suggest riding the train on a weekday, which is when ridership is at its peak. You can ride the train in either direction, but your ticket is only valid for one trip, and you’ll have to buy a new one if you decide to stop and explore along the way. Considering that tickets cost less than $0.20 USD, this is no big deal. The easiest place to buy your ticket is at the booth on Track 7 at the central railway station in downtown Yangon.
As the train chugs along you will be treated to all sorts of sights, from farmers’ fields to garbage dumps to the markets that pop up at every station. Vendors will come through the train selling snacks and other trinkets, but bring your own drinking water for the three-hour round trip. The train never gets going too fast, so you’re always free to sit in the doorway with your feet outside, or even hang out the door for a creative photograph, as long as nobody gets the prime spots before you!
#5 – Streets of Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon holds a special place in my heart because it was the first place I ever experienced actual culture shock. Although I had visited other cities in Asia, nothing prepared me for the narrow, crowded streets of Yangon.
I got lost within minutes of stepping outside of my hostel in the city center. The sidewalks were completely covered with street vendors selling their wares under low-hanging tarps and the crowds were so dense that I couldn’t see more than a meter or two ahead of me. Add in a distinct lack of street signs and it’s lucky that I ever found my way back!
After my initial shock, I spent an hour inside my hostel (the amazing Scott @ 31 Street, which had the vibe of an upscale European hostel for the price of a cheap Southeast Asian hostel!) looking at city maps and trying to better understand the world outside my doorstep. Once I felt more prepared, I ventured back outside into the streets, and was easily able to navigate by foot for the rest of my stay.
Soon, I found myself not just tolerating, but actually enjoying, the streets of Yangon. I’ve never visited anywhere else where so much of life happens on the street, and so little thought is given to pedestrians on the sidewalk!
#6 – Rangoon Tea House
There’s something kind of crazy about Yangon. Whether you’re riding the circle train or looking in back rooms at the Sule Pagoda, there always seems to be an abundance of amazing, fresh fruit that it just out of reach. And then, when you sit down in most of the city’s local restaurants, it’s still out of reach, because most restaurants don’t serve any fruit at all! After a full week of Yangon travel I was desperate to sink my teeth into something that came from a tree!
This is where Rangoon Tea House stepped up to the plate. Possibly the city’s most successful trendy restaurant, and priced well beyond the means of most of the local population, Rangoon Tea House attracts a crowd that is mainly expats and tourists who are craving food with an international flair.
The menu starts with sixteen different preparations of tea (depending on how sweet and milky you take it) and then segues into salads, noodles, rice and grilled meat dishes. One of the features (either from the breakfast menu or the dessert menu, I can’t remember) was this exotic fruit plate. Guava, pineapple, rambutan, mango and pink dragon fruit were served with a wedge of lime, local honey and natural yogurt. Finally, the nutrients I’d been missing!
#7 – Amazing Indian Food
Burmese food is delicious, but as an Indian food fanatic who has never been to India (fingers crossed I’ll get to visit during my 2019 sabbatical!) I couldn’t resist stopping in at several of the hundreds of Indian restaurants dotted around Yangon. Here, the Indian restaurants offer amazing value for money and a great selection of both meat-based and vegetarian dishes, which is important for me (I’ve been a vegetarian for fifteen years!).
At some of the inexpensive vegetarian restaurants the staff circulate through the restaurant with pots of food, constantly spooning more and more onto your plate for no extra charge. They are particularly generous with the rice and lentil dal, which is good news for vegetarians. At one restaurant near the Sule Pagoda I paid less than $1 USD for enough food to feed a family of four. At other restaurants, like Nilar Biryani, you can make your own customized vegetarian platter featuring just the curries that strike your fancy (they had one with paneer cooked in a mildly-spiced red cream sauce, which I went back to eat again… and again…).
(If you love vegetarian travel guides, check out my post about Germany’s amazing vegetarian foods!)
# 8 – Meeting Monks in Yangon, Myanmar
Approximately 90% of Myanmar’s population is a practicing Buddhist, and there are more than half a million monks living in Myanmar!
Typically, monks will walk through the city center in a procession each morning. They are looking for offerings of food, such as rice and curries, which they are permitted to eat twice per day. Although you will certainly encounter monks at any of the pagodas that you visit, you can also expect to encounter them around the city, like this monk checking out the clothes for sale on top of one of the city’s overpasses.
Many monks are interested in practicing their English and sharing their beliefs with foreign visitors, so don’t be shy about striking up a conversation (or just sharing a smile). Younger monks are more likely to speak English. If you’re a photographer, taking a photo of a monk is usually no different than taking a photo of anyone else in a public space. Don’t put your camera right up in their face or follow them around (actually, “don’t be creepy” is pretty good life advice for all situations!). If you’re inside a pagoda or a monastery, avoid photographing private areas like the monk’s living quarters.
If you’ve come to Myanmar to explore your spiritual side, consider taking part in a ten-day silent meditation retreat. One is offered at the Dhamma Joti Center, near the Shwedagon Pagoda, and I met several travelers who found the experience to be transformative.
#9 – Shopping at the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon
The Bogyoke Aung San Market in central Yangon is hard to miss and hard to access, thanks to its monolithic colonial facade separated from the busy Bo Gyoke Road by a large fence. It’s easiest to reach the market via one of the overpasses that cross the street, even if this means walking a block or two out of your way. Still, it’s worth the effort to go inside, as exploring this market is easily one of the most interesting things to do in Yangon.
There are upwards of 2000 vendors inside this two-story market, selling everything from tacky souvenirs to beautiful longyi (the traditional skirt worn by both men and women in Myanmar). Haggling is to be expected, but it may present a challenge at the stalls that cater mainly to locals (due to the staff’s limited English skills). It’s easy to spend an hour or two wandering through the market, and the food stalls serve up delicious, inexpensive local foods (including some decent vegetarian options, like fried noodles and seasonal avocado milkshakes). If you’re a shopping fanatic, consider saving some money by staying at my favorite Yangon hostel, Scott @ 31 Street. It’s only three hundred meters from the market, and you’ll be able to spend the money you save on some stunning memories of your time in Yangon.
#10 – Visiting the Snake Pagoda Near Yangon
The last thing you’ll love about Yangon is actually just outside the city itself. The Hmwe Paya (Snake Temple) is located in the middle of a lake near the Twante Township.
To get to the temple, you take the passenger ferry from Yangon’s waterfront station across the river to Dala (a return ticket is about $3 USD for foreigners) and then head along the town’s main road in the direction of Twante. After approximately ten kilometers you will see a road to your left marked with red arches; this is the way to the Snake Pagoda. It’s too far to to travel from the ferry terminal to the pagoda on foot, so your options include renting a scooter or, as I did, hitching a ride in a shared taxi to the turn-off and walking the final two kilometers through the rice paddies. You may have to explain that you don’t need a ride all the way to the pagoda itself, only to the intersection, because most drivers will turn you away if they think you’re expecting door-to-door service.
As you cross one of the four bridges to reach the temple you will notice huge fish and turtles waiting to be fed in the water below. Inside the temple, however, are the real stars – more than thirty pythons that are lovingly cared for by the monks. They are docile and free to roam throughout the entire building, so look closely in all the nooks and crannies to spot them all. I have lots of photos of the snakes in the temple but I think it’s a lot cooler if you go not knowing what to expect!
#11 – Other Things to Do in Yangon
Although this list encompasses ten of the things I loved most about Yangon, it doesn’t capture all of the small moments that put a smile on my face throughout each day I spent in the city. It doesn’t include the time I spent watching local women ride an escalator for the first time in a downtown shopping mall, and seeing their amazement upon realizing that the moving stairs were actually safe. It doesn’t include the men I met at a temple near the Snake Pagoda, who asked me to take their photo again and again (and again and again) until all four agreed that they looked good in the final shot. It doesn’t include the vegetarian barbecue in Chinatown or samosa salad from the street vendors, or the smell of the lemon-scented wipes that locals love using to clean their hands, or the laughter of the bus drivers as I tried to navigate the city using its public transportation system…
There really is a lot to love about traveling in Yangon.
Ethical Yangon Travel
It wouldn’t be right for me to talk about Yangon without discussing the current situation. Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims (known as the Rohingya) in northwestern Myanmar have been ongoing for years. At the time of my visit, in August 2016, tensions were at a low simmer. I was aware of the conflicts before I booked my trip, and I hoped to learn more about the conflict and the Rohingya people during my visit. Unfortunately, upon arrival, I discovered that the local media (including the English-language media) made almost no mention of the Rohingya people or the conflict in the northwest. Someone with no knowledge of the conflict would never have guessed that anything was amiss, but as a somewhat-informed visitor I considered the lack of Rohingya representation to be a pretty serious red flag. My gut was telling me that something wasn’t right.
As you may know, two months later the conflict erupted. That fall, government security forces clashed with a group of Rohingya insurgents in Rakhine State. Now, a year and a half later, the fighting continues and a refugee crisis has emerged as Rohingya people flee the violence and mistreatment in Myanmar for the border towns of Bangladesh. Regardless of how much the Burmese media may try to downplay the situation, the United Nations has made it clear that human rights violations are taking place every day in the Rakhine region.
Some travelers are choosing to boycott Myanmar, as they are concerned that the money they spend will support the Burmese military and its actions against the Rohingya people. Other travelers are continuing to visit Myanmar, believing that the money they spend, and the interactions they have with local people, offer an overall benefit.
Would I visit Myanmar today? No. Would I judge another traveler for choosing to visit today? Also no.
If you do choose to visit Yangon, or any other part of Myanmar, before the resolution of the crisis in Rakhine, there are some ways you can make your trip more ethical. Avoid using government-owned tour providers and work directly with locally-owned travel agents and tour guides instead. Patronize local hotels, guest houses and restaurants, rather than multi-national chains (no matter how nice The Strand looks!). Travel by bus, which is usually operated by private companies, rather than government-run airlines and trains. And, of course, for your own safety you should avoid Rakhine State and any other conflict zones.
Have you ever visited Yangon? What did you love most about the city? What advice would you give to other travelers heading to Myanmar?