Yangon isn’t like other large cities in Southeast Asia. It doesn’t knock you off your feet like the organised chaos of Ho Chi Minh city’s scooter flocks. It doesn’t swarm you with tourists like the neighbouring Bangkok. Its scents and sounds don’t smother you to the likes of Mumbai or Delhi. And while the city is far from being clean and orderly, it’s got nothing on filthy Jakarta.
We’ve never been huge fans of large cities, but Yangon’s old colonial charm, dazzling Buddhist temples, and fascinating day to day street life gave us a reason to linger longer than we typically do.
Perhaps it’s the lack of tourists or the lack of street sellers that pull you into their shops to buy some Aladdin pants, but strolling around Yangon felt like an adventure off the beaten path in itself.
Everywhere we went, we were greeted with nothing but genuine curiosity.
“What country?”, older men would ask, letting their betel nut rotten red teeth shine through their heartwarming smiles.
“Ah yes, yes”, they would nod, adjust their longyi (local sarong-like skirt worn by men and women) and continue waddling down the street shading themselves from the mid-day sun with an umbrella in hand.
Needless to say, we loved exploring this fascinating city! This what our 3 day Yangon itinerary looked like.
Day 1: From One Market to Another
We felt like kids in a candy store, excited to roam the streets of Yangon and take in its day to day life. The scorching heat didn’t seem to matter, neither did the fact that we were wandering without a destination in mind. Every little street, every turn, and every stall were an attraction in their own right.
Walking North East from our hotel, the Agga Guest House, we made our way along Maha Bandula Street, and Shwe Bon Thar Rd in awe of the brightly coloured decaying buildings that stood as prime examples of what was left of the 19th century British Colonial architecture.
The streets were humming with activity. Pop up market stalls inhabiting the sidewalks were peddling everything from fruits, to raw fish, and Myanmar’s deadliest addiction – the betel nut wraps. Women with cheeks covered in traditional thanaka designs hid underneath colourful umbrellas shouting deals of the day to those passing by. But not to us.
We weren’t hassled, or bothered. No one tugged us on our shirts, or offered us a slew of services/products like they typically in the nearby Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. Most vendors didn’t even bother to greet us. These street markets weren’t here for the tourists. They were the lifeline of the locals, those unphased by the recent economic developments who were carrying on with life as if they were back in late 1900’s.
Walking through the flurry of activity, we almost felt invisible. But not for long.
At the end of Shwe Bon Thar Rd, was another type of market – a major bazaar and tourist destination, formerly Scott’s Market, but now known as Bogyoke Aung San Market. Today, the market is a major trading destination dominated by antiques, Burmese handicrafts and jewellery shops, art galleries, and clothing stores.
But despite being one of the most tourist attractions in Yangon, Bogyoke was still a great place for us to stock up on the local fashion must-haves (i.e. the longiys) and sample some great local street food. Papaya salad and freshly squeezed orange juice? Don’t mind if we do.
Day 2: Tea and Temples
Mornings in Yangon were all about tea. If you ask us, it should be that way in every country, but in Myanmar, tea was unlike anything we’ve tasted before. It was dark, strong, and served with a spoonful of mind-numbingly sweet condensed milk.
Tea houses are an institution in Yangon. For years they have been much more than a place to enjoy a cuppa, and to this day they remain a gathering spot where locals discuss the latest news and happenings. They are also typically a great place to try Mohinga, a rice noodle fish soup, that has long been a breakfast favourite in Myanmar.
That day we were on a temple hunt. Thanks to the fact that the majority of the Burmese people practice Theravada Buddhism, the oldest style of Buddha teachings, finding a temple or a pagoda in Yangon could not have been easier. There are at least 12 well known Buddhist Temples in the city, ranging from the famed Shwedagon Pagoda and Chauk Htat Gyi Buddha, to the lesser known Nga Htat Gyi and Baungdawgyoke Pagoda.
Walking in a clockwise direction, we marveled at the glistening gold of the Shwedagon Pagoda. We exchanged a few words with the resident monks looking to practice their English, and got a brief overview of the 7 day-of-the-week buddhas, their poses, and meanings. Major sights have never been our thing, so we paid our dues to the biggest spiritual attractions in Yangon and hurried back to the streets were cultural experiences awaited.
With the help of 2 local university students who we met through a mutual friend, we journeyed deeper, following them into the heart of Vicittarama Buddhagaya Monastery. We walked through the monk living quarters, watching the young and old monks go about their daily lives, we marveled at the beautiful colonial architecture and listened to the students’ stories of living and working in the monastery. Their community spirit touched our hearts as we listened to their stories of helping out an orphanage just outside the city centre. They showed us photos of the children and invited us to stay at the monastery and help out at the orphanage on our next visit. (We’ll definitely be taking them up on that offer!)
That evening it was back to tea, but not the kind we’d ever tried before. Under the blanket of a warm September night, while sitting at a tiny street-side plastic table somewhere along 19th Street, we tried our first tea leaf salad, a local specialty that would soon become our favourite dish in Myanmar. Take fermented tea leafs (yes, that’s a thing), add cabbage, lots of crunchy bits, season with lime and fish sauce. The result is a simple yet incredibly delicious snack that you’ll find on every menu in every restaurant across the country. (If it’s not on the menu, simply ask… trust us, they all have it)
Day 3: Beyond the Sights and Major Attractions
Some said that the most authentic, culturally rich experience a visitor can have in Myanmar, is the Yangon Circular Train, a local commuter train that serves the Yangon Metropolitan area. The ride promised to be slow, yet full of activity inside and outside the carriage.
Since we were planning to experience one of Myanmar’s trains further North en route to Hsipaw we gladly skipped the Circular Train journey and traded it for a visit to somewhat less touristy Kandawgyi Park.
Amidst the chaos of the city, Kandawgyi Park felt like a journey into another world. Peaceful, green, and perfectly manicured, it was the place where young Burmese couples canoodled under palm trees, where teenagers gathered to toss a ball, and young mothers and their toddlers strolled along the lily pads carpeted Kandawgyi Lake. The wooden boardwalk took us all around the lake, past the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel and the iconic Karaweik, a replica of a traditional Burmese royal boat. And every time we turned around and looked back, the golden shimmer of the Shwedagon Pagoda reminded us of the hustle and bustle that we left behind.
Yangon was the first stop on our 2 week adventure in Myanmar, but it couldn’t have offered a better introduction to the country’s culture, its history, people, and their values. We contemplated extending our stay, worried that we hadn’t seen enough, experienced enough, or come to understand the role Yangon played as the economic hub of Myanmar. And the truth is, we probably didn’t.
But we can almost guarantee that this won’t be our last visit to Yangon. While we made a point of visiting some of Myanmar’s top sights and attraction, we haven’t seen it all yet. Myanmar’s tourism is developing faster than ever with more and more areas of the country opening up to intrepid travelers from all over the world. It won’t be long before there is a reason to come back to Myanmar again, and a return trip to Yangon will definitely be on our list!
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