Despite rapid modern development, Yangon still retains its old-world charm through old-fashioned teashops, traditional street markets and more.
Despite having lost its status as capital to Naypyidaw in 2005, Yangon remains Myanmar’s principal city. The resplendent Shwedagon Pagoda is the undisputed show stealer, but Yangon holds plenty of other attractions and the faded colonial charm of the downtown district warrants at least a couple of days’ sightseeing.
For centuries a lowly fishing village, Yangon rose to prominence in 1755 with the founding of a harbour at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago rivers. Under the British, who annexed the port in 1852 and renamed the city 'Rangoon', it became prosperous and cosmopolitan thanks to the booming teak and gem-stone trade. With the economic isolation of the independence era, however, the city entered a kind of time warp and signs of modernisation only began to appear in the mid-1990s.
With the recent political changes, this process is now starting to accelerate, but the old-world charm remains in the city’s old-fashioned teashops, sidewalk noodle stalls, shabby colonial-era buildings and traditional street markets where traders squat beside piles of fresh produce.
The best time to visit is during the relatively cool, dry winter months between November and February. Travel can be problematic from May to September, as the rains wash out roads and delay trains.
Myanmar kyat (pronounced chat). Most hotels and travel agents charge in US dollars, and you'll also need them for air and rail tickets, and for admission to some major sights. Other expenses are paid in kyat. ATMs operated by CB Bank and KBZ Bank can be used by foreigners, but should not be relied upon. You can also exchange Singapore dollars, euros or (preferably) US dollars at banks or licensed moneychangers. There are ATMs and moneychangers at the airport. All dollar bills must be in mint condition, and ideally issued no earlier than 2008, or they will be rejected. Avoid changing money in the street.
A taxi from the airport to downtown costs K7000, or you can take a seat in a shared vehicle. Within the city, taxis offer great value for money although few drivers speak fluent English. Motorbikes are banned from the city centre.
While there is little risk of contracting malaria in Yangon, dengue fever is present and you should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Don't drink water unless it is bottled or has been boiled. Fruit should be peeled before being eaten, and it's best to avoid the raw vegetables which are commonly served with Burmese meals. The poor state of the country's health-care facilities means that your insurance should cover air evacuation in case of an emergency.↵↵ Muggings and petty thefts are much less frequent than in more developed Asian countries, but still take the same precautions as you would at home. In addition, it's advisable to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings, and not to take photographs of soldiers, police or military installations.
|How are you?||Ne-kaun-la?|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Tas'eiq-lauq!|
|What's your name?||K΄amya- [m]/shin [f] nan-meh-beh-lo-k΄aw-dhaleh?|
|My name is…||Canaw [m]/cama [f] yeh-nan-meh-ga…ba|
|Nice to meet you||K΄amya [m]/shin [f] go-twe-ya-da-wun-tha-ba-deh|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||K΄amya [m]/shin [f] p΄e-buq/twiq-ta-baw-hma-shi-dhala?|
|Where’s an internet café?||In-ta-neq-kaw-p΄i-zain-tasain-beh-ne-ya-hma-shi-leh?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Canaw [m]/cama [f] a-hnga-ka beh-ne-ya-hma ya-nain-ma-leh?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Baq-saka-geiq/ya-t’a bu-da-youn ga beh-ne-ya-hma-leh?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||…go thwa-deh a-thwa da-jaun/a-thwa-a-pyan leq-hmaq|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||K΄amya [m]/shin [f] hma lu-tayauq/hnayauq-atweq ak΄an-tak΄an-shi-dhala?|
|When's check out?||Ho-teh-ga-ceq-auq-t΄weq-pe-ya-deh-acein-ga-beh-acein-leh?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||K’amya [m]/shin [f] sa-thauq-s’ain/ ba- kaun- gaun- ta-k’ú hnyu`n-pe- nain-mala?|
|A table for two, please||Ce-zu pyu-byi- lu hnaqauq-sa yaq-sa zabweh- ta-loun- pe-ba|
|A menu, please||Ce-zu pyu-byi-asa-athauq-amyi-sayin- be-ba|
|The bill, please||Ce-zu pyu- byi-koun-ca-ngwe-sayin (ngwe-tau`n-k’an-hlwa) pe ba|
|Where's the toilet?||Ein-dha-beh-hma- shi-leh?|
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The northern shore of Kandawgyi Lake is home to the children’s playgrounds and picnic areas of Bogyoke Aung San Park. The lake’s best-known sight, though, is the flamboyant – Karaweik Restaurant on the eastern shore. Constructed in the early 1970s, the floating structure replicates a royal barge but is made of brick and concrete. In the evenings, starting at 6.30pm, popular buffet dinners feature a three-hour culture show including music, classical dance and puppetry. In the area around the Karaweik are numerous more down-to-earth restaurants, and it’s a great place to watch the sunset.
Nga Htat Gyi and Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagodas
Around 14km (9 miles) northwest of the centre is Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda, in which a huge sitting Buddha, dating from 1558, resides in an early 20th-century shrine. Sometimes called the 'five-storey Buddha' because of its size, the figure is unique for the huge, flame-like pieces of gilded armour, or magites, protruding from his giant head and shoulders. On the opposite side of Shwegondaing Road, Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is a pavilion housing a 70-metre (230ft) reclining Buddha. Elsewhere in the pagoda enclosure is a centre devoted to the study of sacred Buddhist manuscripts.
Few religious monuments cast as powerful a spell as Shwedagon Pagoda. This gigantic golden stupa is the must-visit for Burmese Buddhists, and a potent symbol of national identity. In recent decades it has also become a rallying point for the pro-democracy movement. Its unique sanctity derives from the belief that it enshrines relics not merely of the historical Buddha, Gautama, but also those of three of his predecessors. It’s best visited in early evening, when it is transformed by the warm light of sunset. The whole terrace has a constant swirl of activity, as worshippers pause to pray and perform rituals.
The logical place to begin any tour of Yangon is Sule Pagoda, which was the centre of the street plan set out by the British in the mid-19th century. The shining stupa is still at the heart of the downtown area, but is now surrounded by shops, swirling traffic and office blocks. It is said to date back to 230 BC, when a pair of monks were sent from India to build a shrine containing a strand of hair of the Buddha. As well as its religious significance, the Sule Pagoda has been the site of several famous political demonstrations in recent decades.
The colonial district
Yangon has the largest colonial district in Southeast Asia, but many of the structures have lapsed into an advanced state of disrepair. There are now moves to renovate many of them, including the huge Secretariat between Anawrahta Road and Mahabandoola Road. The perfect primer is the massive City Hall on the northeast corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Mahabandoola Road and you should also make time for the many heritage buildings nearby on Pansodan Street. This runs south to Strand Road, where you’ll find the famous Strand Hotel which was lavishly restored in the mid-1990s.
Taukkyan War Cemetery
Just off the main Yangon–Bago highway, 35km (21 miles) north of the city, Taukkyan (also known as Htauk Kyant) is the largest of Burma’s war cemeteries. It holds the graves of 6,374 Allied and Commonwealth servicemen killed in World War II, as well as memorial plaques listing the names of 27,000 more whose bodies were never found or identified. A large proportion were from India and Africa. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the site is impeccably well kept and a moving tribute to the mainly young men who lost their lives fighting the Japanese in the early 1940s.
Start the day at the country’s largest shopping area, Bogyoke Aung San Market (closed Monday) at the corner of Sule Pagoda Road and Bogyoke Aung San Road. You can’t beat it for sheer variety: there are around 2,000 shops under one roof, offering a massive selection of antiques, fake antiques, arts and handicrafts. The market is popular with tourists, so you’ll need to bargain hard to get the best prices.
A bridge leads north from the market over the railway line towards Yaw Min Gee Street, where you can visit Gallery Sixty Five – one of the best places to see, and buy, contemporary Burmese art. Then go back to Bogyoke Aung San Road and either head east to the Parkson FMI International department store – an air-conditioned haven stocking designer goods – or shop where the locals do, a block south in Theingyi Market (between 23rd and 26th streets). Yangon's oldest market, it sells household wares, textiles, electronics and traditional medicine among other things. Also check out the open-air produce market on 26th Street.
After lunch, why not combine sightseeing with shopping? The collection at the National Museum, on Pyay Road, is mostly badly labelled but there are some interesting objects on display. Moreover the two handicraft concessions have decent stock including CDs of traditional music. Just before sunset head to the unmissable Shwedagon Pagoda, where each entrance has its own bazaar. The one on the east side is particularly good, selling puppets, drums, masks, toys, brassware and metal goods, including swords.
Bogyoke Aung San Market, Gallery Sixty Five, Parkson FMI International, Theingyi Market, National Museum, Shwedagon Pagoda bazaars.
If food is your passion then you’re in the right city, as Yangon’s ethnic mix means that it has by far the most diverse choice of places to eat in Myanmar. Skip your hotel breakfast and dive right in with a bowl of mohinga, tasty fish-broth noodles which is considered to be the national dish. Try them at one of Yangon’s famous teahouses. The city has literally hundreds of them – serving Chinese, Burmese or Indian Muslim specialities – and a good start is Thone Pan Hla, just west of Sule Pagoda.
Spend the morning exploring Theingyi Market, between 23rd and 26th streets, which offers mounds of red chillies and fragrant cinnamon bark, boxes of tropical fruits, dried fish and seafoods, medicinal herbs and bottled concoctions. For lunch try the chicken biryani at Kyet Shar Soon Biryani (corner of Mahabandoola Road and Pansodan Street).
West of here is Chinatown, where the cracked sidewalks are piled high with all manner of goods from melon seeds to live crabs. Join the crowds at Shwe Pu Zun, 246–248 Anawrahta Road, where they serve great cakes (including famous éclairs), as well as the popular faluda (an Indian dessert of jelly and ice cream). In the evening, head for the buzzy Barbecue Street (19th Street). You’ll find rows of grills sizzling away with everything from rib steaks and spicy chicken fillets to pigs’ tails and quails. And it’s not just for carnivores: tofu, broccoli, water chestnuts and fresh beans are also on offer.
Thone Pan Hla, Theingyi Market, Kyet Shar Soon Biryani, Chinatown, Barbecue Street.
The most obvious starting point for a walking tour of Yangon’s colonial district is Sule Pagoda, which was the centre of the British street plan and today stands in the middle of a busy roundabout. After visiting the pagoda, take a look at the massive City Hall on the northeast corner the roundabout. Erected in 1924, it fuses typically British style with Burmese elements, such as traditional tiered roofs and a peacock seal high over the entrance.
On the southeastern corner of the roundabout stands Mahabandoola Garden, formerly known as Fitch Square after a 16th-century chronicler and trader who was the first Englishman to visit Burma. Facing the square on the east side are the Queen-Anne-style Supreme Court, dating from 1911, and similarly grand High Court building.
The bookstall-lined Pansodan Street behind the court buildings has some of the most interesting colonial-era buildings including the Internal Revenue Department (with Art Deco touches) and the old Sofaer’s Building (No. 62). The latter used to house shops selling imported luxury goods, and now contains the Lokanat Art Gallery. At the southern end of Pansodan Street is the Strand Hotel, which was lavishly restored to its colonial elegance in the mid-1990s.
There are more heritage buildings in both directions on Strand Road, as well as to the northeast on Anawrahta Road where you’ll find the huge Secretariat. In the evening, you could continue in the colonial vein with a drink in the Strand Hotel’s bar – Friday night has a happy hour (5–11pm).
Place to visit: Sule Pagoda, City Hall, Mahabandoola Garden, Supreme Court, High Court, Pansodan Street, Strand Road, Anawrahta Road.