Yangon is the former capital of Myanmar, previously known as Rangoon. It’s a city on the cusp of modern changes, where free wifi and old architecture mix. There’s never been a more exciting time to make your way to Myanmar: it’s accommodating, sometimes frustrating, but there are a lot of authentic moments you won’t get anywhere else.
The downtown area is filled with hostels, guesthouses and fancy hotels, placing you in the center of the action. When I was there though, I chose to stay in the less crowded uptown area, which was both a blessing and a bane.
Pickled Tea Hostel has a good range of comfortable dorms and private rooms. This new hostel is a little hard to locate but it sits in a corner within a locals’ area, so you get to see the usual day to day of the locals. The rate is also steeper when compared to downtown’s budget digs and it’s quite far from the main attractions, with the Shwedagon a 20 to 30 minute walk away. On the other hand, you’ll forget the hostel’s shortcomings when you come home to an air-conditioned dorm decked out with soft beds, thick blankets, huge personal lockers and steady WiFi connection. Local breakfast is included in the rate and the shared bathrooms come with a shower gel and your own towel.
The city’s main attraction is the Shwedagon, a shiny, golden pagoda that’s over 2,500 years old. It has survived different earthquakes and wars, going through renovations and repairs. What you will see now is a golden stupa adorned with diamonds, gems and gold leaves. Squint up and you’ll notice the tip or the hti is marked by jewels. At the ground level, there are 12 shrines where you can pray at the station that represents the day of your birth.
There are four different entrances which you can take but I heard only one of them sells the entrance fee. Foreigners are required to pay for the one day pass, which comes with a sticker that verifies you paid for the entrance. I personally can’t confirm which entrance you should take – I took the northern gate and got in without paying for anything, by virtue of me looking Burmese. Perks of being a Southeast Asian, I guess?
You can easily spend an hour here, if you’re the kind of traveler who enjoys ancient architecture (I am). I’m not sure how anyone can get bored here but if you do get bored you can easily take shelter in the smaller temples surrounding the Shwedagon and avail the free WiFi. Yes, you read that right: there’s free WiFi in Shwedagon.
Burmese food is a weird mix of oily and healthy. Every meal comes with a bunch of vegetables and tea, but the main dishes are usually fried or drowning in sauces and oils. Some people might find this overwhelming or intimidating, especially when you can’t have McDonalds or Starbucks as the backup plan. These Western brands haven’t touched Myanmar and I honestly hope it stays that way. It makes the eating experience an exciting challenge for tourists!
Both the uptown and downtown area have a lot of options, be it a proper, air-conditioned restaurant or a local and open-air one. I honestly didn’t get to eat as much as I hoped for in Yangon because of my hostel location and the terrible weather during my stay, but I did get to try two different ones from each side of the spectrum.
At the downtown area next to the famous Sharky’s (I heard they sell good pizza), Rangoon Tea House sits on an unassuming second floor location. When you enter the restaurant, you’ll be surprised by the hip interiors basking in warm lighting. The staff are attentive and the menu is thoughtful, with detailed descriptions of both dishes and drinks. Get the coconut chicken curry noodles and one of their many tea variations for a great lunch.
A couple of blocks away from Shwedagon is the Aung Thukha Myanmar Restaurant, a local institution known for its traditional Burmese food. There’s only one woman from the staff who understands little English, but she knows enough to describe the different dishes laid out in the pots. It’s mostly curries with vegetarian options, so it’s got something for everyone. I’m one of the few who didn’t enjoy it as much but it’s still worth a shot! Don’t be discouraged by the lack of a proper menu and the shabby interiors.
Make sure that you have clean, crisp US dollar bills. If you’re coming from the Philippines, you can ask your bank to help you procure these precious bills. They should be in mint condition and as much as possible, within the latest series. The money changers and banks in Myanmar won’t accept anything later than 2009 dollar bills and anything with tears, folds, creases or markings. Yep, it’s that challenging.
Be mindful of the local customs. Remember that Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country and religious sites, such as the Shwedagon, will require you to be dressed up modestly. This means your shoulders and knees should be both covered up. Ladies are also not allowed to touch monks, or even pass them an item. One should also note that you shouldn’t point your feet towards Buddha images.
Spend an afternoon walking around downtown. Watch a bunch of pigeons take flight in front of Sule Pagoda, take photos of the crumbling architecture sitting beside concrete buildings, and ask the locals about their services and products. Would you believe there are still professional typists and traditional bookbinders in Yangon? It took me by surprise when I saw them on the streets! If the street layout or the general chaos confuses you, I read about Free Yangon Walks. I would’ve loved to join this group but I discovered them a little too late. Definitely something to try the next time in town!
Drop by Yangon’s General Post Office and send yourself a postcard. The GPO is like a page out of history, standing in an old building and bustling with activity. At this side of the world, there are still many, many people making good use of the postal service. Get yourself a bunch of postcards by the entrance and buy some stamps from the kind old man who will even lend you a stick of glue and a pen. The GPO has gotten quite some flack from foreigners, but it’s actually dependable! I sent several postcards and they managed to get home before I did.
Have you been to Yangon? I’d love to hear all about it!