“Why are you going to Myanmar?” was a question I often got when I said I was going to Myanmar. Myanmar, previously Burma, is a neighbouring country to Thailand and part of the Asian Golden Triangle. It’s often overlooked compared to its other Southeast Asian brothers partly because of its political unrest and recent genocide. But that didn’t stop me. In fact, the fact that there was so little known about Myanmar, tourism-wise, made it a bit more appealing to me. A pioneer? First to explore? Why not!
It was challenging doing initial research on the country and the tourist attractions it had. I had booked a plane ticket a couple weeks before coming and the only thing information I had known previously about Myanmar was its tea leaf salads and its fine tea. And having only two friends that have been to the country (one native and one a fellow traveler) made the trip a bit trickier in terms of planning. But as I continue to travel, I much prefer traveling without a sense of where I’m going - this made made my trip to Myanmar quite the adventure.
I chose Yangon due to its close proximity to Chiang Mai which was the city I was previously in. Speaking to others that work in tourism in Yangon, those three destinations seem to be the places to go in Myanmar. Yangon was previously the old capital for a number of years (recently things have moved to Naypyidaw) and you can still see much of its 19th century British colonial roots in a lot of the buildings in downtown. Yangon is a tourist checkpoint in Myanmar; however, many tours will pass through the city on the way to Bagan and Inle Lake. Tourism has only opened up in recent years since 2012 so the infrastructure is still being developed. Many large hotel chains are beginning to open up in Yangon and in the coming years so I can predict that this may be a hot destination in the next 5 - 10 years.
So enough about the history! I stayed at the lovely and newly-opened Pullman Centrepoint Yangon Hotel which was perfectly situated a block away from the glimmering Sule Pagoda. It is very central and is within walking distance to many major attractions around town. I practically walked everywhere from this hotel and only had to take a taxi once since the Burmese sun was a little too hot for me! It is a 5-star luxury hotel featuring uber-comfortable beds, standalone tubs, twice daily housekeeping and turndown service and a great rooftop pool and sauna. The spa was not open at the time of my stay, unfortunately, but I don’t feel like I missed much.
A few pointers to know before you go:
You must obtain a Visa before you go. An e-visa is easily obtainable via online application for a mere $50 USD. It was rather quick and was delivered in my inbox overnight.
Burmese kyat is the local currency used here. You may use USD as well but be mindful that they will give you change in kyat. To exchange money, only crisp and pristine USD bills will be accepted. I was there for two full days, three nights and $100 USD was PLENTY to go around. By my last day, I had only gone through $30 and had to find ways to spend the rest of my kyat!
Getting around Yangon:
Walking - I walked everywhere! Again, this is largely dependent on where you stay in the city. There are many hotels and hostels around the Sule Pagoda and I would highly recommend staying there. The night market, restaurants, Bogyoke Aung San Market, malls and the ferry are all within reach.
Grab - They have Grab here! And it is, of course, cheaper than taxis. Please keep in mind that they operate via cash once you reach your destination (however, this may be because the hotel called them on their own account and not my own). Easy peasy.
Taxi - Cheap and cheerful as well! Keep in mind you must negotiate a price prior to hopping in. Some taxis will not take you depending on where you are going. Just barter a price with them and off you go!
Airport Shuttle - I think this is pretty new! This was the cheapest way, by far, to get from the airport to downtown. A one-way ticket will cost you 500 kyat and the bus takes one hour (vs. a 30 - 45 minute taxi ride). Well worth it!
What to do in Yangon:
Shwedagon Pagoda - You see this large temple complex shimmering from the plane! It’s an absolute must. The temple complex covers a number of acres and it is adorned in kilograms of gold, assorted jewels, gemstones and beautiful Burmese architecture. There are many stupas, pagodas, and Buddhas to gawk at and a large amount of space to meditate and pray. I’m assuming that this will change in the coming years as tourism flourishes but it was quite comfortable. Be aware of the dress code! No shoulders are no knees or ankles are allowed to be shown. Leggings do not count. Long scarves to cover your legs are available for a 3000 kyat rental fee - just keep your coat check tag on you. Forgot what the entrance fee was here - I believe the fee was 8000 kyat.
Sule Pagoda - The centre of downtown Yangon. 4000 kyat to enter, 500 kyat for a shoe coat check. Honestly, just throw your shoes in the bag you are carrying and save our change. This was beautiful and nice to go inside to see. There are areas all around the pagoda. Find the day that you were born and pour water over the Buddha statues according to what number is displayed for good karma. There are also small rooms where some monks can bless you for good fortune. Be aware of all the “tour guides” here that offer to help you or narrate. They will expect money off of you (as always, eye roll). This was the only time I felt someone was ripping me off in Myanmar - not bad compared to all of the other countries I’ve visited!
Colonial Building Walking Tour - There are free walking tours available and also private ones you could pay for. I opted for neither and did my own self walking tour. All of the buildings are downtown and within a very reasonable walking distance. I would a lot atleast 45 minutes to walk around and photograph. Notable buildings include city hall, AYA Bank, The Strand Hotel, The Secretariat Building, Myanma Port Authority, and Accountant General Building. A lot of Neo-Classical, Victorian and 19th century British colonial style buildings are reminiscent here.
Bogyoke Aung San Market - If you have some shopping or souvenirs to buy, this is the place to go. A sprawling market housed in an old heritage building - this one is not to be missed! You can get clothing tailored and custom made here, textiles, jade, fine Myanmar tea, thanaka bark powder, white sesame peanut brittle, gold lacquer jewelry boxes, antiques… It can be overwhelming! My favourite outposts here were Bochon which specialized in old Burmese antiques and Irrawaddy Tea, fine purveyors of Burmese tea.
Maha Bandula Garden/Park - A large beautiful park centred by the Burmese independent monument. This was located right in the centre of town. Lots of people hanging out, lying down and relaxing. I also happened to be there on Myanmar Independence Day and the park was filled with an all-day festival complete with fireworks!
Kandawgyi Lake - Need a break from all of the pagodas? If you’re near Shwedagon Pagoda, be sure to stop by Kandawgyi Lake for some time to cool down from the hot Burmese sun and to relax in the shade. The lake is quite beautiful. The Karaweik Palace is supposedly a stunning sight when it is lit up and shimmering in gold at night time - I wish I could have seen that!
19th Street - Hungry? Head to Chinatown for BBQ eats, beers and more! This was one of the busiest streets that I saw on a consistent basis. Come if you are hungry!
Yangon Street Food Night Market - If you’ve been to other night markets in Asia, this one may look a little sad to you. Located on Merchant Road, the night market stretches down over quite a few blocks but it looks odd because the booths are so spread apart! Nonetheless, I gave it a go and my stomach was super satisfied. I recommend trying the BBQ (grab a plastic tray and fill it with as many skewers as you’d like and they will grill it in front of you) and also the skewer hot pot. You’ll see these rectangular pots of broth lined with skewers. Dip the skewers in a boiling hot communal broth and consume - they will charge you based on how many skewers you consume. I had 10 for 900 kyat!
32nd Street - This seemed to be stationary street. I saw tons of different stationary and cards over the span of two blocks. This is quite close Sule Pagoda so feel free to stop by if you are in the area - not necessary but I thought it was quite cute!
Bogalay Zay Street - Very artsy here! I recommend stopping inside Pansuriya if you get a chance. It’s a space highlighting local artists. They were showcasing a ceramic artist at the time and was well worth checking out if in the neighbourhood.
Streets - Honestly one of my favourite things to do was wander in and out of the alley-like streets. Every street was different. Whether one was filled with restaurants spilling out on the streets, makeshift street-side patios, markets, or families playing in the street, there was always something going on.
What to eat in Yangon:
Mohinga - This is the unofficial national dish of Myanmar. Typically served for breakfast, it consists of a bowl of noodles smothered in a fish gravy with your choice of condiments. I often saw it topped with cilantro, fried gourd, fried garlic and shallots, chilies, Chinese donut… It was all so delicious. Surprisingly, the two times I had it it hardly tasted fishy at all - it all depends on who is making it! An absolute must. I really liked the one at Lucky 7 Tea Shop.
Lahpet thoke - Tea leaf salad was my absolute favourite salad! Pickled/fermented tea leaves, cabbage, and an assortment of double fried beans and nuts and seeds, I had never tasted anything like this at all! Complete flavour and textural explosion in my mouth. Incredible.
Samosa thoke - The Burmese make a salad out of samosas, I kid you not. Because Myanmar is bordered with Bangladesh, Thailand and China, its neighbouring countries lend a hand in cross cultural flavours. For the salad, samosas are diced and tossed in a curry sauce and topped with sliced red onions and cilantro. I’m going to have to recreate this at some point. I also had this at Lucky 7 Tea Shop.
Banana blossom thoke - I’m telling you, the salads are out of control in Myanmar. I had never had banana blossom before but I would describe it as very close to an artichoke with a more subtle flavour note. They do an excellent job at Rangoon Tea House paired with beautiful presentation. 10/10.
Shan sticky noodles - By far, this was the best noodle I had ever had. The Shan are a tribe in Myanmar, located in the east. Their noodles are super chewy and crazily addictive and come in an array of flavours - one of them being “sticky” style. The sauce is indeed thick, almost gravy-like, and topped with ground meat (your choice of chicken or pork), fried garlic and shallots and I want to say dried shrimp!? I’m not exactly sure what they put in it but you will not want to share this bowl with anyone else. The best one I had was at Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle Shop.
Pork rib noodle soup - This bowl of noodles, also from the Shan tribe, was a delightfully savoury bowl of soup with large chunks of fall-of-the-bone pork ribs. The noodles here are different, however, and are similar to a wheat noodle you’d find in Chinese cuisine. We had this one at 999 Shan Noodle.
Fried chick pea tofu - I have had chick pea tofu but I had no idea it was derived from the Burmese! Yellow “tofu” made out of chick pea flour, cut into triangles and deep fried. This really does not need a further explanation except that it is addictive and wonderful and you need to try it immediately! Available street side or in Shan-style restaurants as well.
Bean curd thoke - Not sure if this is Burmese or fusion Burmese but if you happen to be on Bogalay Say Street, do stop into Buthee. They have tons of little salads for a mere 500 kyat which make for an excellent snack or if you want to try a couple things. Strips of bean curd, bean sprouts, and picked tea leaves and cabbage were found in this salad. While you’re there, the tamarind grass jelly drink on ice was perfect!
Falooda - I haven’t had falooda since I was in India last year. The Burmese have their own version of it without the Persian influence so you won’t find any rosewater in this version. You will, however, find the jellies, ice creams, and other magically sweet condiments found in the Burmese version and it is an excellent way to keep cool! I loved the one at Shwe Bali Yogurt.
Tea snacks - In the afternoons, I often saw the alleys fill up with people drinking lahpet yay accompanied but all things fried. A lot of the items I saw were of the deep-fried variety but with a major Indian influence. I tried the mutton samosas, mutton-stuffed parathas, I saw a lot of roti and deep-fried items. It’s definitely a different version of afternoon tea but I loved it!
Cocktails - Believe it or not, there is a (small) cocktail scene in Yangon! This made me so happy. It was more like a happy hour hunt (50% off drinks!?) but I have to say that there are some talented bartenders in Yangon. I visited Gekko (4:30 - 6:30pm), Sarkies Bar at The Strand Hotel (Fridays and Saturdays from 5:00 - 9:00pm), Rangoon Tea House (5:00 - 7:00pm) and The Blind Tiger (5:00 - 7:00pm) with the latter being the best out of all of them. Expect around 9000 kyat regular price for a proper cocktail. The Gin Ginger and Pet Pomelo were my favourite at The Blind Tiger.
All in all, I am so glad I went and discovered this place before so many others. Who knows how Myanmar will change in the future. If you find yourself in Southeast Asia, give Myanmar a go. Trust me - it will be a welcomed break from the craziness and hoards of tourist in every other country on that side of the world. Be enamoured with the Burmese people, indulge in their delicious unique cuisine and get lost in their alleys - I am sure you will not be disappointed, especially if you’re wanting something off the beaten path!