As our (delayed) plane circled and prepared to land for our three days in Yangon – the capital of Myanmar (or Burma, I use the two interchangeably) – I realised I had no expectations: no preconceptions about what would unfold over the next two weeks aside from a vaguely ominous feeling about night buses (which would turn to be entirely justified).
We climbed into a slightly decrepit taxi and, as the sun began to set, we arrived into Yangon. Very quickly, I was in sensory overload; I felt for my bag and grabbed my camera – my eyes never leaving the sights around me. We had only flown for two hours but were a world away from Bangkok. Ancient buses with their doors on the wrong side of the road, men in longhis– the sarong favoured by Burmese men – chatting over tea and chewing betel nuts at the side of the road. Street stalls and people staring, curious, at our foreign faces as we peered out of the taxi; the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda towering – alone, golden and majestic over the city skyline. Unusually for Asia, there was no background hum from motorbikes weaving through the traffic- they are banned in Yangon’s city limits.
We pulled up at the Hninn Si Budget Inn on 50th Street. The entrance stairwell suggested we were about to spend our three days in Yangon residing in a particularly low-rent crack den but, actually, it proved to be a clean and pleasant enough (albeit basic) hostel in a city where budget accommodation is renowned for being both scarce and poor quality.
Ever since watching the BBC’s excellent Wild Burma series on the wildlife of Burma, I’d been hankering to visit this intriguing country of opium fields, temples and untouched jungle. As famous for its charismatic opposition leader – Aung San Suu Ki – as the oppression of the ruling military junta, Burma threw open its doors to tourism in 2012 and is quickly developing a tourism industry. I was keen to see it as soon as possible, whilst trying to dodge lining the juntas already fat pockets wherever possible.
After checking in and meeting a fellow backpacker called Chris, we headed out for dinner and a couple of drinks at a local beer house. A shiny “tax paid” sticker on our receipt reminded me that the junta had their sticky fingers in the national brewery pie. Full of delicious lime chicken, we headed to the Park Royal Hotel – a 5* hotel where our new friend had assured us there was a thriving basement bar with live music. We were bemused to find a rather soulless basement bar which charged $13 for men to get in (free for women…) a fortune for drinks and whose clientele seemed to be lone middle aged men and prowling ladies in tight dresses who probably didn’t work in an office…
Thankfully Chris showed up and was suitably mortified by his venue recommendation, so we headed to Union Bar downtown which had a far less creepy sex tourist vibe. In fact, it had salsa music, cheap(er) beer and a conga line. Whatever expectations I might have had for my first night in Burma, it sure as hell didn’t involve the conga.
The next day, we headed to Yangon’s train station. Eager for a snack before we set off, we sat down – slightly hesitantly – at the plastic mini chairs of a roadside food stall and asked for some veg and rice (we avoid meat if we’re not too sure about the hygiene of a stall). After we’d finished, the vendor came over and shook both our hands. “Thank you for coming” he said – appearing quite moved by our casual visit to his stall.
Fed on 63p rice and suitably humbled by our warm reception, we boarded the Yangon circle train and watched an impromptu game of football on the railway platform as we waited to depart.
The Yangon circle train is actually a commuter train which – as the name may indicate – plies a circular route around Yangon and into the rural countryside which takes about 3 hours to complete a round trip. It’s a great way to see a slice of Burmese life, from suburbs to the local markets to families off out for the day.
I spent a lot of the three hours watching my fellow passengers and waving to people at the side of the tracks who – almost without fail – beamed and waved back. I think Craig enjoyed it too.
Arriving back into the city, the still-hot afternoon was beginning to give way to early evening, so we made for the Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon’s most famous landmark. The pagoda is said to house relics of four Buddhas, and rises majestically to almost 100 metres tall. The golden tower is a striking flash across an otherwise low-rise city skyline, where it has sat since 1774. Around the central pagoda are a series of smaller pagodas, Buddha images and altars dedicated to days of the week; you worship at the appropriate altar. Dress code is strict: shoulders and knees must be covered and Craig (even though he was in long shorts) was forced to buy a longhi to cover up further. Actually, this turned out to be a great way to make friends around the pagoda so don’t be afraid to ask for one! They cost $5 from the entrance gate and they’ll tie it on for you too.
We loved the pagoda, and spent an hour or two wandering around the vast complex taking photos, watching the monks and admiring the pagoda as it transformed in the evening light. The atmosphere is lovely and quite informal- we saw families enjoying picnics together, monks chatting and watched people come for a moment of quiet worship as crowds bustled around them.
The next morning we headed to Sule Pagoda – Yangon’s second famous landmark which is set, somewhat incongruously, in the middle of a roundabout. Compared with the buzzing and friendly vibe of the Shwedagon Pagoda, we weren’t keen on the Sule Pagoda. It was much quieter, and we felt less welcome once we’d declined to pay for items to offer to the temple; although I have a great interest in and respect for Buddhism we aren’t Buddhists and generally avoid participating in ceremonies for religions we don’t practise.
We crossed back over the bustling road and over to Mahabandoola Garden – the site of Myanmar’s monument to commemorate independence from the British – before heading for a delicious Biriyani lunch. Whilst under British rule, a number of Indian workers emigrated into Burma and even today Myanmar feels closer to India than its Southeast Asian brethren. Great news for lovers of Indian food!
Keen to escape the dust and heat of Yangon, we headed to Kandawgyi Lake for some respite. Walking beside the lake, we saw dozens of young couples seeking privacy behind umbrellas, and watched as families ate delicious smelling picnics at the waters edge. Despite the cooling lake breeze, the Mercury was pushing 38 degrees and eventually we headed back to Hninn Si for a cold shower!
Despite its warm climate, Yangon is well known for its tea houses – institutions not just for a cup of sweetened tea, but a bite to eat and a chance to catch up on gossip and news. We headed to Lucky Seven for breakfast, where I tried the local speciality – Mohinga, which is a kind of fish noodle soup. Despite being a firm fan of my beloved Yorkshire tea (milk, no sugar), I even got on board with Burma’s version, which is served strong and sweet with condensed milk.
We took a walk along the busy streets, looking at the crumbling colonial buildings, and over to the river side hoping for some views. The reality was actually a rather ugly functioning port, so we stopped for a cool drink at 50th Street Bar and Grill – an air conditioned haven on a hot Yangon afternoon. For a final beer, we headed back to Union bar. It’s a lovely place, but felt like a little bubble of expats and tourists. I actually preferred the atmosphere of the tea houses and beer shops, where you can sit alongside locals, as well as spending about half the money, so don’t miss out on them!
If you want to spend three days in Yangon
- The above was a comfortable 3 day itinerary in the heat of March.
- We travelled around on foot or by taxi which cost around K2,000 for journeys in the city (about K9,000 to the airport or bus station). The drivers speak varying levels of English but are generally polite, charge a fair price and are interesting to chat to. A credit to their profession.
- We booked Hninn Si through Booking.com. It cost around £18 for a private twin with shared bathroom. Although basic it was clean and central; we returned for one night ahead of our exit flight.
- The circle line train departs from Yangon station every hour or so from platform 7; pick up tickets from the station master on the platform. It costs us K500 each (32p). Perhaps avoid weekday rush hour!