Yangon, Myanmar is home to 5 million Myanmar people, and its strange and varied history is easy to see as soon as you step off the plane. Massive, decaying colonial buildings from the days of British rule compete with apartment buildings, parks, Buddhist shrines, and haphazardly constructed lean-tos. Since the military dictatorship lost power, the city has seen an influx of foreigners and foreign capital, putting the city and its inhabitants in a state of limbo. Yangon is set to undergo some monumental changes in the coming years. For the traveler looking to experience a piece of the Asian world before it fully joins the democratized 21st century, Yangon will exceed your expectations.
Every visit to Yangon includes some quality time at Shwedagon Pagoda — one of Myanmar’s most famous and popular attractions. Over 300 feet tall and 2,500 years old, the world’s oldest pagoda is gilded, gorgeous, and full of the devout and the curious. The space is large, so even when there are plenty of people about, it never feels crowded. Women are required to wear a longyi in order to enter, and all visitors leave their footwear in the parking lot. During the day, the golden dome casts light in almost every direction, and at night, the lights that illuminate it make for one of the most picturesque photo opportunities in the country.
A giant statue of the Buddha, the Chaukhtatgyi Paya is one of the country’s most treasured statues and sites. An enormous, reclining figure, this statue of the Buddha is 60 feet high and over 200 feet long. His feet are regally adorned with over 100 fascinating symbols, and he sits just beyond a bustling open-air market where you can also enjoy some excellent street food.
Another famous pagoda located in downtown Yangon is the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda, a temple that holds much more than just religious importance. A meeting place for anti-government and pro-democracy protesters during the massive unrest of 2007 and 2008, this pagoda and its monks helped usher in the new era of freedom and democracy that sent the military dictatorship packing six short years ago.
Since 1926, the Bogyoke Aung San Market has sold everything from clothing to puppets. Clean, organized, and cooler than the outdoors during the hottest months, this market is a great stop to make on your first days in the city. Women can find a longyi for pagoda visits, and there are plenty of other items at good prices, from jewelry and art to hot peppers and fruit. Every price is negotiable, too, so be sure to engage in some lighthearted haggling. The market is also a good place to change money, because you’ll get the best exchange rates here. Just be sure that when you fly in to Yangon, you head to your bank for crisp, new bills, and when you change them at the market, only accept the same in return.
Myanmar Water Festival
Every April marks the end of the hottest, driest part of the year, and to celebrate the end of that tired season, locals partake in the Myanmar Water Festival. Part new year festival, part cleansing ritual, and part letting off the steam of the hottest months…festivities abound. Be sure to wear sandals and non-see-through clothing, as you’ll get doused with cooling water along the streets until you’re positively dripping.
This notable restaurant sits out of the way in an old colonial mansion with a lovely garden and tree-top canopy. Sit outside in the shade if you’re able to find a table. The coconut rice, curry, grilled lobster, and pickled tea leaf salad are all spectacular. You can also enjoy a bottle of Myanmar beer with your meal for a taste of what the locals enjoy.
Myanmar is about to undergo radical changes, and its capital city is already rumbling from them. Get to Yangon while the feeling of the old world still remains.