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We have a lot of reservations of going to Myanmar at the moment due to persecution of the Rohingya people and continuing suppression of the freedom of the press. But we don’t want to impose our views on our readers. If you are heading to Myanmar and making a stop in Yangon, Chris of No Guidebooks who last wrote about Myanmar has some tips to get around.
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Formerly known as Rangoon, Yangon is Myanmar’s largest and most popular city. From the country’s independence in 1948 through 2005 it was Burma’s capital. Despite losing that status to Naypyitaw, Yangon retains an air of importance unmatched elsewhere. For a large Asian city—current population pushing 4.5 million—Yangon is a welcoming and friendly place.
The metropolis is home to several of Myanmar’s most important Buddhist shrines, a wide variety of dining options and a handful of peculiar, head-scratching attractions.
Simply put, Yangon is a must.
YANGON INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Your first taste of Yangon will probably be upon arrival at Yangon International Airport (RGN). Hopefully you’ve your got your visa sorted out in advance and cruise right through the easygoing customs agents.
First order of business after collecting your bags? Cash. Myanmar is a largely cash-based society, so make sure to stop by an ATM before heading into the city. Next up? A local SIM card. Counters for all three mobile networks—MPT, Telenor and Ooredoo—offer good deals on short-term plans. 8,500 kyat (US$5.58) will net 8GB of data plus a balance for the occasional local call or text. I recommend MPT or Telenor.
GETTING INTO THE CITY
There are two reasonable options for getting into Yangon proper—taxi and public bus. Hotels may offer pre-arranged airport pickups/drop-offs, but the rates are usually ridiculous. With Yangon’s consistently cheap taxi fares and honest drivers, I have never taken the bus or considered a pre-arranged transfer.
Traffic can be horrendous. Despite the 15-20km (9-12 miles) ride, expect to be on the road for an hour or more at mid-morning or late afternoon/evening.
Politely decline any offers you receive while inside the terminal—“Chay zu bah”, thanks in Burmese—and head out to the curbside taxi stand. Prepay at the kiosk—10,000 kyat (US$6.49). Keep your receipt and you will be directed into a taxi. Being ripped off in Yangon means paying 15,000 for an airport taxi instead of 10,000. Don’t sweat it!
Omni Focus operates a 24-hour bus service between the airport and Sule Pagoda, a landmark golden stupa in the heart of downtown. It makes several stops along the way. One-way fares are just 500 kyat (US$0.32). No change is given on the bus.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Drivers are pleasant and most speak a bit of English. I have never seen a Yangon taxi use a meter, nor have I ever been ripped off in any capacity. Agree a fare before setting out, but assume reasonable quotes and honesty all around. Expect downtown fares to run between 2,000 and 5,000 kyat (US$1.30-$3.24).
Ride hailing apps Grab operate in Yangon. Credit cards are occasionally accepted, but best practice is to pay with cash.
Motorbikes were banned from most of Yangon several years ago, so what the Burmese call “saloon cars” are it… unless you’re interested in navigating the public bus system. I don’t suggest it.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodation options in Yangon run the gamut from US$5 hostels to $400/night luxury at branded properties like the Shangri-La or the famous Strand Hotel.
I prefer a middle of the road spot with a local touch, friendly staff and basic amenities. And air conditioning! Plan to pay US$20-30 per night for a room at Wai Wai’s Place, a guesthouse which doubles as a noodle bar and serves meals on a breezy rooftop overlooking Yangon. Expect mouthwatering meals, warm smiles, helpful staff and plenty of local advice.
WHERE TO EAT
Across Myanmar, the most popular dining establishment is a tea house. Think samosas, coconut pastries and mohinga, the national rice noodle and fish soup dish. Join the locals for an authentic open-air breakfast at Lucky 7 Tea Shop. Picture menus and occasionally humorous English translations make ordering a breeze. Open from 6am.
My favorite lunch/dinner is to be had at the simply named Nepali & Indian Food, a hole in the wall off a bustling downtown street. The family children tend to their schoolwork at a back table while delicious vegetarian meals come steaming out of the adjacent kitchen. The special veg thali accompanied by a mango lassi is the perfect capper to a full day of touristing. Open daily 930a-930p.
While it may not have an international reputation as a street food city, Yangon offers up a number of tasty treats. Crunchy, velvety fried bananas, hearty and sticky Shan noodles, deep fried gourd with spicy tamarind sauce, BBQ skewers threaded with chicken hearts, an endless variety of yogurt-based and fruit-flavored beverages—and that’s just on one city block! Dig in.
Check out this comprehensive guide to dining safely on Legal Nomads guide to street food.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
In a nutshell, one of Asia’s most spectacular sights. Candles and gas laps cast a warm glow throughout the entire compound after the sun sets, so try to be around after dark. That’s also when Shwedagon’s 27 metric tons of gold, 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies and 76-carat diamond atop its stupa come to life. Combined with the mix of pilgrims, devotees and monks, an utterly intoxicating atmosphere blankets the grounds. I suggest visiting from late afternoon into early evening or very early in the morning.
Hours 4a-10p. Admission 10,000 kyat (~US$7)
During colonial rule, the Secretariat was the administrative seat of British Burma. Today the complex is undergoing renovations, but remains open for fascinating and informative guided tours. Burma’s independence hero, General Aung San, was assassinated here along with eight others on July 19th, 1947. That sad occasion is commemorated annually as Martyrs’ Day. A must for history lovers.
Hours 930a-430p. Admission 9,000 kyat (US$6)
The Circle Line Train
46 kilometers of aging tracks wind their way from downtown Yangon through the northern part of the city. The route weaves through ramshackle neighborhoods and trackside markets full of vibrant produce and friendly vendors. The Circle Line is real life Myanmar, wholly authentic and eminently memorable.
Tickets 200 kyat (US$0.13)
The Drug Elimination Museum
For a very weird look into the parallel universe that is sometimes Myanmar, look no further than this cavernous building in northern Yangon. As you wander the empty halls, keep in mind one fact that hasn’t made it into the vivid exhibition galleries—Myanmar is the world’s largest producer of methamphetamine.
Hours 9a-4p, closed Monday. Admission 4,500 kyat (US$3)
WHERE TO SHOP
Make a difference with your souvenir shopping.
While many of the souvenirs on offer in Yangon’s markets are mass produced Chinese imports, several shops do things differently. Hla Day and Pomelo work with disadvantaged communities around Myanmar. In return for creating unique products, independent craftsmen, abused women and impoverished minorities gain meaningful work, a living wage and a much needed leg up in society. A must stop for anyone with a compassionate heart.
- Yangon is an early-to-bed, early-to-rise place. Embrace it. Get out early and explore the markets. Retreat to Sapel for a traditional foot massage when the midday blast furnace cranks into high gear.
- Do not drink the tap water.
- *Lightweight clothing rules the day. Linen, good, jeans, bad. Be a respectful tourist and leave the tank tops at home. Maybe even go local and get thee a longyi, Myanmar’s long, wrap-like national dress—for men and women.
About the Author:
Christopher Nowakowski is a frequent traveler, freelance writer and avowed train enthusiast. Despite leading to the occasional hospital visit, he still believes in getting off the beaten path as much as possible.
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