In 2015 after half a century of virtual isolation, the government of Burma (Myanmar) reviewed their visa policy and began making it easier for foreigners to visit for the first time. People don't tend to know a lot about this country, located between Thailand, China, and India, and old cities like Mandalay and Rangoon still conjure up an air of mystery. Rangoon (now called Yangon) is the largest city in the country, and home to some amazing sites and experiences. Visit Yangon to see it for yourself before it begins to become popular with tourists. These are 10 of the very best sites in the city.
10 Great Things to do in Yangon
1. Watch the Sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda
Towering over the city like a golden behemoth, Shwedagon Paya is one of the world's largest and most impressive Buddhist zedis (reliquary pagoda). Shwedagon is Myanmar's most important holy site. Standing at an impressive 99 meters tall and decorated with thousands of gems, this golden pagoda is not only one of the top sites in Myanmar, but in the world.
Visitors must wear a longyi (a traditional Burmese sarong-type wrap) to enter Shwedagon Pagoda. Longyis are available for rent or purchase with a ticket. Tickets cost 8000kyat (about $8). The temple is best visited just before dusk, when you can watch the sunsets shining off of the golden pagoda. The temple complex is so massive, that one of the best ways to get the full experience is to hire one of the many local guides to show you around.
2. Visit Sule Pagoda
Not many cities have a street plan built around a golden 2,200 year-old pagoda, but that's just one more reason that Yangon is so special. Sule Paya, the city's second most important temple, is located downtown, surrounded by Yangon's colonial Old Town.
Arriving in the Old Town, your day of exploring should begin with a visit to Sule Paya. Although smaller and more modest than Shwedagon, the pagoda is equally steeped in myth and legend.
3. Explore Old Town
Unique to the region, downtown Yangon's old colonial buildings are not only preserved, but many are still in use serving their original purpose, such as the lilac-colored Yangon Town Hall (shown below) and the High Court.
You can easily enjoy a few hours exploring and admiring the old colonial architecture that has really left its print on the character of Yangon. After a long walk, though, you might be getting thirsty...
4. Enjoy a Beer at the Strand Hotel
Costing around $600 USD per night, the Strand is one of Southeast Asia's most famous grand hotels. A night may be way out of the price range of someone traveling on a budget, but a draught of Dagon Beer at the hotel's famous and historical Sarkies Bar is one of the city's most iconic experiences.
Get a feel of old Rangoon, from the days when the likes of Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell lived and wrote in the famous old city.
5. Walk Inside Botataung Pagoda
From the outside, Botataung Pagoda looks more or less like any other. It's smaller and less impressive than Shwedagon or Sule, and doesn't look so impressive at first. However, unlike most other Burmese pagodas, Botataung is hollow on the inside, and visitors may enter and walk through the golden corridors leading to the usually-hidden central reliquary which is said to hold a relic of the Buddha himself.
It's not uncommon to come upon a red-robed monk sitting and meditating in one of the corners of the glittering golden halls. At the reliquary, people pray and toss money into the zedi's center in offering.
6. Visit the Aung San House Museum
General Bogyoke Aung San, 5th Premier of British Burma, national independence movement leader, and father to current State Councillor Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of the most important historical and political figures of 20th Century Burma. Although assassinated shortly before Burmese independence, General Aung San is remembered as one of the most important leaders of the national independence movement. The Aung San House Museum is an excellent site for anyone who is interested in history.
The well-preserved colonial-style home where General Aung San lived and where Aung San Suu Kyi grew up is a fascinating piece of history. The General's furniture and even his car is still kept at the museum. Join an English-language guided tour available at the museum's front desk for the best experience.
7. Walk Down Book Street
One of the coolest streets in Yangon's Old Town is the famous "book street", where dozens of makeshift bookshops have been set up all along the side of the road. Many of the books are old, and several don't even have their covers, but that doesn't matter to a book lover!
As an English teacher, I was happy (and surprised) to see that many of the books were in English!
8. Eat Noodles at a Local Tea House
You can't visit Myanmar without stopping in for lunch at one of the ubiquitious tea houses. A delicious bowl of Shan noodles and a small glass of famous Burmese milk tea will only set you back a dollar or two! Most tea houses in Yangon are family owned, and the children who work with their parents can usually speak enough English for your order. Don't be surprised if they want to chat and practice their English with you!
When you visit a tea house, you'll be seated at a short table, often shared with other guests. Tea houses are like community centers, where friends will gather to catch up over a cup of tea and a bowl of noodles.
9. Shop at Bogyoke Aung San (Scott's) Market
Bogyoke Aung San Market (formerly Scott's Market) is a huge covered bazaar in Yangon. Closed only on Monday, the market is a great place to buy gifts and souvenirs, and is popular for gems, jewelry, silk, clothing, handicrafts, and all sorts of cool stuff.
It also may or may not be a well-known location for black market currency exchange and a way to get around the high government exchange rates and strict local rules about which banknotes are accepted in the country, but you didn't hear that from me!
10. Ride the Circle Line Train around the City
but there is no better way to enjoy the Burmese countryside and the rural neighborhoods surrounding Yangon than by taking the city's Circle Line Train! The Circle Line is the city's public rail service, which circles the city on a 46 km (28 mi) loop, leaving and returning to Yangon Central Train Station.
The slow and peaceful trip takes about three hours, and a ticket costs $1. Tickets can be purchased at the station, and the train departs frequently. Although the train circles the city, the area surrounding Yangon is very rural, and it will give the rider a chance to really see what local life is like. The countryside is beautiful, and it's well-worth spending a half-day on the Circle Line, exploring the city. Of course, if you don't have enough time, you can always hop off at any station and take a quick taxi back to the city center.
As cheesy and cliche as it may sound, Myanmar really feels like a land of magic and mystery. It is still relatively undeveloped and extremely un-touristed, and we recommend visiting before the first major wave of tourism comes to change the country forever.
If you are interested in Myanmar, please check out my second book, Across A Golden Land, my travelogue of a journey by land across the country from Yangon to Bagan. Available on Amazon.com