Yangon is a bustling, busy city, much like any other Asian capital city. 3 days in Yangon is the perfect taster for travellers seeking to understand the heart of Myanmar, previously known as a Burma, as the country slowly opens up to the global community; though as with any other place, the more time you spend in Yangon, the more detail and nuance you will discover.
Day 1: Downtown Yangon
Start off with lunch in downtown Yangon. The streets here are a dense, tight grid and along one of them you will find Danuphyu Daw Saw Yee Myanma Restaurant, which serves traditional Burmese cuisine. There wasn’t an English menu when we got there, but you don’t really need one. Proceed to the back of the restaurant, where a selection of dishes are arrayed in warmers. Point, or ask for your choices – we wanted fish, and a chicken curry with white rice, which the staff understood easily, then take a seat at one of the tables. A sour vegetable soup will be served, as will assorted side dishes like fresh vegetables, which you’re supposed to dip in relishes such as ngapi ye, a pungent, fishy dip that reminded me of Malaysian cincalok.
Fully satiated now, take your time to wander around the streets and notice the details. How the merchandise is displayed in the colonial style shop fronts, so reminiscent of the kaki lima in Malaysia. How there are pulley and doorbell systems rigged up so one can call up to the top floor of any building from the street itself. How the paint is cracking and peeling in many layers, each colour muddier than the last. How many smiles are given as you walk down the streets of Yangon.
The next stop is Bogyoke Aung San Markets, known as Scott’s Markets when Yangon was called Rangoon. There is some excellent shopping to be had here; there are gemstones, gold, fabric, and souvenirs aplenty. A good purchase is a Burmese longyi, the traditional dress worn by all in Myanmar – both men and women. The longyi is elegant, cooling in the heat and best of all, helps travellers to fit and feel comfortable. Other traditional Myanmar handicraft include beautiful lacquerware. As with most Asian markets – remember that you must know how to bargain!
Any time is a good time for tea in Myanmar. Do as the locals do and pull up a tiny stool by the side of a teahouse and order tea sweetened with condensed milk, lapi ye. There will be a kettle or thermos of hot water on the table – this contains watery jasmine or green tea, and the Burmese drink this as a chaser to the main event. There will often be snacks like samosas also on offer. Taking tea in Yangon is also a fantastic opportunity for people watching!
With only 3 days in Yangon, you have to make the most of every moment. In the heat of the day, Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon’s most famous attraction, swelters. The best time to visit Shwedagon is at dusk, just after the sun sets. The pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site. Rising almost 1,000m, the main stupa can be seen from almost every corner in Yangon. In the glowing dusk, the golden stupa is bright and beautiful and almost unreal, covered in so much gold. It is crowned by a hti, a seven tiered structure of iron plated in gold and hung with gold and silver bells and studded with 1,100 diamonds totalling 278 carats, as well as other precious gems. The final touch? The golden orb at the very top, covered in over 4,000 diamonds and tipped with a single, 76 carat diamond.
There is more to Shwedagon Pagoda than just bling, of course. There are many more stupas, chedis and open walled praying halls. Monks sit in meditation, families gather to pray, and couples come to spend time together. Guides loiter around the entrance – hiring one gives you a much deeper insight into Shwedagon, but you can just as easily read up on it as you explore. Lastly, ensure you are appropriately dressed – knees and shoulders should be covered, and leave your shoes in the cupboards at the entrance.
Day 2: Yangon walking tour
The best way to get to know a city is by walking its streets. Start off with a breakfast of mohinga, the ubiquitous Burmese noodle soup. Then make your way to Sule Pagoda, sitting serenely in the midst of a traffic circle. After the visit to Shwedagon last night, there is no need to enter Sule. The next stop is the once-grand heart of colonial Yangon – City Hall, the Immanuel Baptist Church, High Court Building and the imposing facades of the Inland Water Transport and Myanma Port Authority. The last stop is Strand Hotel, the perfect spot for a quick break or a long lunch.
Along Pansodan street, stop to peruse the books and magazines on offer along the sidewalk. We purchased old, as-new copies of Time Magazine from the 1950s, the covers still crisp, the colours still bright. As you retrace your steps, keep an eye out for the packed eating stalls along 35th and 36th street and if you haven’t refueled, consider stopping here for some lah pey thoke, traditional Burmese tea leaf salad and refreshing sugar cane juice.
After all that walking around, end your day with cocktails on the rooftop of the Alfa Hotel, with an unbeatable view of Shwedagon Pagoda. For a few hours each night, there is also a traditional music performance. The rooftop is cool with river breezes at night, and the perfect place to relax.
Day 3: Circle Line tour
On your last day in Yangon, jump on the Yangon Circle Line. For about US$1, you can sit and enjoy the view of Yangon and the surrounding country side. This slow moving commuter train takes 3 hours, and gives travellers a no-holds-barred view of life in Yangon, very different from the glossy pictures in tourist brochures. Trains leave from Yangon Train Station, but hours vary, so it’s best to go early and ask.
In the evening, explore the streets of Chinatown and the shops along the waterfront. There’s smoky Kheng Hock Keong temple to visit as well as Botataung Paya near the jetty. If you’re pagoda-ed out, catch a ferry across the river to Dalah instead, for a locals perspective of life by the water. Return on the ferry and choose from the many streetside grills along 19th street for a seafood feast. A fitting end to an action-packed 3 days in Yangon.