It has taken me a while to put this postcard together, Myanmar (Burma) has been a bucket list destination for me for as long as I can remember, but a visit was tricky to pull off: visa issues, then problems getting in and around, then issues with accommodation all being booked up by agents…
None were insurmountable if you really wanted to go, but I just never got around to it – until November 2015.
Arriving by air, your best option in to town is a taxi; in common with taxi drivers worldwide, your driver will regale you with tales of horrendous traffic on the way and anticipated delays – we encountered minor delay and the roads are quite good, I think they are just softening you up for a tip.
Yangon seems to divide in to two main areas: the old part near the river and the rest heading north from Bogyoke Rd. The ‘old part’ is where most of the shopping and mid market hotels are and is very crowded, with narrow streets and heavy traffic, the northern part is much more spread out with broad tree lined avenues and lots of parks. This is a simplistic view, but on a short visit you will be mostly in these areas.
Most of the shopping is of a domestic nature – there are not many tourist style shops. This is very much a working town and facilities are limited; simply put, there are not many places to go. Food is fine but places to sit and get a drink or coffee are limited – they just don’t have the tourist infrastructure yet.
This is in part why hotels in Yangon (and most of Myanmar) are extraordinarily expensive compared to neighbouring countries – lack of supply, tho’ it is also rumored that ‘certain elements’ take a large commission.
The situation has become worse since the country opened up, as agents now pre book swathes of accommodation for tours, if you just turn up with no reservations your options may be limited, and frankly rather grim.
The main reason for wanting to visit Yangon was to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, and it doesn’t disappoint. Almost a hundred meters high, covered in real gold and with the last 5 meters encrusted with semi and precious jewels it really is an incredible sight.
The structure is huge – I have even seen it from the air when flying into Bangkok – and include a shot from the plane when leaving Yangon – its easily the largest building in the city.
As a foreigner you will have to pay $6 to get in, and of course remove shoes. A handy tip is to take a carrier bag to carry them in, you can leave them at the door, but the site is huge and you may leave by a different door, and/ or have difficulty locating your shoes if its busy.
There is a dress code in operation and its wise to have legs and arms (at least shoulders) covered. Standards can be variable, and the strictness applied seems to vary by who’s on duty, but I take the view that its better to be prepared than to be turned away.
There are many temples within the complex and all are exquisitely decorated, around the base of the Shwedagon are stations for each of the eastern zodiac signs – find yours and make an offering… There are ‘guides’ who will explain this for a small fee.
Shopping and eating
There are some restaurants near the Shwedagon (I liked Feel at 124 Pyi Htaung Su Yeikthar Street), where they have a large selection of Myanmar and other food and it seems used by local families as well as tourists.
Monsoon (85-87 Thein Phyu Rd) was the closest place we found to a conventional restaurant, and features food from most countries in South-East Asia. Thai owned I think.
999 Shan Noodle Shop on 34th Street deserves a mention, great food and prices, with fun staff.
For evening drinks your options are very limited. One night we spent an hour in a beer house – a bit like a junk room with a few tables, there was someone in a neighbouring room with a karaoke session in full swing; when we attempted to go in the staff blocked the way and informed us that they ‘wanted to be alone’ – perfectly understandable given the fucking racket that was coming through the walls… The last night of the stay we ended up in the Shangri-La hotel bar with a $40 bottle of wine; as I said, your options are limited.
For shopping you can try the Bogyoke Market, unless you are in the market for jewels and know your stuff, its just another Asian market with the usual fayre.
A widely recommended half day trip is the circular train, it certainly kills half a day and if you need to do that then by all means go to the station and take the train – otherwise don’t bother. Check departure times with you hotel staff.
You quickly get in to the suburbs, but its not that interesting really… Takes about 2 and half hours to complete the circuit.
It was an interesting visit and I would go again – but no rush… Yangon feels like where it is – half way to India – it reminded me very much of southern Indian cities, but with an eastern twist.
There is not enough infrastructure to support a longer visit (for me anyway), tho I guess this is a good base for trips up country.
The money is voluminous like in India too – exchanging about $200 at the airport will get you wads of cash.