There are not sufficient words in the English language to describe my five day stint in Yangon, Myanmar. While the words breathtaking, hopeful, and amazing, are all great words to describe my time, they do not completely and accurately describe my experience in Yangon. The only word that can accurately describe my experience is the Italian word, rocambolesco. Derived from the French word, rocambolesque, when translated it means an abundance of things, namely very crazy, full of hazards, really lively, and daring. My time in Yangon was all of this, full of adventure, hazardous, and insane, but it opened my eyes to some of the more pressing issues the country faces and how the western media has blatantly ignored it; but that is for another day. While there are the pressing issues the country faces, there is also the atmosphere of hope in the country and their wonderful people. To anyone thinking about spending time in Yangon, the city cannot be conquered in less than three days, give yourself ample time to get lost in the city and absorb and see all that it has to offer.
When you first arrive at the airport in Yangon you will notice how new and updated it is. Construction on the international terminal and a new domestic terminal finished at the end of 2016 with the airport now being able to serve 6 million passengers annually. Leaving the airport you will more than likely be approached by taxi drivers and their apprentices asking where you are going and if you need a taxi. Uber, Lyft, and Grab, among other ride sharing services are not yet fully available in Yangon and it will more than likely be a few years before they break into the market. Make sure to know which street you are going to and have your address handy to show your taxi driver just in case. None of the taxis in Yangon have meters, so negotiate a price with your driver before you leave. From the airport to central Yangon, anywhere from 6th street to 41st street, it should be about 6000 to 9000 Kyats per person depending on what street you need to go to. Be aware that some drivers charge per person so it will not necessarily be cheaper if you split a taxi with other people. On the drive to your accommodation you will notice that the city does not have a shortage of taxis as they are quite literally everywhere and a large percentage of the locals use taxis as well.
Before I arrived in Yangon I read a good bit about the city and what to expect. I knew that it was a developing country recently opened up for tourism and that there were not many scams currently occurring. While I am usually always aware of what is occurring around me sometimes you just make blind decisions without thinking. When we took the ferry to the other side of the river we were approached almost as soon as we got off the ferry by a tri-shaw driver who offered to show us around the village. Since we were on a time crunch we told him that we only wanted 30 minutes, no more than that and told him that we could pay 6000 Kyat each for the 30 minutes. Our drivers ended up taking us around the village for an hour and a half. While I did appreciate the sights we got to see and how much they shocked me, I did not appreciate during and after when our drivers tried to scam us. After taking us to the part of the village where the poorest live and telling us about the people’s lives, our drivers took us to a shop that sells/gives rice to the people in the village. There were bags upon bags filled up with different types of rice and for the price of 35000 Kyats you could buy a 50 kg bag and donate it to the village to feed the people. Looking back I am fairly certain this was a scam since I have heard many a story in Southeast Asia where drivers take tourists to certain stores and get a kickback for anything they buy while in the store. Upon researching this more it seems as though this is a common scam and that the rice is never actually given to the people in the village. Furthermore, when our tri-shaw drivers finally took us back to the ferry they tried to charge us for a three hour ‘tour’ and make us pay 20,000 kyat each when we knew for a fact that we had only been on the tour for an hour and a half thanks to the multiple photos we took. Upon trying to pay one of the drivers began to yell at us and try to intimidate us into paying more. By keeping a level head and essentially telling them that we did not have even that much money on us, which was a lie, we were able to just pay them 18,000 kyat in total. We argued back and forth with the drivers for a good 15 minutes before we we shoved them the 18000 kyats and started to walk away very fast since we were already incredibly short on time thanks to them almost refusing to take us back to the ferry port. In short, be incredibly careful if you do take the ferry to the other side and explore on foot, not on tri-shaw.
Another scam I ran into was in central Yangon in the areas surrounding the pagodas. While visiting any of the pagodas, there will be tiny children who are pretending to be monks and they will approach you and stare at you until you either ignore them long enough or put money in the bowl they are carrying around with them. It is important to understand that as a religion Buddhism does not allow for monks to ask for money from people. On another note, do not give money to a religious institution when traveling or at home unless you know where that money is explicitly going. If you want to help, volunteer your time.
Yangon is full of delicious food that cannot be missed. Starting from 6 am the locals begin to cook and eat breakfast, whether it be shan noodles, durian, or a quick stop at a tea stand, there are plenty of breakfast options around. My preferred breakfast was usually an iced coffee from one of the burgeoning coffee shops around Yangon. Café Genius on 31st street has a great selection of coffee drinks and also sells Burmese coffee beans from the Shan state highlands. Expect to pay about 1000-4000 Kyats per drink depending on where you are in Yangon. I recommend Craft Cafe, Bar Boon, and Baker Secrets.
For lunch, stop at one of the many vendors selling street food. The best food I had during my time in Yangon was from street food vendors. If you enjoy meat and fried foods, street food is perfect for you. Since I’m a vegetarian I did have some trouble finding street food that didn’t have meat. Most of the time you can ask the vendors “no meat?” and they will understand what you’re saying. I recommended trying a samosa salad (pictured) and street pancakes with fresh coconut sprinkled on top.
Dinner is a different time in Yangon. Most of the locals congregate at restaurants to sit down, drink, and socialize after their work day. One of my favorite meals that I had in Yangon was at the Rangoon Tea House which specializes in Burmese food with Western standards. The restaurant was clean and filled with locals chatting over drinks and food. The tea leaf salad, a Burmese staple, was absolutely delicious. Other great dinner spots are 999 Shan Noodle Shop where you can get a bowl of shan noodles for 1500 Kyats, Shwe Mingalar has 1000 Kyat mojitos that are absolutely delicious, and 19th street in Chinatown where you can walk up and down and pick nearly any of the restaurants for great food.
If you are staying in central Yangon, anywhere from about 6th street to 31st street, a large majority of sights are within walking distance. Sule Pagoda is about a half mile walk or so, Shwedagon Pagoda is about a 1.5 mile walk, the National Museum is about a mile walk, and Bo Gyoke market is about a 0.6 mile walk. I highly recommend walking around and just getting lost in Yangon. The city is generally very safe and I didn’t feel unsafe of threatened at all during my time there. Before you go be sure to download the apps maps.me or Google maps so that you are able to find places and use the map without data. Other sights not to miss are the central rail station, the circular train, City Hall, Central Park, and the Sein Yaung Chi Pagoda. I also highly recommend taking the ferry over to the other side of the river. The ferry entrance is located right across from the Strand Hotel and is 4000 Kyat for foreigners. Once you get to the other side you can walk around on your own or hire a tri-shaw to take you around. Be wary of anyone who approaches you concerning tri-shaws though, this is how I got scammed in Myanmar. There are plenty of sights to look at, namely the Shwe Sayan Pagoda, Moe Kaung Pagoda, and the Chu Chu workshop that specializes in making products out of street plastic. If you do hire a tri-shaw driver, they will more than likely take you around town and show you the effects that the 2008 cyclone had on the area outside the city. The vast majority of the village is still without electricity and running water and is vastly polluted with trash. It is heartbreaking and quite eye-opening to experience.
I found the price of souvenirs to be about the same prices as other main cities in Southeast Asia. While Yangon offers are large selection of jade and quatz items, among other precious jewels and gemstones, it is vital to understand that some of the stones are not real. Always be wary of the price, if it seems too good to be true than it probably is. On another note, it is extremely difficult to find a postcard in the city. The first postcard I found was at the airport following the check-in counters. If you want cheap souvenirs go to the Bo Gyoke market and adjacent mall or the street market on Shwedagon Pagoda road. There are also plenty of shops offering goods created from locals suffering from HIV. HLA Day goods sells these items along with some shops on the upper level of the Bo Gyoke market.
From the time you get to Yangon to the moment you leave you will notice how there is a sense of hope in the air. The locals are hopeful for the future after just about 50 years or so of strict military rule in the country and oppression of speech and freedom. Everyone always wants to know where you are from and practice their English with you. Don’t be wary if you are approached by locals asking questions as the vast majority of them are harmless and just want to talk with you and practice their English.
It also important to understand that dress is very conservative in Yangon. In the pagodas it is customary for females to cover their legs down to their ankles. Men are typically allowed to wear shorts in the pagodas without question. Around town you will see both men and women wearing longyis which are traditional skirts that wrap around and either tie in the front or in the back. Very few men wear pants and most women wear either skirts or longyis. If you walk out wearing shorts expect to be stared at everywhere you go since a vast majority of the population does not show their legs.
And that’s my complete guide to Yangon, Myanmar! If you have any suggestions not mentioned or comments, let me know, thanks for reading!