Though it is technically no longer the capital, Yangon is still the de-facto centre of Burma, possessing a population of approximately 5 million people. Ever since the military junta dissolved itself several years ago, embraced democracy and opened the country up to development, many business-people and tourists have flooded in, no longer handcuffed by burdensome restrictions or their conscience. What these travellers have found is a city that (for now) had been frozen in time, with a culture, building stock, and ways of doing things that hearken back to the ways things were across Southeast Asia fifty years ago.
They are also increasingly discovering a city filled with world class Buddhist relics and a lively market culture, making it an excellent place to begin your trip to Myanmar!
The biggest must-see attraction in Myanmar by far is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a massive complex of spires, stupas and chedis situated at the top of Singuttara Hill. This sacred spot in Buddhist lore reputedly houses eight hairs of the Buddha, and has been around since the 6th Century AD. Plan to spend much of the day here, as there are many shrines, relics, and monuments to explore and examine.
Another significant Buddhist temple to visit is the Sule Pagoda, home to more strands of the Buddha’s hair, and site of the tense 2007 protests against what was a military dictatorship. Covered from head to toe in gold leaf, the many spires of the Sule Pagoda is an awe-inspiring sight to behold, so take lots of photos! Those looking to participate in a Burmese Buddhist tradition should follow the lead of locals and pour water on the Buddha that represents the day that you were born (ex. If you were born on a Tuesday, pour the sacred water on the Tuesday Buddha).
One more pagoda you should hit when you go temple tramping is the Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda. This religious site contains of the largest reclining Buddhas you’ll likely ever see, rising up 60 feet in the air, and spanning 216 feet in length, or longer than a regulation American football field.
Finally, visit the house of one of this countries’ most revered leaders of the past, Aung San. The father of the famous democracy activist, and politician Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 by paramilitary soldiers with links to former prime minister U Saw. This house was kept in its original condition, and contains many of his personal effects, such as his car and his suit.
Markets And Meals
The streets of Yangon are filled with culinary and commercial evidence of the multi-ethnic makeup of this city, so wandering through various parts of town is an excellent way to experience the true spirit of this place. Start by paying a visit to the Chinese and Indian sectors of Yangon, where the smell and sight of the food will intoxicate your senses, leading you to possibly overdose on dim sum and naan. One place in Chinatown where you should hang out and have a meal is 19th Street, where BBQ stalls abound, and just about any possible meat on a stick that you can think of is sold here.
Early in the evening, be sure to hit up a beer station to have a drink with the Burmese locals. A mainstay of what is otherwise a pretty sleepy city for nightlife, mostly men gather on the sidewalks after work to have cheap glasses of beer (about 600 kyat, or roughly $0.65 USD) before turning in for the night.
For those looking to purchase a piece of Burma before flying back home, there are a couple of markets worth considering. The best known outdoor market is Bogyoke Aung San Market. This old market, in existence since 1920, offers a wide array of traditional crafts, clothing, and lacquerware. Prices tend to be greatly inflated for foreigners though, so bargain hard!
If you like some night market action, the Anawrahta Road Night Market is an excellent choice, if a little poorly lit. It adds to the atmosphere though, so enjoy the spectacle as food sellers hawk everything from freshly caught seafood to flowers, to temperate zone fruits and vegetables, trucked in from the highlands of Shan State.