Formerly known as Rangoon, Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, remains the cultural and commercial heart of the country despite losing its status as the capital (which is now Naypyidaw). There’s much to see and do in this colourful, vibrant city, and with the recent news of visa exemption from 1 December 2016 for Singaporeans, there’s no reason not to go. And here are our top five experiences to help you plan your trip:
Visit Yangon’s Iconic Pagodas
The resplendent pagodas that dot the landscape reflect how close religion is to the hearts of Myanmar’s people. Though the pagodas are dedicated to Buddhism, the majority religion in Myanmar, everyone is free to visit the sites in Yangon.
We, and pretty much everyone who’s been there, would definitely recommend a trip to Shwedagon Pagoda. Rumored to hold relics of 4 Buddhas, such as the staff of one and 8 strands of hair from another, it’s revered as the most sacred pagoda in the whole of Myanmar. Historical and religious significance aside, it’s a sight to behold, and is actually calm and serene despite the number of visitors daily.
Other pagodas worth having a look at are the Sule and Botataung Pagodas. Sule Pagoda’s unconventional location in the middle of a roundabout in downtown Yangon means that you might not have to go out of your way to catch a glimpse of it. It’s also served as a gathering point for anti-government protests. A few streets east is the hollow Botataung Pagoda, which means that yes, you can walk through it. It has a maze-like hallway with many Buddhist relics on display for visitors to pore over.
Eat Shan Noodles
If you’re looking for food that is quintessentially Burmese, look no further. Shan Noodles is a variant of traditional Burmese cuisine called Meeshay. A specialty from the Shan region in eastern Myanmar, the fundamentals of the dish are rice noodles and meat (either chicken or pork) sauce. The dish is usually finished with either a rice flour gel or soup, and a variety of vegetables can be added.
Of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you where to get these delicious noodles. 999 Shan Noodle Shop is the go-to choice for tourists since it’s clean, inexpensive ($3.50), and the menus are available in English. However, if you prefer somewhere with more locals, by all means ask your hosts or hotel concierge for their favourite Shan Noodle shop!
Get a Taste of Yangon’s Colonial Past
Myanmar was under British rule from 1824 to 1948. Remnants of the colonial period is still very much visible in Yangon, mostly in the form of colonial style buildings. If you’re a fan of colonial architecture or pretty sights in general, it is worth a trek around downtown Yangon where the buildings of interest are conveniently clustered.
Places of note worth a look are Yangon’s City Hall, Ministers Office, and Region Court. The Region Court is close to the Strand Road riverfront, which is also incidentally home to a host of colonial architecture. End the day at the Sule Shangri-La‘s colonial-styled Gallery Bar and unwind over a refreshing Mandalay Sour (made with local rum) and some really delicious Nachos (we’re not kidding).
Explore the Markets
A holiday just doesn’t seem complete without a trawl through a good old-fashioned street market, does it? The large Bogyoke Market in central Yangon is the epitome of that experience. You’ll find the usual suspects: footwear, clothes, bags, and handicrafts perfect for souvenirs. Of the assorted handicraft items available, the Burmese lacquer ware was probably the most unique to Myanmar, though they’re not exactly cheap. Haggling is common here; so make full use of the opportunity to hone your skills.
For something a little more unique to Bogyoke Market, look out for the jewelry section, since Myanmar is particularly known for its rubies, sapphires, and jade. Stick to the places that give you an invoice and certification for any jewelry or gems purchased if you’re interested in purchasing. This way, you avoid being scammed and circumvent potential trouble with customs.
The Bogyoke Market is closed on Mondays, so be sure to plan around that. Another popular option is the Theingyi Zei Market, which caters more to locals with wholesale foodstuffs, textiles, and traditional herbs.
Experience a Local Festival
Immerse yourself in the local culture by participating in one of Yangon’s many festivals. The Thingyan Water Festival is celebrated across the whole country, but the biggest celebration is definitely in Yangon. Similar to Songkran in Thailand, it’s rooted in Buddhist tradition with the water meant to metaphorically wash away one’s sins and impurities. Usually around mid-April, the festival spans 4 days leading up to Myanmar’s New Year’s Day, with the partying entering full swing on day 2.
Things can get crazy, so expect difficulties with transport. Most businesses will also be closed, so don’t schedule your trip to coincide with the entire festival duration if you want to do some shopping.
For something tamer, consider Yangon’s local festivals. The Shwedagon Pagoda festival commemorates the enshrining of the sacred Buddhist relics in the pagoda. Taking places late February to early March depending on the lunar calendar, visitors congregate to perform rituals like watering the sacred Bodhi tree as well as offering donations.
Top image by Ralf-André Lettau