Some cities create lasting impressions. Yangon (Rangoon) struck us big time.
We recently visited this historic, newly flourishing city for several nights, book-ending an eight-night cruise on on the Belmond Orcaella on Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River with two stays in Yangon.
21 things to know about Yangon, Myanmar
Here are some of our random reflections on Yangon and things we learned – which you could find useful if you decide to visit the city.
Yangon is bustling with people. Outdoor markets selling fresh produce are thriving, and a walk along some of the narrow streets – flanked by old-style colonial houses full of hole-in-the-wall spots serving tea on the sidewalks and other merchandise – is a lot of fun.
Though it’s making strides and sporting some new development, Yangon has much catching up to do when compared to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. But it also holds many fabulous treasures, like pagodas, parks and lakeside walks.
Sunsets are stunning. From a golden ball of fire, the sun turns pumpkin orange, then blood red as it drops below the horizon. The air is immediately cooler. A cacaphony of birdsong assails the ears. The scent of flowers and foliage fills the nostrils.
3. Umbrellas in the park
An open umbrella on the lawn in a park likely means there’s a young couple kissing and canoodling behind it. Young folk live at home with their parents until they get married. So often the only place young lovers can be alone and away from curious eyes is behind an umbrella in a park.
4. Shwedagon Pagoda
The Shwedagon Pagoda has become a huge tourist Mecca.
Towering elevators and an escalator take fee-paying visitors up to the sprawling pagoda terrace. Most of its golden stupa is currently covered up with corrugated cardboard while it undergoes restoration, so other golden stupas we saw in Myanmar appeared more magnificent to us (e.g., the less touristy Maha Wizaya Pagoda, connected by pedestrian bridge to the Shwedagon).
But the Shwedagon Pagoda is a spectacle for all the shrines built up around it.
There are shrines with reclining Buddhas, seated Buddhas and even gaudy Disney-like Buddhas, fringed by flashing neon lights.
At sunset, the pagoda is abuzz with people. Many are tourists, but others are Buddhists from all over the world lighting incense and candles, praying, holding flower bouquets or making offerings.
5. Traditional clothing
Older men wear the traditional longyi tied around their waist, as do school children in uniform (white shirt, flip-flops and navy blue longyis). Most young men under 25 wear skinny blue jeans and dye their naturally-black hair a reddish-brown color, which they wear short and spiky.
6. Hot, hot, hot!
The heat and humidity are stifling – at 2:00 pm, you mostly want to be lying in the shade under a colorful parasol by your hotel pool, sipping from a fresh cold coconut.
Watch out on the sidewalks – one misstep and you could tumble down into huge holes in the cracked cement, perhaps into a dirty sewer below.
8. French restaurants
There are loads of eating spots with delicious local cuisine at very reasonable prices. But there are also exclusive upscale French and other restaurants, where dinner for two could set you back as much as fine dining back home.
9. Buddhist monks
Monks in Myanmar wear burgundy-colored robes. In Thailand, they dress in saffron- and orange-colored robes.
Many monks have cell phones – but often walk barefoot. All boys have to be monks for a while at some stage, from a week to a year.
10. Inya Lake
Inya Lake is an exclusive area – you drive past it on the way from the international airport to the center of Yangon. Here, beautiful colonial homes and embassies are hidden behind high stone walls topped with barbed wire. The U.S. Embassy and the family home where the popular opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, spent her years of house arrest are found on the lake’s leafy south side.
Taxis in Yangon are plentiful and cheap. They only cost about $2 to $3.50 USD to go most anywhere in the city, even for fair distances and time-consuming congested trips. On our Yangon visit, we found taxis to be the best way to get around the city.
12. A botanical delight
Everything is very lush.
Flame trees, huge ferns, banana palms, banyan trees and all other types of tropical tree, bush and plant imaginable grow everywhere, engulfing the city in green beauty. We saw few gardeners to tame the tangle.
13. Wearing a longyi
Wearing a longyi is no simple feat – you need to know how to tie a special knot to hold it in place. Beware the consequences if you don’t do it right.
George’s longyi fell to his ankles as we were exploring the Shwedagon Pagoda (he had to buy a longyi at the entrance to cover his knees, as he was wearing shorts). That got huge good-natured laughs from everyone around us.
14. Roses everywhere
We were surprised at how many vases of beautiful roses we saw – on restaurant tables, in hotel lobbies. We were told roses grow well in Yangon and a rose farm supplies the roses.
Wow – traffic! On a visit several years ago, the streets were mostly filled with bicycles and only an occasional car.
Today, the streets are clogged with vehicles. In many parts of town, there are few crosswalks, often ignored. Probably one of the most important things to know about Yangon is that cars don’t look out for pedestrians.
We quickly learned to cozy up to locals who had mastered the trick of weaving around lines of cars or sprinting across gaps in traffic.
16. Scott Market
Like to shop? Bring an extra bag – you could spend many happy hours in the Bogyoke Aung San Market (still called by its old British name, Scott Market). Jade jewelry, rubies, lacquerware, teak and rosewood pencil boxes, colorful Shan bags, silk cushion covers – you name it, it’s all for sale here. Bargaining is expected.
17. Betel nut mania
Okay, here’s one of the quirky things to know about Yangon – dentists could make a great living. Some locals only have stumps for teeth, their gums reddened and blackened from years of chewing red betel nut.
18. Savoy Hotel bar
The cozy bar of the Savoy Hotel (where we stayed on our Yangon visit) is a trip back in time. Fans whirl slowly overhead and dark wooden blinds keep the world at bay outside. Polished wood floors and black-and-white vintage photos on the walls steep you in British colonial history, as you drink chilled rose and nibbled on “crisps” (British for “potato chips”) or more substantial and tasty appies.
Commonly spotted: 20-something NGO staffers, expats and embassy folk, chatting, laughing and kissing each other on the cheeks when joining or leaving.
19. Sad sights
We sometimes saw heart-searing things, like a severely deformed man with stump legs scooting across a busy street on his hands.
Colorful, smoke-belching public buses – windows open (no air-conditioning) are packed to the rafters with local commuters. Entertaining to watch, a conductor on each bus hangs out the side of the open door, waving wildly to invite more paying customers on board or signaling to flowing traffic so the bus can join in.
21. Colonial-style architecture
Yangon must have been beautiful in its colonial heyday. Witness the iconic 1901 Strand Hotel, which we popped into for a look-see. Apart from the Strand and a few other restored properties, the city displays many now-faded, but still evocative, colonial-era buildings.
Many of the best properties are rumored to be owned by military generals , supposedly willing to sell them for the “right price” to be demolished and replaced by more profitable buildings. Heritage preservation efforts are underway to try and save properties over 50 years old from being torn down to make way for skyscrapers – but that’s a challenge.
Only time will tell if these efforts succeed.