Though no longer the capital, YANGON remains Myanmar’s commercial heart and also the core of its spiritual life, thanks to the glorious Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda), while its colonial-era buildings (decaying as many of them may be) give the downtown area a historical charm which new capital Nay Pyi Taw – and Mandalay for that matter – will never possess. Whether you get lost in the city’s animated markets, seek out beer and barbecue in Chinatown, visit Hindu temples or take an eye-opening ride on a commuter train, Yangon’s streets provide a vibrant and engaging introduction to the country.
Most travellers spend most of their time downtown, in the grid of streets north of the Yangon River that has Sule Paya at its heart. The main reason to head out of the downtown area is Shwedagon Paya, although there a number of other attractions further north including the shady shores of Kandawgyi Lake, busy (but almost tourist-free) Hledan Market and the enormous marble Buddha at Kyauk Taw Gyi.
There is a long history of settlement in this part of the delta, with the Mon village of Dagon growing up around Singuttara Hill (on which Shwedagon Paya is located) during the sixth century AD. After the area was conquered by King Alaungpaya in 1755, the village was renamed Yangon and its importance as a port grew. In 1852 it was seriously damaged by the invading British, who called it Rangoon and rebuilt it to their own plans; in 1885 the British made Rangoon their capital after expelling the last Burmese king from Mandalay.
The city was occupied by the Japanese during the World War II, but bomb damage was relatively limited. The decades of international isolation since then have meant that most of the city’s heritage buildings have been neglected, and in 2005 many were abandoned completely as the government moved its ministries north to new capital Nay Pyi Taw. Despite this, Yangon is still Myanmar’s commercial centre and has started to attract developers following the recent easing of international sanctions. It remains to be seen to what extent the city’s architecture will be revitalized.
Top image: Pagoda Shwedagon © Sakdawut Tangtongsap/Shutterstock
Finding a budget room in Yangon is getting harder and harder, and it’s best to book ahead to stand a chance of finding anything affordable (particularly at weekends or during holidays).
Bogyoke Aung San Market and around
Also known as Scott Market, the huge Bogyoke Aung San Market, on Bogyoke Aung San Road, is popular with tourists looking for souvenirs such as paintings, puppets, lacquerware and jewellery. It’s well worth a wander, even if you’re not buying anything, and also a fine place for lunch – look out for kyeq k’auq-s’wèh (noodles in garlic oil, with pork and a watery soup), nàn-gyì thouq (cold rice-noodle “salad”) and avocado shakes.
The streets to the south of the market are arguably even more interesting, particularly Theingyi Zei (between 27th Street and Shwedagon Pagoda Road) and the street market on 25th Street. Both are aimed purely at locals, with lower prices than Bogyoke Aung San Market.
The large riverside complex of Botataung Paya has a 40m-high golden stupa at its heart and includes a bamboo-shaded picnic area popular with families. It is said to have a history stretching back more than 2000 years, but the buildings were destroyed by RAF bombers in 1943 and rebuilt after the country gained independence.
Unusually, the rebuilt stupa is hollow and contains a series of atmospheric and dimly lit chambers with gold-covered walls, where visitors roam and monks meditate. The chambers surround the pagoda’s relic, a hair from the Buddha stored in a case embellished with gold and gems. Outside the pagoda complex, opposite the main entrance, is a popular nat (spirit) shrine.
The colonial core
The streets around Sule Paya contain many of Yangon’s most interesting colonial-era buildings, including several abandoned by the government when it moved to Nay Pyi Taw. On the northeast of the roundabout is the imposing and still active City Hall, based on a British design but with ornamentation inspired by Bagan’s temples. Just east of this is the now-empty former Immigration Department, originally built as a department store that was once described as “the Harrods of the East”.
Nearby, bookstall-lined Pansodan Street is a treasure-trove of colonial buildings including the High Court, built from 1905–11 in a style typical of the British Empire in India. The building is still used for the same function, but the country’s highest court is now in Nay Pyi Taw. The southern end of Pansodan Street was once home to the most prestigious businesses in Yangon including several in the old Sofaer’s Building at no. 62, which was built by a Baghdadi Jew and housed legal and financial offices as well as shops selling imported luxury goods. It now contains the Lokanat Art Gallery. Look out also for the Internal Revenue Department, on the same street, which has Art Deco flourishes.
At the corner with Strand Road are the Port Authority and Yangon Division Court buildings. A left turn leads to the Strand Hotel, built in 1901 and – post-restoration – once again one of the city’s best hotels.
The easiest way to get a taste of small-town and village life in the Ayeyarwady delta is to take a five-minute ferry ride from the Pansodan Street jetty on Strand Road, straight across the river to Dala township. Rickshaw drivers wait on the other side and offer half-day tours, usually including rural villages and monasteries, for K4000–5000. The contrast with urban Yangon, just a stone’s throw away, is an eye-opener.
Drinking and nightlife
Yangon’s nightlife is getting livelier, but it still has a long way to go before it’s anything close to that of somewhere like Bangkok. If you’re just looking for a drink then there are plenty of simple “beer stations” around, with those in Chinatown (roughly 18th to 24th sts) typically staying open latest. With a few exceptions, nightclubs in Yangon tend to involve little dancing; many have nightly “fashion shows” or karaoke. You may encounter prostitution in some nightclubs, but it is low-key compared to many other large cities in the region.
You can’t walk far in Yangon without coming across a few street food stalls. One of the most popular places for an outdoor meal (and a draught beer or two) is the lively collection of barbecue stalls on 19th St, which set up from around 5pm until 9pm. You pay by the stick, and should be able to fill up for less than K2000; look out also for the marinated pork ribs.
Hledan produce market, southwest of Inya Lake and close to Hledan stop on the Circle Line train route, is a great place to experience daily life well off the tourist trail. Hundreds of food stalls set up each day in the surrounding streets (6–11am & 3–11pm), particularly “50ft Street” behind the market, and it’s really buzzing in the evenings as its proximity to the University of Yangon makes it a popular student hangout.
Kandawgyi and Inya lakes
Boasting great views of Shwedagon Paya to the west, the boardwalk around and (in places) across Kandawgyi Lake is a good place for a walk. There’s less shade at the much larger Inya Lake to the north, but the southern shore is the site of Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. The road is now open – it was off-limits when she was under house arrest – but there is little that can actually be seen there today.
Kyauk Taw Gyi
A huge seated Buddha makes Kyauk Taw Gyi pagoda, situated around 14km northwest of the centre – close to the airport and infamous Insein prison – one of Yangon’s most impressive Buddhist sites. It was carved from a single piece of marble near Mandalay in 1999, then brought to Yangon by boat and train. You can reach it by train yourself (it’s close to Insein station on the Circle Line) or by taxi.
Maha Wizaya Paya
The modern pagoda of Maha Wizaya Paya, just southeast of Shwedagon Paya, isn’t anything special on the outside but the interior comes as a surprise: the ceiling has been painted with a Buddhist zodiac and the central area is often stuffed with offerings, which makes the whole place smell of flowers.
The National Museum on Pyay Road is a litany of missed opportunities to showcase Myanmar’s rich culture and history. Most exhibits languish in poorly lit cases with no explanatory text, with the notable exception of the prominently displayed Lion Throne of the last Burmese king.
The vibrant heart of Buddhist Myanmar, the huge golden stupa of Shwedagon Paya is located less than 3km northwest of the downtown area, and is visible throughout much of the city. Legends claim that a shrine was first built here during the lifetime of the Buddha to house eight of his hairs which were brought back by two merchants, but the current structure was rebuilt most recently in 1775 following an earthquake.
It’s possible to approach along covered stairways from any of the four cardinal directions, or a wheelchair-accessible lift in the south. The huge, solid main stupa may dominate the 14-acre platform at the top, but there’s a whole host of smaller shrines, stupas and Buddha images surrounding it. For many locals, a visit to the pagoda is a social event as well as a religious one, a chance to catch up with friends and family or to meet with business contacts. The pagoda is particularly atmospheric in the evenings, which is also when novice monks visit in the hope of practicing their English with foreigners.
As at all Buddhist holy places, you should walk clockwise around Shwedagon. The first thing many Buddhists do is visit the appropriate shrine for the day of their birth, offering flowers, lighting a candle and pouring water on the image. Next they will visit each of the four large Buddhas, one facing each entry point. Look out also for a Buddha on the south side which has been carved from a single piece of jade, and the damaged Singu Min Bell on the west side – the British looted it in 1825 but when they got it to the river their ship sank.
A Tamil temple at the corner of 51st Street and Anawrahta Road, Sri Devi is a brightly coloured change from the usual white-and-gold Buddhist pagodas. Puja (ritual offerings to the deities) takes place at 8am and 6pm, while the temple’s biggest annual festival is on June 10. The priests prefer you not to take photos of the statues of gods.
Sule Paya and Mahabandoola Garden
When the British drew up a plan for the city’s streets, they put Sule Paya at the heart; today its golden central stupa, 45m tall, is still one of the most striking landmarks in downtown Yangon. The pagoda is surrounded by a ring of shops and forms a busy roundabout, which buses hurtle around throughout the day, but is surprisingly calm inside. You’ll be pestered by unlicensed moneychangers around here, but don’t be tempted – they’re notorious for scamming the unwary.
Just southeast of Sule Paya is Mahabandoola Garden, a bit scruffy but another good place to escape the downtown bustle. Its statue of Queen Victoria is long gone, and today it contains an austere independence monument placed there in 1950. Fortune-tellers ply their trade outside the garden’s railings.