21 quirky and useful things to know about Yangon, Myanmar

In ASIA, TRAVEL TIPS etc. by Janice and George25 Comments

things to know about Yangon, Myanmar

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.

1.  Exotic

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.

things to know about Yangon - great sidewalk shopping

Lots of sidewalk shopping in Yangon!

thoughts on Yangon

Here’s to pedal power! This and lead photo by arileu

2.  Sunsets

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.

things to know about Yangon - couples kissing in parks

There’s a couple kissing behind this umbrella in the 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.

Yangon visit - Maha Wizaya Pagoda

It was so quiet and peaceful visiting the Maha Wizaya Pagoda, near the Shwedagon

Yangon visit - Shwedagon Pagoda

The gold stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda (currently hidden by cardboard) is surrounded by many smaller shrines

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.

Yangon visit - Savoy hotel pool umbrellas

How to handle the heat? Lie under one of these parasols by the pool at the Hotel Savoy

7.  Sidewalks

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.

Yangon visit - monks

These monks are wearing flip-flops, but many we saw on our Yangon visit walked barefoot

Yangon visit - monks at Shwedagon Pagoda

Visiting monks from Thailand at the Shwedagon Pagoda

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.

11.  Taxis

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.

thoughts on Yangon

Built by the British as a reservoir, Kandawgyi Lake is lovely to stroll about

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.

15.  Traffic

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.

Yangon visit - traffic

Cars, trishaws and buses all vie for space on the roads

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.

Our colonial-style hotel - photo Savoy Hotel

Our colonial-style hotel – photo Savoy Hotel

thoughts on Yangon - Savoy Hotel bar

The Captain’s Bar – photo Savoy Hotel

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.

20.  Buses

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.

thoughts on Yangon - Strand Hotel

This beautifully-restored, 3-storey Victorian hotel is a landmark in Yangon – photo Strand Hotel

The Savoy is a colonial-style boutique hotel in Yangon - photo Janice Mucalov

The city is brimming with colonial-style buildings like the Hotel Savoy, but few have been restored


Have you visited Yangon? What do you think of the city?

Janice and George Signature

Comments

  1. Hi Janice and George- We visited Yangon late last year during our three week trip to Myanmar. Riding the circle train was a huge highlight for us as the city is huge and we got a nice look at it from many angles. We both bought longyis and wore them almost everywhere. They don’t breathe as well as the locals claim they do!

  2. Recently spent a week of so in Myanmar (Burma) and on the trip I visited Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay. Your post above really resonated with me, and it looks like we saw and went to a number of the same places. As you said, Shwedagon Pagoda is touristy, and there are a lot of monks everywhere. Highlights of my visit to Yangon (Rangoon) were visiting the street markets, checking out the old colonial buildings, and taking the circular train.

    1. Author

      If we’d had more time, we would have jumped on that circular train for a day – it looks like a real authentic experience (we hear you might even see chickens on the train in the passenger compartment).

      1. No chickens in my compartment., but I did see some being loaded further up the train, and one person in my compartment had one of the baskets (empty) they use. Seemed to have a number of flower sellers in my carriage.

  3. Really enjoyed your post and pictures! I’ve wanted to visit Yangon (and Myanmar in general) for a while so hopefully will get there soon. Sounds like Myanmar could be somewhat similar to Laos which I loved..

  4. That’s a great list – reflects my experience of Yangon pretty closely and complements my own post well! I’ll include a pingback :)

  5. Yangon looks indeed very beautiful and exotic. It seems to me I’ll have to bite the bullet and go to Asia (never felt a particular attraction for this continent). I love the idea with umbrellas on the lawn. We should have done that when we were younger, rather than kissing on the benches in the park… ha, ha, ha!

  6. Fantastic post. I hope to visit here later this year. Your photos intrigue me and held me captive. Enjoyed this very much :)

  7. I’ve long been intrigued by Yangon and would love to visit this fascinating city. Your photos were beautiful and I learned so much from your interesting (and at times humorous) comments. One of my favorite pics was # 3 with the amazing pagoda, lake and the umbrella providing privacy for lovers.

  8. Great photos George and Janice. I like your presentation format, easy to follow. Lots of interesting insights.

    1. Author

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! We should be posting more stories on Myanmar and our recent Asia trip soon – so stay tuned :-).

  9. You paint such an intriguing picture of Yangon. I can see why it left a lasting impression. I’d love to stay at the Savoy Hotel. And with my natural clumsiness and tendency to shuffle, I’d have to be extra careful on the sidewalks – certainly wouldn’t want to wind up in the a sewer.

    1. Author

      No, there are many more nicer places to be than in the sewer :-). We can highly recommend the Savoy – you get the same colonial feel as with a couple of other top hotels in Yangon (e.g, the Strand), but at a much lower rate.

  10. I’ve been contemplating going there for the last couple years. You’ve given me some more temptation for my fantasies but I would try to go when it’s relatively “cool” temps.

  11. Such a fascinating read! I particularly like the one about the couples kissing underneath the umbrella. In Sri Lanka once, I went to a botanical garden which was full of canoodling couples but they were just hiding in discreet places rather than under umbrellas. Some of it reminds me of my past visits to India, such as the sad sight you described unfortunately but also the heat and even the fact that my grandfather used to wear something very similar to a longyi from time to time.

    1. Author

      We haven’t visited India (though it’s on our travel wish list!). But we’ve heard the sad sight we saw in Yangon is all too common in India – which is supposed to be fascinating, but a challenge to visit. Your grandfather must have had some interesting tales to share…

  12. It sounds like such a fascinating place, I’d love to go there someday. Hopefully before the skyscrapers take over…

    1. Author

      No, we still haven’t learned the proper knot-tying method. But at least George’s makeshift efforts kept his longyi up after that last embarrassing moment. We’ll probably have to return to Myanmar to really get the hang of longyi-wearing :-).

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