What to do in Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon and Myanmar have been described as the last bit of untouched East and South East Asia. Most of the other major cities of Asia have been opened to the rest of the world, in both the business, finance and tourism sectors. However, Myanmar up until only very recently has been closed off to the rest of the world. As tourists here, we did not see many other foreign tourists in the country, probably due to it being low season, but also due to the whole Rakine issue going on.
If you do research on tourism in Myanmar, most are qualified with a disclaimer about how your tourist dollars are supporting the military regime. Despite the show of force of democracy in the last few years, the military still holds strong power in Myanmar, hence why the events of the past year in the Rakine state have occured without major uproar within the country.
Wikipedia tells me that certain guidebook companies like Rough Guides do not publish on Myanmar. The Lonely planet attempts to only include recommendations that directly benefit the people of Myanmar.
So that made it a bit of a tough choice to visit Yangon. On one hand, I did not want ‘blood’ on my hands per se from my tourist money going into the Military. At the same time I had to question how much of my spending money would actually go to the people themselves. I’ll admit, some of the money i spent on the hotel has probably gone to the Military regime, but hopefully most of the money i spent on food, on small local tours, has gone straight to the pockets of the normal people just trying to make a living.
Before i jump into my list of what to do in Yangon, here are some quick tips
1. Like Vietnam, there are a host of dodgy sites offering eVisas for Myanmar. Just do it here on their official website. https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/. Also unlike vietnam, you don’t need to get a stupid piece of paper to let you into the country, followed by a queue to get a visa on arrival..
2. GRAB is popular and widespread there. English is not widely spoken, but you can pay an extra 1000-2000 kyats to get a premium GRAB Taxi, which is basically a cleaner car and a driver that has been trained to speak a little bit of English (Great idea by GRAB to offer english classes to its drivers). GRAB makes it easier because you can easily communicate where you want to go, and you do not need to negotiate with drivers. We even used Grab a the airport to get to our hotel.
3. Cars drive on the wrong side of the road (right side) with the steering wheel also on the right side of the car. This is because cars are imported from Japan, but i guess the road laws were decided before that?
So here is my list of what to do in Yangon for a few days.
See the Sule Pagoda from Afar
From what I read, the Sule Pagoda inside (entrance fee is $10USD) isn’t all that impressive. Also the people inside are out for your money and will pressure you into buying gifts or personalised tours. Its much more impressive to see this at night from afar, like on the pedestrian bridge walkway that links the two sides of Sule Pagoda Road. Your photo op is here, and you will save yourself $10USD
Maha Bandoola Park
The park is a nice relaxing place to be within the city centre when you need a break. The Maha Bandoola Park has the independence monument, which is in commemoration of independence from British rule in 1948. There is also a street food market on the side of the park where you can tuck into some local treats.
Visit the Book Street
The old book street is located on Pansodan Street, where you will find numerous book sellers selling bucketloads of books on the street pavement, and within smaller shophouses. There is a large number of english books, including very old editions of fiction, and of colonial times prints. For english books, many are bounded photocopies or poor fakes of current and old prints. George Orwell prints are very popular here. For colonial stuff, think of manuals on taxation, accounting and finance, and economics. I managed to pickup some really old books on the economic industry in Rangoon from about 50 years ago.
Buy a Longyi at the Bogyoke Aung Sun Market
The market is a hotspot for Jade dealers, targetting the Chinese and Thai tourists. Note that Jade mining is controlled by a handful of people in the Military. 48% of the GDP in Myanmar is made up of Jade trade, so you can imagine there is an incredible income inequality that exists. If only that money was invested back into country, surely it would instantly become one of the faster growing nations in the region. So thats my rant as to why you shouldn’t buy jade in Myanmar.
But what you can buy, is the cheap and usual souvenirs you would expect in any country (like fridge magnets) but do have a go at wearing a Longyi, which is the traditional lower garmet worn by both men and women. They cost between 3000-15000 Kyats, depending on the quality of them. Theyre good fun!
Go on a Street Food Tour
We used a company called Yangon Food Tours (http://www.yangonfoodtour.com/) which is run by like 3-4 employees from what we were told. The tour guide takes you on a tour to eat at about 7-8 different places, including street vendors and restaurants. It feels like a real tour, because honestly at the time we went to Yangon, there were not many foreign tourists. Everything felt quite legit! I’ll post more later on the specifics, but do check them out. Its highly recommended!!
See the Gold Plated Shwedagon Pagoda
Now this is a pagoda thats worth paying the 10,000 kyats fee for. Its free for locals but charged for foreigners. Once you go through the security checks there will be very nice people attempting to get you to pay for a private guided tour of the pagoda. I don’t recommend it as its better to just walk around on your own and appreciate it yourself.
Buy Souvenirs that go to a Good Cause
There are two very well known shops that sell handmade Burmese souvenirs, where the profits go back to the villagers, and victims of abuse that are being employed to make these products. These are named Hla Day and Pomelo. Before you decide which one to visit, maybe have a read of this article first (https://coconuts.co/yangon/news/after-tumultuous-parting-former-pomelo-co-founders-open-hla-day-store/). Hla Day for me is the winner, with a better story, a better location, and better products to be honest.
Take a Free Yangon Walking Tour
Definitely recommend going to this for a low cost of $10USD. Our tour guide was a private english tour that ran this tour on a casual basis to work on her English skills. This tour took us around the city area of Yangon, so its a great way to get acquainted to a new city (especially on how to cross the roads, because the cars don’t follow pedestrian lights). You get a great explanation of the history of Yangon over the last 50-60 years, and get to see a mix of the old colonial style buildings, and the day to day life by the local Burmese.
Take the Circle Line Train
Okay, so we did this with a tour company called Urban Adventures, and honestly this was a pretty average tour. The circle train itself is described as an opportunity to mingle with the locals, buy local fruits and goods, and have a chance to view the daily lives of Yangon people. Imagine taking a train in any city and that is what you are paying for.
The tour guide basically takes you on a train ride until you reach Da Nyin Gone where there is a local market along the train tracks. Once there you walk through a local market where they show you the local vegetable and fruit produce, along with some decent photo ops. Once there you are meant to take the train back the other way into Yangon city. On our day, the trains were running late and because the tour guide needed to go back into the city to run another tour, she offered to pay for a taxi back instead.
If you can figure out how to buy a ticket for a round trip, then sure its real cheap. But don’t pay for a tour!
Visit the National Museum of Myanmar
This is something we didn’t get a chance to visit, but from what i read, its not bad to kill a few hours, despite being a little dark with some years of neglect.