Yangon conjures visions of Myanmar’s golden past, a country rich with intellectual life and bustling with visitors from near and far. I’ve been told Yangon used to be a major airport hub between the East and West during the 1950s and so was a thriving international transit point. Sadly, the military coup in 1962 and ongoing regime since then has changed all that and Yangon seems now to be a stagnant city.
In the centre of town, gloriously authoritative colonial buildings would demand respect and admiration were it not for the creepers growing through the windows and the brown mould colouring the facades. The streets are lined with tall apartment buildings, rather nondescript in architectural style and thoroughly unphotographable given that every window and door is barred so thoroughly you’d think the population were suffering from the plague.
Yangon, it must be said, is not the best introduction into Myanmar. The sprawling capital city has choking traffic and long distances between places, making use of a taxi or public bus almost a necessity.
Few taxi drivers can speak English, and it’s best to get your hotel receptionist to write down your destinations in the loopy local language before heading off. That said, taxi drivers always offer reasonable prices, making price negotiations a breeze.
Should you be stuck here a few days, however, there are a number of things you can do. And not all of them are listed in the guide books.
Recommendations to visit the Bogyoke Aung San market and the Shwedagon Pagoda are definitely worth following up (but in any visit to Yangon’s other pagoda, Sule Paya, you’ll quickly see any religious importance of the monument is lost in its new role as the city’s primary roundabout).
But an ever better bet to understand Yangon is to simply take a wander.
Local Burmese kindnesses
On our first day in Yangon, we followed the railway track past haphazardly-erected tin-and-wood shack shops and lots of thick greenery. Beside the railway tracks was a pagoda compound, which we peered into, wondering if we could go explore.
An elderly woman materialised before us and, taking me by the elbow and muttering away in Burmese, led us through the complex. She seemed offended at the suggestion of a tip at the end of our half-hour tour and took us on the road to farewell us on our way into downtown Myanmar.
Stories of local kindnesses like this abound in Myanmar and are commonly shared travellers’ tales in hotel dining rooms. (If you’ve been to Myanmar and have similar stories of kindness please feel free to share in the comments below).
In such meanderings, I recommend a stop in any one of Yangon’s popular teahouses. These famous eateries are institutions in Yangon, where locals meet and gossip and intellectuals discuss politics under the clatter of cutlery and the hubbub of voices.
The best teahouses feature mini plastic tables and chairs as though the hosts are preparing for a huge children’s tea party. But guests squeeze themselves in and enjoy any number of cheap snacks and drinks and even the briefest stop here will give you a feel for genuine local living. Lucky Seven, at the corner of 49th Street and Anawrahta Road, is definitely worthy of Lonely Planet’s recommendation.
Yangon, it seemed to me at the end of my stay, is best experienced as simply a pedestrian exploration. This allows utmost interaction with locals, always ready to point you in the right direction or offer you complimentary tea and mini plastic chairs to find respite from the heat and rain.
For many, research on entry into Myanmar suggests a rigorous shake down, suspicious stares from customs officials, and a complex routine of good cop, bad cop and ready submission by the guilty party. The reality is quite different. And since Yangon is often travellers’ first port of call in Myanmar, I’ll briefly describe my experience to ease any fears.
Upon entry, the two immigration officials seemed rather bored by their occupation. My passport was briefly perused and the visa barely observed before I was given the official entry stamp. Customs demanded my bag be put through security, though no one watched the monitor as it went through and the officer took my customs form without a glance.
There, you have no excuses not to visit Myanmar now. And in fact, these days, it’s even easier to enter Myanmar, since you can now get your Myanmar visa online – no laborious rigmarole sending your passport off to the nearest embassy! And if you want to know more about that, I’ve got a whole article on Myanmar tourist e-Visas here.