Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon is tantalizingly distinct – a rich tonic of teahouses, golden-hued stupas and artist studios to enliven and entertain even the fussiest of travelers, and the most frugal too.
A number of the city’s best activities can be enjoyed completely free of charge, from lakeside rambling to touring a disused glass factory. Here are seven superb things to do in Yangon that won’t cost a single kyat to enjoy.
Stroll with locals at Inya & Kandawgyi Lake
To see Yangon’s residents at their most relaxed, head south to the city’s dual lakes: Kandawgyi and Inya. Inya – the larger of the two – has a long garden area and path along the western bank, with some tea shops and beer stations at the southern end.
Kandawgyi Lake is the more romantic option, with families skipping over the lake’s lovely wooden boardwalks and loved-up couples giggling in the shadow of the rather striking Karaweik Palace – a gold-flecked concrete replica of a Burmese royal barge, housing a restaurant. Both parks are great places to wander and strike up a conversation with locals (who will likely be mid-selfie).
Enjoy the buzz of Bogyoke Aung San Market
Named for the father of independent Burma, Bogyoke is the country’s foremost handicrafts and souvenir market. You’ll find everything from woodcuts and tailors – if you want a custom-made longyi (sarong-style garment), this is the place – to jewelry and local artwork, including gorgeous acrylic paintings for just K15,000 (US$8.50).
But you don’t have to be a souvenir-aholic to appreciate this buzzing bazaar; browse the colorful stalls, or indulge in a spot of people watching from one of the coffee stalls. And don’t worry about being hassled; Burmese traders are typically among the least pushy in Southeast Asia.
Tour Nagar Glass Factory
Don’t let the internet fool you; while technically closed since the double whammy of the 2007 fuel hike and the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Nagar Glass Factory is, in fact, open – though not in the typical sense of the word. At its peak, the factory was a domestic powerhouse, supplying glassware to restaurants and hotels around the country. Post-Nargis, it operates somewhere between a melancholy novelty attraction and a pick-your-own knickknack farm.
The factory was completely flattened by the cyclone, but the glassware (some of it in pretty good condition, some of it not) lays strewn among the ruins. If you’re lucky, former owner Thein Zaw will guide you around the grounds, retelling Nagar’s riches-to-rags story. If an item catches your eye, they’ll clean, polish, and sell it to you at a reasonable price. You’ll be put under no pressure to buy anything, but the tragic tale of the factory may well persuade you to part with a few thousand kyat for a half-buried ashtray or vase.
Browse Yangon’s free galleries
For travelers with an affinity for art, there’s no better way to spend an afternoon in Yangon than touring the city’s free galleries. Start with the Pansodan Gallery – more than just an exhibition space, it's instrumental in fostering Burmese artists and has organized events in cities around the country. (Its operating hours are currently irregular, so call ahead to confirm or make an appointment.)
If you feel like temporarily suspending your no-spending itinerary, five minutes from the Pansodan you’ll find its sister cafe, Pansodan Scene. An arty, chill-out enclave, it’s the perfect spot for a coffee break.
Take a moment to reflect at Taukkyan War Cemetery
It’s a bit of a journey from central Yangon – about an hour from downtown by taxi – but this beautifully maintained cemetery, containing the graves of thousands of Allied soldiers who died during WWII, is well worth the effort to reach. It has a tranquillity that’s rare in Yangon, and its grand stone archways and spotless symmetrical pillars make it a photographer’s dream.
But the site isn’t just notable for its looks – it’s genuinely moving. Each plaque in the cemetery is engraved with a personal message, usually from the bereaved parents of the fallen soldier. Don’t be surprised if you find your eyes moistening as you wander through the grounds, contemplating one of the world’s darkest chapters and the lives that it claimed.
See the late-night spectacle at San Pya Fish Market
Not all after-dark activities in Yangon revolve around hostel bars and nightclubs (though, if this is your bag, late-night Level 2 is a good bet). For some offbeat nocturnal fun, take a trip to the San Pya Fish Market, and around 2am you’ll see a very special spectacle unfolding: sea creatures of all shapes and sizes, tossed from boats and splayed out on tables where locals gather to barter, the air thick with the smell of fish and ringing with the bark of the traders. It’s total bedlam, not for the prissy – and whatever you do, don’t wear your good shoes.
Catch the sunset at Botataung Jetty
The striking golden Botataung pagoda is the chief reason most travelers head towards the harbor. It’s worth a visit (especially as you can walk through it – a unique prospect), but if you don't want to cough up the cash for an entrance fee, the nearby jetty is free to visit. It’s a nice spot to watch riverside life go by, and if the weather plays nice, you’re in for an equally fantastic sunset.
There are a number of barbecue and street food stalls that line the harbor front, as well as the kitsch Vintage Luxury Yacht Hotel and its sister property, the riverside V Hangout, which – if you can scrape together enough kyat – all make an agreeable spot for a sunset beer. Go on, you deserve it.