Mandalay has the international name recognition and Nay Pyi Taw is the administrative – and infamously deserted – capital of Myanmar. But, in truth, all roads lead to the country’s commercial hub and most outward looking city, Yangon.
A city of opportunity, of crumbling colonial architecture and narrow streets jam-packed with rowdy tea shops and vendors' trishaws, the former capital has a strange dilapidated beauty that captivates. It’s also home to an abundance of cultural highlights. Here’s how to see the very best of them in a weekend.
Having arrived in the city – and with dusk fast approaching – there’s no better introduction to Yangon than a visit to Shwedgaon Pagoda, the beating heart of Buddhism in Myanmar.
From a distance it’s impressive enough, but up close Shwedagon takes on a near mystical aura. The sweet smell of incense fills your nostrils, the hypnotic drone of dharma (religious activity) is carried through the air as worshippers light candles, pour cups of water over Buddhist icons and mumble meditative prayers cross-legged in the many shrines that surround the stupa. The atmosphere positively crackles, and the timeless spiritual power of Shwedagon is guaranteed to melt even the most cynical of hearts. Shwedagon is open from 4am to 10pm and entry is K10,000. Dress appropriately (no shorts or short skirts).
Though your heart may now be full, your belly is probably rumbling at this point, and there’s no better place on a Friday night than bustling 19th street in the heart of Yangon’s Chinatown. As as popular with locals as it is with foreigners, the street is lined with self-service joints where you can eat your fill of barbecued meats and vegetables and throw back lashings of cheap mojitos and Myanmar beer.
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Start your day with breakfast at Pansuriya. This stylish, arty venue serves up a variety of classic Burmese dishes including mohinga (a traditional noodle broth), and a superb set of curries.
Well-fortified for the day ahead, set out for Wadan jetty and catch a boat over to Seikgyi island. There’s an immediate contrast as soon as you cross the Yangon River, whether visiting Dalah (directly across from downtown Yangon) or Seikgyi, and you’ll notice is as soon as you step off the boat: traffic-clogged roads are replaced by dirt tracks, and towering office blocks make way for tiny farmsteads. If you’re visiting independently, rent a bicycle from one of the shops close to the drop-off; you'll be free to explore the island, which offers a real slice of rural Myanmar without leaving the greater Yangon area.
A boat from Wadan jetty costs around K2,000-5,000 (depending on the size of your group). As an alternative, consider booking a tour with Unchartered Horizons. They offer a range of cycling tours around Yangon that include a visit to Seikgyi.
After a hard day’s cycle, you’ll have earned a sunset cocktail – and there’s no better spot than the inventively named Yangon Yangon at Sakura tower (5pm till late). If you’re after a killer view of Yangon, this is the place to go.
For dinner check out House of Memories. Formerly the headquarters of independence leader Bogyoke Aung San, this colonial relic has largely retained its interior, including Aung San’s office, which you can poke around between courses.
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Sort out breakfast and lunch in one fell swoop with Sa Ba Street Food Tours. Burmese cuisine gets a bad rap, but these tours highlight the diversity – as well as the history – of food in Yangon, with stops at local markets and traditional teahouses, and a chance to sample staple breakfast dishes like mohinga with freshly baked nan breads.
Tour concluded, snag a ticket for the Yangon circle train: a three-hour slow-mo chug around the city that’s regularly boarded by bellowing hawkers and ladies balancing precariously large sacks of produce on their heads. It’s a fantastic way to see the ‘real Yangon’ (have your camera at the ready for Da Nyin Gone, a station that’s been almost entirely taken over as a market) and, at K200, it costs buttons.
Trains depart from platform seven at Yangon central station. Aim for the old-school open-window trains, which depart at 9.40am; 10.50am; and 2.20pm. It makes the difference between a transcendent travel experience and a sweaty slog. At the time of writing the circular line was undergoing repairs and only half the circuit was open. Normal service should resume in early 2020.
From the station you’re a stone’s throw from Kandawgyi lake, one of the most romantic spots in Myanmar. Walking through the park in the early evening, you’ll see couples canoodling beneath umbrellas while other Yangonites stroll across the boardwalks, taking in the views of the lake and the iconic golden dragons of Karaweik Palace restaurant.
With thoughts once again returning to food, finish up your weekend by treating yourself at one of the most talked about restaurants in Yangon – Pansodan. This Burmese/European brasserie has built up some serious buzz over the last year thanks to its unfussy fusion fare – comprising Burmese, Indian and Chinese dishes – that are expertly crafted and presented. Though it’s not a budget option, the Pansodan will ensure your time in Yangon ends on a particularly sweet note (and will likely leave you keen to return for a second helping!).