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Yangon - Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon: A Destination Guide

Introduction

 

Most people think of the ancient temples of Bagan when they plan to visit Myanmar, but believe us when we say the country’s former capital is a city that is not to be missed. Formerly known as Rangoon, the city is lined with remnants of British-ruled Burma – from the stunning colonial buildings in Downtown Yangon, to the iconic Strand Hotel, which carries many traditions (and cocktails) reminiscent of old-world elegance. If you’re not here for the history, stop by for the food – Yangon offers everything from upscale dining to fantastic hole-in-the-wall tea houses. Its unique history gives the bustling city a unique look, feel, and taste that is nothing like its Southeast Asian neighbors – and this reason alone should be enough to lure you in for a visit.

Know Before You Go 

  • Currency: The local currency is the Burmese Kyat (MMK). Note: If exchanging US Dollars in Myanmar, it is important to know that the currency exchange or bank will only accept brand new, unfolded bills – preferably in $50 or $100 denominations.
  • Airport: Yangon International Airport (RGN) is the main airport you’ll fly into – international or domestic.
  • Language: The official language is Burmese/Myanmar, but those working in the tourism/hospitality industry will at least be conversational in English.
  • To/From the Airport:
    • Taxi: There is no shortage of taxis at the airport, but expect to pay in cash. Ours cost 8,000 MMK to get to our hotel near Shwedagon Pagoda.
    • Uber: Uber is fairly new to Yangon, so wait times may be a little longer than you’re used to (think at least 5+ minutes), but they a ride to downtown Yangon should cost around 7,000+ MMK, depending on traffic (ours cost just over $5 USD).
  • Getting Around:
    • Ubers or taxis will likely be your best bet to get around the city. Both are fairly inexpensive, though be sure to have cash on hand if you’re opting to go take taxis, as most will not have a credit card machine in the vehicle.
  • Tipping: Though not required, tips for good service are very much appreciated
  • Credit Cards vs Cash: While some restaurants may accept credit cards (Visa or Mastercard), it’s generally safer to assume that cash would be the expected method of payment. Larger hotels will likely accept credit cards, and some may have ATMs on site.
  • Neighborhoods – There’s plenty of walking to do around Downtown Yangon, but be sure to check out nearby neighborhoods like Chinatown for its food and the area surrounding the Secretariat building for its untouched charm.
  • Must-Try Food: Tea leaf salad, Shan-style noodles, just about anything served at a tea house.

The Details

See & Do

  • Shwedagon Paya – The most iconic landmark in Yangon, it’s also the most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar. Believed to have been built by the Mon people between the 6th and 10th century, then standing a humble 8.2 meters, the pagoda today stands 110 meters tall, having been rebuilt numerous times over the years. Encrusted in gold, you can spot the impressive stupa from miles away. The top of the monument, or the hti is encrusted with over 2000 rubies and sapphires and over 5000 diamonds, the largest of which is a massive 72 carats. On the northeast section of the terrace sits the Naungdawgyi Pagoda or “Elder Brother Pagoda”, where the Buddha’s eight hair relics are said to have been enshrined in. Plan to head over first thing in the morning or late in the day, as visitors walk around the terrace barefoot, and the marble terrace can burn up in the midday sun. Visitors should expect to cover their shoulders and legs, and wear loose bottoms. Wrap skirts or longyi can be borrowed or purchased at any of the entrances where tickets are bought. Borrowing a wrap skirt will cost you a 4000 kyat or $3 USD deposit, which you’ll get back when you return the item. The pagoda is open for visitors from 4 AM to 10 PM daily, and admission will cost about $8 USD.
L-R: Gorgeous gem-encrusted pillars at the west side entrance of the pagoda, Shwedagon Pagoda, One of the four Devotional Halls, Naungdawgyi Pagoda.
  • People Park – Located just to the west of Shwedagon Paya, this park features great views of the pagoda, and boasts flower gardens, fountains, and even a decommissioned Myanmar Airways plane. A walk in the park isn’t free though – admission is 5000 kyat (or 5 USD).
  • Sule Paya – Situated in the center of a roundabout sits Sule Paya, a pagoda that, according to legend, is older than Shwedagon Pagoda. It has served as a rallying point in some notable moments in Myanmar’s history, including the 1988 uprisings and 2007 Saffron Revolution. Admission to enter will cost you K3000 or about $3 USD.
  • Secretariat – Sometimes called the Minister’s Building, this stunning complex was once the administrative seat of British Burma. This building is also a historically significant monument –where Bogyoke Aung San, the Prime Minister responsible for freeing Burma from British rule, was shot and killed, along with 6 cabinet members, a mere 6 months shy of the country’s independence. This day – March 27 – is known as Martyr’s Day in Myanmar. Though the building is currently closed to the public, the room where the assassination took place is opened on the anniversary of Aung San’s death.
L-R: Sule Paya from the south west pedestrian footbridge, Sule Paya and City Hall, People’s Park.
  • Downtown Walk – If you happen to be downtown, be sure to walk around to admire the gorgeous architecture of colonial Burma. Start at City Hall, (just to the east of Sule Paya) a cream and lilac colored building built in Burmese style, including traditional tiered roofs called pyatthat. Just across the street lies Mahabandoola Garden, a former swampy site turned park circa 1868, built in honor of the then Chief Commissioner of British Burma, Albert Fytche. Back then, a statue of Queen Victoria stood in the center of the park, but in 1948, an obelisk replaced the statue, in honor of Burmese independence. On the east side of the park sits the former High Court building, a remarkable Queen Anne-style building known for its bell tower. Until 2006, the complex housed the Supreme Court of Myanmar.  Down the street on Strand Road sits the former Yangon Region Office Complex, where clerks once oversaw the collection of colonial government revenue that came from opium, salt, post office, telegraphs, and the like. It may no longer be a government building, but the aged façade is undoubtedly reminiscent of colonial era Burma. As you continue down Strand Road, you’ll pass Customs House, one of the best preserved colonial buildings, and still functions as Myanmar’s customs office. End your walk at the Strand Hotel, perhaps for a cup of tea (and a great place to hop on wifi, which is complimentary in the lobby).
L-R: City Hall from Mahabandoola Garden, Close up of the Obelisk at Mahabandoola Garden, High Court building, Former Yangon Region Office Complex.
  • Circle Train – The Yangon Circular Railway is a (well) route that departs from Yangon Central train station and loops around the city, making a total of 38 stops before returning back to the main train station. The trip takes approximately three hours, costs 200 kyat (less than 20 cents) and has become a bit of a tourist to-do. Many think of it as a way to see the other side of Yangon – a part that many visitors may otherwise not see. And it’s true – riding in the un-air conditioned, jam-packed, loud train cars, observing local vendors on the train sell snacks like corn to fellow riders – for most, it’s a peek at a way of life that they’ve never observed before. But keep in mind that what’s an excursion for you is a way of life for others. The seat you’re taking on the train is one that could be otherwise occupied by a local who would appreciate a seat after a long day of work.
L-R: Exterior of Yangon Central, All aboard the circle train, Interior of the train car, View of Yangon’s countryside from the train.

Eat & Drink

  • The Strand Cafe – After a long day of walking through downtown Yangon, pop into The Strand for some high tea. The café has two tea time offerings, the Classic High Tea menu, which features standard pastries and scones, and the Myanmar High Tea menu, which offers more local flavors like tea leaf salad and shrimp stuffed wanton. If there’s two of you traveling, be sure to try both to get a taste of British Burma and a more traditional Myanmar spin. While you’re there, be sure to stop by the iconic Sarkies Bar at the Strand, which still serves up the famous Strand Sour, sipped by many visitors, including famous expatriates who once frequented this watering hole, like Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell.
    92 Strand Rd, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
L-R: High Tea menu, Myanmar and Classic Tea pastries and snacks, A dish of Myanmar tea snacks, Interior of the Strand Cafe
  • Shan 999 Noodle Shop – This popular hole in the wall spot is a great place to grab a quick (cheap!) bite. Be wary that the food here tends to be on the oily side, as Shan cuisine can be. The spring rolls were a little greasy for our liking, but tasty nonetheless. Be sure to try the sticky Shan noodles (in salad dressing) – was easily our favorite! The Shan noodles in soup is a perfect dish on a rainy Yangon day. Menus include pictures (helpful for those who don’t speak the language) and food is dished out quickly. Cash only.
    130b, 34th Street, Yangon, Myanmar
L-R: Spring Rolls, Shan noodles in salad dressing, Shan noodles in soup
  • Rangoon Tea House – This hipster joint in downtown Yangon might come off as touristy, but you’ll find visitors and locals alike filling up this restaurant, and with good reason – the food is tasty and the atmosphere is fun and laid back. Everything on the incredibly extensive menu is locally sourced and reminiscent of local tea shops – including but not limited to 16 kinds of tea! Some of our favorite dishes include the Crispy Wantons, Rangoon Chicken Curry, and the Grilled Fresh Prawns. If you have room, sure to check out their dessert menu, which includes a delightful list of cakes. Our favorite part of our experience though was when they dimmed the lights, and played old Burmese movies on the wall, giving the restaurant an old school, homey vibe.
    Ground Floor, 77-79 Pansodan Rd (Lower Middle Block), Yangon, Myanmar 
L-R: Dessert signage at Rangoon Tea House, Grilled Fresh Prawns, Chicken Curry, the BFF cake
  • The Toddy Bar – If you have room after dinner at Rangoon Tea House, head upstairs to the Toddy bar, which offers a list carefully crafted cocktails. Named after a drink made from the sap of local palm trees, this speakeasy-style bar is a contrast to the brightly lit restaurant downstairs. Dim lights, laid back ambiance, friendly service, plus delicious drinks makes this a relaxing watering hole to stop at while in Yangon.
    Second Floor, 77-79 Pansodan Rd (Lower Middle Block), Yangon, Myanmar 
L-R: Exterior signage, Cocktail concoction, The Toddy’s impressive bar and ceiling tile

Stay

  • Belmond Governor’s Residence – We can’t rave more about this place! Situated minutes away from Shwedagon Pagoda, tucked amidst rows of Embassy houses sits the former Governor’s mansion. While it doesn’t feel like your typical hotel (feels more homey – no surprise there), the service is nothing short of top knotch, and the food is fantastic. See our review here. Room rates range from $250-500 USD.
    35 Taw Win Road, Dagon Township, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma)
    https://www.belmond.com/governors-residence-yangon/
  • The Strand Hotel – If you’re looking to stay downtown, the Strand is an absolute must. Built in 1901, this iconic hotel, named for the road it stands on, has long been one of the top luxury hotel in the city. It’s seen a lot in its 100+ year history – from its exclusive beginnings, to its neglect in the post-colonial era, to its renovation and reopening in the late 90’s. Today, the all-suite property offers 31 rooms, guaranteeing nothing short of excellent service and care, provided by butlers tending to each guests every whim and need. Room rates range from $300-500 USD
    92 Strand Rd, Yangon, Myanmar
    http://www.hotelthestrand.com/
L-R: The Strand Hotel’s impressive lobby, Lobby chairs at the Strand, The Belmond Governor’s Residence main house exterior, Interior of Deluxe Garden View Room
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