Yangon is a lot to take in. Our first stop in Myanmar after coming from Vietnam, and I’ve gotta be honest, it was not my favourite. When you arrive, you’re immediately hit with all the sights and smells – dirty, crowded streets, run-down buildings, food stalls I wouldn’t dare eat at, and the intense smell of jasmine permeating pretty much everywhere you go.
But perhaps the most jarring thing about Yangon is the poverty. There seemed to be this overall sense of sadness in the eyes of many, and the begging was a bit too much for me to handle. I was taken aback.
Don’t get me wrong, this was not my first rodeo. I’ve traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, and have been to many developing countries before. But even for the advanced traveler, Yangon is tough.
There’s no doubt that Myanmar is a poor country which only recently opened its doors to tourists. I knew and was prepared for that before going. I actually LOVED Myanmar, as a whole! I immediately became enamoured with other places, like Mandalay (check out my Mandalay travel guide here), Bagan, and Inle Lake. But Yangon was different.
That being said, would I recommend that you take a trip to Yangon? Yes, so you can see it and decide for yourself. But be prepared. Unless you’ve been to India (which is the closest place I can compare it to), you may have the same sort of visceral reaction that I did.
My husband and I did eventually enjoy ourselves in Yangon – once we began to find some familiar comforts of home.
Know Before You Go
- Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, is the largest city in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. It’s the most ethnically diverse city in Myanmar, with over 7 million residents calling it home.
- Yangon was under British influence until 1948, at which point their colourful independence took off.
- As you walk the streets, you’ll see a unique skyline bearing a healthy mix British colonial architecture, contemporary high-rise buildings, and ancient Buddhist pagodas.
- The sidewalks are overrun with pedestrians, merchants, beggars and more, so always keep your head up, guard your belongings, and stay safe.
- Much like many Southeast Asian countries and cities, Yangon experiences a rainy season and a dry season. If you’d like to avoid the rainy season, it’s best to book your travels between November-February. March and April are the two hottest months of the year, with temperatures climbing up to 104°F.
- The local currency is the Burmese Kyat (pronounced “chyat”). The exchange rate at the time of travel was about $1093 MMK for every $1 CAD.
- Tip: get a local SIM card and have it set up in your phone at the airport to ensure you’re always connected. Also, download the Grab app to arrange for transportation to major sites, like the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Where to Stay
Located in the heart of downtown Yangon, Sule Shangri-La is within walking distance to many tourist attractions, local restaurants, shops, and Bogyoke Market. Formerly the Traders Hotel, the property underwent an extensive renovation that took two-and-a-half years to fully complete. Reopened in 2014, the hotel embodies luxury and elegance, while preserving the unique culture and history of Myanmar. It’s adorned with beautiful art pieces that were commissioned by local artists and craftsmen. If you want to experience elevated service in Yangon, this is your place!
Sule Shangri-La features 464 rooms and suites, four restaurants and bars, fitness facilities including a steam room, sauna and outdoor pool. From the moment we rolled our bags through the lobby we were met with friendly service, and we felt at home.
Our Horizon Club Room was outfitted with a comfy, king-size bed, a living room with couch, separate desk, and large TV. We were pleased to find L’Occitane amenities in the bathroom.
Besides our room, our ‘homebase’ in the hotel quickly became the Horizon Club Lounge on the 21st floor. Horizon Club benefits including private check-in and check-out, a dedicated concierge service, and inclusive access to meeting rooms. We enjoyed our breakfasts at the Horizon Club Lounge and made full use of their evening happy hours, which featured complimentary wine, cocktails, and canapes.
We also had an INCREDIBLE meal at Summer Palace, Sule Shangri-La’s signature Chinese restaurant. We feasted on a spread of authentic Chinese food, including dim sum, fried rice, and Hainanese chicken. Definitely worth a reservation!
Where to Eat & Drink
Based on my research and from speaking with others who’d traveled here, Burmese cuisine didn’t seem to have the best reputation. Burmese curries are known for being oily (but, in fact, the layer of oil that covers the curries is meant to keep the flies away). Burmese food is influenced by the cuisines of neighbouring countries, China, India and Thailand. Compared to Thailand, it is very distinct and doesn’t have the same mix of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy that we all know and love. However, I would caution not to rule Burmese cuisine out, altogether, and I would recommend that you immerse yourself in the food scene. If you search hard enough for the gems, I guarantee you will have a different experience.
999 Shan Noodle Shop: A rather nondescript restaurant, 999 Shan Noodle specializes in just that, a specific type of noodle that originated in the Shan state. Just a 40-minute walk from the Sule Pagoda (and about a 5-min. walk from Sule Shangri-La), this authentic spot serves up bowls of steaming Shan noodles to locals, expats and backpackers alike. Tip: try their Khow Suey – a favourite recommended by more than 14 food critics. Address: 130b 34th S.
The Pansodan: We just happened upon this place and got pretty lucky in doing so! It’s a gorgeous Burmese-looking brasserie within a former Bank of India building that serves food and craft cocktails. We initially stopped in for one drink (mainly to avoid the heat and because we were so drawn in by the décor), but ended up staying for 2! Tip: order a Pansodan Spritz, their take on an Aperol Spritz. While we didn’t stay for food, the Pansodan serves up classic Burmese dishes with a modern take, like a Tea Leaf Salad and Mohinga. Address: 106 Pansodan Street.
Rangoon Teahouse: The closest you can get to a hipster café or bar in Yangon, Rangoon Teahouse is a local institution. Seems if you go here on any day, at any time, you’ll have to wait for a seat. You’ll find breakfast, lunch, dinner and happy hour offerings here. The approach to their food has been described by their owner as taking a “forward-thinking twist” on traditional Myanmar dishes. What Rangoon Teahouse makes up for in décor and yummy food, it unfortunately lacks in service. Expect long waits. I recommend the Soft Shell Crab Bao and Tea Leaf Salad. Address: 77-79 Pansodan Street.
What to Do
Shwedagon Pagoda: Officially named Shwedagon Zedi Daw, but also known as the Great Dagon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda, this beautifully gilded structure stands 326-foot-tall and is perched atop the Singuttara Hill, west of Kandawgyi Lake. If you simply look up, you will see this encroaching on the Yangon skyline.
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar. It’s believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa (which, in Buddhism, represents millions of years). The Pagoda opens at 4 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. every day. As it’s a functioning place of worship, you’ll have to remove your shoes before entering (as with any temple in Myanmar), keep your voice down, and be respectful. Note that there is a separate entrance for locals and tourists.
Tip: sunset and sunrise are the most magical times to visit, but they can also be the most crowded. If you want to take photos here at sunset or sunrise, plan to arrive at least 1 hour before to find less crowded spots (if before sunset, you’ll also be able to take advantage of golden hour). Address: Ar Zar Ni, Road Pha Yar Gyi Ward.
Visit Bogyoke Aung San Market: Located north of Sule Pagoda, this lively and historic market houses more than 2,000 vendors. I was expecting it to be like other central markets we’ve visited in other countries, but it was very different. It felt very much like a relic, and I was surprised to see local vendors and workers sewing Longyis at the back of the market! If you’re looking to purchase, you’ll find everything from pillows to antiques, jewellery and more. Address: Bo Gyoke Rd, Pabedan.
Sule Pagoda: Although we didn’t have the chance to visit, this Burmese stupa – a mound-like structure that contains relics, and used as a place of meditation – is located in downtown Yangon. According to local legend, the Sule Pagoda was built before the Shwedagon Pagoda, making it more than 2,600 years old. Address: Junction of Sule Pagoda Road.
Kandawgyi Lake: Another location we didn’t get the chance to visit, but which came highly recommended! Also known as the Royal Lake, this is one of two major water systems in Yangon. Despite being man-made, the calm waters glisten, and the boardwalk that surrounds the perimeter is supposed to be equally enchanting.
Tour Colonial Buildings: There’s much to see and do in Yangon, but I would definitely recommend saving some time for the charming colonial buildings. Because of the former British rule, there are several existing structures that are worth a visit, including The Secretariat. Opened in 1902, this structure is now known as the Minister’s Office. Another beautiful site to see is the Yangon City Hall, located next to the Sule Pagoda. This particularly awe-inspiring building took 10 years to build and features a Burmese-tiered roofs.
Visit 19th Street: Make your way to Yangon’s famous 19th street for vendors selling local culinary delights. However, eat your own risk! Most famous for Chinese barbeque on a stick and cold beer, you can grab a seat at a full-sized table and dig in. This street is quite popular, even the New York Times mentioned it in their “36 Hours in Yangon, Myanmar” travel guide, so be prepared for heavy foot traffic.
Ride the Railway: The city of Yangon doesn’t have a subway system, so the locals rely heavily on the railway. This system has 39 stops and takes about 3-hours to sit through the entire loop. A ticket will apparently set you back 200 MMK, which is the equivalent to a few cents. What’s special about this vantage point is exploring local life and taking in the rural communities you might not otherwise get to explore on foot.
While it took a little while to get used to, Yangon’s beauty did eventually shine through! Is Yangon on your bucket list?
Next Stop: Mandalay (check out my Mandalay travel guide here)! Be sure to check out my Ultimate Myanmar Travel Guide (coming soon).
*We were graciously hosted for a complimentary stay at Sule Shangri-La on this trip. However, all thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.