Yangon is a city of gold and an amazing travel destination.
Most travelers to Myanmar make Yangon their first stop, not their last, but we've been bucking the norm for a lot of our trip. With more and moretransportation options opening up in other cities, we were able to make the most of our limited time and not double back on our tracks. Yangon has plenty to offer visitors and, while you could easily spend a week or more exploring the city at a leisurely pace, it is compact enough to see a lot of the major sites in two days, which is exactly what we plan to do!
Nothing too exciting here - we're looking to see the top sites of the city. Since many of the most recent guidebooks are already out of date, owing to the many changes Myanmar has experienced in the past year, I've been relying on a lot of blog posts to get up to date information.
We booked our guest house, Mother Land Inn 2, well in advance. By all accounts there is a shortage of high quality, low price accommodations in Yangon and MLI2 really stands out in an otherwise mediocre pack. They book solid and they book quickly - we were glad to have made our arrangements far in advance.
Leaving to Chance:
We really have no idea how to get around Yangon. Walking? Taxis? Public buses? I'm so used to mapping out every step of the journey it seems a bit strange to go in slightly unprepared. In all honesty, I've scarcely looked at a map and I only have a vague idea of where everything is.
Our guest house includes a complimentary shuttle to the airport, leaving us with one less thing to worry about.
Everything! If all goes well, these may be the least expensive days of our trip.
Splurges and Souvenirs:
None! We were all splurged out in Bagan! This is absolutely a budget leg of the trip.
SOOO.... How Did It Go?
Has a city ever been such a welcome sight? We rolled into Yangon after 20 hours on the train, an experience we've described asthe worst travel experience of our lives. We could scarcely balance when we first started to walk on solid land and we were a little dazed as we emerged from the station to the blazing sun. After taking a few minutes to get our bearings, we were surprisingly firm in our taxi negotiations and were soon on route to the Mother Land Inn 2. (You can read our review or check out more opinions on Trip Advisor, and Expedia.)
Never has a humble shower felt so good- the suds were brown as they went down the drain! Remarkably, once we were cleaned up we still had enough energy to go grab a plate of noodles and take a 30 minute walk to do some business at a nearby bank. We even debated catching a taxi directly from the bank to go do some sightseeing in the city center but eventually decided to just take a short rest first. A short rest that turned into nearly 16 hours of sleep, with a brief interlude to eat some more food! The train had turned us into utter train wrecks and an entire day had been lost to recovery.
Dawn broke early the next day, with enthusiastic roosters proudly heralding us awake. We could smell the city before we could see it, with the aromas of cooking fires and other less enticing odours reaching us before the light. Despite the early hour we were off to somewhat of a slow start. It took a while to gather our wits but before too long we found ourselves in a taxi, weaving through the morning rush hour, with a taxi driver who stopped in the middle of the road to buy his morning newspaper from a vendor who approached the car before navigating between other motorists. We were awake now, and this was going to be a great day.
Our first stop was the most famous attraction in all of Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda. The Shwedagon Pagoda is a scared site for Buddhists and a very special part of Myanmar heritage. Said to contain a relic of Buddha's hair enclosed within, the main pagoda is coated in solid gold and is topped with thousands of diamonds and precious gems (including a 72 carat diamond). Estimated by some to be worth 1 billion dollars - it truly is a stunning sight.
Entering the complex is part of the adventure, as you walk barefoot up a large staircase, with dozens of vendors set up along the side. The walkway was surprisingly clean and, despite the many vendors, it was relatively quiet.
At the last set of steps we walked through a security check point with a basic metal detector and then continued on to the very top, where we stopped to pay our foreigners admission fee ($8 US per person - no Kyat accepted - ATMs were everywhere). We were given wraps and longhis for the duration of our visit from the gate keepers. (Note: if you're wearing shorts you will need to do this as well). This was an easy process, and provided for some good humour from everyone as it took a couple of ladies to wrap Ryan in his longhi. After our outfitting, we were handed a complimentary map and we were on our way inside.
The Shwedagon Pagoda isn't one building but instead an entire complex with hundreds of temples, shrines, and pagodas surrounding the main large golden pagoda. The map provided comprehensive background information on what we were experiencing but we largely preferred to just walk around and take it all in. In fact, we did several loops, each time getting a slightly different experience.
While there were over one hundred people in the complex, only a handful were foreigners like us. It was hard to believe that such a spectacular site would be so quiet and have so few visitors, but I think I prefer it this way. It is, above all else, a religious site and it was heartening to see that the majority of visitors were their for spiritual reasons. We really enjoyed our time here.
We must have gotten a taste of the finer things in life while being surrounded by the priceless gems and gold at the Shwedagon Pagoda, as we made our next destination the National Museum. Leaving the pagoda, we had no problem finding a cab, although we did have to help him a bit with the directions. While transportation in Yangon turned out to be easy and inexpensive, and taxi rides ring in at a dollar or two with friendly drivers, it does pay to have a map with you as not all drivers are familiar with all sites of the city.
The Lonely Planet guidebook describes the museum as containing absolutely spectacular treasures that were appallingly lit and horribly labeled and this proved to be very accurate. Sadly, the spectacular ivory chairs, solid gold bowls, and gemstones the size of marbles look somewhat dull in the lighting of this government building.
In many ways it was an exhausting place to visit. We had to check everything, including wallets and phones, in a storage locker. No cameras, no photos. Note: unlike the Shwedagon Pagoda, the museum accepted only Kyat, no dollars allowed. We were given admission passes that warned us to be prepared to present them on demand to museum officials. It's hard to imagine a scenario by which someone could sneak into the museum and, as we were only 2 of 6 people in the building, there was no chance of being lost in the crowd.
We enjoyed the exhibits and appreciated learning more about Myanmar, but it was a challenging environment. The bad lighting made looking around a bit of a chore but we are hopeful things will improve in the future. There seem to be many projects planned for the days ahead and the museum is currently renovating all of its washrooms.
Between our lingering train-lag and the non stop day up to that point, we were ready for a rest and headed back to our guesthouse for another plate of noodles and delicious bottles of local soda before heading to the airport to catch our evening flight to Bangkok. Yangon airport features free, fast Wi-Fi, a rarity for our round-the-world trip, and yet another sign of the changing times in Myanmar.
Yangon is a mix of crumbling buildings and the smell of fresh plaster. While I hesitate to use the proverbial travel cliche of "a city of contrasts", it really really was. Men in longhis and flip flops cram onto diesel burning buses with their suit-clad colleagues. We hopped cracked paving stones and open sewer drains while visiting one of the city's first ATMs. You are just as likely to hear pulsing hip hop music as the enthusiastic crow of the rooster.
While the city intrigued us, the people captivated us. Yangon residents were kind, reserved, helpful, shy, hospitable, modest, impossibly stylish, proud, and good humored, all mixed together in equal doses. In a city of constant change, I hope they always stay the same. We were leaving Myanmar, but the people won't ever leave us, and we both hope to return one day soon.
Previous Stop: Day 10 & 11 - Bagan
Next Stop: Bangkok
More About Myanmar:
Kipling, Orwell, and Harry Potter: A Day in Mandalay
Getting To and From Mandalay Airport
Sailing Down the Irrawaddy: Traveling by Boat from Mandalay to Bagan
The BEST Travel Experience of my Life: Balloons Over Bagan
The WORST Travel Experience of my Life: The Overnight Train from Bagan to Yangon
Besotted with Bagan: Day 10 &11 of Our Round The World Trip
Guest House Review: Yangon's Motherland Inn 2
Where to Stay in Bagan
Where To Eat In Bagan