Myanmar’s political transition over the past few years towards a democratic state has made the country more open to travelers, which means you probably want to get there while the country’s still somewhat un-trampled. The only direct route to the country from Hong Kong at the moment is via Yangon, a pretty painless two-hour flight serviced by several airlines. If a weekend’s all you’ve got, here’s how to spend it in this colorful city.
From 1852 to 1937, Myanmar (then Burma) was a British colony and much of the architecture and culture still pervades the city today. Although many buildings have become derelict from neglect, the heart of the colonial quarter gives a peek into the once-palatial buildings surrounding the Sule Pagoda. From the High Court to City Hall, vestiges of the British era flank avenues such as Pandsodan Street and Mahabandula Road in the center of town.
Another way to experience the old colonial splendor is with an afternoon high tea. The Strand Hotel’s (92 Strand Road, Yangon, (+95) 1-243-377) high tea is the most famous, and the most expensive at about US$18 per person, but there are several other options should you wish to branch out. Rangoon Tea House (2/F, 77-79 Pansodan Street, Yangon, (+95) 99-7907-8681) is another centrally located option, boasting heritage digs and excellent brews. Outside of town is Acacia Tea Salon (Saya San Road, Yangon, (+95) 1-554-739), comprising two buildings — an elegant green house and a larger white mansion with timeless interiors. The desserts here are the highlight, although there are several premium teas on offer too.
The bars in Yangon are not going to blow you away, at least none that we went to. However that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a good time, particularly when beer is only about US$2 per bottle. For an old-world experience at a fraction of the price, pull up a stool at 50 Street Cafe (9/13 50th Street, Yangon, (+95) 1 397 060) — a sunny yellow building with dark wood interiors.
Also downtown, Monsoon Restaurant & Bar (85-87 Thein Phyu Road, Yangon, (+95) 1-295-224) is a sophisticated spot to stop for a cold one. Although it feels like more of a restaurant than a bar, there’s free Wi-Fi and great service. On the northern side of town, Savoy Hotel Yangon (129 Dhammazedi Road, Yangon, (+95) 1-526-289) is home to the all-wood Captains Bar and an inviting pool bar.
While Off the Beaten Track Cafe (Kandawgyi Natural Park, Karaweik Oo-Yin Kabar, Yangon, (+95) 5101-2657) might sound like it’s in the middle of nowhere, it’s actually ridiculously convenient to access from the entrance of Karaweik Lake. The change of leafy walkways and change of scenery is a welcome respite from the city center, though you will likely need to suck down an iced coffee to survive the heat. The picturesque lake gets crazy busy on weekends, so visit on a weekday if at all possible.
If you’re accustomed to amazing French food, then dinner at Le Planteur Restaurants & Lounge (80 University Avenue, Bahan Township, Yangon, (+95) 1-514-230) might be a tad disappointing. The food itself is not going to blow nay minds, especially at these price tags. But the atmosphere and experience is hard to beat — picture a colossal white mansion tucked in a private garden by a lake, with arched doorways and sky-high columns.
There are several dining areas: an indoor lounge with handsome nooks, an avant-garde indoor dining room, a romantic outdoor terrace for casual bites, and an expansive lawn for fine dining. We’d recommend skipping the expensive tasting menu, but ordering a few snacks on the terrace just to soak up the surrounds.
If there’s one thing that Yangon has in spades, it’s gotta be pagodas. The most famous is the Shwedagon Pagoda (Dagon, Yangon, Myanmar), which is located about a 10-minute drive from the city center unless you hit traffic. And you will hit traffic. Once you’re inside, though, it’s an incredible experience. The pagoda, which reaches 325 feet tall, gleams in the sunlight and is surrounded by dozens of smaller temples, wood carvings and Buddha statues. Head there in the early morning for sunrise, or in the evening for sunset, to avoid the crowds and catch the best light.
While not quite as epic as Shwedagon, the Sule Pagoda (Maha Bandula Road, Yangon) is a historic and political landmark of the colonial district in Yangon. It is said to date back to 230 BC and supposedly contains a sacred hair of the Buddha, Gautama, although in more recent history it has been the site of several protests. Though the pagoda is currently under construction, you can still tour around inside for a closer look.
One of the most memorable stops is sure to be Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda (Shwe Gon Taing Road, Tamwe Township, Yangon), which is north of the city and home to an immense reclining Buddha. The 230-foot-tall and 213-foot-long Buddha is essentially the only thing in this giant warehouse, but it’s definitely worth seeing — take special note of the feet, which have been inscribed with over 100 auspicious symbols.
Across the street from the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is another big Buddha worth seeing. Quiet and secluded, the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda (Shwe Gon Taing Street, Yangon, Myanmar) dates back to 1558. The imposing statue is covered in gleaming gold, ornate details and a crown full of jewels. The wooden backdrop too, is covered in hand-carved wood that you could marvel at for hours.
As you hop from pagoda to pagoda, stop along the way for mohinga, a fish-based stew packed full of ginger, lemongrass, garlic, boiled eggs, fish cakes, and noodles. Though the soup is more of a morning ritual, most of the street-side stalls sell it during the afternoon too. It’s especially easy to find around the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is surrounded by hundreds of outdoor dining stalls with small plastic chairs of every color imaginable.
These wide, flat noodles come in all kinds of textures but we went with the “sticky” variety from 999 Shan Noodle Shop (130 B 34th Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon, (+95) 94-5006-1616.). This was hands-down the best place we ate all weekend, and we’re craving another bowl of the spicy, tomatoey goodness as we type. Though deep-fried tofu is another staple of the region, the version we tried is nowhere near as good as a plate of ja dou fu in Hong Kong. Fermented tea-leaf salad is another story entirely. Also available at 999 Shan Noodles, the Burmese salad is a textural adventure, with fried peas, lime, shrimp, tomatoes, chili and ginger. If you see it on the menu, you must order.
A low-key Burmese cafe, Aung Thukha (17A 1st Street, West Shwegondaing, Yangon) is a wonderland for those who like to sample a million things in one go. The restaurant lets you choose from two dozen curries, veggies and meat dishes and throw it all onto a heap of fresh rice. While frills-free, the staff members are friendly and you can pile your plate with fish curries, fresh salads, meaty dishes, and even sweet corn mash. Lunch for two cost about US$8 and, trust us, we went to town.
Come nightfall, many of the major roads downtown turn into one giant night market. The epicenter is around 19th Street, but the action stretches east and west along Anawratha and Maha Bandula roads, too. Here you’ll find all kinds of barbecued meats, fresh fish on the grill, fruit and tiny stalls cooking up stews and salads. From 18th Street through to 24th is Chinatown, which boasts even more sizzling food as well as heaps of knick-knacks.
Visa: Many passports — including Hong Kong, British, UK, Canadian and Australian — can apply for visa online. The online process takes up to three days, and the arrival experience in Myanmar only took about 30 minutes.
Money: Myanmar uses USD and its own Burmese kyat, which is roughly about Ks1,000 = US$1 = HK$7.75.
Taxis: Most taxi rides will cost around US$1 or US$2. Farther drives (say 10 minutes plus) will be US$5, and the airport to downtown is about US$10. If you want to rent a car for a couple of hours, expect to pay about US$5-10 an hour. Prepare for traffic — even a spot just 2 kilometers away on the map can take ages, especially around the Shwedagon Pagoda.