Yangon is the biggest and commercially most important city in Myanmar; here are some highlights if you’re planning a trip.
Laid out in grand British colonial style – Burma was coloured pink on world maps from 1855 until it won its independence in 1948 – downtown Yangon boasts generous parks, wide roads and solid Victorian architecture.
At its centre is the expansive Mahabendula Park, now sporting a gigantic monolith to independence. Around the park is a phalanx of grand Victorian buildings, the majority in various stages of mouldering decline. Happily, though, a number have been restored in recent years, funded by international private enterprise, explains my guide, Aye.
From City Hall, built in 1927 and refurbished in fetching blue around 2006, I pick my way along pavements crowded with tiny culinary enterprises. One US dollar (around 1,000 kyat, pronounced “chat”) gets me five crispy samosas stuffed with fried cabbage, onion and potato. Vendors perched scant centimetres above pavement level on tiny plastic chairs toss together salads of noodles, papaya, tofu, fresh coriander leaves and more, served with bowls of fish soup. Street-side tea shops are everywhere in Yangon, and popular as meeting places.
Pansodan Street is famous for its second-hand bookstalls – an eclectic mix, to say the least. Where Pansodan and Strand Street intersect, a pedestrian bridge offers a splendid view. To the right is downtown, and to the left the muddy Rangoon River. Behind me is the famous Strand Hotel (1896), said to be the most expensive accommodation in town.
No Asian city tour is complete without a couple of hours’ shopping, right? In Yangon, it has to be Bogyoke Market. Silks, lacquer-ware and jewellery seem to be the main focuses, if you’re in the mood. Today I’m not, and I end up paying two vendors (of postcards and monk sketches, respectively) several dollars each to go away.
Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda
This is by far the main thing to see in Yangon. However many impressive temples and other religious sites you’ve seen, this massive complex of Buddhist edifices is something to behold. One tip is to visit at night, as shoes aren’t allowed and the marble becomes unbearably hot during the day.
It’s completely acceptable to join in the public devotions, and unexpectedly enjoyable to stroll around the pagoda to find your own corner of worship, based on the day of the week you were born on. (Wednesday, for some unexplained reason, has two corners, one for those born in the morning, the other for those born later in the day.)
Each day is associated with a zodiacal animal: tiger, lion, tusked and tusk-less elephant (for Wednesday children), rat and guinea-pig; for mine, Sunday, it’s the mythical garuda. When you get to your corner, you’re supposed to pour water over the Buddha statue there to bring you good luck.
Around Inya Lake
Pluck up the courage to cross the busy road to the narrow park that borders Inya Lake – far less hairy, though, than Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City’s terrifying thoroughfares – and you can join the morning throng of walkers and joggers on the path that runs around the largest natural lake in the country. Note the “No Sex” signs: useful reminders for students from the nearby university who might otherwise forget themselves.
Directly across the lake, you can see the red-roofed home of Aung San Suu Kyi. Leaving the lake path and walking along University Avenue’s rather erratic sidewalk, I come across The Lady’s big front gate, boldly marked with signs for her NDL party and touchingly topped with a sun-faded portrait of her famous father.
Eating & Drinking
For traditional Burmese food, try the Green Elephant in University Avenue, a fan-cooled alfresco restaurant. I’m parched after a full day of sightseeing, and a quart bottle of chilled Myanmar beer barely touches my sides. Though the diners are mainly tourists, the food is fresh and authentic. They serve piping hot tempura style vegetables, a light lentil soup, a tasty chicken and potato curry with side-dishes of steamed rice, stir-fried morning glory (a green vegetable) and an utterly delicious Thai-like salad.
Mohinga is the national dish, and I’m told that people take it seriously – each region has its own version. The one I sample is a thick, slightly spicy and coconut-tinged fish soup ladled over fine rice noodles and hard-boiled egg, and garnished with coriander. Utterly delicious!
November to February is when Myanmar is at its coolest and driest, and so the best time to visit. Several airlines fly direct from Changi, including Singapore Airlines, Jetstar and Tiger air; the journey takes three hours. I cleared immigration and customs fairly quickly, but I hear that’s not always the case.
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