My trip started and ended in Yangon (previously known as Rangoon), Myanmar’s bustling former capital. The capital moved to Naypwidawin in 2005, but Yangon remains the cultural and economic center of Myanmar as well as its largest city. Yangon was very cool, and while I was a little hesitant to spend a fairly large portion of my trip in the city, I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to leisurely roam around as opposed to rushing around to various landmarks.
Living in Bandar Lampung, Indonesia has given me the highest appreciation for sidewalks, orderly traffic, and silence. I wouldn’t call Yangon silent, but there are no motorbikes and very seldom does someone honk their car horn. There are wide – shady even – sidewalks good for buying anything you could possibly need or just stroll down. I spent most of my time in there just wandering, which was easy to do because it’s laid out on a grid system from when Burma was a British colony. Locals say that there aren’t motorbikes because a powerful man in the military’s car was wrecked by a motorbike, so he outlawed them.
streets and apartments on a main road in Yangon
Traffic is definitely more manageable when motorbikes aren’t zooming around between cars and it’s quieter. There were signs throughout the city forbidding honking your horn, but a taxi driver told me that because there are no motorbikes, you seldom have a reason to honk. Zooming around on my motorbike on seemingly lawless streets in Bandar Lampung is brilliant and I love it, but I also love the order that comes from their absence!
Blake’s house could not get the permits to allow me to stay there, and me trying to sneak a few nights there could have meant trouble for a very good friend, so I stayed at a guesthouse downtown right by Sule Pagoda, a 2,200 year old golden pagoda and a very central landmark.
Sunrise from my guesthouse, looking over Sule Paya. My room didn’t have windows (saved me $2), but I got to see this while I had breakfast.
During the day, I only got around by walking or bus, and riding the bus meant learning how to read a few Myanmar numbers, which was cool and learning a few key words and locations in Myanmar language, which encouraged people to give me the local fare. On my first day, I paid 200 kyats to get from Sule to Blake’s. By day 2, I was paying 100 kyats, and by my third day of city bus travel, I was only charged 50. My poker face is pretty good, I’ll say. Convincing people that I’m savvy is a skill that I’m happy to have harnessed.
The Golden Land
Myanmar calls itself The Golden Land and you see why after spending a day in Yangon. While Sule is the most central landmark, Shwedagan Paya (Pagoda) is definitely the most important and a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists. It’s the most magical at night when the lights make the gold and gem stones twinkle with the black sky as a backdrop.
a monk meditating at Shwedagon, and being dwarfed the giant, golden Buddhas
My last destination in Myanmar was the beautiful, giant reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya. It was difficult to find, did not have a government entrance fee, and wasn’t very crowded. Maybe it was because I was so exhausted from walking around Yangon all day, but I was completely mesmerized by the giant Buddha’s calming face. I sat down and stared in his eyes while people around me meditated and nearly an hour went by without me realizing it. At his feet, there is a shrine to Ma Thay who stops rain and grants safe journeys to sailors, so sailor friends and family, know that he’s looking out for you while you’re on the water.
Shrine to Ma Thay
crispy crepe-like street food stuffed with chic peas, veggies, and spices. Yum.
Being on budget, I ate a lot of Shan Kao Swe (Shan noodles) and Mohinga, which was no problem because they were delicious. Mohinga was especially memorable. It’s a fish broth soup with banana leaves, noodles, some kind of bean, cilantro, lime, and crispy bits sprinkled on top. So delicious and really filling, especially for a soup. The catch with mohinga is that it’s typically served for breakfast and past 11am, it gets really challenging to find. “Mohinga sheela” (do you have mohinga?) was a key phrase that I mastered very early in my trip.
Besides street food, though, I was blown away by the cool dining options in Yangon! Delicious international food as reasonable prices was a plenty. A few highlights were going out for afternoon tea, complete with mini cheeseburgers, mini quiches, cakes, scones, etc. and then Mexican. You heard me, Mexican food in Yangon. By any standards, my pork burrito was phenomenal. Living in a more traditional Asian city, I’m not dazzled by fried rice, fried noodles, and curried whatever. When I’m outside of Bandar Lampung, I want what I miss and can’t get in Bandar Lampung. Burritos, guacamole, and chili con queso definitely fall in that category… and imagine my surprise to find them all in Yangon.
Yangon pretty much shuts down at 9pm. Except Chinatown, which remains hopping ‘til the very wee hours, so head down there for a good time where the Myanmar Beer and spirits flow like water and food to lesson your hangover – or cause you to wake up with food poisoning, as it did my second night out in Chinatown.
pulled off the bottle cap, won 1000 kyats! (about a dollar)
A Glimpse into Myanmar History
No photos from this moment, but I still have to share. Wandering around Yangon by myself, I found a gallery that showcases contemporary Myanmar art on the first floor and antique images on the second. A man there showed me their collected, which consisted of socialist propaganda posters from the 1950s, original movie posters, old maps of Burma, paintings depicting Burmese history and Buddhist stories, as well as original photographs. I saw letters written to General Aung Sung, father of national hero, leader of the National League of Democracy, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung Sung Suu Kyi. Newspaper reports from his assassination and family photographs from when Aung Sung Suu Kyi was a child. I spent about an hour with this man and it was really special. I felt that I had gotten more out of it than a visit to any of the museums, which have a government fee. They have plans to open up a museum near Mount Popa.
The antique shops in Yangon were also treasure troves. This one, housing old cars, carriages, and beautiful Buddhist figures and furniture was particularly fun to explore… though I was constantly fearful of bumping something and disaster following.
I understand wanting to get out cities when you travel and into the countryside and small villages, but please, when you go Myanmar, give Yangon the time it deserves. It’s a city with endless avenues to explore and wonderful people.