If you’re heading to Burma, the chances are that you’ll be beginning your trip in Yangon: Burma’s former capital city and former stronghold of the British Raj. Though it is by far the largest city in Burma, Yangon remains much quieter and less developed than most Southeast Asian capitals. It has only 5 million residents as opposed to neighbouring Bangkok’s 22 million, and its crumbling colonial buildings have been left largely untouched for decades.
Yangon’s attractions range from ancient religious monuments to faded colonial grandeur and include both fascinating markets and pleasant suburbs. But where to begin?
1. Visit Shwedagon Pagoda
If you know nothing else about Yangon, you may well have heard of Shwedagon Pagoda: Burma’s holiest (and shiniest) religious monument. The Burmese claim that this 100-metre-plus, burnished gold stupa has stood on this spot for over 2,500 years, making Shwedagon the oldest pagoda in the world. This probably not entirely true, however. Historians put the age of the pagoda at around 1,000-1,400 years, but who’s counting anyway?
Shwedagon is not just a place of worship, but a hub where Yangon residents congregate to socialise, particularly in the evenings. This gives the stupa a lively, buzzing atmosphere rather than the hush-hush, museum-like experience you can sometimes find at “must-see” temples.
2. Take a sunset cruise on the Yangon River
After a long day of sightseeing, you probably feel as though you’d like to sit back, put your feet up, and watch the world go by. A novel way to do this in Yangon is on a sunset river cruise, where you can get a different perspective on the city while enjoying a beer or two. This is our preferred way to end a day in Yangon.
3. Head out of the city on a bicycle
We all enjoy seeing the famous sights in any city – but most of us also like to get a sense of everyday life away from the tourist trail. This can be a tall order when you’re pushed for time and don’t know the area, but exploring by bicycle is a fantastic way to get a taste of both.
There are a number of excellent bike rides to take in Yangon, leading you out of the city centre and into quiet suburbs and neighbouring villages that you might otherwise never have discovered. One of our favourite routes takes you across the Yangon River by ferry to Dhala, then through paddy fields, bamboo groves and stilt villages to the town of Twante.
4. Take high tea at the Strand Hotel
Thanks to Yangon’s relative lack of development, the city still boasts and impressive hoard of grand colonial architecture. Faded and crumbling as they are, these buildings have been left largely un-meddled-with, giving them an air of authenticity that has been lost from some parts of postcolonial Southeast Asia.
The best way to take in this impressive heritage is to take a walking tour of the city, including a stop at the historic Strand Hotel for high tea. Built in 1901, the Strand has been hosting VIPs and dignitaries for over a century, and is the perfect place to rekindle a little colonial romance.
5. Ride the circle train
If you want to get an idea of the average Yangon-dweller’s day-to-day life, we highly recommend riding the circle train out into the suburbs. Hop off at a few stops here and there and just take a bit of time to wander aimlessly – discovering quiet streets and busy markets without another tourist in sight. If you can, enlist the services of a local guide to show you where the best spots are and introduce you to Burmese culture.
These are our five favourite Yangon tips for the first-time visitor, and should make the perfect introduction to any Burma trip.
Alastair Donnelly is Director at InsideAsia Tours.