Over the past few years, after decades of military rule Myanmar has awoken as a travel destination. Although trouble in the north is far from over, the once pariah state has edged open its doors and is welcoming tourists like never before.
Perhaps the highlight of any trip abroad is the people. As tough as the teak their country is famous for, the locals are warm and welcoming, and offer service among the best in Southeast Asia.
While the colonial buildings, religious monuments and amazing street food have long been in Yangon, they are now being joined by a growing number of high-quality dining and entertainment options ranging from Brit-style pub fare with a Burmese twist, to high-end teppanyaki served up in funky lounges, and rooftop bars with the razzle and dazzle that comes with them.
If you’re into all this and some fascinating colonial-era architecture, then 48 hours in Yangon might be exactly what you need.
Yangon International Airport
The approach to Yangon International Airport offers glimpses of the parched lands below. It’s flat, hard and dry. April is the hottest time of year and the Thingyan water festival celebrations that usher in the New Year are just about here, bringing respite from the scorching hot temperatures.
Immigration is quick and no fuss — before you know it you’re in a taxi. Taxis are unmetered, but from the airport to town (approximately 30 minutes), flat fares are 8,000 kyat (pronounced chat) — approximately US$6 (VND136,000).
The Kandawgyi Palace Hotel (US$74 per night) is located near Shwedagon Paya — perhaps Southeast Asia’s most impressive pagoda. The hotel sits on the shores of the lovely Kandawgyi Lake, one of two major lakes in Yangon, the other being the larger Inya Lake where Aung San Suu Kyi resides.
The eagerness to try Burmese food for the first time can’t wait. A short 10-minute taxi ride (US$2.50) from Kandawgyi Palace Hotel is one of Myanmar’s most famous restaurants, Feel Myanmar (Pyidaungzu Yeiktha Street).
Open since 1967, this is the place to sample the best of Burmese food. Influenced by Indian and Chinese cuisine, expect to find curries, samosas, parathas — a flatbread with a chickpea dip — wontons and spring rolls. Just point at what you want, then take your seat.
A mutton curry, paratha, biryani chicken rice, vegetable curry, chilli dried venison — a fiery looking dish with jerky-type cubes covered in chilli — and a large bottle of the local Myanmar beer, will set you back about US$13.
The circle line train in Yangon. Photo by Julie Vola
Yangon Central Railway Station
Less than a kilometre from Feel Myanmar, is the National Museum (Pyay Road), but for a more historical experience grab a taxi (US$2.50) and head for Yangon Central Railway Station (Kun Chan Road). Take a step back in time and get a feel for what it was like in colonial Yangon.
Get on-board the Yangon Circle Train, about 47km of wonky track circling the city. Trains run irregularly, but try to catch one and take it six stops to Pang Hlaing Station. Here, there’s a sunset cocktail waiting just a short stroll away.
Atlas Rooftop Lounge
Atlas Rooftop Lounge (84 Pang Hlaing Road) is on the top of an office block just minutes by foot from Pang Hlaing Station. Atlas offers 360-degree views of Yangon with an amazing sunset vista overlooking the beautiful Shwedagon Paya to the east. A mai tai cocktail and a glass of pinot grigio will cost US$9 each.
From Atlas, a taxi to Gekko (535 Merchant Street) for dinner will be US$3. This cosy cocktail lounge and grill on the ground floor of the historic Sofaer & Co. building serves up charcoal-fired Japanese dishes along with Korean and Vietnamese favourites. Yakitori options start at US$3 and go up to US$32 for sushi. Expect to pay around US$7 for their signature cocktails.
Sarkies Bar and Union Bar & Grill
After dinner, hit Sarkies Bar in the famous Strand Hotel (92 Strand Road) where Orwell and Kipling once drank. Happy hour is on Fridays from 5pm to 9pm. Down a selection of Sarkies’ signature historical cocktails, like the 1976 Bagan Breeze (US$7) made with vodka and white rum or the mojito-like 1968 Strand Sour made with local Mandalay rum. Sarkies has a large selection of whiskeys and rums ranging from US$6 to US$50 a shot, including all the Japanese brands.
Five minutes walk away is the lively Union Bar & Grill (42 Strand Road), named for its proximity to the British Embassy. It’s a modern hangout with top-notch food and drinks. Ask for the duck curry with sausage (US$12) and satisfy your benevolent tendencies by choosing from their Cocktails For A Cause menu with US$1 from every drink sold going to the Myanmar Red Cross.
For those not wanting to drink too much, wrap up your night with dessert at Home Sweet Home (440 Strand Road) where they make their own ice-cream and various other sweeties.
Rise with the birds and the locals and walk the boardwalk the length of Yangon’s second largest lake, Kandawgy Lake. The early mornings are beautiful as the sun rises from behind Karaweik Palace — a two-storey barge permanently moored on the banks facing Shwedagon Paya. If you have time, walk the circumference of the whole lake in two hours.
Lucky 7 Teahouse
Take on a city walk with a belly full of Myanmar’s national dish mohinga — a delicious rice noodle and fish soup at Lucky 7 Teahouse (49th Street). Here they also serve curries and pastries. Two coffees, a bowl of mohinga, a pork pauksi — Myanmar’s answer to the banh bao — and a local version of French toast with a light condensed milk will cost just US$3.
Typical street scenes in Yangon. Photos by Julie Vola
Lonely Planet’s suggested walking guide is a good one, but we’ve enhanced it with some extra stops. It starts at Sule Paya in the centre of town and takes you past key historical sites such as Mahabandoola Garden, City Hall, the Telegraph Office, the High Court, the Inland Water Transport offices (including the Yangon Heritage Trust museum), the Port Authority, Strand Hotel, Custom House and the Law Courts.
Along the way, try a bowl of Shan noodles (US$2) at the famous 999 Shan Noodle Shop (130/B 34th Street). This is the original shop, open for about 40 years and meeting the manager is worth the visit in itself.
Further on, sample local tea and pastries at Rangoon Teahouse (77-79 Pansodan Street). Upstairs is a cosy bar called The Toddy Bar if you’re in need of a tipple, while next door is Hla Day (81 Pansodan Street), a gift shop for mementos of your stay in Yangon. Another gift shop worth checking out is Myanhouse (56-60 Pansodan Street) where you can even get thanaka — a paste made from ground bark — applied to your face as the locals do.
In the cooler months, book yourself on a walking tour with the experts from Yangon Heritage Trust (22-24 Pansodan Street), an NGO advocating the sustainable development of Yangon.
Some of the cuisine at TinTin
Rest your weary legs at TinTin (118 Bogalazay Street), a pop-up style restaurant a short stroll from the ultra-impressive old Secretariat Building where Aung Sun, the founding father of modern day Myanmar, was assassinated along with six cabinet ministers in 1947.
TinTin is a foodie’s haven set over two floors with street-side seating. They rotate their menu on a regular basis with its current offering showcasing food from the border regions of Myanmar. Try the Bagan pone yay gyi (US$8), a pork curry with pickled Shan potatoes and the 48-hour braised lamb shank (US$19) in sambar — a lentil-based stew made with tamarind — curry leaves and goats curd. TinTin is a culinary highlight of Yangon.
Bogyoke Aung San Market
Walk off your lunch inside this colonial-era market in the centre of Yangon. While there’s heaps to keep shoppers happy, architecture buffs will enjoy the building with its narrow cobbled streets offering a sense of market life going back 100 years.
Yangon is still full of British-era colonial architecture. Photos by Julie Vola
This is one of the highlights of a trip to Yangon. Shwedagon Paya (US$6) is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. Whether you’re religious or not, or have seen just about every pagoda in the region, this can’t be missed. Arrive by 5pm to see it change colour as the sun sets. Gilded with over 60 tonnes of gold and standing over 100 metres high, Shwedagon Paya glitters under the sun and glows orange at night. The crown is tipped with over 5,000 diamonds and over 2,000 rubies with a 76-carat diamond to top it all off.
Inside Shwedagon Pagoda. Photo by Mike Palumbo
Belmond Governor’s Residence
Why not finish a massive day with some fine dining where Kipling is said to have hung out just two kilometres from Shwedagon Paya? The Belmond Governor’s Residence (35 Taw Win Road) is fine dining at its best in Yangon, so expect to pay over US$100 for dinner for two and a bottle of Australian wine. But it’s well worth it.
Take your time over breakfast at your hotel to look back on an amazing 48 hours. Don’t leave for the airport too late, the traffic in Yangon means your taxi to the airport might take over an hour.
Yangon International Airport
Back to where it all started again as you prepare to return to whence you came or move on to another destination.
Anyone without an ASEAN passport should get a travel visa for Myanmar. Visas can be obtained online at evisa.moip.gov.mm — the approval process takes one to two days and costs US$50 per visa.
The local currency is Myanmar Kyat (US$1 = K1,362) — international bank cards are widely accepted in Yangon.