During the hour long taxi ride from Yangon airport into the city, I stared out the window at the constantly changing scenery.
Quiet residential neighbourhoods surrounded by green parks gradually gave way to shabby apartment blocks and traffic choked streets. Golden temples shone in the distance. We weaved through the congested traffic, slowly edging closer to our destination.
And suddenly we were there, the beating heart of the city.
We pulled up in front of a dilapidated building on a busy street. A dank, unlit stairwell piled with rubbish and make-shift shelters led up to our guesthouse. Stepping inside the clean oasis of Golden Star Guesthouse, we had entered a sparkling refuge from the chaotic city.
The guesthouse staff didn’t understand much English, but were friendly and welcoming. Our small but comfortable bunk room reminded me of a ship cabin, it was just missing the port holes.
We left the guesthouse to go for lunch and were instantly swallowed by the frenetic city. There was so much going on. Car horns beeping. People yelling out to each other. A sea of faces surrounded us on all sides, busily going about their days.
The twenty-minute walk to the restaurant was like nothing I have ever experienced before.
We constantly had to have our wits about us to avoid walking into someone and to sidestep the numerous giant holes in the footpath that were threatening a broken leg to those unfortunate enough to be distracted.
Uncountable and undistinguishable smells scented the thick and humid air. Various foods, putrid rubbish, what else – I don’t know.
Colours of every hue, in the traditional longyis (long skirts) that the men and women wear, of the dirt encrusted colonial buildings, abandoned by the British and left to rot. There was little to no tourist infrastructure. It was incredible.
Scooters are banned from the streets of Yangon which also gave it a different feel to other major Asian cities, where crossing the road you ran the risk of being hit by one of the millions of scooters zipping around.
My Dad said he hadn’t experienced anything like it since travelling through Indian cities in the seventies. We didn’t see another tourist, at least not an obvious one. I didn’t know this was still possible in South East Asian cities. Locals curiously stared as we passed and kids with giant smiles on their faces waved with fervour. Like Greased Lightning – it was electrifying.
Once we reached 999 Shan Noodle Soup, a restaurant serving its namesake soup, the spell was broken. We weren’t the only westerners in sight anymore, there were two groups already sitting at the tidy tables enjoying soup. Well, the restaurant was recommended by the Lonely Planet.
Yangon was already blowing our minds and we had only been in the city for an hour.
Over the next few days we would explore further, discovering more and more about this previously closed city, and there was so MUCH to discover.
Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and the former capital, until it was replaced by Naypyidaw in 2006. It may be one of the most undeveloped cities in South East Asia, but it has the highest number of colonial buildings. You can see them everywhere throughout the city, faded reminders of the British colonial past.
Yangon was seized by the British in 1852 and didn’t gain its independence again until 1948, almost 100 years later.
Since gaining independence from Britain, a military junta took over by force and ruled with an iron fist from 1962 to 2011, shutting off the country from the rest of the world. With democratic elections in 2015, the first non-military leader since 1962 was elected.
Things are looking bright for Myanmar and it is finally opening its doors to the rest of the world after all these years.
The Lonely Planet recommends riding the Blue Circle train around Yangon. This is meant to be a great way to witness the local way of life but to be honest, we didn’t see anything too interesting from the train windows. Maybe it would have been better had we done the full loop but we somehow ended up on the wrong train and had to turn around and go back the way we came.
I much preferred wandering the streets anyway, experiencing the city on my own two feet rather than through a grimy window.
Away from the crush of narrow side streets and busy main roads was the centrally located Mahabandoola Gardens. This swath of green was a very welcome escape from the concrete and crowds. Surrounded by colourful and crumbling colonial buildings, and with the golden stupa of the Sule Paya next to it, the park was one of the most beautiful spots in Yangon.
In the centre of the park is a giant obelisk, the independence monument commemorating the country’s independence from Britain in 1948. Some cheeky novice monks, begging for donations, and aggressively persuasive postcard salesman tailed us through the park.
Bogyoke Aung San Market is Yangon’s answer to Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, albeit on a much smaller scale. The covered market sold textiles, clothing, souvenirs, and jewellery among other things. I bought myself a longyi, which came in very handy for temple visits throughout my time in Myanmar.
At night the city pulsated with the same energy as during the day. Impromptu night markets popped up wherever there was space. Candles were stuck with wax directly to the asphalt, dimly lighting the wares for sale.
There were live fish, gasping on the concrete as they slowly died, all manner of fruits and vegetables, slabs of rich red meat haphazardly lying out in the open, covered in flies. Some vendors had so little, just selling a small basket of vegetables or a couple of fish, sitting on the concrete and hoping that the people walking past them might want what they have.
19th Street in Chinatown really comes alive at night. It is a popular spot with tourists but was still delightfully full of locals, seated al fresco at the many BBQ restaurants lining the street. We picked a restaurant then selected skewers from a cold buffet. They are then taken away and cooked on a BBQ. This is a food tradition that I came to love in Myanmar.
We tried a selection including prawns, mini potatoes, boiled quail eggs, mushroom stuffed pork rolls, and marinated chicken. Washed down with Myanmar Beer (the best local beer in South East Asia in my opinion), it was one hell of a delicious meal.
Along with BBQ skewers, I came to love the ubiquitous Shan noodle soup which was similar to Pho Ga: basically a very delicious chicken noodle soup.
Street food was also available everywhere and the range was staggering. There was unripe mango tossed in fish sauce and spices, deep fried wontons and potato cakes, boiled quail eggs, long ribbons of grey cooked tripe, chicken skewers, tropical fruit including one of my favourites – longans, and sugary local style pancakes, to name a few that I saw.
I only managed to try a fraction of what was on offer.
Yangon is also known for its Indian food and we ventured to another place recommended by the Lonely Planet, this time an Indian restaurant called New Delhi, for delicious Dosa. Dosa are southern Indian thin pancakes made with fermented ground lentils and filled with a potato and vegetable curry. This time there were no other tourists in sight.
The waiter seemed excited to serve us and practice his English.
Drinking tea is an important Burmese ritual and tea houses abounded in the city. Burmese tea is milky but with a strong tannin taste. I ended up drinking quite a lot of it during my time in the country.
Myanmar is a deeply Buddhist country so unsurprisingly there are a lot of payas, or temples, dotted throughout Yangon. Along with discovering the cuisine and wandering around the city, it was important to me to visit at least a few of these buildings that are so sacred to the Burmese people.
Sule Paya was the first temple we visited as it was closest to our guesthouse. We had seen this golden temple when we walked around the city the day before. It’s kind of hard to miss a giant ancient temple located in the middle of a busy traffic round-a-bout.
Sule Paya is believed to have been built during the time of the Buddha, more than 2500 years ago.
As we entered the sacred site we were told to buy flowers, they didn’t cost much so we just went along with it. A guide latched onto us and took us on a tour around the temple complex, telling us about its history.
Around the central golden stupa there were shrines dedicated to the eight signs of the Burmese Zodiac. Your zodiac sign is based on what day of the week you are born on, with Wednesday being split into two. Our Guide had a book with dates and corresponding days of the week and I found out I was born on a Saturday which makes me a Dragon.
The flowers we bought on arrival were to offer at our respective shrines and we were also told to pour cups of water over the statue at our shrine and ring the bell. It was all very interesting and I would say that our Guide actually deserved the large tip that he demanded at the conclusion of the tour.
Botataung Paya is famed for its gold-leaf interior and for housing what is believed to be a sacred hair of the Gautama Buddha. I can’t get enough of the sparkling gold stupas against a bright blue sky but I found the gold leaf interior not so exciting, although the air-con was much appreciated.
A cloudy green pond was home to hundreds of terrapins including a monster that was quadruple the size of its brothers and sisters.
We saved the most famous temple of them till last – the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is the most sacred temple in Yangon and houses relics from four Buddhas including eight hairs from Gautama Buddha (take that Botataung Paya).
The magnificent golden central stupa is 99 metres tall and is surrounded by smaller shrines. After looking around the shrines we took a seat in front of the iconic gilded stupa, as sunset slowly encroached. A carefully coordinated line of women swept the marble ground around the stupa as we waited.
The sky darkened, and the spot lights around the stupa turned on, illuminating it in a golden glow. It was mesmerising.
Shwedagon Pagoda was my favourite in Yangon, and not just because I patted a cat hanging out in one of the shrines or because a local lady said I was pretty. It was the most impressive and getting to see it lit up at night was simply spectacular.
Yangon itself was spectacular. A city of raw energy, slowly emerging from fifty years of oppressive rule that saw it largely shut off from the rest of the world. Like with Cuba, I want to see progress as that would benefit the people and hopefully help to combat the crushing poverty we witnessed.
But I also love that I got to see it as it is now, a truly incredible city that is like nowhere else I have experienced.
Unpolished but beautiful. And so very alive.