24 Hours in Hectic Yangon
After leaving peaceful Inle Lake, Alex and I traveled to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital. We arrived at rush hour and the traffic going to our hotel in Yangon’s Chinatown was ridiculous! We decided to walk around before dinner… the sidewalks were full of makeshift restaurants, with people cooking and eating, as well as selling freshly plucked chickens (with meat juices running down the sidewalk), and fruit. Unlike Hanoi (another hectic city, filled with mopeds), Yangon doesn’t allow mopeds, only cars, taxis and buses (they looked very crowded, with one guy hanging off the side, yelling out the stops).
The next morning, we took a taxi (none of the taxis are metered- you have to negotiate the price before getting in) to Shwedagon Pagoda, which is visible from anywhere in the city. Shwedagon is situated on top of a hill, and the height of the pagoda is around 100 meters. We knew that ‘short’ pants weren’t allowed, as were tank tops or short dresses, but the rules weren’t heavily enforced in Bagan. Shwedagon was a different story- Alex had to purchase a longyi (a very loose ‘skirt’ that is tightened by tying the top into a knot, traditionally worn by Burmese men) to wear (yes, it’s a cute souvenir, but I bet he will never wear it again!). The pagoda complex is gigantic, and we wandered around for about an hour. I donated some money and poured water and said a prayer at my ‘planetary post’- there were designated areas for each day of the week (that you were born).
Next, we went to Botataung Pagoda, near the river. Inside the pagoda, there was a shrine dedicated to some hair relics of Buddha (we couldn’t make out any actual strands of hair). We walked around inside the stupa (most stupas are solid, but this one was rebuilt hollow).
We checked out of our hotel, and proceeded to have lunch at 999 Shan Noodle House (rated #2 on TripAdvisor). It was a simple, family run restaurant, serving really good Shan-style noodle soups. Our total bill for 2 bowls of noodles and 2 drinks came out to $3! From there, we started our Lonely Planet colonial architecture walking tour through Yangon’s downtown. We probably should have started earlier in the day (or later), because we were walking around when it was hottest! Yangon has some colonial architecture (leftover from the British) that must have been beautiful in the city’s heyday. Now, some of the buildings are in poor shape, crumbling, with trees and vines growing into the windows and roofs.
Mahabandoola Garden, the large park next to city hall, was lovely. To escape the afternoon heat for an hour, we stopped for drinks at the Strand Hotel, at one time the most extravagant hotel in Yangon, with many famous people staying there. Not sure if this is just a myth, but we read that Rudyard Kipling wrote the majority of “The Jungle Book” during his stay at the Strand.
Our next stop was Kandawgyi Lake (we were dropped off at the wrong side of the park- and it wasn’t connected, so we had to walk quite a distance to the right entrance), previously called ‘Royal Lake’. It’s the second largest lake in Yangon, and is manmade. From there, we could see Shwedagon Pagoda in the afternoon light. However, we decided to head to Vista Bar for some drinks and a good sunset view of the Shwedagon. The bar was full of tourists, but the views (open air) were magnificent!
Since we still had some time before our flight, we went to Sky Bistro, a bar/restaurant on the top floor of a tall building, with great views of downtown (and Shwedagon Pagoda). We had appetizers and drinks here too. By the time we made it to dinner at the Green Gallery (#1 rated on TripAdvisor), we were really full already. Green Gallery looks like it could belong in Brooklyn. It was posh and minimalist at the same time (the menu didn’t list prices, and there were special items not listed on the menu). The owner had spent some time abroad, and opened this Thai restaurant once she came back to Yangon. The curries were some of the best we’ve had! And that’s how we left Yangon- having had essentially three meals in the span of five hours!
A few other comments about Myanmar in general:
- The people are really kind and helpful, especially in smaller towns like Bagan and Inle Lake.
- You drive on the right side of the street, even though all the cars have steering wheels on the right!
- People (especially men) love chewing a combination of betel nut and tobacco. It stains their teeth red (when we first saw this, we thought a guy had just gotten into a bloody fight) and you can frequently see red stains on the sidewalks and roads. As you walk down any street (Yangon, Bagan, Nyaungshwe), you’ll see little stalls selling these rolled up chews. Take a look: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/04/world/asia/myanmar-betel-nut-cancer/
- At domestic airports:
- No ID check. Your name is just crossed off from a printed sheet of paper (after you say your name).
- Baggage claim tag doesn’t have a bar code- just a matching number.
- Flights are listed on a white board, written in marker.
- You are given a sticker (different for each airline) to wear, to identify your flight. Apparently they cycle through colors so you don’t accidentally get on the wrong flight.
- There are no automated flight announcements, just a person yelling out the flight number in the waiting area.
- People manually push luggage carts between the plane and the airport building.
- You are ALWAYS offered a meal and hot drinks on a flight, even if it’s only for one hour!
We’re glad we made it to Myanmar while it’s still relatively ‘untouched.’ Two years ago, our friends went and there were no ATMs or wifi. Now they have ATMs in tourist spots and spotty wifi. Who knows what will happen in a few more years? (Our friend Renee thinks there’ll be Starbucks at all major tourist sights. As of now, Starbucks has yet to enter the country.)