In my previous Myanmar blog post I covered where to stay and eat in Yangon so now I am going to run through what there is to do in the city. Considering how few tourists there are there is a lot of opportunity for sight seeing and some major landmarks that you can’t miss out on. Equally, we spent a lot of time just walking around the streets and visiting local markets, really getting a feel for life in Yangon!
We spent a lot of time exploring markets and there are a lot of them in Yangon – it just depends which type you want to see!
Pretty much every street in the city is lined with stalls selling various goods, from clothing and trinkets to fruit, seafood and meat. It is quite an experience walking down the road and seeing piles of raw meat next to a fresh fruit stall next to piles of rubbish and bin bags.
These tiny stalls are how a lot of people make their living and I was told that the locals have their favourite vendor who they will visit for fruit, their favourite who they visit for meat or their favourite to get their clothes mended.
Near our hotel there was a larger group of these kinds of stalls called the Sule Night Market. These stalls were more geared towards eating and there were lots of plastic chairs and tables that you sat at and ate, sharing a table with friends and strangers.
Sadly we didn’t get to experience the street food properly due to how unhygienic it was but we did try a ‘husband and wife’ which was like a mini omelette, named because of the way the two sides are put together to make a whole!
One of the types of stall that I saw a lot of was meat fondue. There was literally a vat of boiling oil and piles and piles of animal innards which locals just cooked themselves. I’m not sure I could have brought myself to try this even if I could!!
You can find this market on Maha Bandula Park St, it is actually marked out as the Sule Night Market on the map as it went on quite late into the night.
There are also tourist markets which are much more westernised – don’t let this put you off as they are still interesting to see and great for picking up a few souvenirs. Expect to be approached by various enterprising kids/adults who will lead you to their stall and try and cut you ‘an excellent deal’ in return for buying something from their stall. The main tourist market you can visit is Bogyoke Market in downtown Yangon.
If you really want to experience local life then you have to visit the main local market (Theingyi Zei Market).
I’ll warn you now, you need a strong stomach for this when you visit the meat section! (I won’t go in to detail but I have a lasting memory of a basket of goat’s heads and dodging the spray of blood as hanging meat was being hacked at in the walkways!!) This market is a world away from the tourist market I mentioned above with hundreds of stalls filled with Burmese produce, it is definitely worth a visit!
The street outside the market was filled with more stalls and even in the middle of the road Burmese women had laid down blankets of fruit and veg. Amazingly enough cars can drive down this street, I watched in surprise as the women casually stood back from their blankets of food as the car just drove straight over the top – they had arranged their blankets to leave enough space for tyres on either side!
2. Shwedagon Pagoda
You can’t visit Yangon without visiting the Shwedagon pagoda. Highly decorated and covered in gold, the contrast to its surroundings couldn’t be more obvious. The pagoda is believed to hold strands of hair from the founder of Buddaism, Guatama but it isn’t just a religious site, it is also a symbol of democracy for the pro democracy movement.
You can’t wear shoes inside the pagoda but plastic bags are provided to put your shoes in. it is also worth carrying a longyi around with you (the traditional Myanmar dress for men and women) as you have to cover up.
There are four stairways that lead up to the pagoda and several are lined with market stalls. Once on the main terrace you can walk around the stupa and take photos of the beautiful shrines.
It costs about 10$ to go inside but you have to pay in the Burmese currency of Kyat. You can exchange your dollars there but you will lose out on the exchange rate so it is best to come prepared.
We visited the Shwedagon pagoda twice, once during the day and then again at sunset. It is really atmospheric sitting and watching the sunset glint off the gold.
Another Pagoda worth visiting is the Sule Pagoda. It is less impressive than the Shwedagon pagoda but still worth a visit. It is located in downtown Yangon, very close to our hotel and definitely felt like the heart of the area. It is situated in the centre of a busy roundabout, but when lit up at night it is a pretty spectacular sight.
It costs about $4000 Kyat to visit and again you need to cover up and remove your shoes.
4. Sunset by the river
Watching the sunset by the river was as much about the beautiful colour of the sky as watching the comings and goings of the boats on the river.
Unless you buy a sim card you are unlikely to have Internet access so it is worth downloading maps.me which works without internet. One useful feature of this app is that people can leave comments about areas that you won’t find on Google Maps e.g ‘great for sunset views’.
We essentially sat on a pontoon that jutted out from the mainland to watch the sun go down. It is very dusty and polluted with the constant stream of boats that arrive at the shore to pick up locals and take them back home to the other side of the river. Give them a wave as they go past, they loved it!
We sat and watched two boys who must have been about twelve years share a packet of cigarettes and tease the many seagulls with scraps of food. At the end of their evening we watched them throw their rubbish straight into the river, which sadly is the norm for society there. It is easy to see why the air and water is so polluted but understandably protecting the environment won’t be high up on the agenda for the average Burmese person who is probably more concerned with where their next meal will be coming from.
5. Walking Tour
As I said before the city isn’t geared up for tourists in particular, though I imagine this will change very soon. A great activity to do though is a walking tour led by a Burmese local. If you are travelling by yourself it could also be a good way to meet others.
We went with Free Yangon Walking Tours http://www.freeyangonwalks.com/ and were led by a Burmese man and woman who spoke such amazing English. They took us to all the main sites and they explained to us about the history of the buildings, restaurants and streets that we passed. I learnt so much and it was a brilliant way of taking in the city.
The walking tour also gave us the opportunity to learn about Yangon’s colonial past. Many of the buildings were built in the British Colonial era such as the town hall and the High Court.
The free walking tours with the company above take place on a Monday and Wednesday between 4 -6pm. It is a great opportunity to speak to a local and ask them about their life in the country.
6. Visit a local bar
You can read my recommendations of were to eat and drink in Yangon in my previous blog post but one evening we headed to a local bar for a beer after dinner. I’m not sure I could tell you where we were but it was pretty close to the Sule Pagoda and was essentially a little room with some plastic tables and chairs.
As the only westerners in the bar we received some stares but it was quite fun to sit and watch the locals relaxing on a Friday night. I was actually the only girl in the whole place – I imagine most of the women were at home looking after the kids! I tried not to think too hard about the cockroach crawling up the wall next to me and instead enjoyed the freezing cold beer on the hot, humid evening!
7. Wholesale banana market
One afternoon we took a trip to the wholesale banana market. We took a taxi from the centre which only cost a few dollars and got us there in ten minutes. It is situated right next to the river and is not really something that is advertised for tourists. It was an amazing sight – I have never seen and I am not sure I will ever see so many bananas in one place again!
The people working there seemed a bit suspicious of us and didn’t really like us taking photos (especially if any kids were in the shot – although this isn’t unusual for Myanmar). We had a look around and made sure we didn’t overstay our welcome. I think it is worth a look but just be respectful and stay out the way from the people trying to do their job as much as possible!
8. Mahabandoola Gardens
It is also worth taking a trip to Mahabandoola Gardens. We sat here one afternoon and just spent a bit of time people watching. We saw monks chatting in groups with locals, young people out with their friends and families picnicking.
9. China town
We took a trip to China Town one evening, I have to say that I wasn’t overly impressed. I don’t know if we just didn’t find the right area but it didn’t feel like there was much difference to any other bustling Yangon street!
10. The Circle Line
One activity that we considered doing but didn’t quite have time for was a trip on the Circle line. I had read very mixed reviews about this as some said it was a great way to experience local life and others said it was just a hot and crowded train journey with villages passing by in a blur. It is a 3 hour loop around the city by train and tickets cost about a dollar. You can get off at various stops and then hop back on to either complete the circuit or return to the centre.
There is a lot to do in Yangon and enough to fill a couple of days of sight seeing. This list doesn’t cover everything and I am sure that a lot of more of the religious and architectural side of Yangon can be explored. It is a brilliant place to start off your trip in Myanmar before heading off to other areas.
Have you every visited Yangon? Let me know in the comments below!