Myanmar is one of the hottest new travel destinations and if it isn’t on your bucket list yet, it should be. If you are looking for an Asian getaway destination without the crowds (for now anyway) Myanmar is the place to go. It has been a long time since I’ve toured anywhere so untouched by mass tourism that I almost wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Are there no crowds because it’s not good? Why is everyone so helpful? I was so wary of being scammed that I forgot what it was like to visit a country full of people grateful for tourism and the wealth and opportunities it’s bringing.
Yangon is a great place to start your journey in Myanmar but in my opinion, it’s not a family holiday for young kids at least not yet. But it is a great family holiday for couples, friends, families with older children and to a certain degree, elder travelers. So for those seeking adventure or even something luxe, Yangon really does have both to offer! Just a three-hour flight away from Hong Kong, Yangon presents an authentic taste of Asia so close to home.
When to Visit
The high season is November to the end of February and you will need to book a lot of things early so you don’t miss out. High season in Myanmar is by no means high season in other countries and I traveled at the end of November and found it pleasant, never really crowds anywhere. Monsoon season is May to September and the rest of the time the temperature averages 40 degrees, so not recommended.
Where to Stay
The downtown area of Yangon has quite a few options to stay at and this is the area I suggest to stay in during your stay. The hotels that are located in the other areas are nice but traffic in Yangon is a killer and you will spend too much time stuck in traffic to get to and from locations to justify staying so far out. I stayed at two hotels on my trip, both offering something different in the downtown area.
No visit to Yangon is truly complete without stopping by this gorgeous colonial hotel. While staying here is a splurge, being a tourist in Yangon is in many other ways very affordable, so the price of this place can balance out your budget. It’s definitely worth it. The location is great, the rooms are very big, with comfortable beds, and the hotel, in general, is a great place to sit around in during the very hot parts of the day. Their lobby is grand and filled with sofas, I even spent one morning reading the local paper waiting for my partner to join me for breakfast in the Strand Cafe and it was delightful. The staff all speak English and are helpful in their suggestions of where to eat and how to arrange a guide. And of course, as a leading hotel of the world, their bathroom amenities (which are Hermes by the way) and their butler service are second to none. I doubt you will find anything of this standard anywhere else on your visit. Make sure to book early—with only 31 suites, they fill up quickly. If you do miss out on a room, you must still stop by Sarkies bar one evening for a drink. There is nothing quite like having a drink in the same bar as George Orwell all those years ago and they make delicious cocktails. You can read a full review of The Strand here.
The Strand 92 Strand Road, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) +95 1 243 377, www.hotelthestrand.com
Opened in September 2017, this hotel is super trendy, new, and of course shiny clean. This is a great option for those looking for a comfortable place to stay that is walking distance to a few iconic attractions as well as having enough comfort for those nights in. Located opposite the main railway station ( where you get the circular line) Hotel G is part of the same group as The Strand but just on a more boutique level. The rooms are very affordable and I saw a mix of different people staying here. The rooms aren’t huge but the bed is big and comfortable, they have international TV, a great Western breakfast, and the coolest bar/restaurant downstairs. If you are staying Thursday–Sunday, I highly recommend making a booking for dinner otherwise you might not get a table. It was a great crowd filled with locals and guests alike. Their tapas-themed menu and steak options were just what I was craving. They also have a nice gym for those who can’t go a day without a proper workout. I never saw another gym in Myanmar this good on my trip! You can read a full review of Hotel G here.
Hotel G 5 Alan Pya Pagoda Street, Yangon 11182, Myanmar (Burma) +95 1 243 639, www.hotelgyangon.com
What to Eat & Buy
There are a lot of eating options in Yangon, from local cafes to teahouses to fine dining and hotel restaurants. I ate in both the Strand Cafe and Babet in Hotel G for dinner. But I also ventured out to teahouses and local noodle places. A lot of Burmese food is spicy, as it’s heavily influenced by Thailand and India, but they also have a few local dishes as well. Yangon isn’t really a place for shopping per say but there are some great markets and precious stone shops—after all, Myanmar is one of only two places in the world you can mine for Rubies.
Lahpet Thoke (Tea Leaf Salad)
I’m not quite sure how to describe this. It’s a very common dish in Myanmar and a lot of cafes and local and international restaurants have this on their menu and it is worth trying. I stopped by the Rangoon Tea House my first night in Yangon and tried it! Rangoon Tea House is walking distance to the Strand and situated on the first floor of a colonial building on Pansodan Road. They also have a cute gift shop for some fun souvenirs.
Pomelo & Hla Day
Both are my picks for where to buy some great souvenirs from your travels in Yangon. They both are social enterprises supporting disadvantaged local people. Pomelo is located a few blocks from the Strand on Thein Phyu Road and Hla Day is located right next door to Rangoon Tea House—the perfect place to browse after dinner. They sell beautiful handicrafts, paper mache animals, keyrings made from old Burmese coins, local soaps, candles and ornaments. There is something for everyone here.
Scotts Market (Bogyoke Aung San Market)
This is a large indoor market that has everything you could want to buy on your trip to Yangon or Myanmar for that matter. Lacquerware, Thanaka ( traditional face masks), keychains, bowls, frames, statues, replica Buddha relics, Shan shoulder bags, velvet slippers, and much more! It has over 2000 shops and also is a great place to get something tailored. There are a lot of shops selling precious jewels but mostly replicas so watch out. The people are friendly and don’t hassle you too much. There are a few ATM’s on the side and a bank if you need to withdraw money. Walking distance from Hotel G.
What to Do
There really is a lot to see in Yangon but below are my three suggestions to make sure you see as much as you can on your quick trip there!
Rent a Car and Hire a Guide
My number one suggestion is to hire a car and a guide. For between USD $50–80 depending on how long you want to drive around, you can have someone take you around and explain the locals view of Yangon and its political story as well as save you time and money trying to navigate the city. Yangon is a beautiful mess in the sense that it’s full of colonial buildings and run down buildings, literally next to each other in the street and infrastructure and city upkeep wasn’t necessarily a priority of the former military government. Yangon isn’t that big of a city in terms of seeing the tourist sites and could be easily covered in two days. One full day with a car and another day exploring the markets and taking the Circular Railway train. I learnt so much from my guide that I highly recommend this. Most hotels can assist with arranging a guide from the official tourist office, who by law are the only people allowed to give tours. I did a two hour cultural walk on foot to get up close before hopping in the car to see the rest of the city. Our walk consisted of a few blocks and covered the major political and historical monuments. We went to the secretariat where General An Sung was assassinated at the young age of 36, we walked past Yangon printing press in operation since 1900’s, the former High Court building, and St Mary’s Cathedral, just to name a few. It was fascinating—whether or not you are interested in colonial history, you will be impressed with this area of Yangon. Thrown into this mix are people just going about their daily lives. In our car we stopped off at General An Sung’s house where he lived before his death, An Sung Suu Kyi’s house that she lived in while under house arrest, and we drove along and stopped at Inya Lake. We also went by the coconut and banana markets and the university area.
Yangon Circular Railway
This was by far my favorite thing I did while in Yangon. If you are looking for a true Myanmar experience then ride the Yangon Circular Train. Experience life like a local and ride this daily commute as you travel through the city’s rural landscape. Get on at the main station (directly opposite Hotel G) and for just K1,000 (US$1), this train will take you around Yangon in a loop back to the start. It is one of the most memorable experiences as you can interact with the locals and those selling fresh produce or snacks to the commuters and just generally see how most people are getting to work. This is the only train line in the city and everyone takes it. The entire circle takes three hours to complete but you can hop off at any time and I got off after an hour and caught a cab back to my hotel.
I recommended taking the train 10am–4pm to avoid the peak hour crowds but also you don’t want to be on the train in the evening as you won’t see anything of the rural landscape plus the trains are old with no air-conditioning and I imagine the lights are unreliable so it might not be quite the trip you imagined or that I’m recommending. Passports are required for ticket purchase.
No visit to Yangon is complete without visiting its most sacred religious site, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Legend says that it houses eight strands of Buddha’s hair as well as a few other relics from other Buddhas. It’s beautiful and I recommend going for sunset and seeing it in two lights. This gold-plated stupa is visible from much of the city so you will see it while exploring in other areas. It’s also much cooler to visit at night. It was interesting to note that everyone, depending on his or her day of birth on the Myanmar calendar, has a different place to pray at. You walk around the Pagoda watching the different groups of people praying while also noting what day of the week they were born. The pagoda is adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and at the top of the Pagoda, which is 325 ft, holds a 76-carat diamond! While you cant get very close, there are some photos in one of the rooms and it’s just incredible to look at it. It’s adorned with thousands of mini diamonds and precious stones everywhere. I was in awe. An hour or two is plenty of time here to comfortably get around and see everything and beat the rush hour traffic back into the city for dinner. Entry fee is K8,000
NOTE: Visits to a lot of Yangon religious sites require you to remove your shoes and walk barefoot, be prepared and have some handy wipes and easy shoes to flip on and off.
Now before anything else and in order to get you fully prepared for your visit to Yangon, here is a bit of useful information.
There’s a 1.5-hour time difference between Macau and Myanmar, with Macau being ahead.
Myanmar’s main currency is the Burmese Kyat but USD is the preferred currency to use. You will have to have crisp clean new bills ( that you get at a bank before you leave) because they won’t accept old USD bills. NO joke. The local currency is accepted for small things like cab rides or snacks etc.
A lot of tourist attractions are closed on Mondays, so map out your trip before you leave and if you are there on a Monday I suggest taking the Circular line, going market shopping or doing a cultural walking tour.
Credit/debit cards are accepted in most hotels, restaurants and established places but make sure you have a decent amount of cash on you for your trip.
Booking hotel transfers is usually cheap and recommended, at least for when you first arrive and can adjust to pricing and get your bearings for the city.