YANGON: BURMA’S EXOTIC GATEWAY
Once considered the “rice bowl of Asia” for its wealth, Burma is now one of the most economically poor countries in the world. Despite the poverty, it is a stunning travel destination, filled with golden pagodas, colonial towns, beautiful beaches, and friendly, smiling locals along the way.
The largest city and gateway to all of Burma is Yangon (formerly Rangoon). Few large cities are as exotic as Yangon. This will be soon be changing, however. In the not-so-distant future, all of those sleepy, colorful, and crumbling British colonial buildings lined amid dark, quiet streets will be housing Japanese-Burmese fusion restaurants and British pubs playing six football games at a time via satellite. Thousands of tourists will swarm the city each day wearing Chang Beer tank tops and getting psyched up for their obligatory pub crawl. The sounds of LMFAO will be wafting down Strand Road. This process is inevitable on the Southeast Asian tourist trail. It’s been happening for forty years. First it took Bangkok, then Saigon, then Phnom Penh. It’s made its way up Laos, and next it will happen in Yangon. Now is the time to visit Burma (Myanmar). Don’t put it off – it will change soon.
For years, Yangon has been spared, or denied, its proper influx of tourists. Due to the military government’s strict rules on visas, along with the requirement that tourists fly in and out of Burma, backpackers opt to take a $10 bus ride to other adjacent capitals. If Yangon was a $10, 9-hour bus ride from Bangkok, the amount of tourists in the city would multiply quickly.
But things have begun to change. In 2010, the country held its first democratic election since 1990, when the military junta hijacked the results. Aung San Suu Kyi, an opponent of the military rule and an advocate of democracy in Burma, was released from house arrest after 21 years. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made a diplomatic visit to Yangon in November of 2012. It has started to appear that rule in Burma is changing and beginning to loosen up. Soon, visa and transit restrictions will follow. Then, it’s time to sell those Myanmar Lager tank tops and take advantage of the the tourist cash that will come pouring in. That’s when things will change, and although the people of Yangon will benefit, the city will succumb to the pitfalls of the SE Asian backpacker scene. Go now, before LMFAO arrive. They are on their way already.
So, how will these political changes affect travel in Burma?
Burma received less than 800,000 tourists in 2010, despite being the second largest country in SE Asia (after Indonesia). In comparison, Thailand received 16 million tourists and even-smaller Laos and Cambodia received about 2.5 million each. However, following the reforms of 2012, Burma saw its tourism increasing by 30% from the year before. The Burmese government will likely introduce reforms to encourage tourism and take advantage of the economic opportunities. In November of 2012, Burma released its “tourism master plan” to develop the country with tourism infrastructure in mind. Around this time, countries like Norway withdrew their policy of advising citizens from visiting. Burma is now one of the fastest-growing countries in the wold in terms of tourism and it’s not stopping. Burma is a country whose attractions lay mostly in the countryside: Bagan, the temples around Mandalay, Inle Lake, Maymyo, Ngapali – these places are all worthwhile and you should take a few weeks to check them out. However, as with any country, don’t skip through the main city without taking a look. Yangon is the physical and cultural capital of Burma, both contemporary and ancient. The city is a mix of Indian, British colonial, Chinese and Burmese influence.
We began our trip to Yangon with great fortune. At the time, there was only one place in Yangon with wifi: The Strand Hotel, which happens to be one of the finest hotels in Asia. We headed there first, to use our laptop to reserve a room elsewhere using their wifi. At the bar, we met the manager who, after a few drinks, offered us a room @ $70/night for two nights. We spoke with a couple from Colorado briefly who informed us that they were paying $290 for their room. Obviously, we agreed to two nights at The Strand! What a welcome to to Burma and Yangon.
Staying at a five-star hotel in Yangon is a surreal experience. Our first night at the hotel, we paid $0.50 for dinner; on the street, of course. Strolling out of the grand entrance to the hotel, you’re smacked in the face with the reality of urban Yangon: flickering electricity, crumbling buildings, sidewalks which seem to drop to the center of the earth, stray dogs, darkness, and at night – nothingness. It was 10pm and we searched everywhere for food. If we were in Bangkok, it would have been buzzing at that hour with options tempting us on every corner. After a while, we managed to find dinner at a little streetside restaurant. Served up by friendly Indians, we had fried rice with an egg on top. Cost: $0.50.
The next morning we set off to see the city. It was hot. Sweltering. Temperatures were 40°C (over 100F). Humidity was high and we were sweating in our socks. Still, we explored by foot. We wandered around the colonial town, checking out the Sule Pagoda, the old streets and the riverfront. As an urban planner, I was drooling at the amazing potential of the city. If Yangon can direct the future tourism in a physically responsible way, by restoring the beautiful old colonials buildings and opening up the waterfront. The center city is endlessly fascinating and you don’t need a plan or itinerary. When the weather gets you down, there is one thing you can do for refreshment- hit up one of the city’s cool “beer stations”. A beer station is Burma’s version of a beer garden. They serve plates of food for around $2 and beers for about $0.75. Since most Burmese could never afford to pay for a beer in something like a “bar” or “nightclub”, these little, casual and friendly beer stations dot the cityscape, offering temporary relief from the dust and heat of the streets. To boot, Myanmar Lager is rich and smooth- one of my favorites in Asia.
After a beer or two, we decided to head back out and find a nice place to spend the rest of the late afternoon. We found what turned out to be my favorite place in Yangon: the oasis of Kandawgyi Lake, near- and with a good view of- the famous gold-plated Shwedagon Pagoda. The “Grand Loyal Lake” as it translates, is a manmade lake created during the British Colonial period to provide clean water to the city. Hard to believe, just one year before we visited (to the day), a bomb went off here, killing 24 and injuring 60. When we were there, it was nothing but peace.
As the sun went down, the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda became lit up, its golden coat shining an amazing beacon on the dark skyline. In a city with very little electricity, the pagoda glowing in the evening is a stunning scene. The pagoda is 325 feet tall (99 meters) and has been there since the 6th century. Yes, the 6th century. Throughout the years, the pagoda continued to grow, reaching its current height in the late 1700s. In the daytime it is impressive enough, but in the evening it is truly spectacular. Other than the Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon does not have many lights. One benefit of this darkness is the availability of stars to gaze up at. For a city of five million people, the stars an eerily surprise in the urban evening.
Walking in Yangon in the evening is discomforting. Although the city is safe, exceptionally safe, it still feels hazardous. Without street lights, the uneven sidewalks (including huge gapes) are hidden and unseen. Stay dogs prowl the streets. Dark human figures congregate on street corners. Many people are sleeping in the street. The romantic notion of an undeveloped, antique Yangon may be alluring for visitors, but it’s impossible not to notice that improvements are needed for the resilient Yangonians. For nightlife, there are some nightclubs which are largely vehicles for prostitution, but do feature some interesting dance shows in surreal environments. Yangon is an appropriate place to turn in early, as the morning sun and heat is likely to raise you earlier than you expect. We took advantage of our second amazing breakfast at The Strand’s restaurant.
Before catching our early afternoon bus up to Mandalay (9 hours, $13), there was one thing I wanted to purchase. Authentic jade, today often ‘manufactured’ in China with green dyes, is still available for purchase in Burma.
When buying, tap the jade with a coin and listen to the sound. Does it resonate? It should be a quick “ping” with no vibration at the end. Also, look for smokiness and haziness in the tones of green. Jade should not be one solid bright green color. That consistent green is the sign of a dyed rock. Shine a light on the jade and look at the differences in the changing tones of the greens. The light should highlight the different colors and not blur them together. I spoke to a Burmese friend of mine who lives in the USA and he recommended a shop in the center. I purchased five pendants and some stone necklaces at a cost of $300. They made great gifts and were easily transportable.
Yangon International Airport (RGN) Nearly all tourists to Burma arrive and depart via RGN. The airport is located 30 minutes by road. Negotiate a fare of $10usd, or 8,000kyet to your destination in the city center. If you’re on a budget, exit the airport, turn right and walk 5 or 10 minutes to Pyay Road to “Mile 10” bus stop. There, you can take Bus 51. It will drop you one block from Sule Pagoda in the center of town (200 kyet, or $0.25).
Go ahead, try The Strand, one of the best hotels in Asia. Walk in with a smile and try to negotiate a price under $100. It is an unforgettable experience. For budget guesthouse, Yangon is more expensive than Bangkok, Saigon, Phnom Penh and Vientiane. And expect a lower quality of room, as well. For a consistently adequate guesthouse, try Motherland Inn 2, which offers rooms just over $20. (433 Lower Pazundaung Road #(95) 1 291343 If you’re on a budget, Mahabandoola Guesthouse has very very simple, bus safe, rooms for $7. (32nd st and Mahabandoola Road, right by Sule Pagoda), #(95) 1 248104
The Intracity Train
Bogyoke Aung San Market
Eating out is more difficult than other Asian capitals. Street food is generally swimming in a recycle gray oil and not particularly appetizing. For good established Indian food, try Nilar Biryani at 216 Anawratha Road.
Coming from other Southeast Asian capitals, Yangon is surprisingly expensive. Particularly, guesthouses are of lower quality and more expensive. Bring in clean USD. Something you have to do in Bangkok. You must bring crisp, spotless $100usd bills into Burma. There are some rules as to which ones you may exchange here. Avoid serial numbers “AB” and “CB”. Especially “CB”. Make sure they have no folds or creases. Don’t bring any bills with smeared ink or watermarks. Don’t bother bringing any bills printed before 2003. Credit and debit cards are not accepted here, with the exception of 5-star hotels @ a 15% additional charge. Be safe and exchange your Benjamins at the Bogyoke market in Yangon. Ask around the various jewelers for the best rate and watch your money carefully as its exchanged. If you arrive in Yangon after 5pm and the market is closed, go to Motherland 2 or Okinawa guesthouses for a decent rate on your first necessary $100. DO NOT exchange with anyone who approaches you on the street. Travelers get cheated every day. Don’t be one of them.