For most of the past two decades, the only images and sounds of Myanmar that have reached the outside world is of its repressive military regime and the heroic resistance of the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. For years, travelers found themselves caught up in the debate over the ethics of traveling to Myanmar resulting in the country becoming more remote and inaccessible.
Now, with extraordinary political changes sweeping the country, Myanmar is once again back on the global stage. There is a near frenzy of who gets there first, to (re)discover this ancient land lodged between India and China. Most tourists that arrive will immediately head to Bagan, a dreamland of ruined pagodas, or Inle Lake, to soak in the serenity of its placid waters and photograph the famous leg rowers. That is indeed a great choice if you want to experience picture-perfect Myanmar – the Myanmar of myth and mystique. But if instead you want to feel the pulse of Myanmar as it is today – experience the sounds, sights and smells of a living, breathing city on the move – then stay a while longer in Yangon, the biggest city and the commercial capital of the country.
10 a.m.: Visit Bogyoke Market
Every great city has a thriving, bustling market to call its own and Bogyoke is Yangon’s. Most still know Bogyoke by its old colonial name – Scotts Market – and come in search of crumbling colonnades and cobblestoned lanes that bulge with an extraordinary variety of Burmese specialities. You could spend your entire day here, so keep your focus. Best buys at Bogyoke: traditional longyis (the Burmese sarong that is the de facto national dress), green tea from the upper Shan States, jade Buddhas, ruby pendants and teakwood shot glasses.11 a.m.: Learn to tie a longyi
So you bought the longyi at Bogyoke – now you have to learn how to tie it. The Burmese longyi is more artful than the Indian lungi or the Balinese sarong; getting the knot just so comes with weeks of practice (and at least a few public embarrassments). To find a longyi tutor, just clutch the cloth around your body and look around helplessly. It may sound like a cliché but the Myanmar people are among the world’s friendliest and most hospitable, so soon enough a crowd of longyi experts will collect around you. Just keep saying, “Keizu be” (pronounced, chase-oo-bay), which means “thanks,” as they hover over you tucking and tying.
12 p.m.: Slurp down a bowl of mohinga
If there is one national dish of Myanmar, it is mohinga. This flavorful dish is basically fish broth with noodles and can be had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Like other Southeast Asian classics like chicken rice (Singapore), pad thai (Thailand), amok (Cambodia) and phó (Vietnam), each bowl of mohinga tends to carry the uniqueness of the place, despite the sameness of basic ingredients. Some are spicier than others, some include a quartered egg, others fritters and green beans. What is true of each bowl is that it is always delicious and immediately addictive.
1 p.m.: Walk down Sule Pagoda Road
You haven’t been to Yangon if you haven’t walked down the Sule Pagoda Road. Located smack in the heart of downtown, it is a vision of a city on the move. Here you will see the varied textures of Yangon come to life: the modern Traders Hotel that bustles with the energy of businessmen searching for new opportunities in a fast changing country; the tall Sakura towers that clamor with the squawking of travel agents and tour operators trying to manage the rapidly increasing tourist numbers; the ever popular cinemas playing everything from John Carter to local Myanmar favorites; the rows of roadside tea stalls swelling with gregarious customers; the bus shelters crowded with longyi-wearing Burmese smoking green cheroots, their mouths reddened (and ruined) from chewing betel leaves; sugarcane vendors with their grand wheel presses; and rising from the middle of it all, a tall, graceful, gilded pagoda that gives the road its name.
2 p.m.: Release a bird (and earn eternal merit)
Myanmar is overwhelmingly a Buddhist country and the religion is an essential part the country’s cultural fabric. Everywhere you go you will find monks, pagodas and rituals that keep religion in the foreground. One of these rituals is the practice of releasing captive birds to earn merit. Outside Sule Pagoda itself, you will have the opportunity to release yellow crested sparrows for a dollar each. Pay your kyats (the local currency) and you will have a squawky little thing in your hand. Plant a kiss on the head and with as much flourish as you can, hoist it to the skies. Most tourists suspect that the birds come right back to their cages but you still get your merit points!
3 p.m.: Drink tea at a streetside stall
The Burmese obsession with tea is even greater than their passion for chewing betel leaf (and that’s saying a lot!). Strewn across the city are low tables with a flask (or a kettle) of hot Chinese tea. Sit down and pour yourself a cup or several – it costs nothing and you can empty the whole thing without paying a kyat, though it’s polite if you order some food for the table. These roadside stalls offer great vantage points to people watch and just soak the city in.
4 p.m.: Visit Aung San Suu Kyi’s house
You cannot come to Yangon and not be faced with the charismatic presence of “The Lady.” Since the new political reforms kicked in, and ‘Daw Suu’ and her party, the National League for Democracy, won nearly all of the seats up for grabs in the April by-elections, images of Suu Kyi and her father – independence-era hero, General Aung San – are everywhere. It is safe to say that in contemporary global politics there is absolutely no one that evokes the kind of devotion and emotion Suu Kyi does in her people. While you are unlikely to have the chance to see her in person, make sure you make the trip down to her now iconic house on the wide, tree-lined University Avenue where she spent much of the past two decades under house arrest.
5 p.m.: Walk around Inya Lake
Not far from Aung San Suu Kyi’s house is Inya Lake. Hemmed in by a neat promenade, this is where the Burmese come out for their daily constitutionals. If your image of Burma is only saffron-robed monks or rural farmers, get ready for breathless joggers and fitness freaks in fashionable sportswear. A hotspot for dog walkers, this is a good place to check out Yangon’s prettiest canines.
6 p.m.: Take the ferry across Yangon River
For a change of scene, head over to the Pansodan jetty and take the ferry across the caramel waters of Yangon river. The large boats, which take over 200 people, convert themselves into busy bazaars. You can buy hats, watermelons, clothes, DVDs, snacks, flowers or just join the thronging crowds in the babble of conversation and a communal camaraderie. One of the most spectacular things about this ride is the flock of seagulls that fly alongside the boat – in hundreds – and it is an incredible sight to see them swoop down on the fritters being offered by the passengers.
7 p.m.: Play a football match
Football came to Burma with the British and it hasn’t left. Yangon is a die-hard Manchester United city and be careful if you disagree. Football is everywhere: on television sets by streetside shops, on T-shirts and keychains, and in neighborhood parks and narrow bylanes. When you spot a game going on, or a group of boys practicing head shots, just join in with a smile and a nod of the head.
8 p.m.: Visit Shwedagon Pagoda
To not visit the Shwedagon Pagoda when in Yangon is to not visit the Taj Mahal when in Agra. This gleaming stupa of mammoth proportions dominates the Yangon skyline and you will see its towering dome several times as you make your way around the city. It’s considered to be the oldest pagoda in the country (about 2000 years old) and it’s most sacred. Its main stupa is a glittering construction of gold (tons of it), diamonds (thousands of carats) and a mind-boggling amount of precious gems. Sitting inside the pagoda, on its cool stone floors, is a most humbling experience.
9 p.m.: Get a drink at the Strand Bar
Unarguably the place to be seen on a Friday evening, the Strand Bar is just as chic as it was a century ago. Managed by the same group that is famous for iconic properties like Raffles Hotel Singapore, the 1901-built Strand Hotel, Yangon, is the ultimate showcase of discreet luxury and boasts a guest list that includes “royalty, nobility and distinguished personages.” It is also a historical landmark that continues to preserve the colonial heritage in a city where most other buildings from the period are crumbling away with disrepair. If you need more convincing, Happy Hour specials are offered from 5-11 p.m. and you can toss back a glass (or three) of Strand Crush, for just $3 each, alongside diplomats, ambassadors and well-heeled journalists. The service is impeccable and the food, particularly the chicken skewers ($7), is impressive.
10 p.m.: Visit a nightclub
Yes, you read that right. Yangon is a young city and knows how to get a party going. To start things off, head to 50th Street for a few drinks and a round of pool at, well, the 50th Street bar. The crowd here is essentially EAWs (Expat Aid Workers) but you will meet several Burmese who speak fluent English and are probably more widely travelled than you. As the buzz kicks in, head towards Inya Lake where you have the choice of two nightclubs: DJ Star and GTR. DJ Star is better known because it’s been around for a while, but the newer GTR is all the rage in Yangon these days. For one, there are fewer hookers there (and so if the girl is interested, there is a chance that it is not your money that she is after) and second, it doesn’t have a cover charge (K10,000 at DJ). If you still have energy you can head to BME 2 on University Avenue, or for a peek at the Yangon underbelly, to Pioneer Club, but the night isn’t over until you have sat around at the tea stall in the wee hours of the morning and wolfed down a plate of rice and peanuts.