When I booked my flight to Bangkok last year, I knew two things. Firstly, I knew I was going to spend most of my time bartending in both Laos and Cambodia. Secondly, I knew I wanted to go somewhere I’d never been before. I was certain I’d spend most of my time “working” and wouldn’t actually do much travelling. Life in London is so very fast paced and stressful that I booked my flight not to just backpack and explore, but rather to live a carefree life in paradise. Any travelling I actually did would be a plus.
Myanmar has always been a country of interest for me. The fact it’s borders have only recently opened up and martial law finally ended in 2011, made it a fascinating place for me. After travelling through the heavily trodden paths of Thailand, Myanmar really spoke to me. I wanted to see this country that I knew absolutely nothing about and I wanted to see it before it flourished into a tourism hotbed.
I ate a lot of food in the market. A LOT.
My first stop was Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. Yangon is the previous capital of Myanmar and is the country’s largest city with a population of over five million. As soon as I arrived, I could tell that this city was thriving. Busy restaurants, lively markets and people everywhere hinted that this was still Myanmar’s true capital city. There was an overwhelming sense of culture and identity. It had that bustling city vibe that feels so familiar wherever you go in the world.
One thing that you will realise when arriving in Myanmar is that accommodation is expensive. If you don’t book ahead, you could face forking out $20 for a hostel. This may be alright for some, but when backpacking on a budget this is not ideal. I, however, am smart and booked ahead at Sleep In hostel. I paid $11 a night for a dorm room, which included breakfast and air con. If you’re headed to Yangon, I would absolutely recommend staying there.
The rooms themselves are not very special, however the hostel is situated slap bang in the middle of the city and is a stones throw away from 19th street, which is where you’ll want to go if you like drinking like a local. I spent every night there eating, drinking and being stared at.
Pigeons are everywhere in Yangon and the fruit juice is yummy.
As soon as I’d made some new friends at breakfast, we headed out to explore the city. We ventured out of the end of 9th street (the city is laid out in American style blocks) and walked straight into a bustling market. This market stretched out as far as the eye could see, winding through back alleys and spreading up the main roads. Stalls lined the streets selling hot samosas, colourful fruit juices, traditional clothing and 90’s style electronics.
I feasted on pastries and bought my partner a longyi, which is a large sheet of cloth worn by the men of Myanmar as a skirt. Turns out, longyis are incredibly comfortable and cooling. All the Western men I met or travelled with all took a leaf out of the Burmese men’s books, and wore a longyi themselves. Apparently, once you are introduced to the longyi, you will never look back.
We walked and walked through this incredibly long market and to our surprise ended up at Sule Pagoda. This seemed like a complete stroke of luck at first but it turns out pretty much every road in downtown Yangon leads to Sule Pagoda. It really wasn’t hard to miss.
Sule Pagoda. I wanted to take this skirt home but the lady wouldn’t let me.
Pagodas in Myanmar are relatively similar to Thai temples. Decorative towers reaching into the sky, intricate roof designs and a lot of gold. I’m no architecture expert and I’m sure those of you who are will be thinking “Pah! Thai and Burmese temples are nothing a like!”, but I did see similarities. Either way, the place was really quite beautiful and surprisingly serene considering it’s location in the middle of the city.
Entrance to the Pagoda is $3 (at the time I’m writing this) and regular Buddhist etiquette applies – no shoes, and both shoulders and knees covered up. If you didn’t bring your own appropriate attire, you can usually rent clothes from the main desk. I had a long skirt and shawl in my bag ready to go, but the lady at the desk took great pleasure in dressing me up and didn’t want to charge me – so I just let her crack on.
Looks like Midas has been here…
Next on our list of things to do was take a ride on the Yangon Circular Railroad. This is becoming an increasingly popular tourist activity as it seems to pop up on most Yangon guides. The railroad is a local commuter network that loops round greater Yangon in one big circle.
We walked from Sule Pagoda to Yangon Central Railway Station and had pretty much no idea where we were going. This has always been my favourite way to see a city – randomly wander around, get frightfully lost, ask a local where you are, embarrass yourself when they haven’t a clue what you’re on about… We eventually managed to get our bearings and started walking in the right direction. On our way we got to experience Yangon’s colourful architecture. The city is populated by decaying colonial buildings which hold an eerie beauty of times gone by and a city rich in history.
Yangon Central Railway Station
Thankfully, we finally found what we were looking for. The station itself was first built in 1877 by the British and then subsequently destroyed by the Brits during World War II whilst they were retreating from Japanese forces. Good work Britain, good work. The current station was completed in 1954 and is now designed in a traditional Burmese style with pyatthat tiered roofs.
We paid 400 kyats ($0.40) for a round trip ticket, which meant we could hop on and hop off wherever we pleased. We unfortunately didn’t manage to stop off at any stations as we got there pretty late in the day. The entire ride takes about 3 hours so if you’re planning on taking this train, I’d recommend leaving as early as you can.
The train took us around the outskirts of the entire city and was a marvellous way to see different aspects of Burmese life. We journeyed through inner city slums, rural suburbia and parts of the incredibly green countryside. It was like viewing a snapshot of everyday life in Myanmar as we whizzed by – farmers tending their crops, townsfolk perusing the local market and children playing football outside their houses. My favourite stop was one simply called “Golf Course” because well, I still wonder to this day what I would have found in “Golf Course”...
No smoking, no littering, no Victorian lovemaking.
Our final stop of the day was the beautifully extravagant Shwedagon Pagoda, but not before stopping off at a local road side restaurant of course! They don’t tend to have menus in local restaurants (unless they are in a tourist area) so we just ordered pork curry, rice and tea leaf salad as we knew these things will always be available. Burmese food has speedily become my favourite Asian cuisine – it’s the selection of salads that got me.
Little plates of side salads are eaten for all meals in Myanmar and are just wonderful. They chop all sorts of vegetables and throw in a bunch of sesame seeds, crunchy fried beans, peanuts, garlic and fish sauce. I loved a salty tomato salad but was also quite partial to a lephet thoke, or a tea leaf salad. It’s one of the most famous dishes in Myanmar and is made with pickled tea leaves – definitely give this one a go! After getting food poisoning in Mandalay, I started to exclusively eat salads. This was both frugal and delicious, so I didn’t mind.
Quick tip: When you dine in a restaurant in Myanmar, do not be alarmed when you start to hear kissing noises coming from every direction. In the West this would be considered a sexual advance, in Myanmar it is simply how you gain the waiter’s attention. We put a hand up but instead they pucker up. I wish someone had told me this before I dined alone on my first night in Yangon. My heart was in my mouth because I thought I was going to be chased out of there by slobbering men. Serves me right for being so conceited!
Shwedagon Pagoda is massive, there’s no denying that. It is also blindingly gorgeous and full of history and heritage. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar as it is believed it houses relics of four ancient Buddhas, from before the recreation of the universe. I think we’ll all agree, those are pretty special relics.
It is impossible to miss this landmark as it dominates the Yangon skyline at a whopping 110 metres. We walked around the circumference of the temple, taking in all it’s luxuriousness and elegance. Visitors washed statues and offered flowers and monks meditated in every corner. You can really tell how important this site is to the people on Myanmar.
The only temple I’ve ever seen with an escalator…
We arrived before sunset, which was just stunning. I really recommend visiting at that time. After the sun went down behind the stupa, spotlights engulfed the entire gold structure and it just twinkled. It was a special sight to see and despite all the bustling people around me, for a moment I felt tranquil.
As you walk around the pagoda, you will notice it is lined by Buddha shrines representing the day of the week you were born. I found my “Thursday Corner” and went to work pouring fragranced water over the statue for good luck. Well, I’m assuming it is for good luck, I wasn’t sure but all the locals were doing it so I thought I’d join in.
Washing my Buddha.
Day two came around in Yangon, but I will keep this relatively short and sweet. We only managed to see a couple of places as I spent most of the evening eating and drinking. This may have been very fulfilling for me at the time but it probably won’t be too riveting for you guys.
We jumped in a taxi and drove out of the city centre to the Chaukhtatgyi pagoda, to see Yangon’s gigantic reclining Buddha. If you have been to Bangkok and visited the Wat Pho temple, you probably thought you’d never see a bigger Buddha. Well, you were are wrong because at 65 metres long this statue trumps it by twenty metres. This is one enormous Buddha.
No shoes would ever fit these feet. Lucky for Buddha, he’s not really into shoes anyway.
It was pretty breathtaking and I started thinking about all the man hours that must have gone into the construction. Not only is the Buddha big, it is beautiful! The crown is decorated with gems and the feet are inscribed with gold symbols of Buddha. It really was mesmerising to look at as I found myself sitting and staring up at it whilst locals prayed around me. I must have sat there for about 20 minutes!
In the next room of the temple, I found colourful shrines and paintings depicting the history of Buddhism and all it’s lessons. One section was devoted to dreams and what they may mean. My favourite one read, “I dreamt of tiny frogs pursuing huge black snakes, chopping them up and gobbling them.” The explanation was, “It will come to pass when the world is decaying, lustful men shall become enslaved to young wives who soon become overbearing and domineering to their husbands and their households. Thus, it shall be like the tiny frogs gobbling up big black snakes in your dream.”
Watch out men of the world, us women are here and we’re going to gobble you up and stop you from playing Xbox!
My final destination in the Yangon saga was an afternoon at Kandawgyi Park. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the sun was setting, so I didn’t get to see the park in all it’s glory. Luckily, the sunset on the huge lake at the centre of the park was a joy to watch, and it was a relief to enjoy some nature amongst the hustle and bustle of the city.
After a busy couple of days, it was now time for me to kick up my feet and enjoy the delights of 19th street, Chinatown. I drank lots of Myanmar Beer and feasted on fried duck, a perfect combination to get me ready for my 8 hour bus to Inle Lake the next day.
Cheeky little selfie as I wound down in Kandawgyi park
What’s been your experiences in Yangon? Did I miss any must-see attractions? Or must-do experiences?