Yangon (ရန်ကုန်), the capital of Myanmar, is a developing city with a mix of small residential homes amongst high-rises, British colonial architecture, and a plethora of pagodas. It is a large, densely-populated city that has come a long way to reach independence. Nonetheless, the lifestyle and culture are still quite conservative, but visitors are always greeted with friendly smiles. Yangon is a late bloomer in terms of today’s world's advancements, but more than makes up for it with charm and history. Follow our first-timer’s guide for some not-to-be-missed highlights on your first trip to Yangon, a city of transformation and regeneration.
Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံဘုရား) is perhaps one of the more famous Buddhist pagodas in Asia. Myanmar is a devoutly Buddhist country; hence, locals are quite traditional in a religious sense. They carry themselves with utmost respect and care as they go about their daily lives. Shwedagon Pagoda, also known as the Golden Pagoda, is the national symbol of Myanmar. It stands at 326 feet tall and houses precious golden relics, containing anywhere from nine to 60 tonnes of gold. It is also home to four Buddhist relics that are believed to be past reincarnations of Buddha.
When preparing for a visit to this temple, be sure to have your shoulders and legs covered, though the temple staff does offer shawl wraps for those who do not come equipped with the proper attire. Once here, it is mandatory to remove your shoes upon entering this sacred place. You will see lots of sparkly gold and clean white architecture seemingly sprouting from the ground. The view is magnificent, with plenty of eye-catching moments along the way—from seeing people worship to the relics themselves. The most magical time would be to catch the temple during sunset—you will not be able to look away.
One of the best things about travelling to Southeast Asian countries is the opportunity to sample the local cuisine and offerings in their outdoor food and shopping markets. Bogyoke Aung San Market (ဗိုလ်ချုပ်အောင်ဆန်းဈေ) is one such bazaar to surely check out. It is located in the heart of Yangon and is constantly bustling with tourists looking for small gems, trinkets, antiques, art, clothes, and, of course, small nibbles during their time here. It is quite a dense squeeze, but the entire experience is rich and adrenaline-filled. Built in 1926, the surrounding design of Bogyoke Aung San Market has British colonial influences with nearby cobblestoned streets that encapsulate the marketplace. Stall after stall, expect a frenzy of locals and internationals bargaining for the best deals.
If you are looking for a more serene, nature escape, take a walk to Kandawgyi Lake (ကန်တော်ကြီ). One of the bigger lakes in Yangon, Kandawgyi Lake was artificially created back when the British needed a clean and reliable supply of water. Kandawgyi Lake is in the same vicinity as Shwedagon Pagoda, which makes for magnificent views all around. There is a boardwalk that paves the way for a nice sunset stroll and leads to other views, including a Shin Upagot (ရှင်ဥပဂုတ္တ or ရှင်ဥပဂုတ်)shrine that is said to protect humans beings from mortal danger, a small park, and a kid’s playground.
Just like most cities around the world, Yangon is home to its own Chinatown, also called Tayoke Tan (ရန်ကုန် တရုတ်တန်). Just as the British have played on colonial influences present in the city, so have the Chinese. You will notice colourful food stalls and restaurants throughout this neighbourhood, as well as hanging red lanterns that line the street aerially. The vibrant colours make this visit cultured with a dizzying array of food to choose from.
Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple (ခြောက်ထပ်ကြီးဘုရားကြီ) is another sacred place where you will spot one of the most famous reclining Buddha statues. The statue is 66 metres long and has intricate, carefully crafted details, one of the many reasons that it is revered worldwide. Painted in vibrant colours and clothed in a gold garment, what is interesting is if you look at the bottom of the feet, there are 108 symbols or images carved each representing a virtue of Buddha. The atmosphere of this place and the comfortable position that the Buddha is reclined in makes visitors forget the troubles they may be facing in their lives, leaving them at peace. Rub its feet for good fortune!
Perhaps the best way to travel and see all a city’s sights is by hopping on a train and going for a ride. Yangon’s Circular Railway (ရန်ကုန် မြို့ပတ် ရထား) will take you on an unforgettable journey through 39 different stations within the big city. If you find yourself with a free afternoon, hop on this train and immerse in the joyous views. The train is a local commuter rail with engines hailing from less modern times, but it gives you a deeper appreciation for how far humankind has come. This 39-stop journey hits a 28-mile radius and takes approximately three hours. This is the perfect way to experience firsthand how locals go about their lives in Yangon while taking a step back in time.
If it is your first time in Yangon, your eyes may get overwhelmed by the number of views and places to take in. However, life goes about at a leisurely pace here. The people, the culture, and gems of this city are sure to invite you into their folds. The serenity and beauty of this place make the journey all the more worthwhile and is sure to draw you back in for a second look.