From devouring its exquisite cuisine to treading the holy grounds of the innumerable pagodas and falling in love with the simplicity and humility, its streets have to offer, here are my top 5 reasons why Yangon should be on your list of places to visit
By Aswathy Kumar
‘What about Macau?’ Bali? Fine at least let’s do Bangkok.’
These were probably the constant suggestions we got from our friends every time we insisted that they visit us in Yangon. You see, there are plenty of perks of living the expatriate life here, but the distance from your loved ones can really take its toll sometimes. Though we have been extremely successful in convincing our family and friends to visit us in our previous two postings, DC & Nairobi, we haven’t had much luck when it came to Yangon.
‘There is nothing to do there.’
‘We have heard, that there aren’t even any shopping malls or multiplexes,’ our friends would say.
And I agree… Yangon has no fancy shopping malls like in Bangkok, strong cultural scene like in China nor any family friendly hot-spots like in Singapore. But Yangon is a place like no other and here’s what makes it unique and truly exceptional.
The Shwedagon Pagoda
It would be almost wrong or even to an extend inauspicious to talk about Yangon, without mentioning the Shwedagon Pagoda that epitomizes the very warmth and serenity that defines the city of Yangon. Probably the very first thing that you will see as you enter the city, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a shrine you need to see to believe. Towering at a 325 feet, no visit to the city is considered complete without paying your respects here. Housed in a sprawling area, extending up to 114 acres, not only is the Shwedagon a complete architectural wonder, it is also the symbol of hope, divinity and reverence. Watching it glimmer in all its glory during sunrise or sunset, courtesy the 1800 carat diamond orb at the very top, is something beyond spectacular. During sunset you can also marvel at the sight of over 1000’s of oil lamps encircling the pagoda shimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of hundreds of monks chanting or listen to the bustle of devotees as they offer their prayers at the several shrines and temples in gold, housed all around its premises.
Agreed Yangon definitely lacks glitzy shopping malls and finding your favorite brands here can almost be next to impossible. As expats, we even struggle with finding basic stuff like socks, shoes or decent clothes for our little ones, often making us run to nearby Bangkok to fulfill all our shopping needs. But that being said, Yangon’s markets are truly a class apart. Take the famous Bogyoke market. Visiting this market is almost like exploring a
hidden treasure chest, offering a new surprise every time you dig a little deeper. I still remember the first time I visited Bogyoke. It reminded me of the local markets I had explored back home in Delhi… though a stroll around quickly ensured that the riches that adorned its streets was something I had never experienced before in any part of the world.
Sparkly jewels in possibly every color lay scattered all over the little glass cases in the innumerable shops aligning every nook and corner of the market. I had carried $100 with me, thinking it was way sufficient to return with a bag-load of goodies. Little did I know that, these sparkly stones that lay around in these unguarded unimpressive cases where in fact real precious stones, some costing even upto a $60,000.
From blue sapphires to pigeon blood rubies to amethyst, blue topaz, citron, garnet to what not; glitterred in the dull orange light. Forget jewels and semi precious stones, there is a lot the market has to offer if you are on a budget and looking for some retail therapy at a lot less, like hand woven longyis, accessories, colorful flip flops, paintings by local artists, wood carvings, exquisite lacquerware, silverware and religious artifacts to name just a few.
To also experience Yangon in its true self and understand more about how the locals live, head out to the various wet markets like the ones in China town or the popular Thiri Minglar Zei. Witness a burst of colors as you see hoards and hoards of vegetables, fruits and flowers being sold in plenty at these local markets. What I call, Yangon’s own version of a farmer’s market, here you can find fresh produce for as cheap as 300-1000Kyat. Believe it or not a whole bunch of orchids cost a mere 3000Kyat (Less than $3) and who wouldn’t love a brilliant bargain?
When I was in DC, my idea of the Burmese cuisine would begin and end with Khow Suey (Curried egg noodles in coconut milk). One visit to the innumerable local tea shops and road-side restaurants in Yangon, proved how ignorant I had been all these years.
When it comes to Burmese food, the choices are simply unlimited comprising a large number of noodle based dishes like the famous breakfast dish of rice noodles in a fish based soup and topped with fried fritters called the Mohinga, Kyah oh, vermicelli noodles in a pork based soup; salads dishes like the popular pickled tea leaf salad, Lahpet and Htamin thoke, a popular rice salad with tomato puree, potato and dried shrimp to several Chinese influenced dishes like the steamed pork buns or Pauk see, Htamin gyaw (Fried rice with egg) and Kaw yay khauk swè (curried noodles with duck or pork and eggs) and Indian-inspired dishes like the palatas (similar to our layered paratha) and Dan bauk (biryani).
Though there is new restaurant cropping up in the city every week offering a variety of international cuisine ranging from Mexican, Indian to Thai, Italian and French, to experience the real flavor of Yangon, head to these tiny tea shops embellished by their neatly aligned colorful miniature plastic chairs selling chai, fried local savories and dishes. For a complete Myanmar barbecue & beer experience, you can also head to the famous 19th street aka China town where you can see glass cabinets displaying a variety of fish, meats and veggies in skewers. A glass of chilled local Myanmar beer and you are ready to rock the night, Yangon style
…one of the many reasons, I fell head over heels in love with this city. Though I loved DC and truly cherish the friendships I made during my stay there, I wont be lying if I said that I was grateful to be finally free from the suited bureaucrats I encountered everyday in the metro, their faces permanently glued to their iPhones, appointment-only playdates and the oh-so-artificial hellos and greetings in the elevators.
Extremely friendly, helpful and enchanting, people in Yangon always have a smile on their thanaka smeared faces, that can almost instantly relax anyone. And what’s more… they love taking pictures, so click away without having to worry that someone may call the cops. Go to any supermarket with a toddler and they are certain to fuss all over your little one and may even offer to baby sit while you shopped around.
Always eager to help, I still remember the time I tripped on one of my market trips. A crowd had gathered almost instantly, and unlike in India where they would just stand around and enjoy the show or like in DC, where they would simply carry on with their affairs as if you were invisible, here each one of them were seriously concerned about my injury. While one boy ran and came back with a traditional ointment for my twisted angle, another grabbed a seat for me to rest and a third guy, quickly returned with a cold coffee from a nearby cafe.
That’s Yangon for you. Okay, maybe they dont speak a word of English or barely understand you…and maybe even the waiters at restaurants may not have received any formal training in the hospitality industry, but their constant friendly and dazzling smiles are more than enough to brighten up any day.
Travel back in time
Ever wondered how life would have been in the good old days? Where people had time to sit around in front of little tea shops and discuss the daily news while sipping a cup of hot chai, or splash around in small rain water puddles in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. A time when people where not caught up in some mad rat race and actually had the time to say hello. A time of unreliable wifi connections, zero flyovers and nonexistent skyscrapers. A time when the only way to find out what’s on the menu in a restaurant was by actually going there and not by scrolling through any website.
If yes, then Yangon is probably your best bet to take you back to the past, where everything was a lot simpler and more beautiful. Travel back in time as you stroll amidst the colonial buildings in downtown Yangon, watch the local men play a game of Chinlon ( a traditional game where you are expected to keep a single rattan ball in the air by using a combination of knees, feet and heads) on an early Monday morning, take a slow ride on the famous circular train to absorb the wondrous sights this charming city has to offer or take a ferry or a trishaw ride to imbibe the true feeling of Yangon, a city that seem to have completely frozen in time.