The majority of visitors to Myanmar will most likely touch down in its largest city. Thankfully, Yangon is a veritable feast of cultural, culinary and touristic experiences, making it an ideal introduction to the country. From golden pagodas to gourmet cuisine, here’s a rundown of the top 20 things to do in Yangon to make sure you kick off your Burmese experience with a bang.
As one of the most important sites in the Buddhist religion, the Shwegadon Pagoda represents a must-see for any visitor to the city. With a 100m high stupa as its crowning jewel, this pagoda is drenched in gold leaf and adorned with countless diamonds, emeralds and other gemstones. Equally impressive in daylight or darkness, visit just before sunset to get the best of both worlds.
At 65m long, the Chaukhtatgyi Paya Buddha is larger than its more illustrious counterpart in nearby Bago. Wearing a peaceful expression on its face, a diamond-encrusted crown on its head and gold inscriptions describing its many lives on its feet, the Buddha is certainly impressive in stature and stateliness. Meanwhile, tour guides are always on hand to provide more info about the Buddha and the rest of the temple complex.
Located just a stone’s throw from the reclining Buddha, this seated incarnation of the religious icon at Nga Gyi Pagoda is a whopping 40ft (12m) in height. That’s guaranteed to make even the tallest visitor feel small by comparison! Despite its proximity to the Chaukhtatgyi Paya and the impressiveness of both sites, neither are all that popular with the tourist hordes, making them both a refreshingly peaceful stop on your tour.
Like the Shwegadon Pagoda, Botahtaung Pagoda also has the illustrious honour of housing a single strand of the Buddha’s hair. Indeed, its name translates into English as “1,000 military leaders”, supposedly after the men charged with guarding the relics when they were delivered from India over two millennia ago. An intriguing stop for anyone interested in the Buddhist faith.
This five-storey building houses a hodgepodge of different artefacts, artworks and other historical curiosities from Myanmar’s colourful past. Although the layout and the lighting of the museum is not the most tourist-friendly, it’s well worth the price of entry just for a peek at the Sihasana (Lion Throne) alone, which belonged to the last king of the country and is a lesson in ostentation.
For decades, this red-brick military complex was strictly off limits to the public and had fallen into disuse and disrepair after the capital city relocated to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005. However, it was granted a new lease of life in 2011, when the government designated it a key heritage location and poured money into renovations. Now, guided tours explain the chequered history of the place, including the 1947 assassination of politician and revolutionary General Aung San.
Named after that revered hero of the country, this market sells pretty much everything you could ever think of, including affordable and attractive longyis (sarong-style garments) and slippers (which come in extra handy for the barefoot protocol of the temples). With over 2,000 stalls to browse, there’s sure to be something here to satisfy your retail therapy cravings.
With a gastronomic scene richly influenced by Chinese and Indian cultures in almost equal measure, Burmese food has an incredibly diverse array of options on offer. By joining a professional food tour, you’ll gain access to insider knowledge and local hotspots that are simply impossible to stumble across alone. Expect everything from barbecued fish to bakeries and bao buns to Burmese beer as you amble around this laid-back culinary tour of the city.
Now that you’ve sampled the fare that Myanmar has to offer, why not try your hand at creating the dishes yourself? Cooking classes are plentiful throughout the city, and many will include a visit to the local market to stock up on fresh ingredients before the cooking begins, as well as a digital recipe book to take home with you after it ends.
Feeling thirsty after all that talk of food? Why not stop by the world-famous hotel The Strand to wet your whistle? This colonial behemoth was frequented by the likes of Orson Welles, Noel Coward and Rudyard Kipling in its yesteryear, and although it’s undergone something of a hipster-style upgrade in recent times, it’s still a great place to soak up the history and sink a cocktail in the process.
Another option for an alcoholic respite is located right at the top of the Sakura Tower. At 20 storeys above ground level, Yangon Yangon is the highest bar in the city and affords excellent views of everything around as far as the eye can see. For maximum value, visit between 5pm and 7pm and take advantage of their generous Happy Hour offers.
If you thought Britons were mad about their cups of tea, wait until you visit a Burmese teahouse. Here, drinking tea constitutes a fundamental part of the fabric of everyday life. As well as sipping on cups of sweetened strong chai, you can also partake of the fried food snacks that come with it and – most importantly of all – have a good old chinwag with your neighbour.
Located around 20 miles north of Yangon, this immaculately-kept war cemetery contains the graves of over 6,000 Allied soldiers who lost their lives during WWII, as well as a huge monument memorialising the names of around 27,000 more who perished with no known grave. For an alternative and eye-opening experience of Burmese history, the cemetery is a great place to pay your respects to those who fell protecting our freedoms.
Originally created by the British occupying forces at the end of the 19thcentury, Inya Lake remains the largest lake in Yangon today and is a perfect place to spend an unhurried afternoon relaxing on its shores. With plenty of green spaces and a handful of food stalls and restaurants, the Lake is ideal for unwinding with a good book or indulging in a picnic among friends.
Another picturesque green space within the city limits, the People’s Square and Park originally comprised part of the royal gardens of Queen Shin Sawbu. Today, it offers superb views of the Shwegadon Pagoda, alongside a sprawling amusement park and myriad other activities, including a decommissioned airfield which still houses old planes and trains.
While Bagan might steal most of the headlines when it comes to Burmese hot air balloon rides, the prices to do so in that city can deter those travelling on a tighter budget. One more cost-effective alternative can be found in a tethered balloon experience in Yangon, where visitors will reach heights of over 130m and can see the amazing skyline (including its pagodas) from a bird’s eye view.
Htwe Oo and his family have been conducting traditional puppet shows in their own living room for decades, and they’ve even taken their act on the road and won awards all over the globe. Lasting around an hour in length, the shows include English explanations of their meanings and the opportunity to handle (and even buy) one of the expertly hand-crafted puppets.
While public transport in Yangon generally leaves something to be desired, the circular train route is an experience in itself. Comprising almost 30 miles, 39 stops and approximately three hours in duration, this rickety journey will immerse you among local commuters and take in a plethora of different landscapes, from concrete jungles to rice paddy fields and everything in between.
This gravity-defying rock is painted gold and crowned with a sparkling stupa atop it, making it quite a sight to behold. At 7m high, it’s perhaps smaller than it might appear from the photos, but its religious significance and its precarious location make it worth the trip. A private tour is easily the most efficient way to arrive, but public transport can get you there via a longer (but more affordable) route as well.
Easily reachable by train, the fourth-largest city in Myanmar is around two hours away from Yangon and offers a collection of pagodas and Buddha statues to complement those mentioned above. The best way to see everything in the quickest time (three to four hours) is to hire a local guide, who can transport you between locations on his motorbike and dispense titbits of Burmese history on the way.