Rangoon, End of Strife
Accomplishing a long time dream we finally managed to come to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma which is still a widely used name; right before the country transforms itself and loses character and uniqueness since the lifting of majority of the sanctions imposed by the Western World and overall opening to the world after many years of strict closeness for its long lasting military rule. Unfortunately from now on it is matter of time until the first Western establishments start to pop all over the country, as the likes of McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut and so on.
Myanmar is a big country within Southeast Asia when compared to the other countries neighboring countries. It is quite long too, and it is packed with history on every corner. Even though the country suffered from a long war, with the British colonizing it in three different stages; then again suffering WWII, not much was lost architecturally speaking through the country, although Yangon was the most affected. However, it is the city with the largest amount of colonial structures in the country. The British, upon colonization, developed and grew the key cities following an orthogonal grid pattern urbanism, with parks and lakes, and transformed Yangon into the commercial and political hub of the British Burma, it’s capital. While no longer the capital of the country, it is still the largest and most important in the country.
There’s a lot to do and visit in Yangon. We planned 3 days, which unfortunately changed to just 2 since our outbound flight was cancelled and lost an entire day trying to get there. We managed in any case to see the majority of the city and really enjoyed our first contact with Myanmar, before continuing the rest of the planned tour in the country.
The city is well divided in 2 parts. The north, characterised by large parks and lakes, hence its nickname The Garden City, along the historical and most important temples and monuments, and the south towards the river, the former colonial capital with proper avenues and streets on a grid pattern, with most of the colonial buildings still surviving. One day at each area is what will take for sightseeing everything, although we missed few places in the north due to lack of time.
In terms of food, within the north of the city was very hard to find any restaurant, and the ones there were not too nicely looking, at least to foreigners. In the south area however, there were many, with really nice cafes and bakeries everywhere, though the best bet is to get into a shopping mall where you have a wider choice in the food court. Near the hotel we’ve been is the United Mall which was great to get dinner, and by the People’s Park, right by the west entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda is another smaller mall with some restaurants, ideal for lunch after visiting this area. Both of which I strongly recommend.
About entering the Buddhist Temples, tourist can visit any in the country, but there are certain rules you must strongly follow. The imperative rule is to enter barefoot, and without socks. You can leave your shoes at the entrance, either at lockers or just there in the floor (no one will take them by the way!). And then is the dressing code. You are not allowed to enter showing much of your body for respect. At certain temples, you must cover your knees if you are in shorts, and this applies to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Don’t worry on this since you can rent a sarong. A deposit must be paid but then refunded upon returning it. Please note that we never encounter anymore the need for having to cover our knees along the next cities and many temples we were in the country, so no need for buying one or carrying it with you.
For more information about Yangon check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Myanmar’s currency is the Kyat, and it’s abbreviated as MYK. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Yangon
- North of the city Where you will find one of the most notable facts of this city, gardens. Back during the British colonial times, it was nicknamed “the garden city”.
-Bogyoke Aung San’s House In Natmauk Road, near the German embassy. North of Byoke Park within Kandawgyi Lake. A colonial era villa from 1921 where the founder of modern Myanmar lived before his assassination. Entrance fee 300 kyats. Closed Monday and Tuesdays, open from 10.00am till 16.00pm.
-People’s Park and People’s Square Large park with landscaped gardens and lakes, and the largest open air square in the city. Entrance fee of 300 Kyat.
-Shwedagon Pagoda The number one sight in the city, and the most important religious site in the country. Open from 6.30am until 22.00pm, 8000 kyat to enter. Located to the east from the People’s Park and Square, there are 4 entrances, being the most beautiful for access that on the east.
-Martyrs’ Mausoleum Located by the Shwedagon Pagoda’s north entrance, was built to honor the assassination of Aung San and six cabinet members. It also contains the tombs of Queen Suphayalat, wife of Burma’s last king; nationalist and writer Thakin Kodaw Hmaing; former UN Secretary-General U Thant; and Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi. I
-Maha Wizaya Pagoda Right by the southern entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the newest to be built in the city, in 1980.
-Kandawgyi Lake Located to the east of the Shwedagon Pagoda, formerly the Royal Lake, created to provide a clean water supply to the city during the British colonial administration,
-Karaweik A concrete replica of a traditional Burmese royal boat built in 1972. One of the most photogenic places in the city, specially at sunset.
- South of the city/Colonial Area This is the former British colonial capital, with the characteristic orthogonal urban plan and where majority of the beautiful colonial building still stand. Easy to navigate around if walking the avenues in zig-zag.
-Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral Is one of 2 cathedrals in the city built by the British. On Bo Gyoke Road, west of the train station and Bogyoke Market.
-Bogyoke Market Opened in 1926 is the largest market in the city, beautiful for its colonial architecture and cobblestone streets inside. Located next to the Holy Trinity Church, west of the train station along the Bo Gyoke Road.
-Central Railway Station Originally built in 1877 by the British, was destroyed during WWII, and rebuilt in 1954 by architect U Tin in traditional Burmese architecture. It’s listed a national landmark.
-Saint Mary’s Cathedral Built in 1899 in Gothic revival by the British. Located on Bo Gyoke Road, south east of the train station.
-Archbishop’s House Right behind the Saint Mary’s Cathedral.
-Botataung 6 High School One of the oldest high schools in Myanmar and one of the most prestigious. Known as St. Paul’s High School during the British era.
-Minister’s Office Or the Secretariat, built from 1902 to 1905 is the largest of any British colonial buildings ever built in Myanmar and where Aung San and 6 cabinet ministers were assassinated on 19 July 1947. Nowadays (March 2016) the building is still vacant and abandoned.
-Government Press Office Across the road from the Minister’s Office.
-Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue The only one in Yangoon, built by the British in 1893. Located on Maha Bandula Street, west of the Sule Paya.
-Maha Bandula Park The largest park within the colonial area of the city, the political centre during the British rule. Created in 1868, was named back then Fytche Square.
-Independence Monument This obelisk commemorates the Burmese independence from the British in 1948. It replaces the statue of Queen Victoria that was installed when the park created in 1868.
-Sule Paya This pagoda was supposedly built to house a strand of the Buddha’s hair. Entrance fee 4000 kyat.
-Bangali Jamae Masjid Right by the corner of Maha Bandula Road and the Sule Paya, British colonial mosque.
-City Hall Designed by Burmese architect U Tin, who also designed the Central Railway Station, was completed in 1936 in a fine example of syncretic Burmese architecture.
-Department of Immigration Right by the corner of the City Hall with Maha Bandula Road.
-Emmanuel Baptist Church Built in 1885, opposite the City Hall and Department of Immigration.
-Central Post Office Another red-bricked British colonial building worth to list for its beauty, like any other around this area of the city. Here you can find the cheapest and “best” postcards not only of the city, but all other cities and places in Myanmar.
-High Court Completed in 1911 is one of the major landmarks from the British colonial times designed in Queen Anne style in red brick with its tower. The inner courtyard is worth to visit if opened for visits.
-Mya Waddy Bank On the southern side of the Maha Bandula. Small classical style building.
-Former US Embassy Next to the Mya Waddy Bank on the southern side of Maha Bandulla Park.
-Strand Road This is the promenade along the Yangon River, once the most elegant in the city during the British Colonial era, still one of the nicest with many grand buildings but unfortunately the extremely busy main road and port obscure it from being a nice promenade. From west to east, the most important are:
-Kwang Yin Ting At the corner of Sintodan Street with Strand Road, is the largest and oldest Chinese temple in the city. Built in 1863, rebuilt in 1903.
-Ministry of Trade With its characteristic two towers, has survived in between the new constructions at both sides.
-Law Court Impressive colonial building with Doric columns. Built between 1927-1931 in a reminiscent style of the British India’s capital, New Delhi.
-Customs House Built in 1915 with its characteristic red brick and white tower, it is still being use for the same purpose.
-Accountant General’s Office Completes the corner where the Customs House is. The Accountant-General was responsible for the collection of revenue in Burma, principally from opium, salt and teak.
-Port Authority Built in 1928, pay attention at the many ships images in between the double Corinthian columns and the rectangular tower.
-Bombay Burmah Corporation Building Nowadays the headquarters of Myanmar Airways.
-Strand Hotel At Strand Road number 92, is the oldest and most famous hotel in Myanmar. Built by the Sarkies brothers in 1901, creators of the other grand hotels in Southeast Asia as the Eastern and Oriental in George Town, Malaysia; the Raffles in Singapore and the Majapahit in Surabaya, Indonesia. It is designated a national landmark.
-Embassy of Australia and Embassy of United Kingdom Next to each other two beautiful colonial villas, right after the Strand Hotel.
-Botataung Paya Along the Strand Road by the Yangon River, few more blocks east from the Strand Hotel. Supposedly built to house a strand of the Buddha’s hair. Entrance fee 4000 Kyat. Although nothing really worth it, the best is to continue walking down to the river, specially at sunset.
Yangon is the hub of the entire country. Its airport is the largest and main entrance either for domestic and international routes. It is also the starting point of the main railway line to Mandalay, and major road node.
The airport is 20 kilometres from the city centre. As of March 2016, the only way of reaching the city or opposite direction to the airport is by taking a taxi, with an official fare of 8000 Kyat. No ripping off in here, this is the official fare. Our inbound flight was a bit of a challenge since the main leg got cancelled and we had to be re-routed back to point of origin to get a different airline for a direct flight to Bangkok. So in a mix of British Airways, Finnair, Thai Airways and Bangkok Air, we flew from London to Oslo, Oslo to Helsinki, Helsinki to London, London to Bangkok, and Bangkok to Yangon. Yes, I agree with you, sounds like a joke but this actually happened to us!
By train is possible to get to the major tourist cities of Bagan and Mandalay, but expect a lengthily and bumpy trip. As opposed, book beforehand flight tickets instead. You can find really good bargains and the duration of the flight will be between 30 minutes to 1 hour compared to 12 hours or more on a train or a bus to Mandalay.
Within the city centre, while the majority of the historic core is easily reach on foot, the most optimal way if you need to go anywhere farther from where you are is by taking a taxi. While there are plenty of public buses everywhere, I would not recommend them mostly because of the confusion trying to figure out which bus number and direction to get. Taxis are not expensive, with a minimum fare of 1500 Kyat, but fares need to be negotiated before boarding. In any case, once you are either at the north of the city or by the colonial area, the easiest way to visit those is by walking since both areas are compact and full of sights.
Being the capital city of Myanmar, and also main entrance point to the country to any tourist, the amount of hotels is also one of the greatest of any other city in the country. However, even this is a city home to 6 million people, do not expect a great choice as any other large city in neighboring Southeast Asia countries. Burma has just recently opened to the rest of the world, with sanctions lifted by many countries, so it will be matter of few years until this situation changes with a booming tourist industry as it well deserves. For now, the hotels are also the most expensive from all of the neighboring countries and finding a good deal is not really possible.
We stayed at the Chatrium Hotel Royal Lake Yangon, in 40 Natmauk Road. Right by the Bogyoke Park and Kandawgyi Lake in the north of the city, walking distance to the Bogyoke Aung San’s House and Shwedagon Pagoda in a very quiet and nice neighbourhood. The hotel, a 5* property was truly amazing! Great at all times since the first moment we step in. All members of staff on each department we came across were extremely professional and welcoming. The facilities were great, with a very beautiful and large pool. The room, 40 square meters with city and lake view could not be any better. Immaculately well taken care, very comfortable, and a very large breakfast buffet. I would definitely recommend to everyone and will not hesitate in staying at the same hotel in the future for sure.