Now that this ancient Burmese city is on the tourist map, visit before its authentic culture is lost.
My Kind of Place: Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon may present a dilapidated air after decades of neglect by Myanmar’s military junta but it has a lot more character than Asia’s modern high-rise cities.
Laid out by the British as a garden city a century ago, the redbrick government offices, churches and mock-Tudor mansions stand in flower-filled gardens beneath spreading shade trees. And, at its heart, the 1,000-year-old -Shwedagon Pagoda, a glittering golden, bell-shaped stupa, still dominates the skyline.
Thanks to efforts by the new civilian government, the city’s once-treacherous pavements have been fixed, the rust-bucket taxis replaced by newer Japanese saloons, and the electricity now works most of the time.
For the visitor, Yangon is a safe, friendly place to wander around on foot – the Burmese are some of the most welcoming people you will meet anywhere in the world. There are vibrant markets, an Indian quarter filled with mosques and temples, and avenues of monumental colonial-era buildings.
Go soon, before the bulldozers and concrete-mixers turn this charming old lady into yet another metropolis of glass skyscrapers, elevated highways and international-brand shopping malls.
A comfortable bed
Hotel prices in Yangon have doubled in the past year now that demand exceeds supply. Published rates are around US$350 (Dh1,286) a night for a double room in a five-star, including taxes, but there are deals through online agents such as www.agoda.com. Or book through Yangon agent Asia Expeditions (www.asia-expeditions.com).
The Governor’s Residence (www.governorsresidence.com; 00 95 1 229 860), a former royal guesthouse with wide teak verandas in the quiet Embassy district, is the best place to stay. It has spacious suites, a pool set in leafy gardens and fine dining. Double rooms cost from $500 (Dh1,840) per night.
The city’s former Grand Hotel is The Strand (www.ghmhotels.com; 00 95 1 243 377), which overlooks the Yangon River docks and is conveniently located if you want to explore the colonial downtown area. Built in 1901, it has hosted royalty and writers. Double rooms cost from $400 (Dh1,470) per night.
My favourite is the boutique Savoy Hotel, just north of Shwedagon Pagoda (www.savoy-myanmar.com; 00 9 5152 6289). Built in the colonial style and furnished with antiques, it has an attractive pool and friendly, efficient service. Double rooms cost from $200 (Dh735) per night (www.agoda.com).
Find your feet
Shwedagon Pagoda is the most important shrine in the country, best reached up the east staircase lined with prayer-bead and flower sellers. The main stupa, 100 metres high, is said to contain eight hairs of the Buddha encased in 30 tons of gold. Surrounding it are dozens of shrines and pavilions where visiting monks, nuns and pilgrims from out of town pray, chant and snooze.
It’s a half-hour stroll to the city’s colonial core with its clock towers and monumental Post Office. From here a grid of streets runs to the river, packed with traders, bookshops and cafes serving fresh green tea.
The National Museum (open 10am-4pm) on Pyay Road is worth a visit to marvel at some of the finest gold- and silver-work in the world, including the Lion Throne that belonged to King Thibaw Min, the last king of Myanmar.
In the heat of the day, relax in a garden cafe or waterfront bench beside Inya Lake, which borders Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, a red-roofed, white house on University Avenue.
Meet the locals
Mingle with commuters, vendors and monks on the circular train that leaves hourly from the central station and links all the villages surrounding Yangon. The three-hour ride gives a glimpse of everyday life for a dollar. Or take a ferry across the Yangon River to the sleepy village of Dallah. At dusk, join local families strolling on the boardwalk across Kandawgyi Lake with its fine view of the floodlit Shwedagon.
Book a table
Monsoon (Theinphyu Road; www.monsoonmyanmar.com), a shabby-chic dining room in an old house, is where the Burmese take foreign visitors to dine. As well as local dishes such as tea leaf salad for 2,400 kyat (Dh10) and Pazunhtok Sebyan, king prawns in a spicy tomato curry for 5,600 kyat (Dh26), there are Thai and Chinese classics and a lively vibe.
For authentic local dishes, visit Feel Myanmar Food (124 Pyihtaungsu Avenue, Dagon Township; 009 7320 8132), a superior, canteen-style affair popular with businessmen and diplomats at lunchtime. A filling lunch of noodles, curries and spicy salads will cost under 3,500 kyat (Dh15).
There are also two excellent European-run restaurants: Le Planteur (www.leplanteur.net), a Swiss venture set in a red-brick mansion near the Shwedagon, serves delicious home-smoked duck on olive foccaccia and chicken stuffed with truffles. Expect to pay around 28,000 kyat (Dh128) for a three-course dinner. It offers complimentary vintage car transfers. L’Opera (operayangon.com), an Italian restaurant and bar on the shores of Inya Lake, which makes its own pasta and has a wood-fired oven for pizzas costing 8,000 (Dh37).
Bogyoke Aung San Market (still known by its British name of Scott Market) once sold mostly fruit and vegetables, clothing and shoes. But today about half of the main hall is crammed with arts and crafts from all over Myanmar: Mandalay wood carvings, silver Shan offering bowls, gold and gemstones from the north and woven Chin scarves.
The best place – and prices – for quality lacquerware is Myanmar Lacquerware (No 7, 13th Street) in downtown Yangon, which buys directly from Bagan producers. Pomelo, above the Monsoon restaurant, has top homewares, silks and toys made by tribal women.
What to avoid
Running out of cash. International credit cards are not yet accepted in Myanmar – even in five-star hotels. A few ATMs will issue kyats against Mastercard debit cards. Bring large-denomination US dollar bills – they must be in mint condition.
Dawn at the Shwedagon Pagoda – before the tourist buses arrive – for the incredible spiritual atmosphere.
There are no direct flights from Abu Dhabi or Dubai at present, only from Doha. The best route from the UAE is via Bangkok. A return flighton Etihad costs from Dh3,300, including taxes (www.etihadairways.com).