Explore Burma’s Undeveloped Splendor—Before the Masses

The city of Yangon is unique in Asia. Nowhere else will you get that “lost-in-time” feeling more than here, in the former capital of British Burma.

Beneath soaring golden spires and among dilapidated colonial villas you’ll find a thriving and traditional melting pot that offers a window into Asia’s past.

Called Rangoon by its colonial administrators, Yangon was nicknamed the “Garden City of the East.” The impression of bygone times begins soon after you touch down at the airport.

Battered old taxis stream down wide boulevards to the city center, past crumbling, colonial-era buildings and wide lakes where couples stroll side-by-side under the shade of colorful umbrellas.

For almost half a century, Burma—also called Myanmar—was ruled by an oppressive military regime. As a result, this sprawling southeast-Asian nation, renowned for its raw beauty, has remained relatively untouched by the globalized world—until now.

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With democratization under way following a recent political turnaround, Burma is opening up. A new wave of tourists is making the most of the chance to explore its undeveloped splendor.

While neighboring Asian cities like Bangkok and Singapore are dominated by gleaming skyscrapers that are home to suited businessmen, life in Yangon is slower-paced. At street-side tea shops, residents enjoy leisurely conversations under the shadows of the city’s majestic old buildings.

Yangon has changed since colonial times and you’ll find urban sprawl, but it is still home to tree-lined avenues and lush parks, including the 110-acre gardens set around Kandawgyi Lake. With few western visitors compared to the packed beaches and towns of Thailand, it is Asia as it was before the rise of mass tourism…a real adventure.

Traditional dress still dominates. Men commonly wear longyi—a length of cloth sown into a tube and knotted at the waist—while women don long, beautifully-patterned sarongs in bright colors. Swirls of beige thanaka paste, ranging from delicate blobs to all-over coverage, decorate many women’s and children’s faces. The distinctive cream, made from ground tree bark, is said to cool down the skin and protect it from sun.

Downtown Yangon, where streets are alive with activity, is the best base for visitors. It’s also a good spot if you want to see Burma’s diversity first-hand. The area is home to a mix of Burma’s eight or more ethnic groups, from the Muslim minority to locals with Indian heritage. I recommend an afternoon stroll around the area. Antiquated apartment buildings, painted in fading turquoise and yellow, are draped in washing lines, while the shouts of roadside hawkers ring through the streets.

Don’t miss the Indian-style street food. Fresh samosas bubble in pots of oil suspended over glowing charcoals. Chapati vendors expertly flip flatbread on steaming platforms before serving them up on a metal platter with lashings of dal—a lentil-based sauce. Nearby, Indian sweet shops display shelf after shelf of mouth-watering treats, including my favorite, delicious balls of dough doused in syrupy sauce.

From time to time, the fragrance of heavy spices fills the air, as passersby spit out splodges of betel onto broken sidewalks. Ingredients such as cardamom and cloves are wrapped in betel leaves by street vendors, and chewed to produce a mildly stimulating effect. Regular users are easy to spot, thanks to their bright red teeth, which have been stained over the years by chomping on the bundles. If you feel adventurous, you can buy a bundle for less than a dollar—in fact, a vendor offered me one for free.

For shopaholics, Scott Market lies in downtown Yangon. Housed in a 1926 complex topped by an imposing clock tower, the bazaar is a paradise for buying knick-knacks. Cobbled streets lead visitors past large market halls, where traditional clothes, jade, and artworks are among the souvenirs on sale.

Stalls outside are bedecked in T-shirts displaying the face of one of Yangon’s most famous residents—Aung San Suu Kyi. The democracy icon, known as “The Lady,” was released from house arrest in 2010 after spending years in detention.

Yangon’s famed religious site, the Shwedagon pagoda, was once described by author Rudyard Kipling as “a beautiful, winking wonder that blazed in the sun.” It can be easily reached from all points of the city by taxi, some of which are more metal shell than car. Foreign visitors must take off their shoes and pay $5 before either entering a glass elevator or hiking up several flights of stairs to the top of the hillside temple that dominates the skyline.

In the low light of late afternoon, sun glints off the gilded spires of the holy site, said to be 2,500 years old. Buddhist monks clad in maroon robes, nuns in bright pink, and families walk around the temple’s huge golden stupa—the top of which is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds—stopping to worship at the many shrines set around the base. These shrines include posts symbolizing the days of the week. Individuals pour bowls of water on the icon that represents the day on which they were born. Having entered the world on a Thursday, I was directed to a statue of a small golden mouse.

A good way to see a cross-section of the city is by taking a trip on the Yangon Circular Railway. The three-hour-long route snakes through local neighborhoods and costs $1 for foreigners, regardless of how far you travel. It’s a handy way to see local neighborhoods and get a feel for the wider city.

The locals are friendly, curious, and may even practice English with you. But beware if you visit during Thingyan—Burma’s annual water festival, held in April. During the four-day celebration, children and adults alike hurl water, sometimes chilled with ice for added effect, at passersby. Huge stages are set up on the banks of the city’s lakes, where teenagers dance to thumping music while spraying water at each other from neon hoses. With the whole country entering into a water fight, no one escapes dry.

After a long day sightseeing, there’s nothing better than sampling more of the local cuisine. If you don’t know where to start, a meal at Feel Myanmar Food on Pyidaungsu Yeiktha Street may be the answer. Extremely popular with tourists and locals alike, it offers a dizzyingly diverse display of main courses and desserts.

Most are available in small plates. Ignore the chaos, point at a dish you fancy, and tuck in. Rich meat curries are topped with a layer of oil, while pickled tea leaves form the nation’s renowned lahpet salad. Expect to pay around $5 to $10 per person. One dish I adore in Yangon is the breakfast staple of Mohinga—rice noodles in a mild fish soup, topped with a handful of crunchy fritters.

As dusk draws in, people fill the streets to chat with their neighbors. On 19th Street in downtown, friends gather to down beer and feast at the many barbeque outlets. If you prefer a taste of the high life, sample a cocktail at The Strand hotel. Built in 1901 and located near the banks of the Yangon River, close to the British embassy, the imposing exterior and restored interior gives an insight into the grandeur of the city’s colonial history. You’ll find good transport links in Yangon to other historical sites in the country, including the ancient temples of Bagan and the serene Inle Lake in Shan state. But the city itself is an enchanting and addictive place. With international companies and development groups on their way, experience Yangon’s unique atmosphere before it changes forever.

Tips for Exploring Yangon

Traveling in Burma is inexpensive. A good meal can be had for well under $10. For an authentic Burmese experience, look for restaurants or tea shops packed with local customers. The slick and newly-opened Union Bar and Grill on Strand Road, is the place for a good selection of wine and western-style food. See what delights are on offer here.

Burma is experiencing a tourist boom, but there are limited hotel rooms to meet demand. Expect to pay upwards of $60 a night for a good hotel, and be sure to book ahead. The Strand, the Governor’s Residence, and Traders are among the most exclusive in Yangon. A good lower-cost option recommended by expats is Alamanda, in Golden Valley, a residential area in the city’s midtown. Doubles there are priced around $80 per night.

ATMs are few and far between, so bring enough cash to cover your trip, plus some excess for potential emergencies. Money changers are notoriously picky, and many only accept pristine U.S. dollars to change into the local currency, called kyat. Change any old bills for new ones at a bank before your trip, and remember to keep them flat.

Many Asian cities, such as Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, are overrun with motorbikes. This is not the case in Yangon, where the two-wheelers are banned and cars are common. I’d recommend taxis as the most convenient way to get around town.

Journeys usually cost $2 to $5, with transport from the airport to town costing about $10. Or travel like a true Yangonite on the aging local bus and train network. Some local and regional travel agents have an online presence and can help arrange tours, flights, accommodation, or organized trips. Try Asia ExpeditionsExotissimo, or peruse Umtanet. org for a list of local companies.

Myanmar is a large country serviced by internal flights and a train and bus network. Overland travel from Yangon to the temple town of Bagan and Inle Lake can be long and arduous, so many opt to fly. Air Mandalay and Air Bagan are two options.

Though cheap mobile SIM cards are on their way, high-tech devices are few and far between in Burma. Expect extremely patchy Internet access, little WiFi, power cuts, and relatively few mobile phones. If you’re dying to get online, find an Internet café or head, as I did, to Traders Hotel in search of a strong connection and an even stronger cocktail.

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Editor’s Note: Read more travel articles from International Living here.