Yangon is Burma’s largest city, and it is BUSTLING. There’s a lot to do, and we were only there for a day (and a half), but we enjoyed what we saw — and ate — immensely. Here’s a quick run down of major sites to see and things to do in Yangon.
1. Walk around and get a feel for life on the streets
Walking around Yangon is a bit overwhelming at first. Cars constantly honk and WILL NOT STOP for pedestrians. A honk indicates the sentiment, “Here I come, you’d better get out of the way!” Motorbikes are not legal in Yangon, so cars rule the roost, and people manage (quite well) around them.
Streets are covered in red-colored liquid, which I soon found out was the betel nut juice spit. Burmese chew betel nut as a mild stimulant and to freshen the breath and are constantly spitting the juice onto the sidewalk. This was not my favorite part of Burma.
Sidewalks are lined with street food vendors selling all sorts of delicious treats and snacks at incredibly affordable prices (less than $1 USD for two bowls of soup).
Buses pretty much perform what we call in California a hollywood stop and don’t come to a complete halt when loading passengers. This was really fascinating for me, and I watched about six or seven buses loading passengers in this pell-mell method.
It’s hectic walking around, but if you make it to the every so slightly more peaceful waterfront, you can also enjoy the old, British architecture from Burma’s colonial era.
2. Try the street food
While Burmese food doesn’t have the fame and glory of Thai or Vietnamese cuisine, it offers some delicious snacks and plates that tickle the palate and satisfy a hungry traveler. One popular street food snack is stuffed tofu. The tofu cube is sliced open and filled with cabbage, spices, green onions, and fish sauce. Since I love tofu, I was excited to find this treat on our first afternoon in Yangon.
For lunch, Mitch and I sat down to samosa thouk, or samosa salad/soup. Freshly fried samosas were roughly cut and immersed in a warm, tangy, fishy, spicy sauce and garnished with cherry tomatoes, garlic, cabbage, cilantro and probably tons of other delicious ingredients and spices I can’t recall. I think it may have been our favorite meal in Burma.
3. Have some tea
Burma is known for its tea shops, which we found generously peppering every street. Each table is equipped with a shallow tray of water with upside down small teacups (this is supposed to be the “wash”) and a thermos of hot green tea. Burmese pretty much drink this tea like water, and it is generally free at most casual establishments. The actual tea they order is more like a milk tea you must separately order that will come out in a slightly nicer cup. It’s made with tea mix and condensed milk, creating a drink that seemed like a cross between hot tea and hot chocolate.
If you want to do like the locals, remove a teacup from its watery bath/wash, fill it halfway with hot green tea, swish it around, and dump it out onto the street. This is meant to clean the cup. Fill it with more hot tea and then order your “real” tea. Enjoy both!
3. Visit Sule Pagoda
Sule Pagoda is located in the heart of downtown Yangon is often the rallying point of major protests. We didn’t actually go inside Sule Pagoda, but we walked immediately around it and admired it from a bridge at night.
4. People-watch at Independence Monument
Right next to Sule Pagoda is a small, well manicured park with a large, central obelisk: Independence Monument. People just sit around relaxing, doing homework, and walking. I left Mitch to walk around and take some photos and returned to find this:
These students had singled Mitch out (not hard to do, as he was the only westerner around) and wanted merely to chat with him to practice their English skills! The most talkative of the bunch as named Sparrow, and he had already honed his skills pretty well. They were all so excited and even asked us to come to class with them the next day to speak and chat with other students. They even called their instructor on the phone, so he could talk to Mitch.
We discussed movies, Burmese and western food, politics (we were careful to make sure they were allowed to discuss politics), siblings, their goals, and they asked us for advice. One of the funniest parts of the conversation went like this:
One of the more shy young men: What is your favorite food?
Mitch: I really love Vietnamese food.
Tanya: I like Vietnamese food… and spaghetti!
Shy young man: Do you like pizza?
[eruption of snorts and laughter from the group]
Sparrow [incredulously with a friendly eye-roll]: Of course! Of course they like pizza! Who doesn’t like pizza!?
More seriously, these young men and women were studying English with many different goals, but all with the end result of going abroad to earn more money to send home to their families. They were very hopeful for the future of Burma and just so eager to learn and make friends. Spending the afternoon with them was one of the most endearing, happy moments of our time in Burma.
5. Visit Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon is Burma’s most holy site, so it can get packed. We went early in the morning to beat the crowds of locals as well as the heat. The complex is pretty large, and you take escalators to reach the elevated pagoda worship area. One interesting thing we noticed were stations dedicated to days of the week where people would gather and wash the Buddha statue of the station. Apparently, knowing the day of the week you are born is important in Burmese culture, which is reflected in temple worship at these weekday stations.
Shwedagon Pagoda bonus: we snagged some delicious mohinga for breakfast before arriving at the temple. Mohinga is fish head curry with vermicelli noodles, a traditional Burmese breakfast food. We walked up Yay Tar Shay Old Street and found a mohinga joint where we could try our very first fish head curry, and it was delicious!
Mitch said he was proud of me for choosing this place because it was pretty “rustic,” as in… the kitchen sort of looked as clean as a terrible car mechanic shop. He was not thrilled about the sanitary conditions of my restaurant selection, but the food was good. I guess a lot can change when you’ve been traveling on a budget for three months!
6. Have a Bowl of Shan Noodles
The Shan State is a region in northeastern Burma famous for its noodles. We stopped by the immaculately clean 999 Shan Noodle House near City Hall downtown and had the best bowl of shan noodles of our entire trip. We also enjoyed the best tea leaf salad (another Burmese classic), and the owner was so generous to give us a free dessert of coconut sticky noodle.
Apologies for the fluorescent lighting in these photos…
Mitch and I also enjoyed an afternoon respite from the heat at Acacia Tea House, north of downtown. It was nice to be bathed in air conditioning and surrounded by the old, British colonial decor, but the food was just OK, and we ultimately preferred walking around and exploring streets downtown. If you need a high-class breather from the bustling streets, this is the place to go, though.
People’s Park is also north of downtown and a nice, large park in which to have a lazy afternoon stroll. We spotted lots of teens hanging out with their significant others and friends.
You can also visit Aung San Su Kyi’s home where she was held under house arrest for decades. Her story, along with her father’s, is amazing; if you haven’t heard or read much about it, I’d encourage you to, especially if you want to know more about Burmese politics and history.
That’s it for Yangon! We found the food here to be the best of what we tasted in Burma, so we will have to return for longer than one and a half days.
Next up: Mitch and I take a bus to the famed temples of Bagan!