Yangon, Myanmar – Trip Notes
From Heho airport near Inle lake, we flew on KBZ Airlines to Yangon.
Yangon used to be called Rangoon during the British occupation, and “Dagon” before that. Yangon means “A peaceful place,” or a place with no more wars.
We stayed for five days in the historic Strand Hotel, housed in one of the many old colonial buildings that still stand in this city.
It is a classic luxury boutique hotel, with a butler service on each of its two floors that delivered tea and cookies, fruit and English newspapers to our room at any time of day, and at no extra charge.
The waterfront of downtown Yangon is occupied by ugly customs warehouses and shipping buildings, and the waters of the Yangon River are not even visible through the dense and busy port.
There are many beautiful buildings from the colonial era that are still standing.
Some have been renovated, but most are in various stages of disintegration.
The cost of renovating the block-long colonial buildings is enormous, and developers would rather invest their money in new construction in the greener, cleaner and nicer suburbs, than take on a hundred million U.S. Dollar renovation of one of these massive old buildings in the grimy downtown.
The downtown is crowded, and the old sewer system is antiquated and very inadequate.
The sewers and gutters run in open channels right below concrete pavers that serve as sidewalks.
The concrete pavers are not fastened down, because they need to be removed often to clear up the blocked sewer, and you can see huge rats run in and out of the sewer, darting between food vendors, looking for opportunities to grab some food.
We heard that Yangon is being rapidly built up with drug money, invested by drug lords who are looking for ways to launder and invest their money.
The city might be in the process of rejuvenation, but it is still very much in transition.
There is a large middle class that lives in nice houses, shops in air conditioned malls and dines in pleasant modern restaurants that serve pricy cocktails and sushi, but there are also slums in the middle of the city everywhere, where people live in dirty conditions with muddy lanes and exposed sewers that run by their makeshift houses.
The streets of Yangon are also one big marketplace that goes on day and night.
Vendors cram the narrow sidewalks, nearly blocking the entrances to the shops, who also spill their merchandise out onto the streets.
What space is not taken up by the vendors’ stalls is occupied by electricity generators that stand in front of every building, to provide back-up power to counter frequent outages.
There is very little room left for pedestrians.
The street vendors sell food, shoes, belts, bags, sunglasses, clothing, lottery tickets, betel nut chews, photos of Buddhist teachers and monks, and books that were photocopied from the originals and are bound together right there on the streets.
Yangon has a more diverse ethnic population and variety of religions which we did not see in other parts of the country.
There are a few Hindu temples and a few Chinese temples in Chinatown, many Muslim Mosques and even one Jewish Synagogue.
The Buddhist pagodas are very impressive.
We visited the Sule’ Pagoda, which is located right in the middle of town at a very busy traffic roundabout.
The Botataung Pagoda is a famous pagoda with relics found in a sealed cave located in downtown Yangon, on the waterfront, near the Yangon river.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is the country’s pride, and it is heavily gilded with gold leaf.
Some of the Burmese rulers have increased the height of the pagoda, and some royals, politicians and celebrities have donated their weight in gold to decorate the pagoda.
I joked with Jules that if he were the king, I could almost see him looking after every bite of food I put in my mouth, and saying with a disheartened voice:
“Really dear, must you eat so much? Can’t you try to lose fifteen pounds, this is going to cost me a FORTUNE….”
The Shwedagon Pagoda complex has many halls and smaller pagodas, and it houses a hair and a tooth relic of the Buddha.
There are corners in the pagoda dedicated to each day of the week, and devotees pour water on top of the Buddha that is situated on the corner where their birth day occurred.
My birth was on a Sunday, and Jules was born on a Thursday.
Like all the locals, we poured cups of water on those Sunday and Thursday Buddhas.
Shwedagon has a very impressive collection of Burmese architecture, religious designs and amazing carvings and craftsmanship.
At the Bogyoke Market, we browsed the many fabrics that come from all over Myanmar to be sold in this busy bazaar.
There are not many tourists visiting the bazar, but it is completely packed with locals.
Beside fabrics, the Bazar sell mostly gold jewelry, and in a culture where people do not trust the banking system, gold jewelry is a common investment.
At the market I found some fabrics that I liked and the friendly seller promised to make me two dresses in two and a half days.
The price for each dress including the fabric, was $18.
I asked for simple summer dresses that are very easy to make and that are not constraining, but feel almost like wearing a T-shirt.
A visit to the produce market in the city left us not wanting to eat anything at all in Yangon! Everything – the shrimp, the fish, the chicken, the meat, the fruit, the vegetables and all the sweets – was covered with huge green flies.
We were not tempted to try anything from any of the street food stalls either, because everything was either covered with flies or with diesel fumes and smoke, plus we could see the rats running fearlessly everywhere….
The busy streets of Chinatown become a night food market every evening, and the streets become crowded with food vendors and diners.
We squeezed onto the tiny walking path left on the sidewalks between vendors frying food and sellers of Mangosteen, giant Durian and mango fruit.
We enjoyed breakfasts in our hotel, which is where I tried the local Mohinga noodles in a cleaner environment.
Mohinga noodles are made with rice noodles in a aromatic fish curry soup with lemongrass, ginger and herbs, and it is served with a patty of fried chickpeas, a boiled egg, fried shallots and crushed peanuts.
It was very good, but most mornings we just had fresh fruit juices, a plate of fresh fruit, and a slice of toasted farmer’s bread with watermelon jam.
There are numerous newly opened restaurants around the city that offer good food in a pleasant environment.
The prices at those restaurants are marked in U.S. Dollars and the food is as pricy as you will find in Europe and the USA.
The choice of better dining does exist all over the city, including some upscale French garden restaurants around Inlay lake in the northern suburbs of the city, but with the late afternoon and evening monsoon rains already upon us, we stayed in the vicinity of the downtown, and dined very well.
At “Gekko,” a modern Japanese restaurant on Merchant Street, we had fresh juices and good Yakitori vegetables grilled on a Robbata grill.
At the “Rangoon Tea House,” an elegantly renovated informal restaurant on Pansodan Street that serves good Burmese and Indian food, we had fresh smoothies with pea Parathas and an eggplant and cauliflower curry.
At the “Union Bar and Grill,” on Strand Street, we had thin crust veg pizza and good fresh green salads, as well as lime sodas with fresh celery juice, which tasted very refreshing.
I am not sad to say goodbye to Yangon.
If I had to do it over again, I would have spent less time in this city and instead visited the southern beaches, or I would have gone to Bago, to see some of the beautiful treasures found in that region.
Our journey through Myanmar is over.
We start a long schedule of flights to go home to Colorado.
Unfortunately…because we booked those flights separately, in each port we have to clear customs and immigration and move on to the next flight…
From Yangon we fly to Bangkok.
From Bangkok we fly to Sydney, Australia and then on to Auckland, NZ.
From Auckland we fly to San Francisco, and then on to Denver.
We will stay a night or two in Denver and shop for groceries, before heading back into my beloved Rocky Mountains where the air is thin and clean and our home awaits us….