Yangon is a hidden gem. The city rivals its neighbors in terms of adventure and culture. It even offers travelers relief from South East Asia’s notorious humidity.
Arriving from Thailand and having just lost my wallet (another story for another day), I was faced with the challenge of enjoying Yangon to the fullest under a limited budget. Experiencing some Burmese culture along the way would be pretty cool too.
Well. Challenge accepted.
Yangon First Look:
Yangon is the ultimate destination for people watching. Culture and charm permeate the city through its locals, the architecture, and food. Getting acquainted with the city is an absolute joy.
For me, the best way to spend my first day was to stroll through the city, trying drinks and street food, while building an understanding of its layout.
Pretty early start for me on vacation. It was particularly surprising as I had stuffed myself non-stop with garbage during the two prior weeks in Thailand.
I started towards downtown Yangon. My plan? Make it up as I go. This was one of my first trips abroad. To compound that intimidation factor, 2015 Myanmar was not exactly a place frequented by Westerners.
HOOOOONNNNNK! A bus blasted its horn as it zoomed by. Its side doors stayed open as it drove. This rusty tin can was filled to the brim with local commuters. Some even stood idly in the doorway, clinging on to the handles, unafraid of falling off.
“Sorry!”, I backtracked my jaywalking steps with urgency.
I was not in Kansas anymore. The riders greeted me with waves. Obviously I was a tourist – my “Jay-Z” tank top conveyed as much.
PRO TIP: Burmese coffee was an epiphany. Very underrated, but slowly becoming the next big thing.
My first stop was only a few steps beyond the comfort and safety of my hotel room at the RGN City Lodge.
Yangon Cafe – a fitting name. The place featured enough vintage furniture to impress a Brooklyn hipster.
I ordered a cup of their finest coffee under $2. Delicious. Now I was ready to tackle my day ahead. If the coffee wasn’t world famous before, it must be now!
I continued towards the city. The streets grew alive. “Zay shot lo ya la?” locals were haggling for the best prices on anything and everything. Wish I took notes.
Vendors waved at me (oblivious to the fact that I had lost my wallet). Kids, adults, and elderly represented the subjects of this picture. The colonial architecture acted as the unique backdrop.
PRO TIP: Yangon is renowned for its colonial buildings, boasting the highest concentration in the world. Take your time. Soak it all in.
Now, I was hungry.
Luckily, food stands and make-shift markets weren’t rare.
These impromptu restaurants sprung up next to grocery merchants who were descaling fish, butchering meat, and sorting fruits and vegetables. It’s no Tsukiji market, but still fresh nonetheless.
The selection was abundant: pickled and fresh vegetables, meat and fish, fried and spicy – right in my wheel house. I dropped 5 big bills (roughly $5) and was in for a feast. Often considered the best street food in Asia, but it skewed towards spicy and salty palates and was also not the cleanest.
Iron stomachs need only apply.
The sun rose to its zenith; I just finished eating next to a flaming wok. The heat slowly pounded me into submission. I turned to a local remedy – thanaka. No, those Burmese women were not wearing war paint. The beige powder kept their faces cool and hydrated – a beauty essential.
“Min ga la ba” I approached a street vendor with my makeshift Burmese.
I looked ridiculous after the fresh paint job, with selfies as proof. I stuck out like a sore thumb (even more so than before). Thanaka wearers were mostly women and children. But hey, when in Rome…
And you know what? It really worked! Worth trying before it catches on and gets sold at exorbitant prices by Kendall Jenner and company.
I continued by visiting the majestic Sule Pagoda. An oasis of history in a desert of modern streets and buildings.
I ended the day at the renowned Strand Hotel. This was George Orwell’s stomping ground when he was a bourgie writer. Yep. This city was hipster heaven.
Time to ball out a little.
I approached the iconic lobby while fawning over its majestic columns and immaculate design. Despite my tank top, the staff greeted me with their literal white-glove treatment. Doors were opened by two doormen in dress shirts and longyi; the maître d’ guided me to a table in the main tea room; two separate servers attended to my needs.
The natural wicker seat growled as I settled in place. The polished teak floors glistened. A musky hint of cigar smoke flowed back and forth as the refreshing breeze blew through the large street side windows.
Appetizers were served on lacquerware and drinks in handcrafted glasses. I could not believe a place this luxurious existed in Myanmar! I started sipping my tea and my alcoholic beverage. I dove into my readings, fully satisfied by my Burmese day.
PRO TIP: Prepare for NYC prices (~$15 a drink)
Yangon is a great place to walk around without a prior itinerary. It’s not yell-out-loud partying type of fun, but still immensely interesting. Value metrics are dependent on what you do.
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