12 December 2011
Ten Top Tips for Visitors to Yangon
Nina Tomaschko of the Road To Mandalay river cruiser takes you behind the scenes in Myanmar's major city.
1. Tea Time
Tea houses are an integral part of Myanmar daily life and are everywhere you look in Yangon. Morning, noon and night they are busy with friends socialising over a warming brew, families enjoying a snack and businessmen conducting important deals. Traditional tea is served with a dose of sweet, condensed milk and accompanied by a green tea to help wash down the sugar. Tea shops also serve a range of snacks from sweets like jaggery-filled sticky rice balls to savoury noodle salads.
My Tip: Visit Feel or Modern tea shops, and watch the unique method used to pour the tea - a fascinating spectacle.
2. Myanmar's 'Green' Beer
Over the past five years beer has become increasingly popular in Myanmar, reflected in the growth of domestic brands. Mandalay Brewery Factory now produces lager, strong ale, gold and spirulina Beers - the latter marketed as a high-quality health supplement and anti-aging drink. Spirulina is a natural micro-algae that is rich in antioxidants, amino acids, minerals and vitamins.
My Tip: Yangon's Spirulina Beer Factory is a micro-brewery serving this 'green' beer in kegs. Find it on Kan Nar Street in Alone Township: it is well worth a visit, even if you are not a particular fan of beer.
3. Kandawgyi Park
Set at the heart of the city, Kandawgyi Park, around the lake of the same name, is a relaxing place to escape from the Yangon buzz. It offers great views of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which is illuminated in the evening, when locals flock here to relax after work. There are dozens of small restaurants, bars and stages for live music by the lake's shores.
My Tip: Sunday nights are the busiest time, as families finish their weekend with a picnic in the cool evening air. Check with your hotel or tour guide for concert schedules.
4. Early morning tai chi
Every morning in the pre-dawn hours locals of all ages gather in the parks around Yangon to practice traditional tai chi. Several groups dot the parks, gracefully moving in sync. Watch or join in - you won't regret the early start.
My Tip: Go to People's Park at dawn and watch the tai chi while the sun rises, casting magnificent colours over the Shwedagon's glittering stupa.
5. Eating out on 19th Street
This small side street in the heart of Yangon's Chinatown comes alive as the sun sets. A dozen or so barbecue shops set up on the street, with tables and chairs in the middle of the road. The locals gather here after work to enjoy cold draft beers and dinner. Grab a plastic basket, go to the stall and choose from a range of skewered meats, seafood and vegetables that will then be grilled and delivered hot to the table. Musicians and lottery and betel nut vendors wander along the street, adding to the atmosphere.
My Tip: Find a busy restaurant with a prime location and enjoy a drink and superb people watching.
6. Across the River
Most of Yangon's residents live outside the city centre: many homes lie across the Yangon River, in villages that are just moments away yet feel far from the pace of downtown life. Catch a ferry for a glimpse of rural Myanmar lifestyles: locals commuting, coming into the city to shop or going home to their families. Activities on the ferry - especially vendors selling snacks and drinks - are as fascinating as the views: local rowing boats, large fishing craft en route to the ocean and the Yangon cityscape.
My Tip: Cross the river to Della (or Dhala) and take a trishaw to the local market and through the quiet village streets. The ferry leaves every 15-30 minutes from the pier across from The Strand hotel and costs 2US$ per person (take your passport and remember you must pay in US$).
7. Aboard the circular train
The local slow train offers one of the most interesting, easy and relaxing ways to discover everyday Yangon life. As you trundle along you pass through the hectic hubbub of the city to the calm, green countryside. You are likely to meet local people and perhaps get to chat.
My Tip: As is a circular trip, you can begin and end at any station; however, I recommend starting at the central station, from where you can travel clockwise or anti-clockwise. I recommend getting off at Mingaladon Station on the outskirts of Yangon. The whole trip takes about 3 hours and the ticket costs around US$1 per passenger. There are 7 trains daily, so please ask your tour guide about the latest train schedule.
8. Places of Worship
Many different religions happily co-exist in Myanmar. Buddhism is the major faith, but there are many Hindu and Sikh places of worship, alongside Christian churches and a number of mosques. What most surprises many visitors is the sight of an Armenian Christian church in the centre of downtown Yangon.
My Tip: Should you wish to worship, or just step inside, you'll find the Armenian Church of St. John the Baptist at No. 66, 40th St, Yangon. Other interesting places include the synagogue, mosque and Hindu temples - all within just 2 blocks of one another.
9. Glassware and Factories
Glassware is a Myanmar speciality and its importance is growing on the international stage. The Na-Ga Glass Factory is one of the leading manufacturers, although badly hit by Cyclone Nargis. It is situated in an out-of-the-way, jungle-like area, at the end of a narrow mud path. Glass pieces are strewn all over the place and if you spot a treasure, just point and it can be cleaned up for you. Every sale helps the owner to rebuild his business.
My Tip: At first sight, you may be taken aback by the haphazard surroundings but glass enthusiasts and those in search of the unusual will be fascinated. Ask your local tour guide for directions.
10. Art and History
Yangon offers a great collection of art galleries (a selection of works is pictured, top) and is a great place for culture vultures. The Pansodan gallery for instance, shows traditional and more leading-edge works by famous Myanmar masters. Tour the gallery with an artist or local expert to gain deep insight into the Yangon cultural scene. Enjoy lunch or a cocktail at House of Memories restaurant, an old colonial style mansion set in a beautiful garden. Once used as army headquarters, the building is full of memorabilia from the country's struggle for independence. It includes a room that was once the office of General Aung San, with personal items such as his typewriter.
My Tip: The Lawkanat and New Zero Art Space galleries also show paintings by famous local artists and emerging new talents.
What surprised you most in Yangon?