I smiled at the customs officer and looked towards the camera pointed at me while she reviewed my eVisa and passport. She smiled at my excitement, stamped both documents and handed them back to me. That was it, I was in Yangon. A flood of men in longhys gathered around as they saw me grab my two bags and pause for a moment to find the exit. “I already have a hotel pickup” I said. They nodded and directed me towards where my hotel pickup driver would be waiting with my name on a sign.
People of Yangon are eager to sell you things, but when you say no, they politely bow away and are very helpful. I was greeted with smiles and bows at almost every turn.
I left the United States on a Wednesday evening and after four flights landed in Yangon on Friday, at 4pm local time. The plane skimmed flooded fields and golden pagodas before coming to a halt at the Yangon International Airport. The rain had subsided just long enough for my plane to land and for me to catch a sparkly golden glimpse of the pagodas and streets of Yangon from the sky before commencing in heavy rain the rest of the evening. Luckily it didn’t rain the rest of my stay. Across Southeast Asia as a whole this year has seen excessive amounts of rain that is causing flooding. Everything in the photo below is land.
The traffic is just as busy as I had imagined, it took an hour to get from the airport to my hotel on the river just 12 miles away. The lanes all seem to merge together and cars politely merge into lines of fluid chaos that certainly only the Burmese could understand. The 4-5 lane roundabouts were the most chaotic I’ve seen, with brave men on bicycles pedaling their way through the middle of it.
The patience in the country is startling. My young driver, with small tattoo symbols scattered across his forearm was as calm, was collected and polite as he maneuvered our little car through traffic. Despite the chaos, there is no aggression, even when a car unexpectedly cuts another off, there are no harsh gestures, hand signals, cursing, or even looking at each other. Although there is an abundance of honking that seems more a way to let others know you are coming through, rather than angrily let them know that they have upset you. Each driver continues on as he had before, and everyone has somewhere to go. There were also women driving cars, but they were few and far between, and usually much nicer Mercedes or big Toyota SUV’s.
I arrived at my hotel around 5pm. I chose the Vintage Luxury Yacht Hotel – themed with a vintage fifties vibe and a nod to their earlier British rule, it’s as “on the water” as it gets. I reserved a room with a balcony overlooking the river, but little did I realize that I would be able to wake up to the boat traffic on the river in the morning and massive cargo ships waiting patiently outside of my window. It was traffic as usual by 7am on the river all weekend with the little boats chugging along with their little lawn mower sounding engines.
The hotel had two housekeeping times, the usual morning cleaning, but then again in the evening they would come in and draw the curtains and turn on evening lighting, refold the toilet paper and tissue boxes into little triangular tips.
While researching the perfect thing to do with my one free day in Yangon and came across Three Good Spoons, which happened to have a cooking class available that same morning. And it was vegetarian nonetheless, what luck!
If you have the time during your stay in Yangon, I recommend looking up their class options. As a solo traveler I had to wait for others to confirm their bookings before my reservation was confirmed.
We cooked three dishes between 9:30am to 12:00pm when we all sat down to eat. It was a lovely mixture of ladies from different walks of like who came together to learn from Chef Kevin that morning. Chef Kevin and his assistant did most of the cooking and we shared in the chopping and questions. We learned to make coconut milk and coconut cream, and that the people of Myanmar LOVE their fish oil.
Chef Kevin’s English was flawless with a a great bit of charm to go with it! He was the chef for the US Ambassador to Myanmar for many years, learning to love Mexican food, becoming an expert bread baker, and cooking more pizza than he’d ever like to remember during his tenure there before retiring and taking on classes with Three Good Spoons. He offers helpful cooking tips for cooking in general, and tells stories about people in his classes who bring swimming pool glasses to protect their eyes from the onions. Luckily, most of our group loved onions and garlic.
After preparing our three dishes:
- Pe Kyazan Hingar
- Shan Tofu Salad
- Ghin Thoke (ginger salad)
- and dessert – Shwe Gyi Semolina Cakes
We ate. Sar Kya Zo!
The Rangoon Tea House
The Tea House was a lovely treat after exploring the busy streets all day. The modern shop offers the traditional Burmese food alongside some of foods you may be more accustomed to, and of course the tea is wonderful. They also have great happy hour specials! I ate here twice during my five day stay, once eating on the bottom floor and once up on the 2nd floor with overlooked the street below and emanated dark lounge vibes.
Don’t miss a chance to stop by Hla Day, right beside the Tea House. It offers handcrafted local Burmese gifts, clothing, decorations and generally cute things and they are open quite late!
The Shwedagon Pagoda
The famous pagoda is a must see in Yangon, if you visit no other pagoda during your time in Yangon this is the one to see. It is 2500 years old, about 360 feet tall and immaculately maintained. There is quite the staircase to climb in order to reach the top and most of the people there are actually going to worship and pay respects to the day of the week they were born on. Tuesday (my day) was particularly popular and always had at least 3-4 people doing their water bath ceremony – washing the Buddha at the corner of your birthday is considered lucky and good for karma.
The tourists, while fairly sparse, are easy to spot. I found a couple kissing in a selfie with the the ancient pagoda behind them. Public displays of affection, especially in such a sacred site, is frowned upon and uncomfortable for the locals across the city, unless in the People’s Park.
The great thing about Myanmar is that both men and women wear the traditional longyis as you’ll see in the photos. They are tied differently for men and women and come in different colors and patterns. When wearing your longyi, be sure you know how to tie it appropriately.
Planning to visit the pagoda that day I had dressed in a maxi skirt and t-shirt, covering my tattoos, shoulders and knees. Upon paying to enter MMK (Burmese Kyat) 10,000 – $6 (USD) I was wrapped in a longyi at the entrance (they charge a nominal fee for it) because apparently too much of my calves (the side of the skirt opened up to about mid calf) were showing. So I wore two skirts for my visit and got to kept the longyi. You’ll also need to take off your shoes promptly upon beginning the steps up to the pagoda, not just inside. The day I visited was particularly hot (mid September) and the sun had heat up the tiles, so this part can be tricky until you get to the shaded staircase.
Next I walked to the People’s Park. It is a short walk, but mind the unmarked holes in the ground! This includes some 6 ft deep manholes that have no markings around them in the middle of a city street. There is a nominal fee to enter the park (.20 cents USD or so).
Wandering around the People’s Park is a great way to get a feel for the Burmese people. I found myself in the middle of Lover’s Lane wondering why all the teenagers were cuddling on benches before walking under a large heart shape sign and realizing where I was, but the teenagers didn’t seem to mind. Just down the walkway from Lover’s Lane is an amusement park that looked like it was hidden in the jungle. I found a carousel and a roller coaster hidden in the trees and not one other westerner back in the area. It was a hidden gem on the warm day. After walking from the Pagoda to People’s Park, I was dripping in sweat. But you get used to soaking through your clothes in this part of the world, I think.
Getting around town
You should never pay more than 6,000 kyats to get around town. The furthest stretch should be the airport, which is located just outside of town, to your hotel and no more than 12,000 kyat at that.
Oddities and notes
Longyis can be purchased for generally from 3000 kyat to 15000 kyat for the higher quality, handmade textiles. I did see some for 30-36,000, but I bought mine for 15,000. If you try to enter the Schwedagon Pagoda without sufficient clothing they will make you wear the pagoda pants or wrap a longyi around you.
You can use a GRAB taxi to get anywhere, this is the only way that I travelled in Yangon. Note that GRAB’s for some reason do not have back seatbelts in Yangon. Mostly you will be picked up by the Toyota ProBox (these are new to me!)
Betel Nut is chewed frequently in Yangon, and you will see the red spit in the sidewalks, streaked down the sides of car doors and across many residents’ teeth. Apparently the ingredients can include chili, jam, and most importantly – tobacco.
You will catch whiffs of some of the strangest smells in this country. One GRAB car smelled terrible and I couldn’t even place the never, it was unlike anything I’d ever encountered. Walking through the city will also afford you some very strange and strong smells.
Many of the street dogs are painfully skinny, suffer from mange and had hurt feet. They look sadly at passersby in hopes of a scrap and only on rare occasions was I able to see one wag his tale.
The cars are right hand drive, AND on the right side of the street. Think British steering wheel side, driving on the right side of the road.
WHAT I LOVED
Everyone in Yangon seemed happy, smiling, playing in puddles, laughing with me and were generally enjoying life.
Men are often walking in deep conversation with an arm around their friend, chatting intently or sharing an umbrella.
The language has a sort of sing-song way about it. GRAB drivers often play talk shows or playback messages on their phones during longer drives and I frequently heard something like, “odi da“, “way way” and”cap cap“.
If Myanmar isn’t on your travel bucket list yet, it should be! If I had more time here I would have organized a tour. But in five days I feel like I had a thorough, yet brief introduction to Myanmar.