Yangon, Here’s Why You Really Need To Get There Now
Yangon really is having its moment now. If you believe everything you read, it’s been time to go to Myanmar – or Burma, as some still prefer to call it – since its initial opening-up by the former military regime in 2011. But we believe now really is the time to go and here’s why.
Yangon, Here’s Why You Need To Get There Now
We have to admit that we’re smitten with Myanmar and its most cosmopolitan city Yangon. We became besotted when we spent a month in the country early last year updating a guidebook and fell head of heels when we were there a few months ago working on a story on mohinga. Yet, it’s a challenge convincing people to go and I’m not sure why.
With the return to democracy following the election late last year of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and a sense of optimism and energy that came with it, now really is the time to go. And the place to start is Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, a city that sets to change, and possibly quite quickly.
The Burmese Empire may have been one of Southeast Asia’s greatest, with a rich 2000-year-old heritage of architecture, literature and the arts, when it fell to the British in early 19th century. However, that history and wealth lay in the centre and north of the country in Bagan and Mandalay.
When the first Englishman to visit Burma, Ralph Fitch, arrived in 1587, Rangoon was just a diminutive fishing village, dominated by the gleaming, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda. It was under British rule, from 1824 to 1948, that the majestic edifices that line Yangon’s streets were built.
Perhaps the most iconic structure was the colossal brick Secretariat building, where in 1947 General Aung San, the father of modern Myanmar and father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated. The Secretariat was recently opened to the public for the first time in decades on 19 July, but only for one day – Martyr’s Day, the day that commemorates General Aung San’s death.
It was under the military junta, which took power and ruled the country from 1962 to 2011, that 35% of central Yangon or some 1,800 buildings were demolished, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust, to create space for swanky new developments. A preservation project has been underway and now, under the newly elected democratic government, there are real hopes that the 189 historic buildings that remain will be saved.
As part of a crackdown on rampant high-rise construction, which would over-shadow Yangon’s splendid heritage architecture, the government halted construction of buildings over eight floors in May, and last week ordered that a number of building projects to reduce its floors.
There are hopes in Yangon for a whole lot more change too and a renewed sense of optimism, not felt since the semi-return to democracy five years ago, is sweeping the gritty streets of this once grand city. Visit now and you can feel it in the air. No more so than at the city’s beloved pagodas and temples.
When we visited Yangon a few months ago, we joined masses of barefoot locals, dressed in their best outfits, for their Sunday afternoon pilgrimage to Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site, the shimmering, gold 2,500-year old Shwedagon Pagoda.
It was impossible to move very fast amongst the crowds, so we joined them in their shuffle around the gilded, bell-shaped stupas, watching as they stopped to arrange flowers and pour water over shrines or kneel down momentarily to light candles and incense sticks.
For naturally shy people, the Burmese are incredibly generous with their big, warm smiles, which form with ease. But now, they are matched by a sparkle in the eyes that I can’t imagine was there under the previous repressive dictatorship.
There is a sense of happiness and hopefulness that is contagious and you see it most at the pagodas where people appear to be at ease and at their happiest. I like to think that they are thankful that their prayers for peace, change and prosperity were finally answered.
The pace of change that slowly began to gain momentum after 2011 – a change reflected not only by a surge in arrivals of intrepid travellers, but also the number of new hotels, restaurants, cafes, and galleries that have been popping up around town – has really picked up speed.
That development and the accompanying affluence is most evident at Bahan township (as the Burmese call their suburbs), where expensive cars are parked in the driveways of handsome mansions and shopping malls are popping up. Home to Shwedagon Pagoda, and a handful of other shiny pagodas and temples, which earned it the name ‘Golden Valley’, Bahan is also the address of many of the city’s wealthier residents, tycoons, military leaders, and celebrities.
In recent years, Yangon has seen all sorts of cool openings, from The Loft, a chic hotel that wouldn’t be out of place in Bangkok or Singapore, to cool cafés, restaurants and bars, such as Rangoon Tea House, Port Autonomy and Gekko that fill with well-off locals, expats and travellers sipping cocktails and tucking into everything from refined French cuisine to creative renditions of traditional Burmese dishes.
Along with the restoration of democracy has come a relaxation of censorship, which has made it possible for the arts and culture to more fully flourish. On any given night, you might find a comedy show, a band performing, or an art exhibition opening at galleries like Pansodan, Deitta Gallery, Nawaday Art Gallery, and River Gallery at The Strand. Things that were unthinkable during much of the dictatorship.
Yangon has come a long way from its roots as a Mon fishing village called Dagon in the 6th century, when the Shwedangon Pagoda was constructed on Singuttara hilltop. When you visit, make sure to take your camera and tripod to capture the surrounding city as much as the illuminated Golden Pagoda in all its glittering glory, because in another five years it might not be recognisable. Get there soon, because this really is Yangon’s moment.
Some of Our Favourite Things to do in Yangon
Light Incense at Kheng Hock Keong
Heady incense fills the air at atmospheric Kheng Hock Keong, above, Yangon’s oldest Chinese Buddhist and Taoist temple, founded in 1861, where a constant trickle of worshippers light joss sticks and burnt spirit money in a dedicated chimney. Dripping with red lanterns, the ‘temple that celebrates prosperity’ is dedicated to Mazu, the Sea Goddess. The port is across the road, and historically much of Burma’s wealth was thanks to sea trade.
Explore Central Yangon
Glittering gold pagodas, grand heritage buildings and crumbling Chinese shophouses, wherever you look in downtown Yangon, there is incredible architecture to see and photograph. You can wander independently, however, Insider Journeys offers a Heritage and High Tea Walk which rounds off a half-day gawking at Yangon’s colonial gems, from the High Court to the City Hall, with an elegant high tea in the historic Strand Hotel. Currently closed for renovation, the Strand is due to open in November.
Feast on Street Food
Crispy fried samosas, spicy mohinga soup, fragrant curries, barbecued seafood, bubbling hot pots – Yangon’s footpaths, laneways, and busy main roads are crammed with stalls selling all sorts of street food dishes. Sunset is when most cooks set up, but during the day you’ll find vendors selling fresh exotic fruits, fermented tea leaf salad called laphet thoke, and Myanmar’s ohn no khao swè, a creamy coconut noodle soup. We did a fantastic street food tour that we’ll post about shortly.
Shop Bogyoke Aung San Market
Run your fingers over the handwoven, vintage hill-tribe textiles made by ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s Chin, Kachin, Shan, and Kayah states at beautiful shops such as Yo Ya May and Myanmar Folk Art in lively Bogyoke Aung San Market. The colonial-era bazaar in central Yangon is teeming with shops selling colourful fabrics and handicrafts, as well as smooth black lacquer-ware and handcrafted jewellery.
Have you been to Yangon? Do you have any tips to share? Or, what I’m more curious to know, have you considered it but not yet gone and if so, what’s holding you back?