Welcome to Yangon
The final stop on our four-week tour of Myanmar, I was pretty excited to step off the overnight bus onto the streets of Yangon, knowing we had five full days to explore the city. We arrived early on a Sunday and the thoroughfares around our hotel – which happened to be smack-bang in the middle of China Town – were all congested with fragrant morning market activity. Often mistakenly referred to as ‘Myanmar’s capital city’ (that accolade actually goes to Naypyidaw), Yangon is still the country’s largest urban centre and socio-political nucleus. But it isn’t like most Southeast Asian metropolises. Much like Myanmar as a whole, Yangon has a special character of its own, and life happens here at a slower pace. There’s no CBD as such; offices, restaurants and family homes are all mixed together in a wonderful concoction of multipurpose laneways. Yangon is worth a visit for the heritage architecture alone, but of equal interest is the city’s contemporary landscape. Myanmar is a changing country, and the epicentre of that evolution can be found in Yangon.
The city’s complexion is far more ethnically diverse than any other city we visited, which makes for a vibrant melting pot of cultures and cuisines. Compared with Bangkok or Saigon, Yangon is more pedestrian-friendly. We spent much of our time wandering around the downtown area as well as exploring more remote outskirts of the city, easily accessible by the fantastically cheap railway system and affordable taxis. Aside from the once-in-a-lifetime experience of visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda on a full-moon evening (a story I’ll save for another day), here are some of my favourite things to do in downtown Yangon.
Go Shopping at Bogyoke Aung San Market
One of General Aung San’s many eponymous landmarks, Yangon’s main undercover marketplace is one of the city’s most popular attractions. This is a great place to find authentic textiles from Chin and Shan states, as well as all manner of Myanmar-style souvenirs. I found my favourite sellers – Yoyamay and Chin Chili – on the top floor of the main market building. Be sure to walk around the market’s perimeter, where artists can be found working from their footpath stalls.
Drink Coffee at Bar Boon
If I lived in Yangon, I know I would spend far too much time – and money – at Bar Boon. Pronounced ‘Bone’, this swish coffee shop is a Dutch export, and the Bogyoke Aung San Road branch is one of several dotted across the country. The cafe’s open terrace has an ideal vantage over the nearby market, and it’s a great spot to sit and people watch. Locally sourced coffee beans make for an excellent iced brew, and most days the cafe offers specials on its house-made cakes and slices – including whopping slices of homemade apple pie.
Stroll Down Repairman’s Row
Never heard of Repairman’s Row? I’m not surprised, since it’s a name I had to invent myself after stumbling on this fascinating (and apparently undocumented) stretch of road near the Bogyoke Market. As an advocate of slow fashion and sustainability, I’m always delighted to see examples of mindful consumption in action. If you’re a resident of Yangon, this is where you come to have things repaired, recycled, reupholstered and revitalised. Seated at plastic tables that line one side of the street, each craftsperson with a stall or shopfront here specialises in a specific type of repair job (shoes, bags, zippers, garments), as evidenced by the tools and accessories stringed from their umbrella. Take a slow walk down this street and admire the disappearing skills on display.
Eat lunch at LinkAge
Some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten in Southeast Asia have been at social enterprise restaurants that support disadvantaged youths by providing them with vocational training. LinkAge is Yangon’s answer to Cambodia’s Friends International or Vientiane’s Makphet. Located on the second floor of a pretty colonial walk up, the restaurant was founded in 2011 with the assistance of the French government. The staff are delightful, the food is delicious, and by eating here, you’re supporting a great organisation that helps educate Yangon’s most disadvantaged youth.
Wander Down a Laneway at Dusk
There’s no better way to explore a new city than by wandering aimlessly down a laneway and experiencing life on ‘street level’. Downtown Yangon is full of peaceful, residential laneways that are ripe for exploring. Avoid the heat of the day and take a walk around dusk, when the city’s streets really come alive. We particularly enjoyed taking note of the unusual street foods on display. Around every corner, you’ll find a beautiful vignette of everyday life in Yangon.
Take High Tea at The Strand Hotel
Designed by the same team as Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, The Strand is a beautiful building with deep roots in Yangon’s colonial history. The rates are, unsurprisingly, astronomically high, but the terraced cafe is reasonably priced, and the perfect place to have an intimate encounter with the hotel’s architecture and finishings.
Browse for Books on Pansodan Street
The open-air bookstalls of Pansodan Street are a thing of local legend. You might not find any English-language novels to purchase, but it’s fun to walk up and down and see the vintage titles on offer. If you’re in the market for something in particular, I recommend the nearby Bagan Book House, and also Monument Books, which is located close to the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Admire the Colonial Architecture…
Yangon is dilapidated. Delightfully dilapidated. Buildings here encase several centuries’ worth of beautiful, tragic, inspiring history; straight from the storybooks. There are literally thousands of colonial-era buildings dotted around the city in various states of disrepair – nature has reclaimed most of them, with its twisting vines and blankets of moss. The layers of history, easily visible to the naked eye, are quite incredible to behold. Free Yangon Walks provides a great introduction to the city’s past, as well as some insight on the country’s current socio-political situation. Volunteer guides (mainly long-term expats) lead walks twice a week during peak season, while donations pooled at the end of each three-hour tour go towards a vocational program that trains local guides, all of whom are paid for their work.
…Then Be Adventurous and Go Inside
The stairs may be crumbling, the passageways may be dimly lit, and the floor may be full of human-size holes – but no one is going to stop you from walking inside one of Yangon’s old buildings. As long as you’re not trespassing on anyone’s property, it’s seemingly acceptable to make your way through a building’s hallways and stairways. Often with their original, always imported fittings, the interior of some of these buildings is spectacular – if not seriously neglected.
The Sofaer & Co. Building is an ideal spot to visit. Completed in 1906, the building’s original ceramic encaustic floor tiles (sourced from Manchester, England) and steel support beams (from the Lanarkshire Steel Company, Scotland) are still intact. Partially disused and in desperate need of some TLC, the building now houses a number of offices and a small contemporary art space. To find out more about the building’s history, eat on the ground floor at Gekko, one of Yangon’s finest Japanese restaurants, and a place that prides itself on preserving this incredible building’s history.
Hunt Down The Blind Tiger Speakeasy Bar
We visited The Blind Tiger a couple of times – but it wasn’t until our third go that we actually made it inside. A little annoying, sure, but this is sort of intentional. The Blind Tiger is marketed as Yangon’s first speakeasy style bar, and as such, its location is clandestine. Located on the first floor of a seemingly anonymous, ramshackle apartment building, the only thing distinguishing the bar from the other residential units is a neon sign hung above the door – which you have to knock on in order to enter.
Once you’re inside, the bar’s interior is surreal; the overall structure of the apartment remains, unassumingly, unchanged (with rooms at the rear and a floating loft overhead), but anything else that might serve as a reminder of where you are has been carefully removed and replaced with some serious wallpaper, leather booth seating, and a bar that spans one entire wall. The drinks are divine (since the Pegu Club is no longer a club, this is a good place to try a Pegu Club cocktail), and the fish skewers were one of the tastiest snacks we had in all of Myanmar (yes, really). We were also lucky enough to meet the bar’s owner, a local woman named Lakshmi.
[Update: The Blind Tiger is moving! Visit their website for updated location information.]
Have you visited Yangon lately? What are some of your favourite things to do in the city?