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Yangon

Described by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda as ‘a city of blood, dreams and gold’, Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial capital, is a fusion of oriental wonder and dilapidated colonial majesty. Bedecked with carolling street-vendors and honking buses, the atmosphere of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is kinetic and intoxicating.

The selection of parks and lakes offer welcome respite from the bustle and render this exciting city as green as it is golden. And it is very golden, with the finest selection of gilded temples and pagodas to be found outside Mandalay. Like moths to the flame, both from within and outside of the country, ambitious entrepreneurs and intrepid explorers are flocking to Yangon city so to be amongst the first to taste the treasures on offer in this stirring metropolis. Re-awakening from a prolonged coma, Yangon, Myanmar’s most dynamic urban hub, is stepping out of its tawdy old suit and donning new clothes, revelling in the attention that it is once more attracting from across the globe

This enchanting city is the ideal location to commence your exploration of Myanmar: it is the tip of the gilded Burmese hand extended to the world, the entrance of the rabbit hole leading into the heart of the Golden Land. Those wondering what to do in Yangon can read on below, or alternatively choose one of the links on the sub-menu on the left of this page. Have a look here to browse our suggested journeys that incorporate Yangon.

Things to do in Yangon

There are a host of things to do in Yangon city, the most popular being to pay a visit to the 2, 500 year old ‘winking wonder’, Shwedagon Pagoda. Both religious pilgrimage site and social haunt for Yangonites, a good chunk of your first day can easily be spent wandering about this masterpiece of Buddhist architecture. Though spectacular at any time, we would recommend visiting Shwedagon in the evening, when the gold stupa shines most brilliantly against the night sky. If you are in Yangon on the full moon, join the throng of the jubilant devout who will congregate at the pagoda throughout the day and into the night to embark upon festivities.

Besides Shwedagon, Yangon also boasts the resplendent Sule and Botataung Pagodas. For other things to do in Yangon, Inya and Kandawgyi Lakes offer space and peace to relax. Other Yangon attractions include the Bogyoke Aung San Museum, set in the former residence of the ‘architect of Burmese freedom’ and his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Bars and Best Restaurants in Yangon

This city is blooming under global investment and the ‘can-do’ attitude of entrepreneurs flying into Yangon Airport; the metropolis is developing fast and beginning to cater for the diverse tastes of its visitors. The best restaurants in Yangon are to be found both in the genteel quarters up towards Inya Lake and the Golden Valley, as well as in the rollocking streets of downtown Yangon. Chic boutiques and fancy eateries are opening at a rapid pace, and you will be able to find top-notch French, Japanese and Italian restaurants, to name just a few of the foreign cuisines on offer in Yangon. Myanmar dishes are naturally easy to find, with street vendors and some of the other best restaurants in Yangon offering food from all regions of the country, as well as that of their neighbours Thailand, China and India.

The choice is vast with every street playing host to little market stalls laden with exotic delights. Both long-established hotel watering holes and modern hipster bars offer international beverages, shaken, stirred, and at reasonable prices. Alternatively one can dive into the heart of Yangon nightlife, the heady mix of locals, expats and tourists at the vibrant 19th Street, or the more indigenous - but no less dynamic - scene along Sanchaung Road. Artistic types may be interested in the relaxed events that a handful of the small art galleries in Yangon are beginning to host as a regular occurrence, such as the Tuesday night drinks at Pansodan Gallery.

Click on the Hospitality tab in the sub-menu on the left of this page to see Sampan's favourite bars and restaurants in Yangon .

Around Yangon and the Yangon Circular Train

From Yangon city, one can nip over the river to visit Dala and the pottery town of Twante; the old capital Bago, which today boasts the tallest pagoda in the country is just a couple of hours away; and the Portuguese architecture at Thanlyin are worth a visit for those who have time.

The Yangon Circular Train loops around the city and is a pleasant way to see the leafy environs of the urban sprawl. Though a complete cycle takes three hours, this lolloping train is still a popular means of commuting for many locals. The standard-class train offers no air-con but plenty of character. You will be joined on your journey with snoozing locals and baying vendors, offering quail eggs, cheroots and other local snacks. After about an hour on the Yangon Circular Train, you will emerge into the countryside, rolling amidst acres of luscious paddy fields and passing small settlements hosting clamoring children waving furiously as the train passes.

Intrepid travellers can disembark at Insein where one can visit the Kyauk Daw Gyi pagoda; the tumultuous market stop of Mingalar Bazaar; or the slumbering neighbourhood of Weibargi (for those who have read Rory MacLean’s Under the Dragon, this is the home of Ni Ni, the girl with sensitive hands), at the centre of which are an array of tea-shops looking out upon football fields where the men and boys congregate, sporting all the colours of the English Premier League.

Yangon History

Yangon city has a thrilling history. Following his conquest of Central Burma in 1755, King Alaungpaya, founder of the third and final Burmese dynasty, built up the city on the site of the Mon village of Dagon, christening it ‘Yangon’, translatable as ‘end of strife’. For centuries Dagon had been a humble fishing village, lying on the dagger shaped peninsula at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago Rivers and the Pazundaung creek.

Distinguishing it from other fishing villages was the Shwedagon Pagoda - the original foundations of which are believed to have been built over 2, 500 years ago - which brought a steady stream of pilgrims each year. Under Alaungpaya, Yangon the city expanded exponentially, and by the time the British arrived in 1852, it was described by one underwhelmed imperialist as ‘full of dust’ and ‘overcrowded bamboo shacks.’ Referred to by Europeans as ‘Rangoon’, when the British arrived in 1841 plans were quickly put in place to modernise the city, and a huge amount of roads and administrative buildings were built predominantly downtown towards the Yangon River, with the Sule Pagoda as the focal point of the checkered street plan.

Rangoon grew to become a central stopover for steamships trawling the region and was soon regarded as one of the most beautiful and cleanest cities in the British Empire and nicknamed the ‘Princess of the East.’ By the 1920s its charms were drawing the bright artistic stars from the West such as Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley and W. Somerset Maugham. Yangon was Burma’s capital after independence until the military government relocated the seat of power to the new city of Nay Pyi Daw in 2006.

Today Yangon is a city much marked by its time as a colonial capital, most noticeably through the vast teak wood mansions hidden amongst shady side streets and broad leafy boulevards flanked by towering buildings of old-commercial grandeur. However, the charms of this city today is as much due to the creative and welcoming locals, with their jovial beer stations and the curious little shrines for the animistic spirit beings found in corners of foliage throughout the city.

Though the British street plan remains, this is very much a Burmese city, as Norman Lewis wrote in his book Golden Earth: ‘through these European arteries now courses pure oriental blood.’ Like a small Bangkok free of neon lights and flocks of backpackers, like a more raucous and vibrant Vientiane, Yangon, Myanmar’s thriving treasure, is once again becoming the most alluring city in Southeast Asia.

On this page you can see some of our suggested journeys that incorporate Yangon.

Want to see more? Have a look at our Yangon Board on Pinterest.

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