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Jet Set: Yangon

By: Steve Finch Posted: January-29-2011 in
Steve Finch

Myanmar's capital is awakening to an influx of tourists and foreign investment, while getting ready for elections in November.

After boycotts and years of isolation the former Myanmar capital Yangon has seen tourist numbers explode in the past five years as flight connections have risen and travelers look for something new after overdosing on the likes of Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Hanoi.

Rarely are visitors to this unique destination disappointed. With its decaying colonial architecture, gleaming stupas and touches of the bizarre, Yangon is a place that both disorientates and engages at every turn. How many times have you met an inane backpacker who has told you "All the people are really friendly" about almost every destination on the planet? Well, in Yangon they really are, and in fact the locals are often desperate to converse with foreigners and many speak excellent English.

Yangon is a city of tightly aligned streets of multi-coloured buildings dating back to English rule in the downtown area, and palm-lined suburbs connected with winding lanes further out, all of which are charming in their own way.

The downtown area is home to the best shopping with the excellent Scott's Market on Bogoke Aung San Road still the favourite among tourists with its extensive range of lacquerware, longyi (Burmese sarongs) and everything besides.

Burmese food is a bit like Marmite, that spreadable purveyor of bi-partisanship you simply either love or hate. It's oily, smelly and probably not particularly healthy but once you've gotten a taste for it, it is extremely addictive. Compared to Indian food it's more aromatic and by Thai standards richer, so although you've eaten curries before you won't have tasted anything like it.

Try le phet thoke, a salad of pickled tea leaves and perhaps the national dish, or mohinga, a breakfast broth of noodles and roasted catfish, among many other ingredients, for the best of Burmese food. And if you really don't like it don't worry – Yangon has sandwiches, steaks, dim sum and doughnuts too.

Accommodation-wise, the city offers a proliferation of slightly faded options in every price range with some real gems in shorter supply – you just have to track them down.

For budget head to Motherland 2 on Lower Pazundaung Road, mid-range means the Thamada on Ahlan Paya Road and if you're feeling flush there is only one place to go, a hotel so iconic they named the adjacent street after it – The Strand.

Getting to Yangon is not that convenient but then it is much more so than before, as connections improve and increase while prices continue to fall.

Air Asia, Thai Airways and Myanmar Airways International serve the popular Bangkok route on a daily basis, a flight which takes just over an hour and costs less than $100 return nowadays as competition has risen. Air Asia is also about to challenge MAI on the Kuala Lumpur route. In addition, Singapore, Chiang Mai, Hanoi and Calcutta offer connections to Myanmar's biggest city, while more flights are scheduled from Guangzhou in southern China and connections from Kunming fly every other day.

Still, Yangon remains the bane of the backpacker's existence as you still cannot travel through the country overland to get here due to the myriad insurgencies that simmer and boil intermittently on its borders with Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand.
In July, the border was closed at Myawaddy and Mae Sot to the east after the longest-running insurgency war in the world again looked to be on the brink of another battle. There are also no realistic options by boat despite Yangon's waterside location meaning almost all tourists that come here do so via the Thai capital.

If it's relaxation you're after, then Yangon doesn't compete on the spa front with the likes of Bangkok, Chiang Mai and even Phnom Penh, but then it's retained a sleepy, time-warp feel outside the very centre of the city. It feels like a million miles away from the Thai capital.

Head to the Inya Lake Hotel for the day and use the pool and related amenities if you truly want to get away from it all. Here there are also wonderful grounds to stroll around and excellent views of the nearby lake.

In terms of things to see, Yangon is a treasure trove. Despite the heat, try to take time to walk around as many of the best sights here are simply everyday life itself.

Unmissable things to see include the timeless Shwedagon pagoda, the jewel in Yangon‚ across crown and undoubtedly the finest and most-revered Buddhist stupa anywhere in the world. When you see this pagoda, it becomes easier to believe there really is a god.

For early evening entertainment, head to the legendary Ginki Kids on Kanbawza Road just off the main thoroughfare Kaba Aye Paya Road. Formerly a rundown little bar with a Kurt Cobain poster on the wall and Guns and Roses tapes played over a ghetto blaster, this bizarrely named venue is the rags-to-riches story of Yangon's bar scene. Having become extremely popular among expats around 2004 for its absurdly cheap draught beer and tequila shots, Ginki has since added a second floor, lots of sleek wooden tables and an ever-present crowd of upper-middle class locals. And the food here is excellent.

When the Ginkis go to bed, head to V6 by Inya Lake where you can dance until close to sunrise, especially on weekends.

Myanmar is a very traditional society and therefore loutish behaviour won't be tolerated. Don't show too much flesh (and none at all at temples), refrain from disrespectful language and avoid situations in which someone could lose face. Plus avoid touching people on the head or pointing feet in the direction of others.
Do this and your trip to Yangon should pass without incident.


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