I’ve been wanting to go to Myanmar ever since we arrived in Asia five years ago, but young children and a military junta didn’t seem like ingredients for a successful holiday and the trip always had to wait. Last autumn a good friend moved to Yangon with her son, and when the elections prompted a peaceful transition to a more stable political situation, tickets to Yangon were swiftly booked.
If you are a history buff and are inclined to travel in developing countries, you should definitely put Myanmar on top of your bucket list – the whole country, and Yangon in particular oozes history. It also oozes buzz and development: condos and high-rises are popping up like mushrooms around the city, and while all this “development” will surely make Yangon a more modern city and hopefully help its people to get the opportunities they want, it also means that the old Yangon will not be there forever. The state of disrepair of the colonial building is so severe, that it will take a long time to get them back to their old glory – that is if someone decides to do that and not bulldoze the whole thing.
There are not that many actual sights in Yangon, but the ones that are there are really worth seeing.
The magnificent and ancient Shwedagon Pagoda is the heart and soul of Yangon – the centre of its religious and political life. The temple area is huge, and you could explore the shrines and zedis and study the legends related to this place for hours.
It is apparently particularly magical at sunset, but we decided to visit during the day to avoid crowds. During the day the floor gets very hot, and the shady spots are rare. You can buy plastic bags for your shoes at the entrance, or just bring your own. Carrying your shoes is a good idea – this way you don’t have to keep track of the entrance you took to come in. The kids particularly enjoyed looking for the statue for their horoscope – defined by the day of the week they were born on, according to the Buddhist beliefs.
The Circular train is a tourist attraction of the best kind: just sit on the train and watch the world go by, both in and outside of the train. After we got to the station and bought our tickets, us and other tourists were swiftly escorted to another track and a different train. It was not clear whether the original train was delayed or they just wanted us to experience a more comfortable ride on a newer, (slightly) air-conditioned car.
Take some snacks and drinks for the kids, and perhaps some hand sanitiser too.
We pleasantly chugged through Yangon suburbia – markets, water buffaloes, people doing their thing – until the kids got bored so we hopped off at Insein and got a cab back. The whole circuit takes about three hours, and the trains leave from Yangon Railway station every 45 minutes or so.
A walking tour of colonial Yangon
The older I get, the more fond I am of walking tours. At 5 and 7, my offsprings are most definitely not ready for a long, sweaty city walk with tourists keen on historical details of every building you walk past. So I contacted Yangon Walks, that run free walking tours and asked for a private walk – which was easily arranged despite the short notice. Private tours are priced around USD100 depending on the size of the group.
Our trip started from the Maha Bandoola Garden, near the Sule Pagoda. The park has a kids’ playground, in case you need to let them run around for a bit. Our knowledgeable guide managed to keep the kids interested with stories from the golden years of Yangon, or Rangoon as it was then known. I had not realised what an important trading post between Europe and the Far East the “garden city of the East” was at the time with famous people sipping cold drinks at the Strand, the river busy with goods being transported and people traveling from elsewhere in Southeast Asia to shop at the Rowe & Co.
I suspect that nowhere in Southeast Asia can one see so many colonial buildings – some restored but most in their original form, trees growing out of the windows and squatters living inside. I truly hope they manage to salvage these buildings before the hyper-development taking place elsewhere in the city sweeps them out for ever. For more on Yangon’s city planning and conservation read this article. We had a quick look inside one of the old buildings in dire need of some TLC:
And in the shadow of all these old beautiful buildings – if only walls could talk! – people go on about their life, shop for books, navigate the traffic and have a cup of tea.
Our guide knew just what would make the kids last until the end of the tour – however short and sweet: an ice-cream break at Sharkys.
After walking through the blissfully air-conditioned The Strand – a fine example of the hospitality of British India to its upper crust – we ended the tour conveniently at Pomelo Yangon, a cute shop selling hand-made home decor and other perfect souvenirs made by local artisans, social enterprises and women’s groups.