My 4-day trip to Yangon, the capital of Burma, was certainly delightful. The country is called Myanmar nowadays but I prefer to use its historic name, Burma. Burma is one of Vietnam’s neighbours but its culture is significantly different. On my first time visiting Yangon with my parents, I was quite overwhelmed.
1. Careless bargain
Our first impression of Yangon was not great! We paid $15 (about 20,000 kyats) for a taxi ride from Yangon’s airport to our hotel in downtown Yangon. It took about 20-30 mins so the price would be reasonable in the UK, but not in Burma. Obviously, it should have cost only around 8,000 kyats, as said by our hotel receptionist! To be fair, I was being careless. Our friendly, English-speaking taxi driver told us from the very beginning the taxi fare was $15 and I did not bargain! I was not very happy of course.
From that moment on, I bargained for almost everything: taxi fares, souvenirs, and fruit! But then I realised that Burmese people did not care that much. They accepted my price offers in a very friendly and polite manner. Even if they did not, they kept smiling and did not show any sign of disappointment. You sell or you smile, but you do not act rudely. Sometimes, sellers even bargained for me, which means they lowered the price before I said anything. In my turn, I tried to bargain reasonably so everyone got a good deal. That’s how I forgave the airport taxi driver and restored my confidence in bargaining. Of course, bargain ing is part of Asian culture but it is only fun when there are a limit and respect coming from both sides. Perhaps also, a bit of harmless carelessness!
2. Betel-nut-chewing men
Burmese men are calm. They speak lowly and walk elegantly in longyi (a traditional sarong). I did not see any men smoke or drink (alcohol). Instead, they chew betel nuts, which can cause serious stains on their teeth. Even though betel nuts may not be very good for their health, could this archaic habit be somehow less harmful than smoking and drinking? What’s more, they smile all the times and so do Burmese women.
3. Natural sun cares for women
When I was in Yangon in December, it was a dry season so it was pretty hot. Burmese women protect their faces from the sunshine by applying a layer of thanaka, which is a cream paste made from wood.
4. Slow-paced lifestyle
Things were slow. People walk slowly, eat slowly, and speak slowly. People even cross the road slowly too. The city is also pretty calm and quiet in general. Hence a perfect holiday destination to get away from the hustle and bustle of big cities.
People also like hanging out in pagodas. They pray, they walk, and sometimes they simply relax on the clean and cool floors of the pagodas. How calm and relaxed people were! You have to take your shoes off while visiting religious sites, by the way.
5. Non-chopstick cuisine
To be honest, I was not incredibly impressed by Burmese cuisine. The thick texture of curries and the overwhelming flavour of sticky noodles were simply not my taste. Still, it was fun trying Burmese food, especially the national dish called mohinga. So we had heard a lot about this dish and decided to have it on our last day in Yangon. It was noodles with a thick fish broth, served with fried shallots, fried banana slices, a boiled egg and a few herbs. The funny thing was the ingredients were put separately! That’s when I suddenly realised that the Burmese did not use chopsticks. Eating noodles without chopsticks!? We were not sure how to eat it in Burmese way so we did the funniest thing ever. We spied on a Burmese couple sitting next to us. Using their spoons, they put the dry ingredients into the broth. So that’s how you eat it! The saltiness of this dish reminded me of a French meal we had the other night in Yangon.
Location: Rangoon Tea House, 77 Pansodan Rd | Lower Middle Block (Above T-Land Phone Shop), Second Floor, Yangon (Rangoon) 11182, Myanmar.
Another interesting traditional Burmese food we tried was lahpet, tea leaf salad. The main ingredient of this salad is pickled tea. How many times do you get to eat tea leaves? We ordered lahpet at a noodle place. It was not on the menu but I wanted to try it so badly I just asked a waiter if they had it. And they did! The waiter was really friendly by the way. Give the salad a try and also don’t forget the famous shan noodles at 999 Shan Noodle House.
Location: 999 Shan Noodle House, No. 130 B 34th Street | Kyauktada Township, Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
6. Salty French food
Why did we go to a French restaurant while in Yangon? Well, it was Christmas Day and we wanted to have a proper Christmas dinner. We went to this amazing European villa with the most beautiful garden ever. I would totally have my wedding here. The moon was full and it looked so romantic at night when lights were lit on tree branches, but… be aware of mosquitos if you dine outside like us.
Everything was perfect, except for our main dish, the turkey breast. For a restaurant with such a high standard, it was way too salty! Then it all made sense to me when I recalled that our mohinga was salty and so were the salad and the noodle. It was simply the Burmese’s taste. In the end, we did not make an official complain because we were very pleased with everything else, especially with the chilled atmosphere and the elegant decoration. So we did not only celebrate Christmas there but also my parents’ early 35th anniversary.
Location: La Planteur, 80 University Avenue | Bahan Township, Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
7. Aung San Suu Kyi in art
My most favourite politician in the world is Barack Obama and my second favourite is Aung San Suu Kyi. She has been fighting for democracy in Burma and her election victory earlier this year is a historic moment. One of the reasons why I wanted to visit Yangon was to see how this election had an impact on the country. I could tell that Burmese people were very excited about it, especially artists. I was so thrilled that we saw Aung San Suu Kyi everywhere, not in person, but in art. Most art galleries we went to had a portrait of her, created with affection.
By the way, I highly recommend visiting Pansodan Art Gallery, where you are likely to be greeted by a friendly, English-speaking gallery guide and can enjoy some of the best contemporary Burmese artworks. Situated on the first floor of an old building, the gallery is definitely a hidden gem. It was very calm and quiet. We were also offered a fascinating tour of the whole gallery.
Location: Pansodan Art Gallery, 1st Floor, 286 Pansodan Street, Kyauktada Township, Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
8. The land of ruby and precious gems
Burma is very famous for ruby mines, hence endless chains of jewellery stands in Bogyoke Aung San Market. Compared to luxurious stores in big cities, the price range of gems here is unbeatable. Though the jewellery design is kind of old-fashioned. Still, I found myself two pairs of earrings I really liked and bargained reasonably for them.
Location: Bogyoke Aung San Market, Bo Gyoke Road, Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
9. Run-down colonial buildings
Burma used to be colonised by the British. Traces of this period can be found everywhere in Yangon. Some colonial buildings are restored while some are left untouched. I really like the old, run-down ones because they are so nostalgic.
The juxtaposition of gritty colonial architecture and divine ancient pagodas is very striking. It was like walking through time, from the colonised period back to the 11th or 12th century.
10. Gorgeous golden pagodas
From what I remember, I saw more colonial buildings than pagodas in Yangon. I visited only three main pagodas. But the pagodas, oh the shiny gold-plated pagodas, they are incredibly spectacular! Their extravagant design makes everything else become invisible.
Certainly, no one would want to miss Shwedagon Pagoda once in Yangon. The first moment I stepped inside the temple complex, I was very overwhelmed of course but then I also felt truly peaceful.
Is it necessary making such luxurious temples? I have been sceptical at first but then I realise that all the luxury is devoted to the spiritual life of Buddhism. Gold is invested into kindness and hope, which are shared equally among everyone. All is left is a simple, calm, and materialism-free life. Anyone could enjoy the sight, no matter if the person is rich or poor. It is a place where wealth belongs to no human beings, and so greed is unnecessary. It is simply a place of wonderment and meditation!
Location: Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
In the end, the most precious moments were my parents’ early anniversary at the romantic garden of La Planteur and our meditating walk around the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda. My impression of Yangon was that it represented both colonisation and Buddhism very strongly even in a modern time. It was a place of nostalgia and tranquillity.
P.S: I have been to Yangon only once as a tourist (totally not as a traveller) so my observations are quite subjective. Feel free to comment here if things are different on your visit to Yangon. If you are inspired by this post to book a trip to the city, have fun looking out for these 10 things then!