Myanmar has awoken as a travel destination after decades of military rule. Although trouble in the north is far from over, the once pariah state has edged open its doors and is welcoming tourists like never before.
Perhaps the highlight of any trip abroad is the people. As tough as the teak their country is famous for, the people of Myanmar are warm and welcoming, and offer a level of service up there with the best in the region.
While the colonial buildings, religious monuments and amazing street food have long been in Yangon, they are now being joined by a growing number of high-quality dining and entertainment options ranging from Brit-style pub fare with a Burmese twist, to high-end teppanyaki served up in funky lounges, to rooftop bars with razzle and dazzle.
If you’re into all this, then 48 hours in Yangon might be exactly what you need.
12.30pm – Arrival – Yangon International Airport
The approach to Yangon International Airport offers glimpses of the parched lands below. It’s flat, hard and dry. April is the hottest time of the year. The thingyan festivities celebrating the arrival of the new year brings respite from the scorching temperatures.
Immigration is quick and no fuss — before you know it you’re in a taxi. Taxis are unmetered, but from the airport to town (approx. 30 min), flat fares are 8,000 Kyat (pronounced chat) — approximately US$6 (VND136,000).
During our visit to Yangon in the middle of 2017, we stayed at the beautiful Kandawgyi Palace Hotel. Sadly, the following October it caught fire and burnt to the ground killing two foreign tourists. The Kandawgyi was perfectly located a short taxi ride from Shwedagon Paya — perhaps Southeast Asia’s most impressive pagoda standing at 100 metres and covered in 70 tons of gold leaf and plating with a 76 karat gold diamond at the top. The hotel sat on the banks of the lovely Kandawgyi Lake, one of two major lakes in Yangon, the other being the larger Inya Lake where Aung San Suu Kyi resides. What becomes of the site remains to be seen. As an alternative, the Belmond Governor’s Residence may be an option not too much farther from Shwedagon Paya, or The Strand Hotel if you’d prefer to be in the centre of town.
2.00pm – Late Lunch
The eagerness to try Burmese food for the first time can’t wait. A short 10-minute taxi ride (US$2.50) from the hotel is one of Myanmar’s most famous restaurants, Feel Myanmar (Pyidaungzu Yeiktha Street).
Open since 1967, this is the place to sample Burmese food for the first time. Burmese cuisine is influenced by Indian and Chinese cultures, so expect to find curries, samosas, parathas — a flatbread with chickpea dip — wontons and spring rolls on display together. Just point at what you want, then take your seat.
A mutton curry, paratha, biryani chicken rice, vegetable curry, chili dried beef — a threatening looking but delicious dish with beef jerky-type cubes covered in chili — and a large bottle of the local Myanmar brew, will set you back about US$13.
4.00pm – Short Tour – Yangon Central Railway Station
Less than a kilometre from Feel Myanmar is the National Museum (Pyay Road), but for a more ‘living’ historical experience, grab a taxi (US$2.50) and head for Yangon Central Railway Station (Kun Chan Road). Take a step back in time and get a feel for what it was like in colonial Yangon.
Take the Yangon Circle Train — 29 miles of wonky track circling the city. Trains run irregularly, though. Try to catch one and take it six stops to Pang Hlaing Station. Here, there’s a sunset cocktail waiting just a short stroll away.
5.30pm – Cocktails – Atlas Rooftop Lounge
Atlas Rooftop Lounge (84 Pang Hlaing Road) is on the top of an office block just minutes on foot from Pang Hlaing Station. Atlas offers 360-degree views of Yangon with an amazing sunset to the west and beautiful Shwedagon Paya to the east. A Mai Tai cocktail and a glass of pinot grigio will cost US$9.
8.00pm – Dinner – Gekko Restaurant
A taxi to Gekko (535 Merchant Street) for dinner will be US$3. This cosy cocktail lounge and grill on the ground floor of the historic Sofaer & Co. Building serves up charcoal fired Japanese dishes along with Korean and Vietnamese favourites. Yakitori options start at US$3 and go north to US$32 for sushi. Expect to pay around US$7 for their signature cocktails.
9.20pm – After Dinner – Sarkies Bar and Union Bar & Grill
After dinner, hit Sarkies Bar in the famous Strand Hotel (92 Strand Road) where Orwell and Kipling once drank. Happy Hour is on Fridays from 5pm to 9pm. Down a selection of Sarkies’ signature historical cocktails, like the 1976 Bagan Breeze (US$7) made with vodka and white rum or the mojito-like 1968 Strand Sour made with local Mandalay rum. Sarkies has a wild selection of whiskeys and rums ranging from US$6 to US$50 per shot, including all the Japanese brands.
Five minutes walk away is the lively Union Bar & Grill (42 Strand Road), named for its proximity to the British Embassy. It’s a modern hangout with top notch food and drinks. Ask for the duck curry with sausage (US$12) and satisfy your benevolent tendencies by choosing from their Cocktails For A Cause menu with US$1 for every drink going to the Myanmar Red Cross.
6.00am – Morning Walk – Kandawgyi Lake
Rise with the birds and the locals and walk the boardwalk the length of Yangon’s second largest lake, Kandawgy Lake. The early mornings are beautiful as the sun rises from behind Karaweik Palace — a two-storey barge permanently moored on the banks facing Shwedagon Pagoda.
8.00am – Breakfast at Lucky 7 Teahouse
Take on a city walk with a belly full off Myanmar’s national dish mohinga – a delicious rice noodle and fish soup at Lucky 7 Teahouse (49th Street). Lucky 7 also sells curries, pastries and banh bao.
9.00am – City Walk
Lonely Planet’s suggested walking guide is a good one, but we’ve enhanced it with some extra stops. It starts at Sule Paya in the centre of town and takes you past historical sights, including Mahabandoola Garden, City Hall, Telegraph Office, High Court, Inland Water Transport offices (including the Yangon Heritage Trust museum), Port Authority, Strand Hotel, Custom’s House, and the Law Court.
On the way, try a bowl of shan noodles (US$2) at the famous 999 Shan Noodle Shop (130/B 34th Street). This is the original shop, open for about 40 years and meeting the manager is worth the visit in itself. Further on, sample local tea and pastries at Rangoon Teahouse (77-79 Pansodan Street). Upstairs is a cosy bar called The Toddy Bar which is great for a tipple, while next door is Hla Day (81 Pansodan Street) for momentos of your stay in Yangon.
Another gift shop worth checking out is Myanhouse (56-60 Pansodan Street) where you can even get thanka applied to your face. In the cooler months, book yourself on a walking tour with the experts from Yangon Heritage Trust (22-24 Pansodan Street), an NGO advocating for the sustainable development of Yangon.
Midday – Lunch along Bogalazay Street
Rest your weary legs at any of the establishments along Bogalazay Street, a short stroll from the ultra-impressive old Secretariat Building where Aung Sun, the founding father of modern day Myanmar, was assassinated along with six cabinet ministers in 1947. In this area, look out for Burmese food from the border regions of Myanmar. Try and track down a pork or fish dish with pone yay gyi — a fermented bean paste — along with other local specialities.
2.00pm – Bogyoke Aung San Market
Walk off your lunch inside this colonial-era market in the centre of Yangon. While there is heaps to keep shoppers happy, architecture buffs will enjoy the building with its narrow cobbled streets offering a sense of market life almost 100 years ago.
5pm – Shwedagon Paya
This is the highlight of a trip to Yangon. Shwedagon Paya (US$6) is the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. Whether you are religious or not or have seen just about every other pagoda in the region, this is a must-visit. Arrive by 5.00pm to see it change colour as the sun sets. Gilded with over 60 tons of gold and standing over 100 metres high, Shwedagon Paya glitters under the sun and glows orange at night. The crown is tipped with over 5,000 diamonds and over 2,000 rubies with a 76-carat diamond to top it off.
7pm – Dinner – Belmond Governor’s Residence
Why not finish a massive day with some fine dining where Kipling is said to have hung out just two-kilometres from Shwedagon Paya. The Belmond Governor’s Residence (35 Taw Win Road) is fine dining at its best in Yangon, so expect to pay over US$100 for dinner for two and a bottle of Australian wine. But it’s well-worth it.
8.00am – Breakfast
Take your time over breakfast at your hotel to look back on an amazing 48 hours. Don’t leave departure for the airport too late — sometimes traffic jams can make your trip out to the airport take an hour.
12.30pm – Yangon International Airport
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Mike Palumbo & Julie Vola