“Is it worth visiting Yangon?” This is a question on many a curious traveller’s mind, as the fast-growing city struggles to balance urban sprawl with heritage preservation.
For travel planner Tyler Dillon, visiting Yangon proved to be a fruitful experience, as he was happy to witness the city “shifting and changing with international business back in play after so many years under sanctions and military rule.”
As a result of gradual liberalisation since 2010, Myanmar’s former capital city has experienced an infusion of creativity and energy. This will be most apparent to visitors drawn to its arts and entertainment offerings, as well as its emerging culinary scene.
But there is no rush to toss out the old either. Many streets in Yangon are virtually untouched by change. At the same time, cultural strongholds such as the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda look set to remain among Yangon’s most treasured icons—deeply embedded as they are in the hearts of locals.
For travellers with ethical concerns, Dillon has some advice.
“I have always felt that travel is ‘backdoor diplomacy’ and that, as long as it is safe, going to a place to see it for yourself and to interact with the people there is the best way to judge… what is taking place,” he wrote on his travel agency’s blog.“[P]laces like Myanmar… that are on the fringes of being understood or misunderstood, takes going and talking and laughing and crying with the people from those places.”
This is the best way to travel in the modern age—with an open mind, and with the help of useful resources to make the most of your trip. Read on to find out how you can discover Yangon through its traditions and trends.
Experience Yangon, The Old-Fashioned Way
What does it mean to live in a city that stands at the crossroads of tradition and modernity?
An expatriate provides this apt description of everyday life in Yangon: “It’s… the way rickshaw boys play ‘Clash of Clans’ on their mobile phones as they deliver water to the apartments down the street, and [how] Buddhist temples use stereo speakers to blast ancient prayers out the doors.”
To imagine how life was previously like in Yangon, draw inspiration from the musings of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who, in his early 20s, spent a year in the city on a diplomatic posting. His year in transition was marked by his distaste for the colonial elite, and his fascination for Burmese street life.
“The street became my religion… [The] Chinese quarter with its open-air theatres and paper dragons and splendid lanterns. The Hindu street, the humblest of them, with its temples operated as a business by one caste, and the poor people prostrate in the mud outside,” Neruda wrote. “Markets where the betel leaves rose up in green pyramids like mountains of malachite. The stalls and pens where they sold wild animals and birds. … All this engrossed me and drew me gradually under the spell of real life.”
A street where Neruda spent much of his time is Bogalay Zay Street; look for the H.A. Soorty Mansions, built in 1928, near the junction of Bogalay Zay and Maha Bandula Road. This building housed the Chilean consulate where Neruda worked.
You can continue with your literary jaunt by stopping at the nearby Pansuriya cafe, which is said to supply good coffee, as well as books (in English) about Yangon and Myanmar. The cafe also plays host to the occasional art exhibition or workshop.
Bogalay Zay Street is one of the stops on the “East Downtown and The Secretariat” walking tour conducted by the Yangon Heritage Trust. On this tour, you may hear about another aspect of Neruda’s stint in Yangon—his searing romance with a feisty and possessive Burmese woman known only as “Josie Bliss.” Although he characterised his lover as an “amorous terrorist,” he was clearly unable to forget her, as is evident from works such as “Amores: Josie Bliss,” written nine years before his death in 1973.
As fascinating as it is, Neruda’s account is but one of many perspectives in Yangon’s long and layered history. The Yangon Heritage Trust is dedicated to keeping these stories alive, just as it is passionate about conserving the historic structures that make up the city’s precious identity. Join their free or paid walking tours to support their work and gain an authentic insight into Yangon life.
If you prefer to map out your own route for walking around Yangon, refer to the city guide by Frontier Myanmar, which reveals the stories behind some of the new names given to Yangon’s streets.
Yangon for the Young and Hip Ones
Searching for alternative things to do in Yangon? Look to its underground music scene, which is a sure sign of a city that is slowly letting loose.
According to Skum, the provocatively named 36-year-old frontman of anti-authoritarian punk band Kultureshock, punk-only shows are rare in Yangon. Often, local punk bands play in underground gigs that feature a variety of rock and hip-hop acts.
Fans of punk and metal can enjoy their music live and loud at the Pirate Bar, while hip-hop and reggae fans can head next door to the 7th Joint Bar & Grill. Both establishments are located in downtown Yangon—read the South China Morning Post for more tips on procuring updates for underground events.
To view the full spread of culture, arts, and entertainment events in Yangon, bookmark the indispensable Myanmore calendar, which lists pub and club promotions, film nights, seminars, farmers’ markets, and other events that you would expect in a thriving city. Also worth reading is the travel blogger and TV host La Carmina’s account of her museum day out, where she covered five of Yangon’s modern art galleries in a day: Pansodan Art Gallery, Myanmar Deitta, The River Gallery, New Zero Art Space, and Nawaday Tharlar.
For the best meal in Yangon, heed Condé Nast Traveller’s suggestion to start the day with mohinga, the traditional Burmese fish noodle breakfast, at the ever-popular Rangoon Teahouse. The teahouse remains open till 10:00 p.m. on weekdays and 12:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, so even late risers can tuck into a hearty fish broth at all hours. Condé Nast’s other 2018 recommendations include Gekko (Japanese, with vegetarian options) for dinner and Paribawga for vegetarian cuisine. Paribawga is located on Bogalay Zay Street (see above).
Taste Traditional Myanmar Food, Made New
To bring home a Yangon souvenir that is both modern and traditional, look for Tree Food’s “jaggery”— jaggery is a traditional post-dinner treat in Burma, eaten to help aid digestion. It comes from the sap of toddy palm trees, and it is traditionally served in larger blocks.
“One day, I happened to eat jaggery as a dessert after my meal at a restaurant. I took two or three bites but couldn’t eat the whole thing,” says Tree Food’s Cho Lei Aung. “I am very frugal and didn’t want to waste the rest of the block. I thought, ‘Why don’t people make bite-sized blocks of jaggery so that there is no waste?’”
This set Aung on a journey to make bite-size pieces of jaggery in a variety of flavours, so that it could be enjoyed like chocolate. “The toddy palm farmers said it was impossible,” she recalls. “But this made me very curious as to why it is impossible. I think it is possible, why not possible? And I made it! I tried for three to four months, and I made it small.”
Aung says that she hopes Tree Food’s jaggery will spark conversations at the dinner table, as it will bring back childhood memories for those who have consumed it, and help introduce Burmese food culture to others around the world. You can find Tree Food retailing at CityMart, in four flavours: ginger, yogurt, tamarind, and plum masala.