Fun Things to Do in Yangon
Before I get to the best things to do in Yangon, let me address this part up front: What is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar is terrible and unconscionable. Man’s inhumanity to man…when will it end??
I had been thinking about visiting Myanmar for over a year when the Rohingya crisis hit my radar. Should I still go? Did tourism indirectly (directly?) support something I could not possibly ever condone? My close friends weren’t really knowledgeable enough to advise, so I spent many a night searching the Internet for the answer. I wanted to go to Myanmar…but I didn’t want to go. But more than anything…I wanted to understand. So while many may not agree with my choice, I went. (This article from The UK’s Telegraph was helpful in making my final decision.)
To be very brutally honest, I’m not sure in the end that I really gained any greater understanding about what’s going on in Myanmar right now — not for lack of trying but perhaps more from a (seeming) lack of informed citizens, a lack of freedom of the press, and perhaps some fear thrown in there as well? (It’s been suggested before that I give off CIA vibes.) One tour guide made some vague references to “problems in the north” but everyone else seemed either completely unaware or unwilling to discuss it. (And in one strange interaction, I almost started to wonder if one tour guide was a government employee in disguise, sent to observe Americans with strange travel habits as they ate their way through Myanmar. So I changed the topic quickly. Do governments still do this sort of thing?)
In short, I have no answers. But I do have more awareness now of a terrible situation. Unfortunately, I have a lot more questions as well. I will leave it there for now.
Is Yangon Safe?
As a female traveler traveling alone, I felt Yangon was safe. Now that being said, I stayed in a five star hotel and was accompanied by tour guides and had my hotel pick me up and drop me off at the airport. (My hotel driver was from the Kachin ethnic minority. When I told that to one of my tour guides later, they admitted that they had never met a Kachin before.) I took two taxis on my own and was pleasantly surprised that one driver spoke perfect English. The other could only say “Bye bye.” (Taxis are plentiful and cheap in Yangon, btw.) I didn’t really walk around unaccompanied that much, except for one trip to Bogyoke Market and another trip to the um, modern glistening shopping mall attached to my hotel.
Where to Stay in Yangon
If you are wondering where to stay in Yangon, I stayed three nights at the Pan Pacific Yangon and loved it. It’s a brand new five star hotel with great views over the city. It’s also right across the street from Bogyoke Market which makes it perfect for SHOPPING. Everyone who worked at the hotel seemed so proud of it, which I loved. My room was gorgeous, the pool was gorgeous, the gym was gorgeous. And the breakfast buffet was a joy to behold. (Asian breakfasts FTW.) If this is your style, I recommend staying here. (And for those of you wondering why I did’t chose a more local option or a cheaper option, 1. I work hard for my money 2. I’m old and 3. When I travel by myself I must still at this age humor my parents.) Book the Pan Pacific Yangon.
Fun Things to Do in Yangon: Tours
I looked through Viator, wondering what things to do in Yangon. I wanted something comprehensive so I ended up booking a day tour of Yangon with Khiri Travel and it was fantastic. Dolly, my tour guide, was an absolute star and she and my driver whizzed me efficiently around town for eight hours straight. Some of the things we saw and did…
St. Mary’s Cathedral in Yangon. About 1% of the population of Myanmar is Catholic which I did not know!
Karawiek Palace and Kandawgyi Lake. Karawiek Palace is a barge and buffet restaurant with a cultural show. (Also rumor has it the inspiration for the Wu Tang Clan logo???) I did not see the show. The building/barge is pretty though. We also enjoyed a terrifying walk around Kandawagyi Lake. Terrifying because the lake is surrounded by a wooden boardwalk that has seen much better days and could benefit from updating and some sealant. This was a peaceful stop…except for the boardwalk!
Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple. The longest reclining Buddha in Myanmar! This was cool and definitely one of the more fun things to do in Yangon. 65 meters long?
Lunch at Pansuriya. Part art gallery, part restaurant. Enjoyable. I had the chicken and potato curry. The setting is really nice. This is where I saw the most Westerners in one place though.
We ended the tour with a drink at the colonial style Strand Hotel down by the river, which was perfect. This is one of the oldest and nicest hotels in Yangon and should definitely add it to your list of fun things to do in Yangon.
I’m neglecting a bunch of other things we did mainly because I didn’t take any photos, or if I did, they have disappeared somewhere. We walked through a great street food market, went down to the river and watched the ferries come in, saw all the big pagodas, wandered through Bogyoke Market, and most interestingly, WE RODE THE TRAIN. The train was awesome and you should definitely add to your list of things to do in Yangon. I loved watching the hawkers sell their stuff up and down the train car. I loved that this train was so old but still in operation. Fascinating. I highly recommend riding the train and adding this to your list of things to do in Yangon. It was probably one of the most fun things I did in Yangon and I am bummed I don’t have any photos of it. (I have a shaky video out the train window that’s not very exciting.)
In short, this was a wonderfully thorough tour of Yangon. My tour guide and driver were fun and interesting and most importantly, very efficient and kept me happily fed and watered all day. It’s a long day though so just be prepared for that. Normally, I limit myself to four hour tours but because I didn’t have much time in Yangon, I wanted to see as much as possible. In hindsight, if I had another day, I would have asked to divide this tour in half and do 3 to 4 hours one day and 3 to 4 hours the next day. In short though, I highly recommend this tour. Book this tour.
Fun Things to Do in Yangon: Take a Yangon Food Tour
Because I did so much my first day in town, I took it easy on Day 2 and slept in, went to the gym, hung out at the mall (the Junction City Mall), did some shopping during a return visit to Bogyoke Market, and generally had more of a relaxed morning before meeting my Urban Adventures guide for an early evening food tour of Yangon. There were three main stops on this tour: The food market right next to the Independence Monument, the commuter food market down by the river, and then finally 19th Street in Chinatown. At the Independence Monument, we tried some crispy crepe-like bread which was great, and then by the river, my guide let me choose, which was fun. (But also perhaps questionable that my guide had not vetted some stands beforehand.) I chose some fantastic-looking fried quail eggs which were seriously one of the best things I ate in Myanmar. Later, on 19th Street, we stopped at a barbecue restaurant for local beer and a LOT of grilled joy. This was a compact street food tour and quite short in comparison to other food tours I’ve been on. That being said, it was still fun and interesting. I provided feedback at the end that some more structure and a 4th stop for dessert or something else would be great. Book this tour.
This was an excellent, excellent textiles shop in Bogyoke Market. As you are facing the entrance across from the Pan Pacific. Top floor, right side. I wanted to buy everything. It’s very small but if you are in the market already, it’s worth a visit.
Great Book about Myanmar
Before my trip, I read The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. I got really lucky with this book because I honestly picked it out randomly after Google’ing “books about Burma.” Turns out, it’s quite well known and is sold at many of the tourist sites in Myanmar. I highly recommend it. It’s a enjoyable and interesting fictionalized account of the fall of the monarchy of Burma through to World War I and II. It was great to connect the dots between things my tour guides told me and what I learned from the novel. (And when I got to Mandalay, it was super cool to visit the actual Glass Palace.) Buy The Glass Palace.
After a week in Myanmar, I probably have more questions than answers but in short, I REALLY liked Yangon. As always, I feel like I only scratched the surface. I wish I had stayed at least one more night. There are plenty more fun things to do in Yangon and I can’t wait to return.