Yangon, Myanmar: A little time, but much to love

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon: The main stupa in the background is 99 meters high and holds relics of four Buddhas.

Yangon was, by necessity, our first stop in Myanmar although I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about the city as a destination. Flights to the country are limited and the vast majority of international flights arrive at Yangon International Airport. Due to an airline schedule change, our already brief 3-night stay was whittled to 2-nights. Yangon turned out to be a really pleasant surprise.

After a 36+ hour flight and layover odyssey, the Yangon Airport was a nice, hassle-free experience. Seated in business class, we were one of the first off the plane and one of the first through customs. We handed over the Myanmar visas we’d obtained online and printed at home, posed for a photo and were stamped into the country, all quick and easy. We were lucky as a line quickly grew after we passed through customs.

Our bags were also off the carrousel in no time and we headed out through the “nothing to declare” exit. We found several ATM’s next to an Information desk and had no problems withdrawing cash. Our only slight airport hitch was our inability to find the pre-paid taxi desk I’d see touted online. Instead of the indoor desks pictured in a couple of posts, the woman at Information directed us to a small outdoor booth in the median beyond Gate 6 (marked only on the glass door, not overhead). The “fixed price” was instantly dropped from 13,000 kyat to 12,000 kyat, more than I’d seen online, but still very cheap at about $7.85 for an hour ride. Since we had time, David made one more pass back through the terminal, but saw no sign of the pictured indoor counters and the lady at the Information desk again confirmed the outside booth was the place to go. Oh well.

Riding into the city, we got our first taste of Yangon traffic. Yikes! What a mess, but drivers seemed surprisingly chill about the chaos. Our driver was friendly, and pointed out places of interest along the way in his minimal English. The cab was clean and nicely air conditioned. We arrived at Esperado Lake View Hotel in about an hour.

Although we arrived about 10:45am for a 2pm check-in, the front desk managed to get us in our room fairly quickly. I’d booked a lake view corner room and was so glad I did. The view across a nature park of the nearby Karaweik Palace (a/k/a “the Dragon Boat”) on Royal Lake and the magnificent and massive Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance was sublime.

Our spacious corner lake view room (5008)
at Esperado Lakeview Hotel

From the beginning, we really enjoyed our stay at Esperado Lake View Hotel and I’d stay there again in a minute. Pricey, by Yangon standards, it’s still a great bargain compared to upscale western hotels in the city (and who wants those?!)…and the view is incomparable. Even without a view from the room, there’s an open-air rooftop restaurant with spectacular views and excellent food. An included and vast breakfast is served there each morning and there’s 24-hour food and beverage service as well. After our first delicious dinner, we kept coming back. It was too easy, too gorgeous, and too good to pass up.

Although the chef offers western dishes, we wanted Myanmar cuisine and tried all sorts of interesting things, all good, some really excellent. Favorites included pennywort salad, chicken and shrimp curries, and a delicious “pickled mustard” and chicken soup that was fiery hot with loads of chilies. A Thai seafood salad with glass noodles, squid and shrimp was a perfect cold lunch.

View from the rooftop restaurant at Esperado Lakeview Hotel

On our first afternoon, we strolled along the wide boardwalk bordering the lake, admiring views of the exotic “Dragon Boat,” a huge golden structure with twin dragons on the “bow” and multiple pagoda roofs. I’d first thought it was a temple, but it is actually an over-the-top restaurant offering cultural shows. We saw bus-loads of tourists heading into the park where the boat is situated, but it sounded artificial and made-for-foreigners to us, so we passed.

The Dragon Boat. Families of workers rebuilding portions of the lakeside boardwalk seem to be living on site and they were doing laundry under the roofed wooden structure in the foreground.

One of the hotel staff recommended the “Scott Market,” but online research showed a typical Asian market of a kind geared towards tourists so we passed on that, too. Instead, we walked into the park one night to see the local night market that opens up there at 5:30pm. Evidently because it was Valentine’s Day (which got a nod in various local establishments), there seemed to be a real party atmosphere in addition to the bustling food and clothing stands. We followed crowds streaming towards the food market, past a movie screen where lyrics flashed . All along the lake, small groups of family and friends picnicked, many playing guitars and singing. Inside the market, a folk-style band played on a stage while people perched on child-sized plastic chairs and mini tables, eating food bought from the scores of booths. We bought a grilled chicken and sticky rice with mango, perching on the low wall surrounding a tree to eat. We were the only westerners we saw all night, but we felt totally welcome.

The crab at the night market looked good…
…the bugs, not so much!

The highlight of our Yangon stay was a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda (see lead photo), the enormous golden stupa we could see on a hill across the lake from our hotel. The stupa is 99 meters tall and houses the relics of four Buddhas. It is the most holy site in Yangon and looms over the city. At the suggestion of the super helpful Esperado staff, we got to Shwedagon via a Grab app taxi. Grab is a ride hailing/sharing app like Uber, based out of Singapore. Grab actually bought Uber’s SE Asia business, so it’s now the main ride hailing app in the region. We found it easy to use, with English and Burmese provided along with a photo function that let me send an arriving driver a pic of myself and my location. Handy! The Grab taxis were amazingly cheap, rides to and from Shwedagon Pagoda costing 2100-2300 kyat or about $1.64, including tip. A regular taxi back to the airport when we left was only 10,000 kyat ($6.54)

Although only 16 miles from Esperado Lake View Hotel, the ride took us 30 minutes due to the crazy Yangon traffic. Most intersections lack traffic lights and there are almost no crosswalks, so things are, of course, chaotic. It’s interesting, though, drivers honk, but not in the heavy-handed angry way seen other places, but rather more as a warning or request for room to change lanes. Taps, not long blaring honks, are the norm.

Our driver drove us straight to the “Foreigners’ Entrance” of the pagoda. There we handed over our sandals, paid 10,000 kyat each ($6.50) and were each given a bottle of water, a cooling face cloth, and a map. Shoes (and socks) are forbidden and modest dress is required. For those arriving in knee-baring attire, sarongs are provided.

After passing through security, we were directed to an elevator that took us to the South walkway into the pagoda complex. We were blown away by our first glimpse of the place. It was so beautiful, so vast, and so much more than we expected.

The great stupa at Shwedagon Pagoda (undergoing restoration of its golden scales)

Nearly all of the outdoor flooring is white marble, thankfully cool on bare feet. The broad hilltop complex is filled with beautiful temples, stupa, pagodas and more Buddhas than I could count. People mill about, picturesque in their bright-colored sarongs, many holding parasols. Couples, families, monks and tourists stroll, pray, mingle and picnic. It’s a cheerful, happy atmosphere…if increasingly hot as the day wears on.

A sea of pagodas at Shwedagon

We wandered from temple to temple, recalling the teachings of our “sunim” when we stayed at Beomeosa Monastery in South Korea. The detailed map we’d been given provided photographs and explanations of the buildings, Buddha statues, and holy items we saw. We were welcome everywhere to participate or photograph, save for the golden “Elder Brother Pagoda” near the north entrance where a sign requested “No Foreigner Climb.”

The “Elder Brother Pagoda” is off-limits for foreigners.

We watched people bathing small Buddha statues at various stations labeled “Tuesday Corner,” “Wednesday Corner” and so on. We saw a group of women praying and drinking holy water from Buddha’s footprint in one temple. I joined people pulling a cord to fan a giant Buddha with a “punkah” suspended just above his lofty head. Flower vendors sold offerings that worshipers placed around the Buddha of their choice.

Drinking holy water from Buddha’s footprint
Washing Buddha at Wednesday Corner

Children played hide-and-seek among the pillars of one temple, while others, adorable in their small sarongs held the hands of parents or knelt to offer prayers, often a particularly vigorous and funny procedure when performed by small boys.

Playing hide-and-seek
This little guy was adorable (and loved seeing himself on my phone)! The face paint he is wearing is “thanaka” a chalky slurry made from tree bark and seen everywhere in Myanmar. It’s cosmetic, healing, and said to prevent sunburn.

We spent hours exploring Shwedagon Pagoda, only leaving when fatigue, heat and hunger motivated us. After collecting our sandals, we enjoyed one last treat as we descended the holy hill vial the wide, dragon-flanked Eastern Entrance. Shops line both sides of the beautiful structure, each topped with three-dimensional painted artwork depicting religious scenes.

Shopping stalls along the east entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda

At the bottom, we used Grab to hail a ride back to the hotel. Despite his difficulties reaching us due to the ubiquitous traffic, he was as cheerful and friendly as we found all our Yangon drivers to be. Everyone we’ve come across in Myanmar has been exceedingly friendly and helpful. We’ve felt safe and have faced almost none of the unwanted attention, begging, or persistent selling that plague travelers in some parts of the world. The attention we do get has been mostly in the form of curiosity and requests to pose for photos, something we’ve seen before in this part of the world and which we don’t really mind (especially since we’re doing the same thing in reverse!).

Our stay in Yangon was short, but it exceeded our expectations and we had a great time–Just the intro to Myanmar we hoped for. We caught a Golden Myanmar Airlines flight to Mandalay today (an hour late, but that gave me time to write this post, so not a total waste) and are set to begin tomorrow on a week aboard a 1930’s-style riverboat cruising down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan. We’re excited!

2 thoughts on “Yangon, Myanmar: A little time, but much to love”

  1. Tamara and David,

    What travels! I love the photograph of the boy holding the green pillar. Janos and I admire travelling roads not catered to tourists… Life goals! When you walk through a cultural threshold, what are your goals? Do you learn a lot about the country and culture prior to visiting or do you let the country lead you when you land?


    1. Thanks! I loved that pic, too. Interesting questions. I think mostly, we’re curious. About everything. It’s fascinating to see how other people spend their time on the planet and to realize the things you take/assume as “normal” are often only so because of your own life circumstances. I think there are universal goods and bads, but there are so many it-depends things, too. Also, we realize how west-centric our history education was and it is good to put our part of the world in better perspective.

      I always try to learn something about a country and culture before I go, to read at least one book, fiction or non-fiction, to give me a basic feel of culture and history. For example, I knew little about Myanmar, so read/listened to 3 books: a longer novel, “Miss Burma,” that spanned many decades told from the point of view of the Karen minority here, George Orwell’s “Burma Days,” a novel about colonial Burma, and “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” a non-fiction book by a woman who lives and studies the region and focuses more on the Burman-majority point of view and more modern Myanmar. By reading these and a little travel writing, I was at least oriented before I got here. I still knew so little and am learning so much. Thanks for writing!

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