Myanmar or Burma whatever name you know it as, the story stays the same. A land of gold long in turmoil under military rule, its people now finally free in the 21st century. The newest addition to the list of countries in the book of democracy and its pages now open to the rest of the world.
Last week my husband was lucky enough to have a change in his work schedule that included having time off in the city of Yangon. With 2 days of free time he asked if we would like to join him on the trip and a big fat YES!!!! is what he got back from me in return and so Yangon it was for us for just 2 days.
Getting to Yangon, Myanmar is quite easy from Qatar. The airlines flies 5 times a week and visa is available on arrival for most nationalities or via an e-service. We chose to get our visa’s online in advance and the process was short, easy and quick. Tourist Visa costs 50$ per person and is valid for a stay of max 90 days from the day of issue. Click here to apply through the official government website – evisa.moip.gov.mm
For starters Yangon isn’t anything like other stereotypical asian capital / cosmopolitain cities you may have already visited. If I could explain this any better i’d say think Bangkok and then rewind 25 years ago. The city’s got good roads and no traffic. Beautiful old buildings with a showcase of daily life hanging from it. Clothes drying on strings, stacks of boxes and other household items in balconies along with gigantic dish antennas on display. Yes! all the old school drama however none of the structures connected with fancy walkways, sky train stations or malls. Yangon is in its own right stands out as that quintessential Asia you may have only seen in pictures.
Our drive to the hotel on a Monday morning was mostly easy. We were booked at the Sule Shangri-la Yangon which is right in the heart of downtown. The hotel I presume is quite old however very well maintained and in excellent condition given its surroundings. While sipping on our very first cup of coffee on the 21st floor of the horizon club lounge I could see the city’s central train station that was built during the British rule. The station looks gorgeous from the outside and one of the highly recommended ways to see the city I was told is a trip on the Yangon Circular train that takes you around the metropolitan area in about 3 hrs. This slow ride is considered as one of the best ways to experience local life and also guarantees to be very entertaining both inside and out. Tickets can be bought at the platform which is usually platform 7 and costs about 20 cents if you do not exit the train at all during the whole 3 hr ride. There are trains leaving the platform every 45 minutes or so and its relatively easy to get on one.
We chose to skip this trip as we wanted to explore more of the city on our own by foot. Our first stop after a coffee refuel was Yangon’s no. 1 temple – Shwedagon Pagoda. Entry to the Pagoda is 8000 Kyat per person which is approximately close to $6. The pagoda is humongous so give your self some time to walk around and visit the numerous temples on site. Guided tours are also available however this does means you definitely need more time at hand. My suggestion would be to take the tour an hour or two before sunset and then wait for the spectacular flood lights to be shone on the main jewel on top of the Pagoda. When this happens the whole place turns into gold and its quite the site. It also makes for the perfect scenario to relax, reflect and meditate in silence while the temple monks chant prayers. If you happen to miss this spectacular site then don’t worry coz the pagoda’s 99 meter stupa can be seen from pretty much anywhere around the city.
Another place not to be missed is Bogyoke Market. It is the city’s central shopping destination and anything from jewels to precious stones to paintings to handicrafts and clothes can be found right here. We walked around the market on our 2nd day in Yangon to buy some souvenirs and experience local market life. Bargain, bargain, bargain cause as always tourist do get ripped off. No country in Asian or the world is exempt from this rule apart from Japan of course. Important tip for shoppers – Cards whether debit or credit are not excepted at most places including shopping malls. The best is to exchange currency at a local bank or money changer. Crisp $ bills are happily accepted in exchange for local KYAT.
FOOD FOOD FOOD
And now for the very reason I live to travel! What trip would be complete without diving into the local cuisine. The geographic location of Myanmar clearly sets its food story on a successful path. Surrounded by India, Bangladesh and Thailand and topped by southern part of China, Burmese cuisines has its roots in the very best of Asia’s comfort food. The variety of food is unimaginable and mix of textures and flavours have no boundary. It is all about DIY eating and eating whatever you like however you like it.
First stop FEEL restaurant.
Do not expect to eat fancy food while in Asia. It is in the very simplicity of service and food that complex foodgasmic experiences occur. FEEL restaurant was recommended to me by my Burmese friend and is a place that offers food from the different tribes of Myanmar.
My favourite here was the Mohinga – a fish broth based noodle soup that is considered the national dish. Locals even eat this for breakfast however a bit too fishy for me to start my day with so I chose to try it over lunch.
2nd highlight was a fish cake salad that was close in flavours to that of Thai food with a perfect balance of sweet, salty, tangy and hint of spicyness to it. Top these dishes with a glass of local beer called Myanmar and I say you have yourself a 5 star lunch for less than 10 dollars.
It was only still day 1 and after a short nap and some wino and quite frankly no where even close to dinner time we found ourselves researching places to eat at yet again. I, as always decided to watch my guru Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Myanmar and picked this place of his checklist.
An excellent seafood place with a battalion of waiters servings herds of people daily. Be sure to get to the restaurant on time as most dishes and fresh catch of the day runs out quite quickly. The bbq soft shell crab I ordered was to die for and so was the prawn curry. My husband got a whole fish cooked in chilli lime sauce that was just mind blowing. A little lost in conversation time with our waiter and we managed to get the recipe of the sauce it was cooked in. Stay tuned for a separate recipe post to know more.
No pictures of the place coz for one night we decided to leave our phones in the room and have some quality dinner time. 🙂
Our 3rd and final food find was a bit random and came off from talking to the local shopkeepers at Bogyoke Market. Lotaya Restaurant is located within the market area and is a favourite among the many local market shoppers and owners. We ordered a bowl of pork noodle soup, minced bean and pork stir fry and a plate of hot steaming chicken and veggie dumplings served with lime and sesame sauce. All dishes were excellent and had stellar flavors similar to that from China and Thai cuisine.
Looking for a mid day energizer?
If you are anything of a tea drinker than a visit to a local tea house or a tea stand is also an absolute must. Expect though to have a sugar rush as traditionally tea is cooked for very long and then induced with canned sweetened milk to make is thick, frothy and sweet. This for instance below is a tea place within the market. Here business, life and politics are discussed among men freely or at least in a little more carefree manor than ever before.
Impression of the city
Walking the streets in Yangon is quite a trip to do in itself. It is unlike other asian cites and is relatively easy to walk around town and cross streets. No bikes and 2 wheelers are allowed within the city centre. Why is rule was put in place? is still a mystery but I must say it does make walking round town a lot much comfier especially for us tourist pushing around an any in a stroller 🙂 A walk around the hotel block and we passed by a temple, a church and a mosque not to mention the pagoda that can be seen from anywhere in the city. Our day 1 of local living gave us a decent insight into the Burmese lifestyle but not enough to pass judgment on the current ongoing political situation between the tribes.
We had an excellent time during our stay and found people to be extremely friendly. We also noticed the curiosity in the locals to know more about tourist as the country has only quite recently opened itself to the outside world and now sees itself on most travelers list of places to see. Simple things like reporting and pictures weren’t allowed a couple of years ago. It is however with the new found democracy that the air seems to be slowly clearing up. I was also really impressed with the number of parks and leisure places made accessible for locals within the city and that to me truly shows how much a government cares about the basic lifestyle of its people despite its battle against poverty.
This new city we ticked off is nowhere close to being fully explored by us. We have been wondering what an adventure would it be to actually holiday around the country for a longer time. For now all I am left with researching more about this beautiful country and planning our next trip to explore more of Myanmar.
Bon Voyage & Bon Appetit