3 Days in Yangon

Feb 2014

I am sure you have noticed.  Burma is having a moment right now. Just ask the NY Times. The country was recently featured in their 36 hours travel column.  Or Departures magazine, where a story about Myanmar’s sea gypsies graces the pages.  Time will tell if the country can transition into its new found fame, but make no mistake, they are welcoming tourists with open arms. The once isolated nation is at a crossroad and I started my journey with 3 days in Yangon.

sham burma women traditional dress

burma early welcomes tourists 3 days in Yangon

gardens burma travel

Yangon is  a busy city that glows from the golden temples and colonial styled buildings stand proudly next to new high rises.  Markets featuring the best of local produce pop up amidst the zooming cars and buses.  Many parks and green spaces allow for a respite from the heat and hustle bustle of a city on the verge.

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The Kandawgyi Palace was chosen as home base for a number of reasons.  Although the hotel is a bit larger than one I would normally choose, the property is centrally located and full of historical references.  Their eco factor is by no means off the charts. but they are following a number of practices towards lessening their carbon footprint.  I knew the first few days there would be some jet lag, and the Palace has a gorgeous pool overlooking a lake, perfect for a little R & R after a hot day exploring the city.  It also adjoins a local park with a boardwalk running through the lake.  I had hoped it would be a great spot for an early morning stretch of the legs after the 24 hr flight.

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You’ll catch the golden glow from Burma’s holiest of sites, the 2500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda, from the moment you land in the city.  Towering over just about everything, it’s a must see site in Yangon.  Encrusted with diamonds, and housing Buddha relics, I’d suggest a late afternoon visit, so you can view it in all of its golden glory as the sun sets. It’s loud, colorful and sacred all at the same time.  Corners can be quiet areas for contemplation, and as the lights come on, the earlier cacophony gives way to a more solemn energy that casts a bit of a spell.   TIP: Make sure to find out which day of the week you were born, as the visitation is centered around this idea, and you worship accordingly.  It’s much more meaningful if you can participate and present an offering as the locals do.

bogyoke aung san market burma shop

Shop ’til you drop at the Bogyoke Aung San Market {also called Scott Market}. Gems, handicrafts, textiles, and so much more.  You could easily spend a day here, but there’s a long list of stops on my itinerary.  I was surprised by the amount of artwork in the market, and if you can weed through the repetitive monks walking in a line paintings, there are some real treasures to be found. On the second floor was one of my favorite shops,  Yoya May Textiles, specializing in tribal fabrics, valuable antique pieces and a large collection of contemporary handwovens from the Chin State.  Heritage Gallery has a good selection of authentic and reproduction antiques.  I managed to get quite overwhelmed with the owners sampling of ephemera and silver beads. Fabric vendors are throughout, indulge in a longyi, the traditional dress of the Burmese people or some exquisitely woven cottons or silks, and find a tailor to create something.  You can pick it up in a few days time.   On another note-be aware that green signs indicate government owned shops if you are concerned about where your dollars are going.

Theingyi Zei market burma

theingyi zei market burma myanmar

tayaw shrub shampoo market burma

I was keen to find the traditional herb and medicine market found within Theingyi Zei, the largest market in central Yangon.  Locals shop here, I didn’t see any tourists, and the experience is much more off the beaten path.  Inside the dusty ground floor of one of the buildings, you’ll get a real taste of the commerce that takes place.  I could tell by the surprise on peoples faces that this was not a local tourist spot, and I was thrilled when I finally located the herbal shampoo that is rumored to be responsible for the smooth, shiny hair of Burmese women.  Sold in plastic bags, it is made by boiling the bark of the Tayaw shrub with acacia pods.  I doubt the bagged  shampoo would make it through customs for my daughter as I had hoped!

gold fish market burma myanmar

And of course you would find gold fish packed up the same way right near by…In this area is Kheng Hock Keong Temple, the largest in Chinatown, giving you a taste of the religious diversity in the city.

strand hotel burma yangon myanmar

Other stops included the Sule Pagoda, and odd octagonal building in the middle of a traffic circle, but nonetheless, an interesting spot for walking to take in some of the historical colonial buildings in the area.  Close by is the Strand Hotel, built in 1901.  You’ll find  a good rest stop, made famous by distinguished guests who have visited over the years.  We happened upon a wedding just finishing up,  easily transporting us to what it must have been like when the Strand  was patronized by royal guests and the wealthy of the country. The flowers alone, both as decor and adornment on the bride were a worthy photo op that I MISSED.

Htaukkyan War Cemetery Burma Yangon Myanmar

Htaukkyan War Cemetery Yangon Burma

A good day trip is the close by, laid back Bago, which once stood as the capital of the powerful Mon Kingdom in the 16th century. About 1/2 way there, the Htaukkyan War Cemetery, a serene, calm, beautifully landscaped memorial where 27,000 Allied troops are buried.  No matter where in the world you are when visiting a spot like this, the horror of war is a universal message easily delivered to the visitors.

Shwemadaw Pagoda Bago Burma, Myanmar

Not unlike the Shwedagon Pagoda, the Shwemadaw Pagoda stands almost 400 feet tall and is rumored to house Buddha relics.   Although it has seen its more then its fair share of earthquake damage, the golden structure today stands proud overlooking the town of Bago.

Bago Market Burma flowers myanmar

On the way back, make sure to stop at the local market in town.  It’s small, crowded, full of flowers and friendly vendors-just the way I like it. Traffic during the day in Yangon is quite intense, so it makes sense to plan carefully and leave plenty of time for all you want to accomplish.

Madame Thair Burma Yangon shop

On of the highlights of the trip was visiting Madame Thair, whose shop is now housed in her home by Inya Lake.  You will find museum quality textiles, antique laquerware, Buddha images and best of all an eccentric character.  If she takes a liking to you, it will be several hours before you can tear yourself away from her stories of a Burma that have long since passed.

Our 3 days in Yangon just scratched the surface, there was much I left undiscovered.  But it was the perfect beginning for some experiential travel in  a country that will surprise you at every turn.

  1. Excellent piece! I loved experiencing some of what Yangon has to offer vicariously through this post. Thanks for the great tips too! Loved the one about finding out what day of the week you were born and I certainly wouldn’t mind trying that shampoo! Did you give any a try while you were there?
    Myanmar is certainly very high on our travel wish list. Your post makes me want to get there even more now!

    • alison says:

      Jessica, Thanks so much for your feedback. It was a wonderful trip, and I feel fortunate to have visited while it is still vastly undiscovered. Get there as soon as you can. You won’t be disappointed!

  2. Fabulous wrap up of your time spent in Yangon Alison. Sounds fascinating and I’d also love to know if you tried the shampoo. Did you buy much?

    • alison says:

      I must admit that I didn’t try the shampoo. Since the talk is all about the Burmese women’s glossy black hair, I was afraid it might turn my blond a lovely shade of green. I did however try the thanaka that is widely used as a sunscreen all over the country, and promptly broke out in a rash for the rest of my visit. So much for going native!

  3. Monica says:

    I was in Myanmar in 2007 but I still have some souvenirs I bought at the market in Yangon! 🙂