Yangon boasts a vibrant mix of atmosphere that represents the best of the little-explored Asian nation.
By Renata Barragán
Yangon, once closed off to tourists, combines ancient history and contemporary culture to become an ideal place to visit.
In the 11th century, Anawrahta, the first king of the country now known as Myanmar, rode into the medieval city-state of Bagan with a cavalry of horses and elephants, and built an empire that would stretch from the Malay Peninsula to the Himalayas. Yet today, as you walk the streets of Yangon, it often seems that they had been crushed by that same herd of elephants, so dilapidated are the city’s sidewalks.
With a population of over 7 million people, Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon – is the largest and oldest city in Myanmar, its principal commercial center, and until 2006, its capital. It boasts the largest number of colonial buildings in the country, many over 1,000 years old; the country’s most sacred Buddhist monument, the gilded Shwedagon Paya; and the mausoleum of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.
Yet Yangon’s public infrastructure is extremely poor and can make exploring the city a stressful experience.
Traffic congestion, exacerbated by dysfunctional urban planning, is par for the course. Elsewhere, you will have to fight for space on the sidewalks where vendors hawk fruit, fried food, and pirate films, while women wash dishes outside restaurants whose tables spill out onto the street. Stray animals are everywhere.
The Yangon climate
Yangon’s climate might be described as intense, averaging 100 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year with high levels of humidity, while rainy season spans May to September. Yet the city is rapidly becoming a tourist hub following the decision by Myanmar’s government to finally open its doors to foreign visitors in 2011.
Former political exiles, investors from across Asia, and backpackers have rapidly moved in, producing a dynamic cultural and economic center that represents diverse elements from across the country.
The awe-inspiring Shwedagon Paya monument is the centerpiece around which the principal activities of the city revolve. The nearby downtown, dotted with stunning colonial architecture, hosts a sprawling open-air market with a huge variety of goods, both local and foreign, for sale; beyond the monument lie the green areas where Yangonites, or locals, go to take a breather from it all. Kandawgyi Lake and its surrounding park, along with Inya Lake, to the north, make up beautiful spots to cool off from the heat and unwind.
Nevertheless, with so many other options available for travelers to Asia, including hotspots such as Thailand and Malaysia, and Myanmar only recently embracing tourism, the country has a long way to go to compete with the aforementioned nations. Myanmar currently receives around just 3 million foreign tourists per year compared to the between 15 and 20 million that visit Thailand annually. Yet its reputation as a fascinating alternative is growing.
A cultural shock
Without a doubt, Yangon can cause a culture shock, yet friendly locals will help you make sense of it all, and inevitably give out the best advice.
For example, the city’s taxi drivers are, against the odds, a patient and relaxed bunch, often telling passengers jammed in the seemingly endless traffic: “Listen, it will be faster if you get out and walk from here.” They’ll give you directions, and sometimes even offer a refund for your troubles.
Ultimately, Yangon is a city where people remain patient and warm-hearted despite the frustrations and challenges they face as residents of one of the world’s most chaotic, yet endlessly interesting, culturally rich, and still relatively-unexplored, metropolises.