We’ve been to Myanmar four times. A travel statistic that is, admittedly, getting a bit out of hand. But what can we say? Myanmar is our homegirl. Incomparably authentic, with rad conversational skills, she’ll give you a lesson on the Middle Path while serving up the best fried noodle this side of the Andaman.
If we’re talking travel stories, our past Myanmar adventures have included: spending a night on the hardwood floor of a Buddhist monastery; climbing to the top of Mt Kyaiktiyo; bailing out a fishing boat (that was en route to snorkel town); riding motorbikes along the west coast; and, in recent years, watching the country begin to flex its political muscles.
What we realised we had never done, however, was take the time to go beyond ‘Yangon the Stopover City’ to discover ‘Yangon the Destination’. We were guilty of treating Myanmar’s former capital as just a transit town on the way to bigger, better, more Bagan-y things. Sure, we’d seen Shwedagon light up at dawn and we’d braved the crush at Bogyoke Market, but in that haze of incense and street food, the ‘real’ Yangon was lost on us.
So when Cathay Pacific and the iDiscover team asked us to focus all our travel energies on just the city, we were intrigued. What else would we find here? And could an app really help two Aussies get under the skin of a foreign city? Here’s what we discovered:
CHINATOWN IS MORE THAN JUST BBQ
And that’s saying something, because the BBQ is incredible. In the past few years, it has become somewhat of a travel tradition for us to spend our first and last night in Myanmar eating skewered meats and drinking Grand Royal whiskey at the 19th street night market. It’s plastic chair and BBQ heaven, and we can never go past the fried fish.
But in reality, the Chinatown area is so much more than that. Just next door, in the heartland of Hokkien, is the buzzing, early morning market. This is where the locals come for their groceries. Running the length of 18th street, the vendors lay their wares on colourful tarps on the ground, selling everything from the catch of the day to vintage sunglasses. It’s vibrant, it’s loud, it’s got that heady, pungent market smell – basically, it’s an intoxicating morning amble.
Then around the corner there is the Clan House, a Cantonese meeting place hidden behind mountains of plastic chairs; on Maha Bandoola road you can find your Chinese medicine cure at the herb shop; and at 3:15pm (Chinese tea time) you’re welcome to join the locals at Bao Zi King for Burmese milk tea and steamed pork buns. Add a little chilli sauce and you’ll fit right in.
THE ARCHITECTURE IS AT RISK
It’s undoubtable. Yangon is a city of incredible architecture. It’s all peeling facades overgrown with vines, laundry hanging from windows and electricity lines crowding street corners. The buildings boast a romantic colour palette, spanning violet to turquoise and every mood in between. However, with Myanmar opening its tourism doors and birthing a new government, the country is changing quickly – so it makes sense that the Yangon owners of these old colonial buildings would be looking to develop. But at what risk?
We learn that the red plaques hanging from the city’s most dilapidated buildings are essentially demolition notices. They’re a sign that the city council have declared the building ‘dangerous’, thus giving the owner permission to tear it down. It breaks my heart to see a red plaque hanging from the Bombay Press. This century-old, now crumbling, beauty of a building houses years of history within its walls. I can just imagine those rich merchants looking out the bay windows, and the seamstress and the sailor walking down the tiled halls.
But there is light at the end of the avenue, the Yangon Heritage Trust is developing a conservation plan. One that embraces progression, while respecting heritage. Here’s hoping they can save the iconic cityscape.
THERE’S (MORE THAN) FOUR RELIGIONS IN ONE DAY
We’ve always been drawn to Buddhist cultures, and so Myanmar has forever felt like a bit of a spirit country for us. What we hadn’t realised, however, was that Yangon is actually a religious melting pot.
It’s a city where cultures intermingle; where upstairs on 29th street you can find U Aung Cuma practicing the Namokar Mantra in the cool, Jain oasis; where down the road Moses Samuels maintains the Jewish synagogue for the remaining eight families who make up the congregation; where novice Buddhist monks meditate in the gilded golden hour at Sule Pagoda; and where worshippers bring offerings of jasmine flowers to the Hindu goddess Shri Kali.
Yangon has a history of multiculturalism and a reputation for welcoming everyone, from the Tamil migrants to the Indo Persians. It’s just like W.G Grant, editor of the Rangoon Times, said in 1940: ‘She houses Indians in thousands and there are European built bungalows, run commercial concerns and smoke in clubs. She has a Chinese quarter where you can pray to Sun Yat Sen or merely have your milk pail repaired. Along her mathematically precise street walk Japanese, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Australian’s, Americans, Spaniards from Brazil and Malays from Singapore. Rangoon opens her arms to the world. She is the soul of hospitality, the ideal hostess. And yet with a heart for all men, she has a heart of her own…”.
INDIAN QUARTER DOES THE BEST FOOD
The first time we visited Myanmar was back in 2009, and English menus were pretty hard to come by. This meant that we pretty much sustained ourselves on a diet of fried rice and noodle. Don’t get us wrong, the Burmese do some top notch noodle – but it felt as if we were missing out. I mean, what were the locals eating?
As it turns out, we should’ve spent more time dining in Indian Quarter. This little hub plays host to some of the city’s most interesting food choices. Take Mi Mi Lay icecream, for example. This tiny, family-run hole-in-the-wall, with its bright purple decor, was the first of its kind in Yangon. It literally brought ice cream to the people.
Dinnertime is when the food situation gets real. iDiscover recommends either Indian thali’s or Flying Noodles. We can’t decide, so we do both. Entree is at Shwe Too, who have been wok-frying their famous Flying Noodles (noodles with soya sauce, chicken and egg) for over 50 years. They’re quite the establishment, they’re quite the noodles.
Main course involves thali’s at New Delhi, smack dab in the middle of Anawratha Road. We get the works, plus three rounds of fried chicken, and leave the dirt cheap dining hall feeling far more cultured than when we entered. To finish things off, we hit Liberty Sweets. Loaded with jellied, sugared, frosted Indian sweets, I eat a whole bag of galub jamin and feel sick on the walk home.
THE BEST SUNSET SPOT IS DOWN BY THE RIVER
Now, there is some seriously fierce competition for title of ‘best sunset spot’ in Yangon. But we’ve always maintained nothing could beat Shwedagon Pagoda. I mean, when that golden light hits the glittering stupa, it’s a photographers dream and a breathtaking (instagram) moment. How could a sunset get better than that?
The answer is the Sin Oh Dan jetty. As the sun goes down, we watch as fishermen aboard wooden rowing boats begin making the journey back to shore. Along the riverfront, the quay is packed with locals closing up shop or kicking the chinlone ball, while kids bathe in the river. Across the road, the warehouses light up in all their colonial glory. It’s beautiful, it needs #nofilter.
THE TRAIN JOURNEY IS JUST AS GOOD AS THE DESTINATION
Ah, the Circular Railway, where one gets on and never wants to get off. This rickety commuter train does a three hour circuit of Yangon and offers up some of the best people watching in town, not to mention photography opportunities galore.
It may move at a snail’s pace, but it’s a beautiful insight into the daily lives of Yangon locals. As we sit, we watch as people rush to load on bags of groceries and sacks of grains; university students scribble in notebooks before morning classes; towns whizz by the open windows; on quiet stretches we chat with English-fluent locals about life, love and religion.
We get off to stretch our legs and find a market lining the train tracks. There’s not another tourist in sight. We buy some grapes and wait for the next train, amazed at what we had stumbled across.
In essence, what the iDiscover walks helped us uncover was a culturally complex city in the throes of change. Now is the time for Yangon, in many different ways. This is a city that is at once looking to the future and doing its best to preserve the past; a place where, after years of international isolation, its doors have opened to both the perks of progression and the manipulation of modernity.
It’s a place that’s hanging in the balance, packed to its dilapidated rafters with incredible sights and stupas. We learnt that if you take the time to walk Yangon, the city will talk back to you.