The former capital of Myanmar is still the largest city today and offers travelers the chance to immerse themselves in Burmese lifestyle for a few days before heading out to the nations various historic places. Yangon, which has known many names over the centuries from its founding when it was Dagon to Rangoon during British rule which changed to Yangon in 1989. Yangon remained the capital until 2006 when Naypyidaw in central Myanmar was declared as the capital. Nevertheless, Yangon remains a bustling city with a truly unique flair. Nicknamed the golden city Yangon has wild traffic jams where bicycle tuk-tuks dodge monks in maroon robes as the whip past colonial-era buildings and gilded payas. Men in longyi skirts smoke cheroot cigars pass by novice nuns in their pink robes collecting alms in the fresh food markets. There’s so much activity happening that there’s something fascinating to witness around every corner in Yangon. Here’s where to eat, explore and shop in Yangon.
WHERE TO EAT IN YANGON
To be honest, I was dreading eating in Myanmar. Everyone told me Burmese food was high in oil, low in flavor. They stressed that it would be almost impossible to be pescatarian in the country (I visited in November before I went plant-based). They weren’t wrong about the oil, I’ve learned that the excess is believed to keep flies out of food that lingers outside in the heat all day. But they were wrong about flavor, and vegetarian thut thut luh dishes! If you’re also vegetarian write down these words, teh ta loo la? which means is this vegetarian? and atha ma sa bu which means I don’t eat meat.
Sure, there were times in Myanmar where I had to just eat rice and whatever veggie I could find, and I got food poisoning from street food in Mandalay. But generally, I loved almost everything I ate! My voyage into the Burmese culinary world started in Yangon.
TASTE TEST BURMESE DISHES WITH SABA STREET FOOD TOURS
My first priority when I arrive in a new place is to learn a few local words and about all the food. Mark, the founder of Sa Ba Street Food Tours in Yangon, took me on a night tour to try all of his favorite local family-operated food stalls. Mi Mi, one of his local tour guides, joined us and shared her passion for Burmese cuisine embracing the meaning of Sa Ba, “eat please.” She’s trying Meatless Mondays and was happy to have an excuse to try veggie versions of Burmese dishes. Mi Mi and Mark went out of there way to request that the street food vendors prepared me vegetarian dishes and warned me of which items traditionally contained meat.
I detailed for Myanmar Travel some of my favorite vegetarian dishes that I tried with Sa Ba Street Food Tours and during my month traveling around the country. I won’t spoil the food tour route of the vetted family-operated street food vendors in Yangon but I will share that you can expect to try Burmese salads including lahpet thoke (tea leaf); tea leaves are rarely consumed in other parts of the world but are eaten often in Myanmar. Other Burmese salads you must try are are tohu (tofu), myin kwa yuet (pennywort), gin (ginger), butter fruit (avocado), or karyanchintheet (tomato).
We tried a variety of noodle dishes including the unofficial national dish, mohinga. The green superfood is served in a fish broth mixed with noodles, vegetables, and a variety of toppings, my favorite being fried chickpeas. This savory dish is typically enjoyed for breakfast but it can be enjoyed at all times of the day at the street food market on Mahar Bandoola Garden Street. The other noodles to try are Shan noodles which are made from a soft yellow chickpea tofu. Most street vendors make all dishes to order so you can add in whichever toppings and proteins you prefer.
During the Sa Ba Food Tour we had loads of traditional Burmese snacks. Everything is fried and delicious from samosa salads to lann ta ye mont which is similar to an Indian dosa. For a sweeter snack try a red motepyitsalet which is made of rice flour and locally produced palm sugar.
DINE AT RANGOON TEA HOUSE
My absolute favorite restaurant in Yangon was the locally owned Rangoon Tea House which came highly recommended by National Geographic. The upscale establishment is wildly affordable and offers a variety of Burmese and Asian dishes. This is a great place to taste test different traditional items as they’re prepared with less oil and ultra-fresh ingredients. Everyone is served the house jasmine tea of locally sourced tea leaves which is pine and pairs well with the bao sandwiches. I loved the Burmese salads here but if you only order one thing it’s got to be the tofu french fries! I’m still dreaming about their crispy creamy goodness. A weekday happy hour from 3-7 PM offers guests 2 for 1 Burmese inspired mixology cocktails such as Jasmine Gin and Tonic, Mandalay Mule, and Lychee Beer. Take your cocktail upstairs to the 1920s-esque atmosphere at The Toddy Bar.
HAVE AN IMPACTFUL MEAL AT LINKAGE
Dine at the Linkage training restaurant and enjoy a tasty meal that gives back. Your dinner will have a positive social impact as the cafe provides vocational training for at-risk children. The menu offers a variety of traditional Burmese food at reasonable prices. Local disadvantaged youth receive service and hospitality training as well as assistance with job placement.
TRY TOFU NOODLES AT 999 SHAN NOODLE
If you sadly don’t have time to make it to the Shan state you can still taste the mouthwatering shan noodles at this famous local joint, 999 Shan Noodle! The menu is extensive, they must have early a thousand noodle dishes! Shan noodles are traditionally made of yellow tofu from chickpeas so be sure to try those, you won’t regret it.
GRAB CHEAP EATS IN CHINATOWN
There are bustling street food markets down several streets in Chinatown where you can get dinner for less than US$1 each and every night. Most street food is made to order and you can simply point to what veggies you’d like in your dish. This is bespoke cuisine at it’s very best! If you’re in the mood for beer head to the local watering holes on 19th street.
WHERE TO EXPLORE IN YANGON
WITNESS BURMESE BUDDHISM AT SHWEDAGON PAGODA
Myanmar is often referred to as one of the most Buddhist countries in the world with an astounding 89% of the population following the teachings of Lord Buddha through Theravada Buddhism. The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most prominent Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia due to its gilded beauty and history. The first Buddhist shrine was placed here all the way back in 588 BC. The golden pagoda was raised to 302 feet by Queen Shin Saw Pu in 1453 and then further extended to 326 feet in 1774 by King Sinbyushin, the height it remains today. The massive zedi is covered in gold plates and leaf and features a 22 inch 1,800-carat diamond orb at its peak made of 4,351 diamonds. All of this glory was raised here over a sacred spot that is believed to enshrine eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha. Stop by the Hsandawtwin sacred hair relic washing well to see locals performing rituals and praying where Buddha’s hair was cleansed.
It could easily take a whole morning to explore Shwedagon Pagoda as there are over 100 pagodas, 4,000 images of Buddha, shrine rooms, pavilions at this giant pagoda. Be sure to grab one of the detailed maps of the grounds that highlights the most sacred structures. The best way to experience the Shwedagon Pagoda is to hire a local guide to explain everything to you in detail. I was battling a sun fever and not feeling well when I was at the Shwedagon Pagoda so sadly I didn’t make it around to many of the important sites. I was able to visit the Kawnagammana Buddha image located in a cave in the southern prayer hall that’s cast in gold, silver, copper, iron, and lead. I stopped by the Chan-Thar-Gyi Buddha in the northwest of the pagoda to see the largest Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda and make a wish. The ticket usually costs 8,000 kyat and is good for the entire day so you can enter at sunrise and sunset to see the zedi glow in the sunlight.
PONDER CRUMBLING COLONIAL-ERA BUILDINGS
Yangon has the most amount of colonial-era buildings in all of the Southeast Asia region. Most of the structures are crumbling and located in the downtown area. Most were built in the early 20th century during the British colonization of Burma. Take a stroll and imagine what bygone days must have been like in the former capital city. You’ll learn all about Yangon architecture on this in-depth walking tour.
VISIT THE GOLDEN SULE PAGODA
In the heart of downtown Yangon is the pine Sule Pagoda. The striking Buddhist stupa is one of the oldest pagodas in the metropolitan era and boasts a 145-foot pagoda that can be seen from all around the downtown area. Here it’s common to see locals performing Buddhist rituals such as pouring water and placing flowers on the Buddha statues at posts for the day of the week that they were born on and walking clockwise around the main stupa. Be sure to respect the posted notices for sustainability of the ancient cultural heritage site. Speak quietly, don’t touch murals, and don’t take flash photography.
GIVE ALMS TO BURMESE NUNS IN PINK ROBES
Monastic life in Myanmar isn’t exclusive to males. Every morning on the streets of Yangon novice female monks wrapped in pink robes wander the city and collect alms. Many women from ages 9-94 attend the Aung Thawada Nunnery School on the northern border of Yangon and take turns doing alms rounds in Yangon. The laywomen don’t have the same status as male Theravada Buddhist monks. The women are referred to as sila-rhan which means “owners of virtue”. If you do take a portrait of a nun be sure to get her permission and make a donation to her alms bowl.
STROLL ALONG THE YANGON RIVERFRONT
On the banks of the Yangon River, you’ll come across local commuter wooden boats adorned with chipping colorful paint. Vendors along the river bed sell coconut ice cream and snacks. While there isn’t a long boardwalk it’s a nice place to relax, watch life pass by, and enjoy a colorful hazy sunset.
TAKE A LOOK AT THE BOTATAUNG PAGODA
On the bank of the Yangon River is the Botataung Pagoda which holds even more sacred strands of Buddha’s hair. I was in Yangon in November 2017 and there was scaffolding on the pagoda so I didn’t go inside but peaked inside through the gates and strolled around the area. The pagoda that is being prepared is actually quite rare as it is hollowed out so you can walk inside of it.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH LOCALS
I’ll say it again and again that the Burmese are some of the kindest people I’ve ever encountered through my travels. Take time to just walk around the streets of Yangon and meet Burmese people. They’re so friendly and so eager to have the chance to practice English and tell you about life in Myanmar.
RIDE THE YANGON CIRCLE TRAIN
Get to know Yangon off-the-beaten-path by taking the Yangon circle train which cuts through remote rural areas on the outskirts of the city. This is a must experience in my opinion, especially for those who’ve never been to Southeast Asia before and haven’t seen the local way of life in this part of the world.
WHERE TO SHOP IN YANGON
PURCHASE MEMORABLE SOUVENIRS AT HLA DAY AND POMELO
Hla Day is a social enterprise selling goods from disadvantaged groups of Burmese craftspeople. Hla Day means beautiful in Burmese and all of the products in the shop live up to the name. The unique handmade products include items from Amazing Grace, a group of women with disabilities in Yangon who create jewelry, baskets, and crafts. The Sunflower Association offers gorgeous weaved goods enhanced by natural dyes created by student beneficiaries of the social enterprise. The Home Sweet Home HIV Clinic works with community members to create posters and books utilizing vintage Burmese movie adverts. Gorgeous handmade stationery is created by Pann Nann Ein beneficiaries that are living with different abilities.
Pomelo is another fair trade marketplace in Yangon and also Bagan that supports traditional crafts created by social enterprises and NGOs from around the country. Pomelo supports artisans fighting to keep traditional crafts alive. Their artisan vendors include Myanmar Clay Works which is a cooperative of potters who create goods which are painted by children who had lived on the streets in Myanmar through the Helping Hands NGO. Pomelo also retails homemade jam created by the Shan Cherry Jams female cooperative, sustainable garments created by members of the Phoenix Association which provides shelter and income-generating programs for women living with HIV/AIDS, and Mesoap made from local plants by Burmese students who’ve received scholarships to finish their high school education.
SHOP AT THE TRADITIONAL BOGYOKE MARKET
Burmese crafts are spectacular and the best place to source them from local vendors is the largest market in Myanmar, Bogyoke Aung San Market. The market is housed in a colonial building and was founded in 1926 and features stalls selling all sorts of goods from straw handbags, woodwork statues, vintage paintings, intricate longyis, puppets, lacquerware, and fine costume jewelry. Many artisans are working on their creations in their shops and love to chat about their crafts.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO TO YANGON
Before visiting Myanmar I seriously considered whether I should boycott the country due to the inhumane treatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. I read numerous human rights reports and studies on the impacts of whether or not boycotts damage the powers at large and determined that travel boycotts are deeply misguided and self-absorbed. Travelers feel they’re making a symbolic gesture by boycotting, but really they’re appeasing their own guilt, which doesn’t help persecuted groups like the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Travelers who support the notion of a boycott feel that their lack of tourism dollars can act as a handicap for countries that condone atrocities. Instead, they’d cripple locals who rely on tourism to provide for their families. These civilians have nothing to do with the military-led violence, they’re not responsible for the violations against the Rohingya. But they would be the ones to suffer directly from a travel boycott.
By visiting Myanmar the majority of your spending will support locals, not the military regime.Tourist dollars could revolutionize Myanmar. Neighboring Thailand saw 32.6 million tourists in 2016 who spent US$45.9B. It’s also worth noting that Thailand has been under military rule since 2014. To learn about why I don’t support a travel boycott in Myanmar please read my article on Matador Network.
Be sure to apply for the tourist visa approval letter online before you arrive in Myanmar. Many nationalities can visit Myanmar for 28 days. World Nomads offers travel insurance for the duration of your trip for as little as US$115 for the standard plan. The easiest way to head to your accommodation from the Yangon airport is to take a Grab. There’s WiFi at the airport so download the app in advance so you can swiftly grab a ride for a fair price and pay with your credit card. Or you can book a private car in advance for just US$13.50. It’s always best to withdraw local currency from the ATM at the airport as some travelers have had trouble getting cash in Myanmar. You can book AC buses to travel around Myanmar on Baolau which is a great resource as you can pay with a foreign credit card!
WHERE TO STAY IN YANGON
I stayed at The Vibe Inn which is an affordable and modest guesthouse located in downtown Yangon near Chinatown, which is the best area to stay centrally in Yangon. If you’re looking for hotels, my recommendations for a luxury stay are would be the Shangri-La due to their commitment to sustainability and globally renowned hospitality. Some moderate options that are a great value and still budget friendly are the Hotel G, The Loft Hotel, or the Merchant Art Boutique Hotel. Browse all Yangon hotels, homestays, and hostels to choose the perfect place within your budget.
Thank you Sa Ba Food Tours for hosting me. All opinions and photos are my own. This post contains affiliate links. Please read the Miss Filatelista disclosure policy for more information.