Mike and I left Bangkok on yet another AirAsia flight (likely the trusted budget airline of all SE Asia backpackers), this time bound for Yangon. Once known as Rangoon, the former capital is still the country's largest city and its economic hub. As the country has opened up in recent years, the city provides an interesting mix of decaying colonial architecture and foreign investment. Longyi-wearing and betel nut chewing pedestrians still line the walkways but you'll find the modernization seeping through the city with new restaurants, bars, etc. popping up.
Arriving at Yangon International Airport, we collected kyats from an ATM and negotiated a fare to our hotel, hoping that our driver recognized the place. Although USDs are readily accepted, and often preferred, it's good to have some kyats for small change as the exchange rate is pretty drastic. Purchasing a local SIM is prohibitively expensive, so download an offline map of any Burmese cities you opt to visit. Based on the recommendation of our friends Sid and Brynne, we stayed at Mango Hill Inn which lay a little north of the main city center. The owner and his family are incredibly accommodating and are great hosts, but the location was a little far away from the city center, which recently has developed some halting traffic during peak times.
Combing through our trusted Lonely Planet guide while escaping the mid-day heat, we created a tick list of sites and restaurants. First up, was a pilgrimage to the fabled Shwedagon Pagoda. Likely the most important religious site in Myanmar, this gilded stupa is located on Singuttara Hill to the north of Yangon's downtown. Come at dawn or dusk to escape the heat and be prepared to remove your shoes and try on your first longyi (unless you're already wearing pants). You'll walk through one of the main entrances with shop stalls lined up on both sides. It's great to just leisurely circle the site and then find a shaded section to sit down and take it all in. Be sure to check out the museum, which was closed for renovation during our visit, and there's also another building that houses some fascinating historical photos of the site over the years. You'll find an interesting mix of tourists, locals, and monks sitting around chatting, creating an atmosphere both informal and secular. Sid and Brynne had previously coined the term "disco Buddha" and wandering the technicolor gilded site you'll readily understand and agree.
During the rest of our stay we wandered around downtown, checked out a small art gallery, and escaped the heat and humidity at any hotel or institution that would let us in.
- Shwe Sa Bwe: A French hospitality training school's restaurant. The school accepts disadvantaged youth from across the nation and trains them in both front-of-house and kitchen skills. The food didn't disappoint and the restaurant is housed in an old mansion to the north of Inya Lake.
- Aung Thukha: Cheap and authentic Burmese food. I think I had 5 dishes, some rice, and a drink for $5 USD.
- Rangoon Tea House: An upscale hipster institution that serves Burmese cuisine, and a variety of teas and cocktails.
- Taing Yin Yar: A great restaurant with a sampling of dishes and cuisines from different regions of Myanmar.
- The Lab: A pasta spot where we met some friends of friends here who run Yangon Yoga House, likely the country's first yoga studio.
- We also heard great things about Gekko, 999 Shan Noodle House, and Aung Mingalar Shan Noodle Restaurant.
- Shwedagon Pagoda: Go a little before dusk and stay past the sunset.
- Bogyoke Aung San Market: Weaving through this maze of market shop stalls, we came away with some traditional hand woven textiles from Yoyomay and also some longyis. Our hosts at Mango Hill would later teach us how to tie our man skirts off properly.