At long last, the floodgates of Myanmar, a country of 55 million, are open to the outside world. Most visitors flock to Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the country's largest city, to take in its vast culture and magnificent gold stupas sprouting to the sky. Myanmar itself remains mysterious as you might expect with such turbulent political unrest (you'll recall Nobel Prize winning democratic leader Aung San Suu Ski spent most of her days under house arrest). Change is on the horizon, though. Be among the first to experience this magical place and spend time with the some of the most genuinely friendly locals on the planet. Take the reigns and observe a cultural melting pot and spiritual terrain.
Five Must-Do Activities
It is impossible to miss the broad gold-leafed pagodas, which dominate Yangon's landscape. In the heart of downtown, the 2,000-plus-year-old Sule Pagoda is a truly moving sight. Check your shoes at the door. Inside, as in the Myanmar Buddhist tradition, pour water on the Buddha who represents the day of the week you were born. Outside, get a palm or astrological reading.
Bonus: At twilight, head to Shwedagon Pagoda. Its a photographer's dream, where lights cast a warm glow on ornate gold and thick black and white marble in the backdrop of a flashing light show and thousands of glistening Buddhas. Locals, robed monks, and smiling shaven-headed nuns chant and worship. Don't miss the giant 150-year old holy Bodhi tree.
Built in 1920, the sprawling 70-year-old Bogyoke Aung San Market is a massive bazaar that houses everything from puppets and wood carvings to tapestry to brightly-colored fabrics and the local's favorite longyi's (sarong-like tube of fabric worn by men and women). Find a shop where you chose your own fabric and watch a vendor sew your custom piece.
Yangon's Chinatown Market is loud, busy, boisterous, chaotic, and totally authentic. Its narrow streets offer prime people watching whether you stroll down them, dodging umbrellas up to block the sun, or watch from a crowded cafe with a beer in hand. The market has an array of culinary goodies, as you might expect, like the standards—fresh fish, fruits, and veggies—as well as unique finds like fried crickets and betel nuts.
Situated under a sheet-metal roof rests one of Myanmar's most revered reclining Buddhas at Chaukhtatgyi Paya. This massive, resting Buddha is perched 60 feet high and a whopping 216 feet long (about the size of an American football field). Buddha&aposs adorned feet hold 108 symbols. Outside, explore the bustling market, with vendors hawking street foods from impressive open-air kitchens.
As you walk around the city, you will feel like you are walking back in time, passing crumbling stately buildings sitting behind fences in various states of neglect—faded, peeling, ghostly, and perhaps not around too much longer (though the Yangon Heritage Trust is on the case). Don't miss former Myanmar Railways Headquarters, the spectacular Immigration Building (once the ritzy department store Rowe & Co), and the stunning, red-brick baroque Secretariat where, in 1947, General Aung San was assassinated.
Five Must-Try Eats
Step outside your culinary comfort zone and seek out authentic Burmese tastes, like the hearty national dish, mohinga, a fish soup with lemongrass and tea leaf salad. Add some heat with local-loved chilies. Culinary delights like crisp-fried garlic, curry, roasted peanuts, and lime all play roles in traditional Burmese cuisine. You'll eat very well, and most meals won't break the bank.
In an airy, downtown two-story colonial bank building, Monsoon Restaurant serves Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian cuisines. Locals arrive for a casual lunch but the dinner crowd is equally lively. Sip a lemongrass martini and order for the beef Thai curry and Vietnamese spring rolls.
Tucked away from Yangon's hustle and bustle is Le Planteur. Imagine an old colonial house with a garden oasis that often hosts the likes of VIPs like Mick Jagger and the President of Switzerland. Run by Eric Eppisser, a Michelin-starred chef, the food is French Asian fusion. Try the tealeaf salad, Tajima wagyu, giant prawns, and sip something from the extensive French wine collection.
Escape the midday heat inside the storied Strand Cafe in the middle of the iconic Victorian-style Strand Hotel. Expect an airy, intimate setting with ceiling fans, rattan chairs, and teak touches. High tea is a delight and lunch is all about spring rolls, mohinga, and a Burmese specialty ohn no kauk swe, a chicken and coconut soup. Afterwards, pop by the Strand Bar for a cold Dagon Lager.
The Green Elephant sits in an old world colonial mansion off the beaten track. Nab a table in the garden under a canopy and sample local delectables like coconut rice, pork with red curry paste, grilled lobster, lophet thake (pickled tea leaf salad), and lentil soup. Wash it all down with a tall, cold bottle of Myanmar beer and check out the gift shop before you leave.
Don't miss the lively Feel Myanmar Food. Inside you'll find a more formal dining area, while outside offers generous and more casual seating. Just pick your plate of choice from an enticing spread and find a seat. Start with the thoke (spicy salads) and make room on your table for bountiful portions of coconut rice, nara bread, prawn curry and braised pork. Vegetarians will find much to love here, too.
Kate Donnelly is a freelance writer based in New York. She is the founder of the creative collaborative From Your Desks. She is a contributing editor at Fathom and contributes to Forbes and Bon Appetit. She travels for the food. Follow her on Twitter: @fromyourdesks.
Photo credits: Yangon by night; Yangon street foods both via Dreamstime.com