By Jan-Philipp Sendker, author of A Well-Tempered Heart
With the exception of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, the city of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, is surprisingly devoid of major sightseeing highlights. But what the city lacks in obvious points of interest, it makes up for in ubiquitous charm. The best way to enjoy the city is oftentimes simply just to step outside your door and wander. Rather than worry about checking off all the major tourist destinations in a city, you'll be free to simply enjoy Yangon without the pressure of having to “see it all.” Here are five things to keep in mind when exploring the city.
Keep an Open Mind
Strolling the city without a must-see, must-do list is one of the most pleasant and exciting things about visiting Yangon. Only a few years ago, Yangon was one of the most laidback cities in Southeast Asia, with only a few cars on the streets, no high-rise buildings, and no neon signs. Today, the first thing you'll notice is how much it's changing. This sleeping beauty is evolving into a typical Asian cosmopolitan city, with the cars, traffic jams, and construction to match. Still, Yangon has held onto its unique charm and the best way to enjoy the city is simply to see where the wind takes you.
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Though the size of downtown means that it is far too large to see all at once, it's worth a stroll through the city's center. Leave the main roads and crisscross the side streets, where the sidewalks are covered with stalls full of tropical fruits and chairs and tables from tea houses. You should sit down and try the local specialty, a Burmese tea, a strong black tea with lots of sweetened milk. While enjoying your beverage, people may walk by and greet you with a smile or a nod, or a student may approach you hoping to practice his or her English. Be sure to take in the impressive colonial style buildings you find downtown and you'll understand why many travelers have called Yangon the most beautiful city in Southeast Asia. For a taste of local diversity, walk through Chinatown and Little India. They are only a few blocks apart, and both are overcrowded and full of small shops and restaurants, but have completely distinct feels: different smells, different sights, and different sounds.
Keep an Eye on Local Events
Grab a copy of one of the English-language weeklies or dailies to see what is going on in the city, or buy an issue of The Irrawaddy, the best monthly political magazine. It will update you on all the challenges the country is facing in its difficult transition to democracy.
Be Wary of Traffic
Traffic is heavy nowadays and most people only acquired a driver's license rather recently. But Yagonians drive the way they conduct other businesses, patiently and passively. Rarely will you hear a horn or see cars jump lanes or cut off other drivers. When you want to cross the street, it won't take long for someone to stop and let you cross. In other Asian cities, you could be waiting for days. The particularly daring traveler should head to 19th Street at night, when the area is closed to traffic and full of crowded restaurants. Chairs, tables, and grills crowd the sidewalk and road, with the delicious smell of freshly barbecued meat, fish, and vegetables wafting through the air. Enjoy your food with a cold beer or white wine from Myanmar. The local vineyard was founded and is still run by a German.
See the Shwedagon Pagoda
No matter how often you've been to Yangon, the highlight of any trip is sure to be a visit to the magical Shwedagon Pagoda. Crowded from sunrise to sunset with people praying, meditating, eating, and chatting, you can easily spend hours here. Find a spot in the shade of the temple or pavilion and people watch while listening to the chime of the bells. Very little has changed here, with the exception of new ATMs scattered throughout.
Jan-Philipp Sendker is the internationally bestselling author of The Art of Hearing Heartbeats. His latest novel, A Well-Tempered Heart, is out now from Other Press.