This is part of the Trip Report So Long Mongolia, Hello SE Asia (December-January 2015) which covers:
- Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
- Bangkok, Thailand
- Chiang Rai, Thailand
- Yangon, Myanmar
- Ngwe Saung, Myanmar
- Mandalay, Myanmar
- Bagan, Myanmar
- Hong Kong
- Orlando, Florida
Catch up by reading the preview, The Banana Pancake Trail to Myanmar Starts This Monday, then the overview, Thailand, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Disney, Home, where the game time decision was made to leave Mongolia for good.
Welcome to Yangon. You’ll immediately notice two things: 1) Those beautiful structures made of gold are pagodas. 2) That odor you smell is garbage.
Here is the Yangon Travel Guide using the Guns & Butter methodology:
- A trip is composed of two factors: Labor And Lazy
- Anything on the line (Production Possibilities Frontier for my fellow economists) is an efficient use of your time depending on your tastes and preferences.
- Anything inside the line is inefficient as should be avoided.
- Anything outside is aspirational but may be impossible to do given the constraints of time and resources.
- The opportunity cost (what is given up) for relaxing and being Lazy is gained by being adventurous in the form of Labor and vice versa.
Before you go about exploring, it’s important to know about the kyat, a useless currency like the Mongolian tugrik. I had read online that ATMs were hard to find, that I should exchange as much money as I could at the airport, and that I should be wary of bills that were torn because they wouldn’t be accepted by merchants.
The last tip is true but the first two are nonsense. First, there are ATMs everywhere. Second, unused kyat can’t be exchanged back to dollars at the airport. It’s a shady monetary policy by a country that is hungry for dollars.
In addition to currency controls, be prepared to pay the tourist tax for all major attractions in Myanmar. Locals can visit the temples for free but tourists have to pay. This wasn’t a big deal when I first arrived to Myanmar because I thought it was appropriate that tourists pay to visit religious sites while those going to pray should not be charged. This outlook changed after I was mistakenly given hotel prices where one side said, ‘tourist price’ and another side said ‘local price.’
That ridiculous policy continued when I went to Bagan and was charged $20 tourist tax just to enter the city!
Maybe the do-gooding humanitarians will think I’m being cheap or heartless and that the extra money is going to support the local economy but that would be naive.
The final point about money is for taxis. Taxis cost $1.50 for a ride within the city. They do not cost $2, or $3. That’s what locals pay, that’s what you should pay.
Tourists be warned.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is number one on the must see list of things to do in Yangon. For tourists, it’s a marvelous structure that rivals the pyramids of Egypt. They represent the boundless reach of human ingenuity. For Buddhists, it is the holiest pagoda in Myanmar. Devout Buddhists make the pilgrimage to Yangon to behold this religious wonder of the world.
The two best times to come are at sunrise and sunset. I visited at sunset and it did not disappoint. Due to scheduling conflicts, I wasn’t able to go for the sunrise but would recommend doing both if you have the time.
Taking great photographs was a challenge because the pagoda was under construction and covered by a goldish tarp. The orange street lights and protective fences didn’t help. Nobody hates imperfect photos more than I so go gentle with your critiques. (Photos taken with Nikon 1 J4.)
If you read my post on hotels in Yangon, you can see how beautiful the city once was. The pictures do not show the garbage that is all over the city. Besides India, I have not been to a country with more foul smells, more trash, and more unspeakables littered throughout than Myanmar. That problem is compounded by the unrelenting sun and heat.
Shifting from the negatives, I will say that Yangon has excellent, diverse food. There’s no need to go to fine dining such as the Padonmar Restaurant we went to for Christmas dinner when there are much more affordable options right on the street. Padonmar, a recommendation of the Shangri-La, is in an upscale neighborhood home to many of the embassies. The food was great but not more amazing than basic options.
- Padonmar Restauraunt:
- Truly on the Street
- Biryani & Cold Drinks
Unlike the street markets in Chiang Rai, those in Yangon are worth visiting because the merchant are willing to negotiate. Tourists should certainly purchase a longyi, perhaps some jade, and even gold in order to fit in. The sunglasses which go for $1 and underwear which go for the same are not the quality knock-offs of their Shanghainese counterparts.
How many temples can you see in Thailand before it gets repetitive? The same question can be asked of Myanmar. My pagoda threshold was a lot higher in Myanmar because like Angkor Wat the design was unique. Still after going from Yangon to Mandalay to Bagan I predict that your quota for pagodas will be met.
Strand Hotel for Happy Hour
After avoiding all the garbage and after purchasing one too many longyis, it’s time to class it up with a visit to the Strand Hotel for happy hour. There you will find expats who tell tall tales of their time in Burma along with inexpensive, quality drinks that will restore a sense of normalcy otherwise unfound in this strange city.
Be sure to use kyat at the Strand since the exchange rate for dollars is awful.
Prior to visiting Myanmar I had a romantic view of how the country would be. Like many SE Asian countries, it has history, architectural marvels, and intrigue dating back thousands of years. Like many SE Asian countries, it is overrun by street peddlers, tourists, and general uncleanliness. This unfiltered look at Yangon shouldn’t dissuade you from going. Just know that if you are looking for a land untouched by time, you’re too late.