Dazzling pagodas, mouth-watering food, tantalising market stalls – life in Burma’s fascinating former capital truly feels golden, says Phoebe Smith
On arrival at Yangon airport a sign announces that you’ve reached the ‘City of Gold’ – but by that point you’ll already know. One glance out of the plane window will have revealed the smatter of gilded pagodas, either reflecting sunshine or illuminated by spotlights at night, that give the city its sobriquet.
These Buddhist temples are the most obvious treasures in the city; a visit to them is practically mandatory – especially to the most famous, Shwedagon Pagoda. However, there’s so much more to see. Stroll around Inya Lake (it was in a waterfront property here that Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest); explore the leafy downtown streets lined with crumbling colonial architecture (remnants of British rule); and visit 70-year-old Scott Market, which is filled with jewels, longyi skirts and souvenirs. Your 24 hours will whizz by before you know it.
British citizens require a visa, which must be obtained before arrival (see Essential Info). On the plane, you’ll be given an arrival/departure card; fill it in before you land – you will need the address of your first night’s hotel and your flight dates/numbers.
At the airport you must pass immigration. Your photograph will be taken and you’ll be given the departure part of your card; keep this to hand in when you leave the country. Next, claim your bags, which will be scanned before you finally enter the Arrivals hall.
In Arrivals there are money exchange desks where you get local kyats; the exchange rate is only a little lower than in town, so it’s a good option. Take US dollars to change – bigger bills get a slightly better rate.
On departure you can change any remaining currency at a desk just after immigration.
Taxis are readily available and the cost of the ride into the city is low: expect to pay around 10,000kyat (£6.30) or around US$10 – drivers gladly take dollars. Agree on the fare before you start your journey.
Currently the only land border crossings available to foreigners wanting to enter Burma are via Thailand. There are four options: Tachileik (the northernmost crossing), Myawaddy (east of Yangon), Htee Kee (the most remote) and Kawthaung (the southernmost).
Visa rules change all the time (and should be checked before departure) but currently, unless you’re content with only a day trip to Burma and don’t intend to leave the town area you arrive in, then you will need to organise a Burma visa pre-trip (see Essential info).
Population: 5.9 million
Language: Burmese, plus around 100 tribal languages and dialects. Some English spoken in towns and tourist areas.
International dialling code: +95
Visas: Required by UK nationals. Apply in advance at the Myanmar Embassy in London (19a Charles St, London W1J 5DX; www.myanmarembassylondon.com). Processing time is around seven days; visas, valid for a four-week stay in the country, cost £14.
Best viewpoint: Grab a bite at the Thiripyitsaya Sky Bistro in the Sakura Tower for 360-degree views of Yangon – the food may not be five-star but the panorama definitely is.
Health issues: Do not drink the tap water: buy sealed, bottled water or purify your own. Dengue fever is a problem – avoid mosquito bites by using repellent and covering your arms and legs.
Recommended guidebooks: Myanmar (Insight Guides, 2013) Historical Walks in Yangon: Heritage Trust Guide Map (Silkworm, 2010)
Climate: Winter (November-February) is the dry season, when rainfall is lowest and temperatures reach highs of around 32°C; it’s also peak tourist season. March-May is the most oppressively hot period – it can reach the high 30°Cs or even the low 40°Cs. Late May/June to September/October is monsoon season.
Head downtown to Sule Pagoda, the gold stupa that now acts as a roundabout to Yangon traffic. From there, explore the nearby streets on foot to admire the mix of buildings. Look out for the colonial Strand Hotel and City Hall among others.
Now it’s time to shop. With over 2,000 stalls under one roof, Bogyoke Aung San Market (aka Scott’s Market) is the perfect place to spend your newly changed kyat on everything from ‘I heart Myanmar’ T-shirts to tribal handicrafts. Keep an eye on the time – it’s easy to lose track here.
By now you’ll have built up an appetite, so aim for Feel Myanmar Food (124 Pyihtaungsu St), where you can try a range of excellent value Burmese dishes (around US$1 each). It’s popular with the locals but don’t let the queues put you off.
Now fully refuelled, check out the National Museum (Pyay Rd). It’s badly lit, and forget finding labels, but it’s worth a stroll to see the country’s relics.
Next up, stroll by one of Yangon’s two lakes. The smaller (Kandawgyi) is closer and more popular with tourists. The larger (Inya) is where the locals go.
End your day by grabbing some food from a market stall en route to the Shwedagon Pagoda (entrance US$8). Here you can watch the sun set, see the monks gather and chat to the locals, who will undoubtedly want to practise their English and welcome you to Myanmar.
As a general rule, people are more than happy to pose for photographs, even monks at the Buddhist sites. Just remember to ask first and be ready for them to want to photograph you too!
Accommodation in Yangon is expensive, and price doesn’t always reflect quality. There are plenty of comfortable options though, no matter what your budget.
Top end: If you want a place that oozes history then it’s got to be The Strand. Built by the British in 1901, it’s full of colonial charm and offers a range of suites as well as a spa. Doubles from around US$400.
Mid range: With friendly staff, a good location near Bogyoke Market and great views of the Shwedagon Pagoda from the breakfast room, the Asia Plaza Hotel is a good choice. Doubles from US$120.
Budget: Finding somewhere cheap and clean can be tricky but the Motherland Inn 2 manages both. It’s a walk or short taxi ride to the main attractions but given that free airport pick-up and breakfast are included from just US$25 a night, who’s complaining?
With so many other attractions in the rest of the country calling you (Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan, the Myeik Archipelago – to name just a few), it can be tempting to leave Yangon immediately after arriving. However, spare at least a couple of days to explore the city. It may no longer be the capital (in 2006, the military government shifted that role to Naypyidaw) but it certainly feels like one and offers the best intro to Burma before your wanderlust takes you further.
If you get itchy feet then nearby Bago, 80km north-east of Yangon, is worth considering for a day trip. It’s easily reached by bus or, more conveniently, taxi; the journey takes a couple of hours. Bago is home to the tallest pagoda in the world (Shwemawdaw) and the huge reclining Shwethalyaung Buddha, which dates back to AD994. A little further east is Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, an iconic Buddhist stupa built atop a precariously balanced golden boulder.