Yangon / Rangoon is still Myanmar’s main hub for all modes of transport, even as the country’s capital has been moved to Nyaypitaw. There is no direct flight from Manila yet, but via layover in Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok or Vietnam, options include Cebu Pacific through Tigerair, Airasia, Jetstar, Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, SIngapore Air, and Vietnam Airlines.
I came to Yangon with an open mind, not knowing what to expect. I knew it had isolated itself from the world for the last couple of decades, and I was warned that it might not be what I would expect of a city, but other than that, there’s still surprisingly little in terms of travel experience online that it was quite difficult to form any reasonable image of the city. Which was all for the better, I suppose, as it made me more receptive and my senses more fervid of Yangon’s – and truly all of Myanmar’s – many surprises.
I arrived at Yangon International Airport from Singapore, where I had agreed to meet my friend who had been traveling in Thailand for a couple of months. With only nine hours in Yangon (I had pre-booked a bus to Bagan that same night), we had to be wise about how we spend it. Luckily, my friend left all the itinerary-planning with me, so I got my Yangon non-negotiables: riding the circular railway + seeing Shwedagon Paya, and then some.
Yangon Circular Railway
Taxi from airport to nearest circle station: K4000
Train ticket to Yangon Central: K200
Built during the British colonial period, the Circular Railway is the city’s commuter rail network, similar to Manila’s MRT, that connects various areas of metropolitan Yangon. It is a circular loop of 39 stations which takes around 3 hours to complete.
From the airport, we took a taxi to the nearest circular train station, which we were told was Paywetseikkon. From the train map above it seems like there are nearer stations, but apparently involves a more complicated series of twists and turns.
The train took its sweet time going from one station to the next that it was almost calming, as if there were nothing in life that should be rushed. In between stations, though, vendors come in and out, mostly selling curious-looking local snacks. It was my introduction to Myanmar and its people – still in their traditional and colorful Longyi and Hta Mein – and it has become one of my favorite experiences in Yangon, the heat and occasional smell notwithstanding.
Yangon City Tour
Taxi from 1:30PM to 7PM: K30,000
We hired a taxi to tour us around Yangon as well as to bring us to the bus station that night. If we had an extra day, I would have loved to do a walking tour of the city, especially in the area with many still-impressive-even-though-poorly-maintained colonial buildings.
St Mary’s Cathedral
This red-brick building from the early 1900s is Yangon’s Catholic community’s biggest cathedral. I don’t always get the chance to have a church as a first stop, so I was glad that this time, I was able to say my thanks first, although we didn’t get to have a full appreciation of what’s inside as it was closed when we visited.
6AM – 930PM
Entrance Fee: K3,000
Botataung Paya is not as grand nor crowded as the Shwedagon & other temples, which I guess is what gives it a more spiritual feel. Unlike most temples, its stupa is hollow, meaning you can actually walk (and pray, if you’re Buddhist) inside its fully-gilded zig-zaggy corridors. It was quite impressive.
Tip: Always have wet wipes when going to temples, as shoes and socks are not allowed inside, and the floor is hardly the cleanest you’ll walk on.
5AM – 9PM
Entrance Fee: K2,000
Whereas some city’s rotunda has statues, Yangon has a 2000-year old temple, which, given its location, unsurprisingly is a popular meeting area and landmark. Notice the building to the left – very European, don’t you think? There are more of those colonial buildings which sadly we didn’t have enough time for.
I also requested a quick stop at the historic Strand Hotel. Not very impressive now, but it was still thrilling to me that writers like Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell were able to travel to this part of the world and stayed in this hotel.
6AM – 8PM
The Chaukhtatgyi Paya houses one of the most distinct Buddhas I have seen. Not just in that it is reclining – I have seen reclining Buddhas in Thailand before – but in its design as well. It is quite feminine, with the Buddha having bright, red lips and pink nails. Its feet, also pink, has 108 segments, representing the Buddha’s 108 auspicious characteristics.
Tip: There is a platform by the Buddha’s feet where one can take photos.
4AM – 10PM
Entrance Fee: K8,000
Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire. As it stood overlooking everything it seemed to explain all about Burma.
This is Rudyard Kipling’s description of Myanmar’s most important Buddhist pagoda in March of 1889, and it is incredible that I could use the very same words today – more than a century later – and it would still be true. Its grandeur is not lost on me even as it is undergoing construction/restoration these days.
As we drove past the Shwedagon complex going to the bus station, we caught a glimpse of the temple again – and oh my goodness, it was burning gold! And that is how we discovered too late that the best time to photograph the Shwedagon is after sunset. I cannot imagine just how breathtaking it will be once done.
– If coming on a rented vehicle, remember which entrance you take as you might get lost going back
– There are water refilling stations which many locals use (haven’t personally tried)
– There is wifi inside the complex
– There are ATMs and money exchange, but the rate in the airport is still slightly better
A smaller stupa inside the Shwedagon complex
We also made a stop at Kandawgyi Lake, a relaxing park near Shwedagon Paya, with some restaurants and clean western toilets.
Tip: When planning an itinerary which is a bit rushed, don’t forget to account for traffic. We were almost late for our bus reservation to Bagan, but that’s another story. Wish me luck writing another post! 😀