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10 Things No One Tells You About... Yangon, Myanmar

Feb. 04, 2017
11 min read
Yangon temples by John C. Harper
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If you're planning to visit Myanmar, you're already journeying well outside mainstream itineraries — those hoping to find all-inclusive resorts and hotels that take Starpoints should look elsewhere (until the Sheraton opens in July anyway). Traveling to this country is like stepping back in time, a capsule sealed for decades by diplomatic isolation and military dictatorship. But the light of Myanmar is now visible to the world, and what a beautiful light it is — the entire country drips with a seemingly divine glow that cameras and photographs can only attempt to capture. If you have a knack for adventure, cultural curiosity and a little bit of patience, Yangon will surely capture your heart.

1. Cash Is King... But Only If It's Clean

It's rare to find Burmese businesses, save some luxury hotels, that accept Visa or Mastercard, even in Yangon. Cash is king here, but not always. The Burmese really, and I mean really, like their cash to be in tip-top condition, which can present a problem for unsuspecting tourists from nations like the United States, where even currency that's been washed, crinkled, stained, bifurcated and then taped back together again remains perfectly legal tender for most people. Currency exchanges in Myanmar, even at the airport, may not accept a dollar bill if it has so much as a crease in it. A small tear? Those pesky ink marks left by some merchants in the States? You might as well be peddling papyrus leaf. And even once you stuff your wallet with Myanmar kyat, the same holds true for the local ducat in markets and restaurants, where merchants want their bills crisp, shiny and preferably unfolded — if you must fold, make sure it's only once and cleanly down the middle. An easy solution is to use the nation's growing network of ATMs. Just be sure to call your bank ahead of time. The ATMs I found offered reasonable exchange rates and minimal fees.

Whether you're visiting a temple or paying for lunch, you'll want to make sure you have cash — clean, unwrinkled and unadulterated cash. Image by the author.

2. Wear Long Pants if You're Visiting Temples

The Shwedagon Pagoda is a 300-foot-tall golden spire, and something you really need to see before you die. If you go, wear long pants or a long dress. Men are required to purchase a longyi at the entry gate if they arrive wearing shorts — these cheap pieces of fabric are sold for 8,000 kyat (~$5), roughly the price of the hour-long cab ride from Yangon International Airport (RGN) to downtown. If you want to take home a longyi for yourself, they're available at most markets or on just about any corner in town, will likely cost less and are bound to be of higher quality. Otherwise, protect your wallet and wear pants when you go to the pagoda.

A man wearing the traditional Burmese tunic and longyi, a piece of cloth wrapped around the waist and knotted in front. Image courtesy of Saeed Khan/Getty Images.

3. The Train's the Cheapest Tour in Town

Myanmar's intracity rail system is an experience in and of itself. Similar to the nation's intercity trains, this thing is old, clunky and will make for unbelievable photographs. The fare is a flat 300 kyat (~$0.22), and the train encircles much of the Yangon metropolitan area, offering a window into the lives of locals and their communities and taking you to some pretty surreal places. One such stop is the Danyingone Morning Market. About 90 minutes out of Yangon Central Railway Station, Danyingone is past the point where the city opens up to green countryside and quaint villages. Merchants crowd right alongside the tracks peddling foods and other goods to passing commuters and it's a sight to behold. If the ride grows a bit tedious, just take a taxi back to the city center.

The Yangon Central Railway offers a unique view of the city and its surrounding communities. Image courtesy of Fraser Robertson/Getty Images.

4. Beware of Fake Monks

Monks are a pleasant sight to behold in any Asian city, and as one of the bastions of Theravada Buddhism, Myanmar has a vast population of spiritual devotees. But not all who talk the talk actually walk the walk. Observe colonial Myanmar, where many a monk walks the street carrying baskets to collect money. Do they approach locals? Not very often, and there is a reason: it's not normal for Theravada monks to aggressively beg for money on streets and while monks often carry baskets, those who pester openly are mostly impostors. If you'd like to support the Buddhist faith, make your donations at a temple or pagoda or venture to more modest temples that are less frequented by tourists if you want to make the biggest impact.

Burmese buddhist monks pray near Shwedagon Pagoda. Image courtesy of Pongsan Mabai / EyeEm via Getty Images.

5. Tea Houses Are Great Places to Enjoy a Small Meal

Everyone in Yangon has a favorite tea house. They are easy to spot, filled with squatty tables and plastic chairs, and will be crowded so long as the sun is up. These modest establishments also offer food, which can be delicious. In addition to your order of tea — I prefer le pe ye, or tea with condensed milk — try an order of Burmese dumplings, called baugh se (pronounced "bot-see"), or sticky shan noodles, served with chicken (kyaatsarr), beef (aamellsar), Burmese yellow tofu (won ta hpo) or shrimp (puhcwan).

Tea shops can also be great places to sample staple Burmese cuisine. Image by the author.

6. Watch out for Open Sewers

While Yangon's sewer system can be an attraction for infrastructure and history nerds, for many, this quirk of an ancient city is just something to prepare for. While open sewers are not uncommon throughout Asia, Yangon's sewer system is a unique piece of antiquity. Unlike the isolated canals you might find in Bangkok or the open sewers you'll often come across in rural areas, Yangon has a full-fledged urban open-sewer system, a la 19th-century Chicago or New York. The byproducts of nearly six million city dwellers pass serenely below foot, separated from sidewalks (most of the time) by ventilated street tiles. In dry weather this presents no real danger to tourists, although it may produce an odor and you may want to be wary of the occasional missing sewer tile. In excessive rain, though, things get a bit more complicated, providing another reason to plan your trip during the dry period, October through May. Also, don't wear your shoes in your hotel room — enough said.

Watch your step. Most of Yangon's sewer network is concealed by stepping stones, which can sometimes become dislodged. Image by the author.

7. There's Another Side to the Yangon River, and Its Not All on the Map

If you’re in Yangon and you open, say, Google or Apple maps, you'll see a large, blank swath of land on the western shore of the city’s eponymous river. Don't be deceived — locals estimate as many as a million people live on this side of the river, but with few schools and a solitary hospital, the community of Dala feels far from the big city. A short ferry ride costs 3,000 kyat (~$2.20) round-trip and provides a unique perspective on local life. The ride buys you just enough time to slurp down a coffee, prepared Burmese-style, thick and strong, with a layer of sweet liquefied coffee grounds lurking near the bottom.

The ferry ride between Yangon and Dala affords just enough time to enjoy a coffee and view of the cityscape. Image by the author.

8. You'll Probably Want to Hire a Guide in Dala

Given that Apple Maps — and to a lesser extent, Google Maps — are missing some of the intricate roads in this sprawling village, it's probably best to hire an English-speaking guide, which can be pre-arranged at a tour office. You can also find friendly English-speaking locals near the ferry terminal or on the city side of the river, in the vicinity of the Sule Pagoda. This is a very informal process and usually involves locals starting casual conversations — beware of anyone attempting to hustle you or pressure you into following them though. The Burmese people are generally gregarious and generous with their time, and a competent guide will take the time to make you comfortable.

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Our guide, Ko Htoo, explains the ceramic pots used to cool and clean drinking water gathered in open ponds. Image by the author.

9. Visit One of the Morning Markets

Markets in central Yangon are crowded, bustling affairs. Dala's morning market offers a different vibe, a one-stop shop for the cultural oddities and local charms of an ancient culture. Here you can find rats seasoned, smoked or skewered and served on a platter. A few stalls away, you might find a stout female butcher hacking organs out of a freshly-slaughtered hog, the swine’s snout, eyes and ears hanging like unfinished taxidermy from the rafters while morning shoppers thumb through warm pieces of flesh as if they were tapestry. Nearby, workers stand around large vats milling silvery-gray fish paste made of piscine innards and aged six months. Trays of spices, fruits, vegetables and traditional housewares and decorations, including portraits of 23 different spirits portrayed in Southeast Asian folklore, round out a rich experience.

Ever see an entire pig available for perusal on a table? The morning market features several pork butchers, each offering a variety of cuts to be browsed. Image by the author.

10. Face Your Fears at the Temple of Snakes

For a real thrill, ask your guide to take you to the snake pagoda. About a 45-minute ride from the ferry terminal in the middle of a large pond floats a shrine to one of the creepiest of creatures. A number of Burmese pythons (estimated by some to number around 30) live inside this Buddhist shrine, Baungdawgyoke Pagoda, where they hang from the rafters, drape themselves across the banyan tree, rest on windowsills and cuddle among four Buddhist statues. This is no zoo exhibit. There are no Plexiglas dividers. The snakes, free to come and go as they may, choose to stay here, to rest here, to, dare I say, worship here. Three nuns care for the snakes overnight and feed them a diet of cow's milk, served in what appears to be cereal bowls. Note that there is some confusion online about the name of this landmark, so when in doubt, come armed with a photograph because local guides know where this place is — while there are several notable snake pagodas throughout Myanmar, this is the closest one to the city of Yangon.

Even open windows are largely filled by resting snakes. Don't look up. Image by the author.

What are some of your favorite things to do in Yangon, Myanmar? Tell us about them, below.

Featured image by Yangon temples by John C. Harper