Yangon - A Few Days in this Rapidly Changing City
Our last stop on our amazing trip to Myanmar was in the city of Yangon (formerly know as Rangoon). We flew into the city from Bagan and jumped into a cab through the busy suburbs to the incredibly tight streets of Chinatown where we would be staying. Yangon hit us in the face like a ton of bricks. What an incredible city... wow!
Although no longer the capital of the country, the city is by far the largest in Myanmar representing over 20% of the country's economy. The city is undergoing a transformation with Myanmar's democratically elected government just a few months in power and the Yangon stock exchange opening just a few weeks before we arrived. According to UN-Habitat in Myanmar Yangon’s population is set to grow at 4 percent annually and could expand from around 5.7 million residents now to more than 11 million in 2040!
One way to explore all facets of the city is to take the Yangon Circular Train. It takes about two and a half hours to circle the city and costs pennies. We found the ride fascinating, both inside and out. The sights of markets, paddy field farmers and bustling life on the train platforms was amazing. Yangon residents waved and smiled as we went past. Inside the train the locals were friendly to us and the other tourists along for the ride. One guy offered to share his recently purchased betel quid chewing tobacco with Iain. He smiled and politely declined.
Another really worthwhile thing we did was to take a guided tour from Free Yangon Walks. Our guide was so informative and educational about the colonial era buildings that surround Maha Bandoola Garden. We enjoyed the time with our guide and those of our two other tour attendees so much that we headed off for a drink after the tour to continue our chat about travels and life in general. Interestingly, one of our fellow travelers had just left a job as a mechanic for the Ferrari formula one team so we were insufferable asking him for insider knowledge. I strongly recommend the tour, it's a great way to spend a few hours.
The jewel in the crown of Yangon tourism is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It sits in the center of Yangon like a beacon for all to see. We went along one soggy morning and spent a few hours exploring this amazing compound. Words can't describe its magnificence and my pictures can't either. But it goes without saying this is a must-see. Make sure to allow yourself plenty of time to explore.
Another worthwhile visit is a walk around the Kandawgyi Lake. The lake is luminescent green from the algae and the boardwalk is quite rickety and scary, but it makes for a scenic walk. You can see beautiful views of the Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance and a gigantic replica of a Burmese Royal Barge.
What we most liked about Yangon was the atmosphere of the city. It is an odd mix of new and old. Many men still wear the traditional longyi, but in Yangon more so than Mandalay, we saw lots of young men dressed as if they lived in Los Angeles, not Asia. While international brands haven't really made there way into culture yet and there are still frequent power outages, everyone is connected to the internet and just like everywhere else, constantly looking at their smartphones.
Wandering around 19th street and the other areas around Chinatown had a magical, almost surreal feeling to it. The hot and steamy weather, the narrow streets teeming with food vendors, the bars and cafes spilling onto the streets created the most incredible atmosphere that we returned there again and again just to soak it all in.
The incredible growth this city is going to experience is terrifying. It's difficult not to be fearful of what it may turn into. While some homogenization of the culture to blend with the rest of the world is inevitable I sincerely hope this amazing city remains a special place for many years to come.