The 21-day quarantine in India has caused a disruption in all of our schedules, leaving many of us finding new ways of staying occupied. If you are anything like me, this means you have been spending time either reminiscing vacations you took or creating a list of places you would like to visit once this is over. In this article, I will reminisce a recent vacation I took and, in the process, pitch it as great vacation idea that you should plan for, especially given its proximity and affordability for people living in India.
I’m talking about Myanmar – also known as Burma. Although the names are often used interchangeably, there are political implications of recognising the country as either one. I visited Yangon, the capital city of Myanmar, in November 2019 with my cousin brother. Yangon was previously known as ‘Rangoon’, which translates to “the enemy is vanquished”.
During my visit, I read the book The Hidden History of Burma. Given that reading the entire book might feel like a commitment, I recommend reading just the introduction if you find it in an airport book shop. It does a stellar job of summarizing the socio-political context of contemporary Myanmar, tracing its history since its pre-colonial days, through British colonialism (when it was annexed as a part of East India Company) to the following postcolonial political turmoil which engulfs many countries even today. You’ll find after reading this book that India and Myanmar have a lot more in common than one would assume.
IndiGo has daily flights to Yangon from New Delhi and Kolkata at very affordable rates. I chose to fly from Kolkata since I had never been there either and wanted to spend a couple of days touring the city.
The two-hour flight to Yangon left Kolkata at around noon. Typically, a round trip to Myanmar will cost you around Rs. 9000 INR. Although Myanmar offers visa on-arrival for visitors, I had previously applied for a visa just in the interest of time.
Stay, local commute and logistics
We had a local Burmese sim card that we bought in India for ease of mobility once we reached the airport. The most popular app to book cabs in Myanmar is ‘Grab’. Once we landed, we booked a Grab to go to our Airbnb location. Our Airbnb was in the Bagan Township of Yangon, which was very centrally located and close to a lot of shops, eateries and nightlife.
I would highly recommend having Burmese currency in cash before you land and having a forex card to withdraw cash during your stay. The Burmese economy is highly dependent on cash transactions and considering its rate of inflation for the past year was 12% (no-doubt a sharp decline from its average 40% in the early 2000s), it is more realistic to withdraw cash for each day of your stay rather than flying there with tones of notes.
For context, 1 Indian Rupee exchanges to about 19 Myanmar Kyats. Our budget for the two of us was typically around 75,000-90,000 Kyats per day.
As I mentioned, I visited with my elder cousin brother and also had a very dear friend of mine from college, who also grew up in Yangon, take us around in Myanmar. However, I do try to probe the safety of each place I visit from the point of view of a solo woman traveler and wonder if I could have done the trip alone as well.
In the case of Yangon, I think I would be comfortable visiting alone knowing what I know about it now. For a first-time visitor, I would recommend being with company in the downtown area and having a local acquaintance accessible via cell phone.
In terms of how to dress, I was absolutely comfortable wearing shorts, shirts, tank tops and whatever else I would wear without the fear of being watched. The caveat while visiting Myanmar, however, is to wear loose pants and cover your shoulders and chest while visiting any of the Pagodas and temples – regardless of your gender identity.
Places to Visit
Now to the fun part. I will list out some essential Yangon sites to visit – both historically significant as well as culturally exciting. I am listing my top 10 favourites, although there were many other places we visit, which I will also list below!
1. Shwegadon Pagoda
- The one place you are absolutely not allowed to miss when you visit Yangon.
- Over 2,600 years old
- 99m high built with gold plated bricks
- 10,000 Kyats entrance fee
- Cover your shoulders, chest and legs (no tight pants)
- Walk in clockwise direction
- Learn about corners for each day of the week; find out which day of the week you were born, and that is the deity you have to wash (21 times is a safe number)
- MEDITATE! Spend time here doing nothing. Write. Think. Walk. Whatever your heart tells you.
- Regardless of your religious beliefs, this site will leave you speechless. I have never seen or felt anything like it anywhere in the world.
2. Chauktatgyi Buddha Temple
- Houses 66m reclining Buddha
- Completed in 1907
- Cover your legs and shoulders! Since I wore a tank top, the temple volunteers let me borrow a scarf
- Entrance fee is donation based
- Once there read the stories along the walls, wash the deity corresponding with your birth day and play with the many temple stray cats!
- Take some time to meditate facing the Buddha; you will find him smiling at you
3. Bahadur Shah Zafar Dargah
- Resting place of the last Mughal emperor of India
- He was exiled by the British Administration
- Very interesting story about the discovery of his remains which I will leave for you to find out during your visit!
- We were guided by a man who spoke perfect Hindi, whose family migrated there two generations ago
- Entrance is free by 10,000 Kyats suggested donation
4. Kandawgyi Park for the sunset
- Houses many cafes
- Lovely for a walk
- We stumbled upon a flea market when we visited
- 300 Kyats for entrance
5. Sule Pagoda
- In the center of a traffic junction
- Same rules and entrance fees as Shwedagon
- Good starting place to start walking towards Rangoon Tea House. You might also catch some street shopping along the way!
6. Rangoon Tea House
- Another absolute must visit for when you’re in Yangon
- I visited a couple of times to try out different local and fusion foods (ask the servers for recommendations of noodles), cocktails and of course, tea
- An favorite for expats.
7. Street Food (19th Street, Downtown)
- Take your time walking down and around 19th street to find an open-air restaurant that works for you
- All menus are printed in English so ordering isn’t an issue
- All dishes pair well with the local beer, called Myanmar
I really enjoyed bar-hopping. Some of my favorite spots were:
- Blind Tiger
- After eight shot bar
- Blow hookah bar
- Safe house
- The Vibe
- 50th Street
- Atlas Yangon (rooftop bar with a view of Shwedagon and the river)
- Yangon Bakehouse (my favorite was the vanilla cream cold brew)
- The District
- Harry’s (in Myanmar Plaza, a mall with LOTS of local eating and drinking options as well as shops)
10. Bokyoke Aung San Market
For souvenirs, coffee, jade, artwork – you name it! If you are visibly a non-local, vendors will name a higher price for you. Feel free to bargain, but please stay reasonable, since even the relatively higher price they initially state is quite reasonable.
Things I would change if I went to Myanmar again
My five-day stay in Myanmar was truly so calming, refreshing and fun. If I had my way, I would take a week out of each year to revisit Myanmar. If I had to re-do it I would:
- Add Bagan and Mandalay on my itinerary
- Donate more at the temples and dargah (we donated around 2000-5000 Kyats, which seems like a lot because of the zeros, but really isn’t)
- Buy more souvenirs and jade accessories
- Check out more local art galleries and walk through Yangon Walls
- Go to the Strand hotel for a cocktail and swim
- Spend more time meditating at Shwedagon Pagoda!
- Have local hot-pot (look up restaurants on Google maps)
- Walk along the river
- Pwint Thit San (on Google maps) is a 24-hours restaurant with a 24-hours convenience store next to it
- For easy food and snack options, go to the top floor of Myanmar Plaza mall