The former capital of Myanmar that used to be called Rangoon, Yangon is often referred to as the last of the great Southeast Asian cities, mostly due to the fact that its feet seem firmly planted in the past, while the rest of it races forward into the present. Crumbling examples of colonial architecture from the time of the British can be seen all over Yangon, mixed in with local businesses, breathtaking temples, and crowded streets, and you can easily spend several days enjoying all that this city has to offer.
Surely Yangon’s greatest hit is the Shwedagon Pagoda, towering a 100 meters in the air over the city and dating from 2,500 years ago. The pagoda is a Buddhist temple that is full of images of Buddha from the opening of the temple to the present day, and this is one of the most important religious places in the whole of Myanmar. You can of course walk around yourself and there is plenty to look at and enjoy, but if you really want to get as much from the experience as possible, then it is a good idea to hire one of the guides who can be found by the entrance. You will need to bargain with them but anything up to US$10 is reasonable for a tour of the interior to hear all about the history of this magnificent building. Southeast Asia is not short of temples, but Shwedagon Pagoda is definitely one that will truly take your breath away.
Translated as the ‘Great Royal Lake’, Kandawgyi Lake is probably the second most iconic feature of Yangon after Shwedagon Pagoda. Built under the British, Kandawgyi Lake is an oasis in the middle of the city and also offers spectacular views of the pagoda in the background. To get here you need to head out of downtown and then walk across a park until you reach the glassy waters and the awe-inducing vistas. Yangon is not a quiet city, with endless traffic and people everywhere, but when you reach the lake all of this will melt away. A nice activity here is to pick up some snacks before you head to the lake and then enjoy a picnic out of the traffic fumes and bustle of the city.
If you are in downtown Yangon then Sule Pagoda is impossible to miss, a bright golden tower in the center of the city that is famous for being the home of a piece of hair that once belonged to Buddha. For those who feel like they have had enough of seeing temples in Southeast Asia, there is no need to go inside the complex unless you are really interested as it is quite small and there is less going on in terms of decorative of historical artifacts than at other locations. That said, the sight of the pagoda at night is absolutely not to be missed as it seems to light up the entire surrounding area, glowing like a beacon in the middle of the smog and traffic downtown. Head over there as the sun goes down and you won’t be disappointed.
Yangon has a charm that many cities in Southeast Asia have now lost as the crowds have started to arrive and while it is indeed opening up at a fast pace, it lacks the hard tourist edge that have ruined other places. Some of the monuments are world class, so spending several days here taking them in is well worth it before continuing on to other parts of the country.