What to do in Yangon for First Time Visitors
Updated on January 28th, 2020
Yangon was the first stop for us on our arrival to being expats in Myanmar. I was lucky enough to have a few days to explore the city, while Ben was straight into work meetings. Wandering around the chaotic streets gave me a quick reminder I wasn’t in Europe anymore. Now, after 2 trips here and a chance to explore the city a little deeper I recommend you follow this guide for what to do in Yangon on your first trip.
The city was bigger than I had imagined and the areas are very spread out with bad traffic. The Yangon government has banned the use of motorbikes, which means there are a lot of cars on the road for an Asian city. Because of this, I recommend booking your stay close to the attractions you most want to see.
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Yangon is the largest city in Myanmar and since 2006, the former capital. The country that was previously known as Burma is home to colonial architecture, Buddhist pagodas, large natural lakes, open parklands and modern dining and hotel facilities. Over 7 million people call Yangon home and each year sees an increase in the number of foreign visitors to the country. With many local traditions still in place, Yangon is an interesting city to visit for authentic and rich Myanmar culture.
The city spreads over 20km in length from the northern rice paddies by the airport to the Yangon River which wraps the western side and most of the eastern side of Yangon. From East to West takes you through the industrial areas and local neighbourhoods and by the busy downtown area.
Arriving in Yangon
Getting into Myanmar is very easy these days. For $50 USD you can apply for a tourist eVisa at least 3 days prior to arriving or get a visa on arrival (VOA). I chose to do the visa pre-arrival as Ben was getting his work visa organised for him, however, due to some issues with his paperwork, he needed to get the VOA. We then found out although the visas are technically the same thing, Ben was granted 30 days while I was only given 28. So if you plan on staying the entire time, I would opt for the VOA.
Entering through customs was really easy, the two times I have entered there have only been a few people ahead in the queue. The VOA office is at the end of the hall by the foreign immigration line. Make sure you print the eVisa receipt if you opted for that option – I didn’t and the lady wasn’t happy about it.
ATM’s & SIM cards
Once through immigration and customs, you’ll head out into the waiting area where you’ll get hassled by taxi drivers. As you exit, head left and you will find four ATM’s to grab some local currency by the information desks. For some reason, our Citibank cards didn’t work in all of them and have found that to be the case over Myanmar.
Across from the information desk, you will see the signs for the different mobile phone providers. You can pick up a SIM card really cheap and it will definitely make your trip a lot easier. Read my guide on finding the best SIM card for Myanmar.
Getting a taxi
Yangon downtown area is generally a 45-minute drive from the airport with the traffic. Don’t pay more than 10,000 Kyat to get anywhere downtown. A lot of the drivers will ask for $10 USD, but this is farrrrr to much. If you have been in Asia for awhile now, you will be well practised at bartering for taxi fares. If not, now is a good time to learn.
How many days in Yangon
Yangon is a large city with many of the main attractions spread out. I recommend spending 3 days in Yangon to see all the main sites.
Where to stay in Yangon
As mentioned, Yangon is a large city which covers a lot of area and attractions all over the place, so it can be hard to decide the best area to stay in. When visiting Myanmar, foreigners are required to stay in authorised guesthouses only. Which means there is no Airbnb or similar.
I recommend staying as close to the downtown area of Yangon as possible. This area is full of great restaurants, a few trendy bars and is within walking distance to many of the best things to do in Yangon.
Hostels in Yangon
Bodhi Nava Boutique Hostel – A little on the high end for a hostel, at $15 USD a night. Although Bodhi consistently gets great reviews, is located less than 5 minutes walking to the Kandawagi Lake and Shwedagon Pagoda. Price includes free breakfast. While I didn’t stay here, I visited twice for snacks and lunch.
Backpacker (Bed & Breakfast) – Small dorm rooms sizes (2 and 4 people options), in the heart of downtown Yangon. Dorms start at 10 USD a night and include free breakfast. Beds have a privacy curtain and are built-in to wooden frames. Nothing worse than wobbly bunks.
Budget / MId-range Hotels in Yangon
Clover City Center Hotel – Centrally located, at under 35 USD a night for a double room. Nearby many traditional and international restaurants and the Bogyoke Aung San Markets.
Wai Wai Place – $24 USD a night for double occupancy, you get a clean room in the downtown area. The hotel offers free breakfast, a bar and a rooftop terrace.
Things to do in Yangon
Visit Kandawagyi Lake
Kandawagyi Lake Park is located north of the downtown city centre and a short walk east of the Shwedagon Pagoda. This large green lake has wide pedestrian boardwalks elevated over the water which surrounds 3/4 of the lake. Points of interest along the way include the Karaweik Palace and views of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
As the days are hot in Myanmar even during the winter months, it might not be feasible for you to walk around the entire perimeter. The entire distance is around 5.5km which would take over an hour with photo stops. A lot of the area is unprotected and in direct sunlight, so make sure to wear plenty of sunscreen and take water.
As the eastern side has not yet been connected with boardwalks, if you are choosing just one area to visit head to the western or northerly locations. Here you will find a peninsula with viewing platforms for Karaweik Palace boat and the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Entry into the park is 300 Kyat (.20c US) and if you take in a camera another 500 Kyat for a photography pass.
Eat street food on 19th street
Post and image by Megan from Peter Pan Traveler
Yangon is full of amazing street food, some of the best I have had in Asia. I love it because it is a mix of Asian and Indian cuisine. So you get the best of both worlds. There is so much to eat and explore that you can never get bored. It is impossible to walk down the streets without stopping for a quick snack on your way to visit all the wonderful sites. Or better yet, why not make eating street food your outing.
Yangon is famous for its 19th Street BBQ. This street started bustling with locals, because of the great food and cheap prices. However, it wasn’t long before the tourists caught on and started joining the locals by pulling up a plastic chair, picking out some BBQ skewers and washing it all down with an ice-cold beer. Even though this is a known spot for tourists, it is not over-run by them.
The street is loaded with many different BBQ vendors, so you can either pick the one that looks the best or try a few. I love to eat my way down the street stopping at several different places. When I am thirsty I will sit and enjoy a drink with my food, but since most of the BBQ is skewers it makes it easy to walk and eat. Stopping and checking out all the spots along the way.
You only pay for the skewers you eat, so it is great for any budget, but you are still able to eat like a king for around $5. If you are a more adventurous eater, you can also find a vendor selling fried bugs.
Taste tea leaf salad
Tea leaf salad (lahpet thoke) is one of Myanmar’s traditional dishes. A trip to this country would not be complete without trying this popular dish. Wherever you eat out you will see a variation of the tea leaf salad on the menu. While the base ingredients remain the same, everywhere you try it is completely unique.
The basic ingredients include pickled green tea leaves, tomatoes, crunchy peanuts and beans, sesame seeds, garlic and ginger. Although it is not suitable for vegetarians as it is often prepared with fish sauce and dried shrimp. At some of the more high-end restaurants, you could try ordering this without those ingredients. Variations on the dish will serve with other salad ingredients like kale and cabbage, some places will combine all ingredients while others leave them prepared separately.
The green tea leaves that are set aside for fermenting are always the best of the crops, the rest are dried for tea drinking. The leaves are harvested before the monsoon season in April and May and steamed then packed into bamboo vats. From here they are set in pits with heavy weights. After 2 weeks the leaves begin to soften and the process is complete after 3-4 months when the pulp changes from green to golden green.
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See the grand Shwedagon Pagoda
If you perform a quick google search of what to do in Yangon, you will see the top attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda. The pagoda is not only Yangon’s most famous site but also Myanmar’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage site. The Shwedagon Pagoda’s 99-meter golden stupa can be seen from many locations around the city and is home to relics of Gautama Buddha as well as 3 previous Buddhas.
Historical evidence dates the pagoda to being built in the 6th Century making it over 2,500 years old. Find out more about the history and other structures at the temple grounds here. There are four entry points to the pagoda, north, east, south and west. Each has a large staircase taking you to the top of Singuttara Hill where the pagoda is situated. All but the eastern entrance are wheelchair/low-mobility friendly. Prior to ascending the stairwell, you are required to take off your shoes. There will be locals selling plastic bags at the base for you to put your shoes in or you can pack this environmentally friendly carry-bag which folds up to fit in your pocket.
What surprised me most about the temple was the size of its grounds – a staggering 114 acres!. After paying entrance and walking out from the covered awnings, the main stupa dominates your view. When you have taken that in and start to walk around, you will see how many other smaller temples are around and the various Buddha’s and relics. Your entrance fee includes a map to help you get around.
As with all religious temples in Asia, it is important you wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees to enter. I always carry a sarong in my bag to drape around my shoulders or to cover my knees in case I happen upon a temple I wish to enter. Entry to the pagoda costs 10,000 Kyat ($6.60 USD) and you can organise a guide for another 10,000. Opening hours are from 4 am to 10 pm.
Loop the city via the Yangon circle train
Post by Ashlea from Dashing Around the World
Experience the real essence and daily routine of Yangon’s locals on the rustic minty-green carriages of the circle railway. The railway was built in the 1950s during British colonial rule and has hardly changed since. The train line has 39 stations over 45kms of track (meaning there’s a station nearly every km) and takes approximately 3 hours to ride the whole circle.
Sit amongst the locals on the hard plastic chairs running along the edges of the train carriage as you slowly meander around the outskirts of Yangon, exchanging large city buildings for rice fields and small rustic villages.
You’ll find quick friends among your carriage-mates, as people offer to share their fruit and snacks with you, and occasionally someone will speak enough English to start chatting. The carriage will quickly fill with people dragging sacks of rice, plastic bags and baskets filled to the brim, and the rusty ceiling fans will become useless against the crowded carriage (so try to sit near the open windows!). Make sure to support the local vendors who spend all day traversing the train by purchasing some snacks, fruit and bottled water.
Tickets cost only 200 kyat ($0.13 US) and allow you to ride the whole circle or to hop on and off as you please. If you don’t have 3 hours to spare, simply ride a few stops then hop off and catch another train heading back towards the city (you’ll probably have some time for tea and people watching while waiting).
While not your traditional tourist attraction, riding the circular railway for a few hours is an incredible way to have real interactions with the locals, and get a true understanding of what daily life is like.
Drink coffee at Easy
Now if you’ve been following me for awhile you’ll know I’m a self-proclaimed coffee snob. Last year I started travelling with my Aeropress which eliminates the need to wander for hours to find a good cup of coffee. Only to be disappointed that it doesn’t live up to Australian standards. Seriously, it’s been a game-changer. If you want one you can buy them on Amazon here.
One of my favourite apps is BeanHunter which I have been using progressively less and less since owning my Aeropress. However, I did randomly open it in Yangon and clicked the ‘coffee near me’ button. Seeing as the EASY Specialty Coffee & Gentleman Coffee Roasters ranked and was near where I was going (Yangon Yoga House and the Bogyoke Aung San Markets) I decided no harm in trying it.
Upon entry, you’ll notice both locals and foreigners alike are filling the wonderfully air-conditioned building. It’s fitted with regular tables and casual coffee table benches lined with low seating and styled minimally with a few pieces of art, but the main features are the hessian bags full of beans labelled with their roastery, (is that a word?)
Next, the coffee menu is simple. Offering a few standard espresso-based drinks but the real draw is their specialty coffee. 4 bean varieties at a time, all grown in Myanmar. I personally had never tried coffee grown in Myanmar before so I was excited to give it a go. I ordered the Ruby Hills washed variety which was prepared in a V60 and OMG… that coffee is good!
So, if you’ve been missing good specialty coffee, get yo ass to Easy specialty coffee pronto. There are also a few meals on the menu which range from soup to salad to local dishes.
Wander the Bogyoke Aung San Market
I had been recommended visiting the Bogyoke Aung San Market prior to visiting Yangon. The market formerly known as Scott Market is located in an old Colonial building in the heart of the downtown area. This large 2-story building may not be the cheapest place to visit and bartering doesn’t get you much of a discount as the stall owners are used to selling at foreigner prices.
Although still worth a visit and even with the higher prices, you can still get a good deal on a local souvenir. I loved wandering through the artwork sections as artists are painting pictures in front of you to sell. No one seemed to hassle me to much and it wasn’t overly crowded. I was able to walk around casually stopping to chat to the stall owners and taking photos.
Stalls are selling ready to eat food, fresh produce, jewellery, handmade arts and crafts, clothing and fabrics. This is a good place to visit during the wet season or on a rainy day as the market is fully covered.
Recharge at Yangon Yoga House
I love a good yoga sesh. There’s nothing like the feeling you have after a good ol’ stretch. I used to do yoga almost on a daily basis a few years back and have gradually decreased my practice to almost non-existent. So now that I’m an expat, I made sure to pack up my yoga mat and move it abroad with me. No more excuses. As soon as we got to Yangon I jumped on Google to find a yoga class instructed in English.
The Yangon Yoga House has 20 classes per week and while not super affordable for a drop-in class (20,000 Kyat, $13 USD) if you’re in town for a few days the multi-pack deals are much better value. Starting at 43,000 for 3 sessions. Most of the classes are early in the morning or in the evening, so you can get in all your sightseeing and still do some yoga. I choose to do one of the few mid-morning classes and had JoJo as an instructor. She was really great and gave the perfect amount of feedback and assistance.
Another great thing about the Yangon Yoga House is the attached cafe. Nourish Cafe is a plant-based restaurant offering salads, all-day breakfast, smoothie bowls, wraps and burgers as well as coffee and desserts.
Take a sunset cruise
Post and image by Amrita & Agniswar from Tale of 2 Backpackers
While there are a lot of places to explore in Yangon, you can get the best of the city view by taking a sunset river cruise ride. The cruise leaves from the Bohtatung Jetty near Yangon downtown. After you explore the city for the whole day, the sunset river cruise on the Yangon River is going to be a welcome change.
The sunset cruise usually starts at 5 PM and takes about 2 hours to cruise along the river as you discover the beautiful sceneries of Yangon. Watch the sun setting down slowly as you enjoy the balmy breeze. Watching the sunset is perhaps the most rewarding experience. The cruise trip will give you a different vantage point of Yangon downtown and the waterfront area. You will see the Shwedagon pagoda at a distance and the mangroves on the other side. It will be one of the best experiences of your Myanmar trip.
A morning cruise is also there if you want to take that. The morning cruise would also take you to the Yangon local fish market where you can get an insight into the life of the local people. You will meet the locals and see them as they earn their livelihood. The cruise will thus provide you with an interesting cultural view on the Burmese people.
There are several operators offering both the morning and sunset cruise. Prices also vary considerably, between $12 – $55 per head depending on the operator. Most of the cruise starts between 5 – 5.30 PM in the evening from the Bohtatung Jetty and return within 2 hours. All the cruises serve a welcome juice, drinking water and some snacks. So if you are planning to do a sunset river cruise, get information about the boat, the price and the service they are offering, compare and then decide on the operator.