Many people say to see the Shwedagon Pagoda and then hightail it to one of the other highlights of the country like Bagan or Inle Lake. The glittery Shwedagon is undeniably the city's jewel, but hitting the road before giving the city's other attractions the chance to shine is a downright shame. While you can find things to do for multiple days, we think a stay of two days is adequate to see most of the major points of interest.
Sightseeing in Yangon is simple given that there are taxis everywhere and that they are very affordable. In fact, when you can't walk between sights, a taxi ride to another part of town shouldn't cost you any more than a couple of dollars, meaning that you can cover a lot of ground quickly and inexpensively. Most of these attractions don't require a lot of time either so you can spend a short time and leave satisfied you have really seen it.
These are the things we did in Yangon over two days, and all without feeling overwhelmed or rushed. And all the entry fees came in at just 26,800 kyats – that's about $19.50 per person!
Watch the video to get a sense of Yangon for yourself, then refer to this post for all the details.
1. Shwedagon Pagoda
The Shwedagon Pagoda is no doubt a sight unto itself. Legend has it that there's been a stupa on this site for some 2,600 years ever since two merchant brothers, Tapussa and Ballika, apparently met the Buddha and were given eight of his hairs to take back to Myanmar, which are said to be enshrined here even to this day. Raids and earthquakes over the years have seen many renovations to the pagoda, with its current configuration dating back to the 1700s.
The temple grounds cover an impressive 46 hectares and all around the complex you can find interesting things to observe, with pockets of prayer and worship in every corner. You will see planetary posts or ‘corners' with days of the week written on them. Worshipers pray at the one that correlates with the day of the week they were born. There are eight planetary posts in total as, in Burmese astrology, Wednesday is broken up into two, one for morning and one for afternoon births.
The main stupa is covered in 27 metric tons of gold leaf and is an imposing 325 feet (about 100 meters) tall. The upper hti features thousands of diamonds, rubies and other gems, including a 76-carat diamond that tops it all off. As the stupa is so high it's difficult to see these details with the naked eye. Check out the on-site photo gallery for detailed images as well as the free binoculars for a closer look.
The best time to come is before sunset so you can experience the pagoda in both daylight and during its dramatic transformation from day to night, and also when the temple is at its most active. Even if you're not a big temple person or you think you've seen enough across the rest of the country, believe us when we say there isn't another pagoda like this one. Be sure to allocate a couple of hours to really explore and take this incredible place in.
Fee for foreigners: 8,000 kyats or US$8 (given the current exchange, it's cheaper to pay in kyats).
Note: If you want to take the escalators barefoot like we did in the video, be sure to take the Western Entrance. That's the one directly opposite the scenes we showed from People's Park and People's Square. From the ‘elephant fountain' (pictured below), walk straight up the path towards the Pagoda, cross the road and it's the entrance right in front of you. The escalators are before the ticket office, which you won't reach until you get to the top, so you will know you are going the right way before you pay.
2. Sule Pagoda
While not on the same grand scale as the Shwedagon, this more modest golden pagoda is still one of the city's most well-known and iconic landmarks. The Sule Pagoda is an impressive 2,000 years old, but perhaps what is most interesting about it is its unique position on a traffic circle, allowing you to experience a quiet pocket of reflection and solitude while cars and buses whiz around it in a constant cacophony of sound.
The foreign tourist fee is 3,000 kyats or US$3, plus 500 kyat shoe fee (again, given the current exchange, it's cheaper to pay in kyats). Beware of “helpful” people posing as charity workers seeking donations.
3. People's Park and People's Square
This pocket of greenery in the city center is a popular spot for couples. It's also ideally located for views of the Shwedagon Pagoda across the street. Take a short stroll through here on your way to the Shwedagon for sunset.
Fee for foreigners: 300 kyats (20 cents).
4. Kandawgyi Lake
Kandawgyi Lake is a peaceful setting for a late afternoon or early evening stroll. Take care as you traverse the rather adventurous boardwalk, which is covered in holes, loose boards and patch work! Along the way, you can visit Shin Upagot Shrine whose namesake is said to protect human beings in moments of mortal danger.
You will no doubt notice the ornate float in the water at the eastern end of the lake. To get into this area, foreigners must pay a 300 kyat (20 cent) entrance fee plus 500 kyats (35 cents) for photography permission. The float itself, however, is a theme restaurant where you can see a show along with your meal, and you won't be allowed inside without a reservation.
In this area, you can find a number of lakeside cafes for a drink or meal (we loved Chin Ngan Sat), but perhaps the best reason to go inside this paid area is to take photos of the reflection of the Shwedagon Pagoda on the water around sunset.
5. Bogyoke Aung San Market
Named after pro-democracy leader General Aung San, this market is the place to go to buy souvenirs in Yangon, especially if you're on the hunt for a longyi (a traditional skirt worn by both men and women). I found the choice of fabrics here a bit overwhelming, but I guess that means there is something for everybody's tastes.
Like most markets around the country, you can also get your items tailored by taking your cloth to one of the stalls with the sewing machines. I highly recommend this for ease of wear, but do remember, depending on what you want done and the number of pieces, it may take up to a few days. A simple longyi – basically just hemming and a waistband – however, can usually be done on the spot and for only around 1,000-1,500 kyats (about US$1). ‘Ready made' longyi are also available for tourists but many would argue that the custom options are a more memorable souvenir.
Note: There is now a New Bogyoke Market across the road, accessible by an overhead foot bridge. It is, however, just a modern shopping mall with many Western stores and up-market brands. Stick to the “old” market on the other side for your souvenir shopping. Although the ‘I Heart Yangon' sign on the new side makes for a fun picture.
6. Bogyoke Aung San Museum
At this former residence turned museum, you can learn more about the ‘founder of modern-day Burma', General Aung San, and his efforts to secure Myanmar's freedom from both Japanese and British occupation. This was where the General lived with his family for the two years leading up to his assassination in 1947.
The house itself is sparsely furnished and there is not a lot to see; I think most of the appeal here is to be able to stand in the personal abode of someone who changed the course of the country's history. Fans of his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, now a famous pro-democracy leader in her own right, and also the country's State Counsellor and Foreign Affairs Minister, may also find a visit to her childhood home noteworthy.
Entry fee for foreigners: 5,000 kyats (about US$3.60).
7. Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda
When you enter Chaukhtatgyi Temple, you'll come face-to-face with its most notable attraction, a 65-meter long bejeweled reclining Buddha. Large and imposing with delicate features, it's quite the sight.
Be sure to do a loop, stopping off at the feet to view the intricate details on the soles and to go up the small platform for more a slightly more elevated view and photo opportunities.
It is free to enter, although there is a box for donations should you wish to contribute.
If you're visiting off the City Circular train, get off at ‘Myittanyunt' and take a short taxi ride to the temple from there.
8. Seated Buddha at Ngathatgyi Pagoda
Across the street from Chaukhtatgyi, you can find another temple by the name of Ngathatgyi and another impressive representation of Buddha. This time it's a 46 foot tall seated Buddha and it's worth a quick stop while you're in the area.
Again it's free to enter, but there is a donation box inside that asks foreign tourists for contributions. There is also a donation box for watching over your shoes while you're inside.
If you're in need of a little sightseeing break, we can recommend Cafe 20, directly across the road from the temple's entrance, for its delectable smoothies.
You can take a shortcut to the nearby Bogyoke Aung San Museum by taking the backstreets behind the temple. You will likely be approached by someone wanting to show you around the adjoining monasteries for a tip. If you'd prefer not to, firmly but politely decline and just keep on going.
When you come out the back of the temple area and reach the block where the museum is on the map, you'll actually want to go left, rather than straight ahead. We ended up doing a big loop looking for the entrance.
9. National Museum
This run-down museum may house some important historical artifacts but its presentation and atmosphere leave a lot to be desired. It's so dimly lit and poorly frequented that you feel as if you're wandering around a department store after closing time. And I don't mean certain areas being dimmed for the sake of preservation of the pieces, I mean someone forgot to turn the lights on!
With all that is lacking though, I still say this museum is worth a brief visit just to see the Royal Lion Throne that was last used by the final king of Burma. I had been reading about this last chapter of royal history before coming and insisted on seeing it. It's quite something to be standing in the same room as such a special piece and it's worth circling it a few times to take in the small details. If history isn't your thing though, then this may be one you want to skip.
The entry fee for foreigners is 5,000 kyats (about US$3.60) and it should be noted that bags and cameras are not allowed inside. However, lockers are available for use. For those who want to beeline it to the Royal Lion Throne, it's conveniently located on the ground floor, not far from the entrance. It has its own room, which is clearly marked; you can't miss it.
10. China Town – 19th Street BBQ
When you mention 19th Street to locals, they'll usually say something along the lines of, ‘It's just like a Thai night market'! And it really is that typical tourist night spot – filled with friends and hostel mates drinking cheap beer and chatting about all the places they've “done” on their Southeast Asian escapade.
It's popular for its ‘Chinese BBQ', which is essentially anything and everything on skewers, both of the meat and veggie variety. If you've built up a strong stomach over your travels, you should be fine. Although if you're more sensitive or just don't want to take the risk, you might want to sit this one out. And this is coming from someone who is a huge proponent of street food generally! Take a look and decide for yourself.
11. Dalla Ferry
For a chance to get out on the water, you can take a local ferry from Pansodan Jetty across the Yangon River to Dalla (also written as Dallah or Dala). The journey is short – less than 10 minutes – but it allows you to experience a local form of transportation and feel the wind in your hair as you look at Yangon from a different perspective. Perhaps the best part of the journey is seeing the jostling that takes place when the ferry pulls in.
You can get off at Dalla and take a short walk around the sleepy town or head over to Twante, well-known for its pottery workshops. If that doesn't interest you, simply watch the hustle and bustle of the port from the upper deck and stay on to go back to the other side. A return ticket for foreigners costs 4,000 kyats (around 3 bucks). It includes a bottle of water, which may be to appease tourists for the fact that they have to pay much more than locals.
While in the area, you may also like to check out Botataung Temple.
12. City Circular Train
The Yangon City Circular train does a slow three-hour loop around Yangon's suburbs. It was a definite highlight of our stay in Yangon, and we can say it's absolutely worth taking even if you've experienced trains elsewhere on your trip.
When you travel between cities, you certainly have the chance to meet locals and get a taste of train life, but local passengers on these trains are travelling somewhere too, which has a completely different vibe to the Circular train on which people are going about their everyday lives.
While most tourists ride the whole loop from Yangon Central Railway Station and back as a sightseeing trip, many locals are only travelling short distances to get from A to B, meaning that your carriage mates continue to change throughout the journey, from people going to school or work, to street vendors and farmers, to characters who seem to be riding just for kicks. Like the guy who came on with a bunch of reeds, started folding them into birds and passing them out for free just to make people smile.
The compartments become packed with produce being moved from farms and between markets, and you get a real sense for the day-to-day lives of people living in these areas of the city, both on board and out the window.
What's more, the entire ride costs just 200 kyats. That's about 15 cents!
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