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Yangon (Rangoon) Overview
With the nation's ruling military regime loosening its grip, Myanmar (also known as Burma) is attracting lots of attention. In 2011, a new government began implementing reforms, including freeing hundreds of political prisoners, and holding credible elections -- during which pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party won a landslide victory. That led to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's landmark visit in late 2011, followed by President Barack Obama's in November 2012.
The warming of relations and easing of U.S. sanctions has helped boost Myanmar onto nearly every travel hot list. Cruise providers -- many of them river operators -- have been scrambling to put together itineraries that call on Myanmar's largest city of Yangon (also known as Rangoon). Premium and luxury lines are also including Yangon on select Southeast Asia and world cruise itineraries.
Why the rush? Yangon (pronounced "Yangoon") is emerging from its bell jar. But the city doesn't suffer from the glut of modern high-rises and shopping malls that choke other Asian capitals. Many residents wear traditional sarong-type clothing, and women still embellish their faces with a beige paste called thanakha, a traditional makeup and sunblock made from ground tree bark. The region's residents generally are welcoming and curious about visitors.
The city features an intriguing conglomeration of crumbling British colonial architecture, a few refurbished buildings hinting at the city's glory days and a smattering of new construction. Impressive Buddhist pagodas and other religious sights are on display in Yangon itself and in the old imperial capitals of Bagan, Bago and Mandalay. Plus, there's interesting food to be tasted and handicrafts to be bought, particularly in the city's sprawling covered market.
The city began in the early 11th century as Dagon, a small fishing village. It was founded by the Mon people, one of many ethnic groups in the country. After two 19th-century Anglo-Burmese wars, the British seized Yangon and all of lower Burma in the 1850's. They turned Yangon into their seat of power in Burma, building an infrastructure that was said to rival London at the time. The city fell to Japan in World War II and entered years of political turmoil following independence in 1948. The military took power in 1962, and the repressive regime only began to relinquish control in 2010.
Today, the expanded city of an estimated 6 million residents spreads northward from the Yangon River. While Myanmar is home to 128 different ethnic groups, the Burmans make up the majority in Yangon. The old colonial area also contains bustling Chinese and Indian sectors. (Indian workers were brought in by the British.)
Most cruises are timed to call on Yangon during its dry season, which runs from December to March. Temperatures can reach the low 90's during those months, dropping into the mid-60's at night.
Tourism infrastructure is still developing in Myanmar, so a cruise ship is the perfect way to ensure your travels are comfortable. Not every ship will be able to dock in the heart of Yangon, though. The river port is about a four-hour journey through the Irrawaddy River delta, then up one of its tributaries, the Yangon River. Larger ships are restricted to the Thilawa deep sea port, about 15 miles south of Yangon.
Myanmar or Burma? Yangon or Rangoon? The British referred to the country as Burma, a name derived from the majority ethnic group, the Burmans. They called its major city Rangoon, most likely a misunderstanding of "Yangon." The military regime changed the country's name to Myanmar and the city's name back to Yangon. However, neither the opposition party nor the U.S. State Department recognizes the nation as Myanmar.
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Sip one of the signature cocktails, like a Strand Sour (Mandalay rum, lime juice, sugar syrup and Angostura bitters), amid restored colonial splendor at the Strand Hotel bar. If you're lucky enough to be in port on a Friday night, drinks are half price.
Myanmar is known for its lacquerware, which appears as everything from inexpensive bracelets and boxes to pricey, intricately decorated furniture -- all of which can be found at Bogyoke Aung San (formerly Scott) Market. Carved sandalwood, in the form of Buddhas and other religious art, and jade also are popular. Interesting textiles make another good choice.
Myanmar's official language is Burmese, although the population speaks more than 30 different tongues. Children learn to read and write English in school, but people tend to be shy about using English because they don't speak it well. Those involved in tourist-related businesses will speak at least some English. Many vendors at the market will let their calculators do the talking.
Two language hints: The letters "ky" are pronounced like a cross between "ch," and "j," so the local currency, the kyat, is pronounced "chat." The letters "th" are individually voiced, so they don't make the unique sound they do in the English language. Some words to know: min ga la ba (hello), kyeizu pyu yue (please) and kyeizu tin ba de (thank you).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are no cash machines in Burma, and foreign credit cards are not accepted (with the exception of some upscale hotels, which tack on a surcharge). If needed, you can exchange money at banks and official money-changers. For currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. Your $50 and $100 bills will garner the best rates.
However, in most instances, market vendors, taxis, restaurants and other entities dealing with tourists will be happy to accept U.S. dollars, but any U.S. bills must be pristine, unmarked and uncreased. We even saw a vendor balk at accepting a bill that had a slight curve from being kept in a wallet. Bring plenty of small bills if you don't want to receive kyat, the local currency, as change.
One of our fellow passengers tried to make a purchase at a supermarket that didn't take dollars. The store manager walked him down the street to a money-changer and helped him exchange for the right amount of kyat.
You might be approached on the street by people offering to change money; don't take them up on their offers, as it's against the law.
Where You're Docked
Depending on the size of your ship, you will be docked in one of two locations:
In the city: Ships up to 613.5 feet can dock in the heart of Yangon, at Bo Aung Kyaw Jetty (or, in some cases, nearby Nanthida Jetty). This concrete pier is located at the foot of Bo Aung Kyaw Street, just below Strand Road. (Look for the label "Myanmar Port Authority" on Google Maps.) From dockside, it's about 500 feet before you reach the gate of the port on Strand Road. If you go out the gate on your own, be prepared to show your ship ID card to re-enter the port. The port offers no terminal or services.
Thilawa Port: Bigger ships, up to 853 feet, have to dock at this deep-sea port 15 miles south of the city. (Plans are under way to expand capacity to handle ships up to 984 feet.) It's about an hour's drive to reach the center of Yangon. The port has no services.
Docking and sailaway times must conform to the tides, and tide tables are only released a month in advance, so schedules may vary a bit from advance itineraries.
If you're docked in the city, colonial Yangon awaits just outside the port. Head left on Strand Road from Bo Aung Kyaw Jetty, and in five minutes, you'll encounter the Strand Hotel. Head straight up Bo Aung Kyaw Street, and you'll pass a variety of retail outlets and colonial buildings. On the next major street east of Bo Aung Kyaw, about a 10-minute walk away, is Monsoon restaurant, a favorite of expats and travelers. Clustered around the gate of the port are numerous street vendors, selling tea and snacks to locals using the nearby ferry services. Taxis can be hailed at the port gate, and kids hawking postcards probably will pounce the minute you hit the street.
If you're docked at Thilawa, you're pretty much isolated, but taxis are available at the port.
On Foot: If you're docked in the city, you can explore the colonial area near the port, as well as Chinatown and the Indian area. We even walked from the covered market back to our ship (a leisurely one-hour stroll). Sidewalks can be very irregular or nonexistent, so wear sturdy walking shoes, and consider carrying an umbrella to shade yourself from the sun.
By Taxi: Taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. Just don't expect luxury. Old Japanese cars come to Myanmar to die, so there are plenty of raggedy Toyotas, with windows that might not work or grungy decor. Seatbelts? Ha! Rates are negotiated, not charged by the meter -- so make a deal before you get in. Hotel or restaurant staff can help.
By Bus: More than 300 public and private bus lines operate an estimated 6,300 buses around the city. Most are crowded and not air-conditioned. Our advice: Stick with taxis.
Watch Out For
Yangon is generally safer than many large cities, but take the usual precautions when walking at night, and be sure to count your change carefully -- particularly if you visit a money-changer.
When visiting religious sites, modest dress (shoulders and knees covered) is required for both men and women. You will also have to remove your shoes and socks before entering.
Water is unsafe to drink, and be cautious about ice cubes, as well, unless you're at a reliable establishment. Think twice about eating street food; sanitation is iffy.
Toilets are usually of the squat variety (aside from those at hotels), and you'll need to bring your own toilet paper.
The U.S. State Department warns, "It is illegal to take pictures of Burmese officials and of certain buildings, such as military installations and government buildings. ...Do not photograph or videotape the military or police, or anything that could be perceived as being of military or security interest -- such as bridges, airfields, government buildings or government vehicles. Burmese authorities might interpret these actions as being provocative and may question and/or arrest you." Got that?
Traffic lights, including the one just outside the port at Strand Road and Bo Aung Kyaw Street, might not provide enough time for a pedestrian to cross the street. Proceed with caution.
Street dogs are ubiquitous, particularly around the port, but seem very timid for the most part. Just keep an eye out for their little "gifts," especially at night when outdoor lighting isn't the best. You'll probably also want to avoid stepping in the orange splotches left when betel nut chewers spit.
Beware of "beer gardens" you might find listed in guidebooks. The women there might be for sale.
Want more info? Here's a detailed guide to cultural "dos and don'ts" from the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.
Shwedagon Pagoda is, without a doubt, Yangon's main attraction for tourists and locals alike. The 2,500-year-old shrine is the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar. Shwe means "gold" in Burmese, and the 361-foot stupa (a dome-shaped structure erected as a Buddhist shrine, usually containing religious relics) is covered with 11 tons of it, while the top is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds -- the largest of which totals 72 carats. The entire complex contains hundreds of temples, statues and smaller stupas, with untold numbers of Buddhas, large and small. At night, it's a popular and lively place for locals to gather, visit and worship. There are four entrances, oriented to the cardinal directions, each with an impressive staircase. The south side has an elevator, while the east stairway is considered the most interesting with its vendors and views of the main stupa as you climb the steps. (Ar Za Nir Street)
Bogyoke Aung San Market, also known by its British name, Scott Market, houses more than 2,000 stalls and shops, selling a huge selection of handicrafts, textiles, jewelry, art and even antiques. Yes, the main section is mostly devoted to the tourist trade, but venture further, and you'll find locals shopping and grabbing a snack, too. Lacquerware, carved wood and items from the country's various ethnic groups (Shan shoulder bags, for example) are great souvenirs. If you enjoy markets, allow at least two hours there. (Bogyoke Aung San Road; stalls generally open Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
It's said that Yangon has the largest number of colonial buildings remaining in Southeast Asia. Most were built around the turn of the last century, and their condition varies widely, from pristine to decayed. The greatest concentration can be found in the old area next to the river. Structures along Strand Road include the Customs House, the Myanmar Port Authority, the Inland Water Transport Building and the beautifully restored Strand Hotel, which keeps up the tradition of afternoon tea. Other noteworthy buildings include City Hall, the High Court, the huge (and currently vacant) Secretariat building and two cathedrals, Saint Mary's and Holy Trinity.
The National Museum exhibits the treasures of the last king of Myanmar, including his 26-foot-high Lion Throne, ceremonial costumes and jewel-encrusted articles from his household. The museum's labeling, displays and lighting aren't the best, though, and no cameras are allowed inside. (26 Pansodan Street; daily, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; 951-282-563 or 951-282-608;)
Been There, Done That
Plenty of other Buddhist sites provide venues to contemplate, many a bit more peaceful than Shwedagon. By the river, Botataung Pagoda is smaller, but you can go inside the hollow stupa to see relics on display. Sule Pagoda (Maha Bandoola Road 95-1) is located in the center of a busy traffic circle, across from City Hall. (Avoid the disreputable money-changers in the circle of shops surrounding this pagoda.) At Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda (Shwe Gon Taing Street), the draw is a large, Indian-style seated Buddha with armor, while Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda (Shwe Gon Daing Road) features a giant statue of the reclining Buddha.
Architecturally significant places of worship for other religions include Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (85 26th Street) and Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque (across from Sule Pagoda). Both display their own interpretations of colonial architecture.
Those who've followed the country's leading proponent of democracy might want to visit Aung San Suu Kyi's House (54 University Avenue), where the Nobel laureate was imprisoned under house arrest. You can't go beyond the gates, but since security was relaxed in 2010, you can take photos and peer inside at the grounds. However, you can go inside the house where Suu Kyi's father once lived, now the Bogyoke Aung San Museum (15 Bogyoke Aung San Lane; open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Considered to be a hero of the movement for independence from the British, he was assassinated in 1947.
To experience local life, intrepid travelers can take a ride on the Circular Railway, which serves as transport to the city's outer suburbs. You'll rub shoulders with locals as you sit on wooden seats in crowded, non-air-conditioned cars. Vendors toting baskets of produce destined for city markets hop aboard, all sorts of hawkers ply the aisles, and you'll be as much of an attraction to passengers as they are to you. The entire roundtrip takes three hours, leaving from the main train station -- though it's possible to get off along the way and return by taxi.
Because most ships call on Yangon for one to two nights, there's an opportunity to eat dinner, as well as lunch, ashore. While street food is abundant, questionable hygiene makes it a risky choice. You can get a taste of local cuisine at a number of restaurants, though.
Mohinga is a classic Burmese dish. It's a hearty soup of rice vermicelli, fish stock, onions, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and other ingredients, usually served with boiled eggs. Ngapi, a fermented fish paste used extensively in Burmese cooking, gives it a fair amount of funk. For many, it's an acquired taste.
Another popular dish is lahpet thohk, pickled tea leaf salad, which delivers a wonderful variety of textures, including the crunch of deep-fried peas, peanuts and garlic. Fresh slivers of tomatoes, ginger, dried shrimp, fish sauce and lime also are added.
Meat dishes include chicken, seafood, beef and pork. Long-simmered curries, with seasoning that's much milder than other Southeast Asian cuisines, are typical. Just beware of fiery little green chilies that look quite similar to sliced green beans. (We learned the hard way!)
There's a tendency for dishes to be delivered to the table haphazardly -- main courses before appetizers or everything all at once -- unless you clearly specify when you order. At better restaurants, the waiters will ask how you'd like the dishes served.
All the restaurants listed below, except for Monsoon, will require taking a taxi from the riverfront area. Some are located in more residential areas outside the city center.
Monsoon, a convenient 10-minute walk (over some irregular sidewalks) from the city-center port, offers Burmese dishes, as well as those from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos; each country has its own section on the menu. The spare, yet stylish, restaurant is located in an old colonial house, where the high-ceilinged ground-floor room is a magnet for expats, while the second floor hosts larger groups. The third floor is home to a fair-trade crafts shop, which is well worth a visit. Monsoon serves cocktails, beer, wine and interesting fresh juice concoctions. An added bonus is free, reliable Wi-Fi. (85-87 Theinbyu Road; open daily, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; 951-295-224)
Feel is a food court-style restaurant that offers a vast choice of 50 or so authentic dishes that you order simply by pointing. Then they'll be delivered to your table, along with rice and drinks. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, it's a great way to get a taste of Burmese food at rock-bottom prices. The only downside? Feel is so popular, it's nearly always jam-packed. (124 Pyidaungsu Yeiktha Street; 95973-048-783)
Padonmar Restaurant serves a menu of Burmese dishes and other Southeast Asian cuisine. On a nice night, it's lovely to sit outside in the large garden (apply insect repellent) with paper lanterns strung overhead. We particularly enjoyed the banana blossom salad and beef with pickled mango. Dishes listed as appetizers were just as huge as main dishes, so order conservatively. We noticed that Padonmar is popular with groups, but that didn't spoil the atmosphere. Alcohol is served, and it offers free, high-speed Wi-Fi (password needed). (105-107 Kha-Yae-Bin Road; open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; 951-538-895)
Le Planteur offers the perfect splurge restaurant for those seeking a European-style fine-dining experience. Run by a Swiss couple, it offers "French Indochine" cuisine in an old, colonial manor. Le Planteur features a five-course, fixed-price menu and an extensive wine cellar. (Liquor is also served.) Small rooms and a magical, candlelit garden make for a highly romantic meal. They also offer complimentary transportation via vintage car within Yangon and have free, high-speed Wi-Fi. (22 Kaba Aye Pagoda Road; open daily, noon to 11 p.m.; 951-541-997)
Mandalay Restaurant at the Governor's Residence might be the ultimate colonial-style dining experience. The main restaurant at this Orient-Express-owned hotel offers a garden, fish ponds and verandahs, making it a pleasant (though pricey) oasis from the city's bustle. Though some might complain that the menu of Western and Asian food is less than authentic, others praise the near-perfect atmosphere. (35 Taw Win Road; 951-229-860)
Karaweik Palace (or Hall) Buffet Restaurant, located inside the lavish replica of a royal barge, offers a Myanmar lunch buffet, plus a pan-Asian dinner buffet with a cultural show. This restaurant is government-owned, so some may choose to not patronize it for that reason. (Kan Pat Street, on Kandawgyi Lake; Myanmar lunch buffet 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner buffet with performance from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; 951-290-546)
Afternoon Tea at the Strand Hotel is a pleasant respite if you've seen enough pagodas. The colonial landmark offers tea with either British-style or Burmese-style accompaniments in the Strand Cafe. (92 Strand Road; tea served 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.; 951-243-377)
Staying in Touch
Many restaurants serving expats and tourists offer free Wi-Fi that's reliable. But if you don't have your own device, a number of small Internet outlets with computers can be found along Maha Bandula Road, including Ki Ki (305 Maha Bandula Road) and another spot (without a name in English script) at 300 Maha Bandula Road. You'll spot these businesses by the copy machines in their open doorways. Internet cafe options include Life Net Cyber Cafe (184-186 Sule Pagoda Road) and Tokyo Donut (corner of 40th Street and Anawrahta Road; open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.).
Best for First-Timers: A Yangon highlights tour is the perfect orientation to the city, with typical stops at Shwedagon Pagoda, Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda with its giant Buddha, the National Museum, Bogyoke Aung San (Scott) Market and drive-bys of colonial buildings and the Karaweik barge. Full-day versions often include lunch at the Strand Hotel.
Best for Buddhist Culture: Several tours include monastery visits. One 4.5-hour option combines a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda with a meditation session at the Chan Myae Yeiktha monastery; another five-hour tour lets visitors witness a novitiation ceremony at Kalaywa Monastery, where future monks symbolically relive Buddha's journey as he renounced his life as a prince in search for enlightenment. After a procession, the young men, dressed lavishly as "princes," accept humble monks' accoutrements as gifts from onlookers.
Best for Local Life: The traditional enclave of Thanlyin lies between the deep-water port and Yangon. As part of this visit, you see a monastery, take a pony-cart ride, wander a vegetable market, take a trishaw ride to a village and have refreshments at a local restaurant.
Best for History Buffs: Bago, the second imperial capital, is about 50 miles from Yangon. Day-trips typically include visits to a monastery, a giant reclining Buddha, the country's tallest pagoda, a World War II Allied Forces cemetery and lunch at a local restaurant. Some tours also include visits to a market and a typical village.
Best for Once-in-a-Lifetime Visitors: It's possible to take single-day or overnight trips to Myanmar's other fabled imperial capitals, Bagan and Mandalay. Tours typically depart before dawn, with bus transport to the airport to catch one-hour flights to either location. Bagan is home to more than 2,200 11th- and 12th-century temples, and tours visit several of them, in addition to the Archeological Museum, a market and a lacquerware workshop; lunch is at a local restaurant. Mandalay tours visit one of the country's largest monasteries, a silk workshop, the gate of Mandalay's city wall, a former monastery known for 19th-century woodcarvings and a pagoda that's home to the "world's largest book" (729 marble slabs inscribed with the entire text of Theravada Buddhism); a Burmese lunch is included.
Best for Night Owls: Yangon's golden pagodas are impressive when illuminated at night. Tours drive by pagodas and other nighttime sights, ending with a visit to Shwedagon, which is ablaze at night.
Best for Dinner and a Show: Dinner and a cultural show with dancing are included in excursions to Karaweik Hall or the more intimate, upscale restaurant Le Planteur.
For More Information
On the Web: Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board or Ministry of Hotels and Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Asia
IndependentTraveler.com: Asia Travel Guide
--by Gayle Keck, Cruise Critic contributor