Even though I’ve been in Asia for years, I didn’t know much about Myanmar prior to my trip. I knew the Thais and Burmese were mortal enemies throughout history. I was vaguely familiar with Aung San Suu Kyi and her political struggles. I also knew Myanmar is made up of multiple ethnic groups, and that there’s a lot of tension between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims. But I didn’t know anything that meaningful about modern Myanmar beyond politics, and it was one of the only remaining countries in East Asia that I had yet to see. Part of me had always wondered if it was a place I’d enjoy, or if I had actually done the right thing by never visiting.
After eight and a half years of living in Asia, I finally made it to Myanmar via Yangon, the country’s largest city, cultural epicenter, and former capital. I spent seven days and seven nights there with my Eastern European friend soaking in everything around me, walking through local neighborhoods, talking to locals, trying unfamiliar foods, visiting temples and pagodas, and of course taking hundreds of photos. Yangon is quite an interesting city, and this trip report is all about why. Let’s get started.
The second I entered the arrivals hall at Yangon International Airport, I could tell that Myanmar is unique. All the men were wearing longyi, a dress-like garment that covers their legs, and the women and children had their faces covered in thanaka, a yellowish-white face paste made from tree bark. The Burmese have a very distinct and traditional look, which is something that’s becoming less and less common in rapidly developing urban Asia. I felt like I had left modern Asia and all its shiny skyscrapers and subway systems, and had taken a step back into the past.
Never did I see any “smartphone zombies” crawling through the streets of Yangon. I saw the occasional bored store clerk watching a movie on his phone, but I almost never saw anyone swiping away at their screen while in public. Even though I believe I use my phone very lightly, it was probably me who looked like a smartphone zombie to the people of Yangon.
Similar to Taiwan, little booths selling betel nut are on literally every street corner, but they’re even more ubiquitous and characteristic here in Yangon. The people manning them are surprisingly a diverse crew – young teenagers, mothers and grandmothers with children in tow, the mentally handicapped, white, tan, or black skin – no one is exempt. It’s interesting to watch how the betel nuts are put together, and it actually makes them look quite appealing. Chewing betel nut is an ancient Burmese pastime, which is obvious when you look at how many people have stained red teeth and how much dark red spit is covering every road and sidewalk. I even saw female monks sitting at the booths chewing away with their red teeth. I gave one a go after a local insisted, but it immediately gave me a headache.
Yangon has a bad traffic problem. This is nothing new in developing Asia, but what surprised me is how many of the cars are new, and the fact that so many people own cars in the city. Motorcycles seemed damn near nonexistent. I envisioned Myanmar as a relatively poor place, but apparently hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in Yangon can afford fairly expensive cars. Just like in mainland China, the Burmese drive aggressively and with zero regard for pedestrians, which made crossing the street far more of a chore than it actually needed to be.
Yangon has some of the most bustling street life I have ever seen anywhere in the world. Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi were my previous contenders, but I think Yangon beats them all. Everywhere you look, something unique and cultural is going on. The betel nut booths are on your left, a woman with a face covered in thanaka is selling vegetables on your right, a man is praying to a Buddhist tree shrine behind you, and a cycle rickshaw is passing in front of you. It may be quite dirty and filthy, but Yangon is a culturally vibrant city. It’s a street/travel photographer’s dream. In a way Yangon feels like every Southeast Asian country combined into one. I can see the aspects of all of the region’s countries here.
I had heard stories online that the people of Yangon weren’t exactly a friendly bunch. Nothing written about them was that off-putting, but I don’t think I had read anything positive about the Yangonese either. Yet after traveling to Yangon myself, I can’t help but wonder where all the negativity was coming from.
As my European friend and I roamed the streets of the city with our professional grade cameras, we got lots of stares and even more smiles (from men and women alike). While some people were understandably camera shy and hesitant to have their picture taken, they would always allow us to at least take a picture of their store, what they were doing, what they were making, etc. Yet other people would actually insist that we take their picture, and some would even go grab all of their family and friends to be in the picture with them. This made taking people pictures a lot more fun and less tense than it would normally be elsewhere.
On the few occasions we strolled through neighborhoods away from the city center, random men (usually middle-aged and elderly) would stop us in our tracks to chitchat and exchange life stories. They wanted to tell us about themselves, while at the same time learn who we were too. One night we found ourselves in a retired navy man’s house, and on another we were exchanging thoughts with a retired photographer at a hole-in-the-wall cafe next to a Buddhist pagoda.
That leads me to my next point – many Burmese, both young and old, have a drive to speak English and communicate with foreigners. Unlike many other Asians, no one was passive aggressive or “shy” towards us because we spoke to them in English. And even if they could only speak a handful of English words, they would milk those few words for all they were worth in an attempt to have a conversation with us. It was awesome to see people trying so hard to talk to us, even though in reality their vocabulary was nill. It reminded me of my years living in China. Some people did genuinely speak great English though, and it was always unexpected when I did run into those people.
Service, at least in regards to attitude, was also pretty good in Yangon. I’m so used to inefficient service people with bad attitudes in countries like China, Thailand, and Malaysia, so it’s really refreshing to come across a developing Asian country where this is largely not the case. Burmese service people seemed happy to serve us and to just do their jobs. Maybe it was just because we’re foreigners. I don’t know, nor do I care, but I was just glad to be treated like a fellow human being for a change.
Just like the Thais, the Burmese come in a variety of skin tones. Some people, particularly women, have whitish-yellow skin like Northeast Asians, while other people are as black as the night itself. It’s obvious that the people of Yangon have ancestry spread all across Asia, and I appreciate that they all still mingle with one another and see each other as fellow countrymen. Sure, countries like Malaysia and Singapore are also ethnically diverse, but at the end of the day, many people from those countries will stick with their own ethnic group and look out for their own ethnic interests instead of the nation as a whole. It’s hard for me to respect that.
Just like in Thailand, Burmese national identity appears to triumph over skin color and ethnicity. Almost all of the men and women wore the same traditional garb, regardless of their skin color or social class. In shops and restaurants, everyone mingled with one another. Maybe I’m just naïve and not seeing things clearly, but I got the impression that a Burmese is a Burmese. They all still have the same stained red teeth from years of chewing betel nut. The only real divide I saw was that between the Buddhists and the Muslims, as the Muslims dressed differently and seemed to stick together, but that didn’t stop them from respecting one another.
Burmese women reminded me a lot of Laotian women. They have similar faces, petite body types, and body language. They both have a tendency to wear traditional clothing. They both can best be described as timid, soft-spoken, and shy. There are way more “cute” types than “sexy” types in Yangon. I don’t think I turned my head once in seven days in the city.
That said, I don’t really consider Myanmar a place for Western men seeking an Asian one night stand, girlfriend, or spouse. I doubt most Burmese women would even be open to the idea of casual premarital sex, and there are surely countless cultural hurdles to overcome if you insist on wifing a Burmese chick up.
Burmese women are certainly easy to get along with and easy on the eyes, but they also seem “off limits” to everyone but the most devoted foreigners wanting a traditional wife. Therefore I just didn’t put that much thought into them. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule, but they’re just that – exceptions. Nothing against Burmese women, but there are much better and easier options in surrounding countries. In fact the best Burmese girls I’ve ever met were all ethnic Chinese and living in neighboring Thailand.
Burmese is not a world famous cuisine, and I had actually never eaten any or even seen a Burmese restaurant in my entire life. I had no expectations for the food in Myanmar, yet I left the country still craving some of my favorite dishes. As a matter of fact, I’m craving it right now!
Burmese food is quite similar to Thai in presentation, but the flavors are different. Both cuisines are quite fragrant, but Thai puts a lot of emphasis on spicy, whereas most of the dishes I had in Yangon were salty and sour. I noticed when the locals were eating at their tables at some of the street stalls, their tables were filled with lots of little miniature-sized dishes. There was no big or “main” dish per say, rather just countless little dishes scattered all over the table, and each person had their own plate of rice. This is very similar to Thai, but it actually reminded me more of Sri Lankan cuisine.
There were also plenty of Indian inspired dishes in Yangon, and my favorite dish from the whole trip was danbauk, biriyani chicken served with soup and sliced sour cabbage. It may be Indian by name, but it had its own unique Burmese flair. There was a street cart serving it right outside my guesthouse, so I ate it again and again and again. One serving was huge and easily filled me up, so my friend and I eventually started sharing one plate. I also discovered a really good yet common noodle dish called nan gyi thohk, which is thick rice noodles mixed with chicken curry. It was so good I must’ve ordered it at least five times.
Just like in Thailand, fruit was abundant, cheap, and well-presented everywhere in Yangon. You’re never too far from a fruit cart. I liked the way the Burmese put their own twist on their fruit. Coconuts had their bark cut away and were served as just a ball of coconut meat with the juice still retained in the middle. Pineapple was soaked in citrus juice, which made it three times more flavorful. Fruits like mango were covered in chili flakes. Tamarind juice was sold at street stalls and it was amazingly good.
Burmese food left a very favorable impression on me. The flavors are exotic, the texture and presentation attracts your eyes, and portions are fair. I wouldn’t say it’s better than Thai food, but it isn’t that far behind either. I personally like it more than Vietnamese, and certainly more than Cambodian and Laotian. Burmese cuisine is some of the best Southeast Asia has to offer, so it’s a shame that it’s so relatively unknown.
The weather in Yangon during late December was mostly pleasant. It was almost exactly the same as that of nearby Bangkok. In the mornings and evenings, the temperature was pleasantly cool. During midday, it was sunny and hot, but not kill-you hot. I wore a T-shirt and shorts every day, and I felt just fine. I didn’t see a single drop of rain during my seven day stay either. All that said, December is a great month weather-wise to be in Yangon.
Things to Do
If you’re into photography, then you could occupy a lot of your time in Yangon just photographing everything around you. But even if you’re not into photography, Yangon is still a great place to just be outside. Yes – the traffic, the noise, and the sidewalks are not very pleasant, but that is balanced by just how incredibly vibrant Yangon’s street life is. The city feels alive and energetic. It’s a city for avid travelers wanting to experience something unique. I probably spent 80% of my time simply walking through random neighborhoods, side streets, and parks, and also sitting at open-air restaurants and cafes.
Myanmar is famous for its extravagant pagodas, and there’s no shortage of them in Yangon. I previously thought Thailand and Cambodia were home to some of the most colorful and beautiful Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, but I think Myanmar actually has both of them beat. I’m not really a “temple buff,” but even I was impressed at the attention to detail and complexity of Burmese pagodas. There are also many other places of worship all over the city. It seems like every neighborhood and major street has its very own pagoda, Hindu temple, mosque, and/or church.
It’s the simple things that kept me entertained in Yangon. There’s really not that much to do in the city, but the everyday things going on all around me are so wildly different than what I’m used to seeing, so I never really felt bored.
Cost of Traveling
As of January 15th, 2018, 1 USD equals 1,340 Myanmar kyat (MMK).
Unsurprisingly, Yangon is a budget-friendly travel destination. You really don’t need much to do a lot there. Let me crunch the numbers.
I had to buy a 28-day tourist e-visa prior to my arrival for $50 USD (67,000 MMK). I also bought a Burmese 4G SIM card with 8 days of validity and unlimited data usage for 399 Thai baht in Bangkok (16,770 MMK).
I stayed at a nice and quiet guesthouse called Kaung Lay Inn, which is located only a few kilometers from the hectic city center, and the average price I paid per night for a twin bed room was $19.12 USD (25, 620 MMK) all in. It had a very homely feel to it, they offered breakfast every morning, and there were almost no other guests to speak of during my entire 7-night stay. My friend and I had the place to ourselves. Very recommended.
Most meals from street stalls and hole-in-the-wall restaurants cost me anywhere from 1,500 to 5,000 MMK, depending on how much I ordered. The average was about 2,750. I left all my meals full and satisfied. Hand snacks from street vendors were usually around 500, and a snack and a drink from convenience stores was usually around 2,000 total.
Other than an unclear and unreliable bus system, there wasn’t much public transportation to speak of in Yangon. We walked most of the time, but we did take a cab or two every day. Rides of only a few kilometers or so averaged about 2,000 to 3,000 total, which we of course split. The most expensive ride was from the airport to the city center and vice versa, which cost 8,000.
The single most “expensive” thing I encountered on my trip was the entrance ticket that only tourists must pay to enter the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, yet even it was only 10,000. The entrance ticket for Sule Pagoda, another nearby famous pagoda, was only 3,000. Luckily, most of the pagodas in the more residential parts of the city had no entrance fee.
Excluding airfare and accommodation, I prepared a modest budget of only 25,000 MMK per day. I felt that amount was just right for the way I like to travel, and I never felt like I had to skimp on things to make that budget work. I ate well, stayed in a clean and quiet guesthouse, saw everything I wanted to see, took lots of cool photos, and took the occasional taxi to faraway places. That’s good enough for me.
Similar to my trip to Mongolia two years ago, I came to Myanmar knowing almost nothing, but left pleasantly surprised. If you’re a person who wants shopping malls, fine dining, Tinder dating, and other modern conveniences, then Yangon certainly isn’t for you. Pretentious and fussy travelers shouldn’t even bother. But if you’re an experienced traveler aching to see something truly different, then Yangon is not to be missed.
Yangon is lively, vibrant, and cheap. There’s something interesting going on everywhere you look. It’s also home to polite, humble, and engaging people with interesting stories to tell. They just might be the politest people I’ve ever come across in Asia.
But of course Yangon is still a developing city, which means you’ll be dealing daily with the typical grievances like bad traffic, noise, a lack of cleanliness, inefficiency, and so on. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Myanmar is well worth a visit for people interested in Asia, especially Southeast Asia. It’s underrated and deserves more love. However, other than for photography, I don’t feel like the country has high re-visit value, but it’s certainly worth seeing at least once. At the very least as part of a multi-country Southeast Asia trip. I’m sure I’ll be back some day, but I have no idea when. I’m curious what Mandalay and Bagan have to offer.