Yangon (also known as Rangoon, literally: "End of Strife") is a former capital of Burma (Myanmar) and the capital of Yangon Region. Although the military government has officially relocated the capital to Naypyidaw since March 2006, Yangon, with a population of over five million, continues to be the country's largest city and the most important commercial centre.
Although Yangon's infrastructure is undeveloped compared to those of other major cities in Southeast Asia, it has the largest number of colonial buildings in the region today. While many high-rise residential and commercial buildings have been constructed or renovated throughout downtown and Greater Yangon in the past two decades, most satellite towns that ring the city continue to be deeply impoverished.
Yangon is located in Lower Burma (Myanmar) at the convergence of the Yangon and Bago Rivers about 30 km(19 mi) away from the Gulf of Martaban at 16°48' North, 96°09' East (16.8, 96.15). Its standard time zone is UTC/GMT +6:30 hours.
Yangon has a tropical monsoon climate under the Köppen climate classification system. The city features a lengthy rainy season from May through October where a substantial amount of rainfall is received; and a dry season from November through April, where little rainfall is seen. It is primarily due to the heavy precipitation received during the rainy season that Yangon falls under the tropical monsoon climate category. During the course of the year, average temperatures show little variance, with average highs ranging from 29 to 36 °C (84 to 97 °F) and average lows ranging from 18 to 25 °C (64 to 77 °F).
Yangon is the most populous city by far in Burma although estimates of the size of its population vary widely. (All population figures are estimates since no official census has been conducted in Burma since 1983.) A UN estimate puts the population as 4.35 million in 2010 but a 2009 U.S. State Department estimate puts it at 5.5 million. The U.S. State Department's estimate is probably closer to the real number since the UN number is a straight-line projection, and does not appear to take the expansion of city limits in the past two decades into account. The city's population grew sharply after 1948 as many people (mainly, the indigenous Burmese) from other parts of the country moved into the newly built satellite towns of North Okkalapa, South Okkalapa, and Thaketa in the 1950s and East Dagon, North Dagon and South Dagon in the 1990s. Immigrants have founded their regional associations (such as Mandalay Association, Mawlamyaing Association, etc.) in Yangon for networking purposes. The government's decision to move the nation's administrative capital to Naypyidaw has drained an unknown number of civil servants away from Yangon.
Yangon is the most ethnically diverse city in the country. While Indians formed the slight majority prior to World War II, today, the majority of the population is of Bamar (Burman) descent. Large communities of Indians/South Asians and the Chinese still exist especially in the traditional downtown neighborhoods. Intermarriage between ethnic groups—especially between the Bamar and the Chinese, and the Bamar and other indigenous Burmese—is common. A large number of Rakhine and Karen live in the city.
Burmese is the principal language of the city. English is by far the preferred second language of the educated class. In recent years, however, the prospect of overseas job opportunities has enticed some to study other languages: Mandarin Chinese is most popular, followed by Japanese, French, and Korean.
Yangon is the country's hub for the movie, music, advertising, newspaper and book publishing industries. All media is heavily regulated by the military government. Television broadcasting is off limits to the private sector. All media content must first be approved by the government's media censor board, Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. Nearly all print media and industries are based out of Yangon.
Most men of all ages (and some women) spend their time at ubiquitous tea-shops, found in any corner or street of the city. Watching European football (mostly English Premier League with occasional La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga) matches while sipping tea is a popular pastime among many Yangonites, rich and poor alike. The average person stays close to his or her neighbourhood haunts. The well-to-do tend to visit shopping malls and parks on weekends. Some leave the city on weekends for Chaungtha and Ngwesaung beach resorts in Ayeyarwady Division.
Yangon is also home to many pagoda festivals (paya pwe), held during dry-season months (November – March). The most famous of all, the Shwedagon Pagoda Festival in March, attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the country.
Yangon's museums are the domain of tourists and rarely visited by the locals.
Most of Yangon's larger hotels offer some kind of nightlife entertainment, geared towards tourists and the well-to-do Burmese. Some hotels offer traditional Burmese performing arts shows complete with a traditional Burmese orchestra. The pub scene in larger hotels is more or less the same as elsewhere in Asia. Other options include karaoke bars and pub restaurants in Yangon Chinatown.
Yangon is the country’s main center for trade, industry, real estate, media, entertainment and tourism. The city alone represents about one fifth of the national economy.
Yangon has the best educational facilities and the highest number of qualified teachers in Burma where state spending on education is among the lowest in the world.
WHAT TO SEE
Shwedagon Paya: 6:30 am to 10:00 pm. The pagoda opens at 5:00 am but, technically, tourists are not allowed in till 6:30AM. In Myanmar, 6:00 am is still dark. It is unlikely, however, that an early arriving tourist will be turned away. Beware of visiting during mid-day as it gets very hot (especially painful to walk on the hot stone barefoot). Entry fee is no longer good for 24hrs, only for one visit.
The Shwedagon Pagoda or Paya is the single most important religious site in all of Myanmar. The pagoda stands on the top of Singuttara Hill, and, according to legend, that spot has been sacred since the beginning of time, just before our present world was created. At that time, five lotus buds popped up on the hill, each bud signifying the five Buddhas who would appear in the world and guide it to Nirvana. Gautama, the Buddha as we know him, is the fourth of these five (Maitreya, the fifth, will announce the end of the world with his appearance) and, according to the legend, two brothers brought eight hairs of the Buddha to be enshrined in this sacred location, inaugurating the Shwedagon Pagoda. Whatever the truth of the legend, verifiable history records a pagoda at the site since the 6th Century AD. Built and rebuilt, guilded and reguilded, almost nothing in the pagoda is likely to be old, except whatever is hidden deep inside the stupa. An earthquake (18th century) destroyed the upper half of the pagoda spire and many buildings. Burmese Buddhists are inherently practical people who constantly build and rebuild pagodas for merit.
Today, the pagoda is an interesting place for tourists. For one, it is lit up Las Vegas style with multicoloured neon light on a galaxy of shapes and textures. It is also a jungle of spires with superior Myanmar woodcarving embellishment and somewhat playfully but incongruously mixed and matched with modern building materials such as pre-fab G.I. roofing. Unlike other religious sites, it has at once a spiritual as well as a secular feel about it. Children run up and down singing songs, monks sit on the steps chatting, young men cast amorous glances at women, women stand around gossiping, all while others are deep in prayer in front of whatever shrine has significance for them. The Shwedagon captures the essence of both the informal nature as well as the strong ties that signify the relationship that the Burmese have with their Buddhism. There is no other pagoda like it in Burma and there is no other place like the Shwedagon Pagoda in the world.
Sule Paya (Sule Pagoda), incongruously serving as a traffic island in the middle of the busiest intersection in central Yangon, Sule Paya is a 46 m octagonal-shaped stupa that, according to the local story, was built 2000 years ago to house a strand of the Buddha's hair. Whether or not it has a strand of the Buddha's hair, the galleries of the pagoda are an oasis of calm from the chaotic traffic that passes around it all day long. Admission used to be free but foreigners must now pay a US$3 admission charge. Shoes can be left at counters at any entrance but carry a plastic bag.
Botataung Paya: A few blocks East of The Strand Hotel along the Yangon River lies the Botataung Pagoda. The original pagoda was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War but the site has a legendary history as long as that of the Shwedagon or the Sule Paya, and it is supposed to house more strands of the Buddha's hair brought to the site by a thousand soldiers (hence the name which means '1000 officers'). The rebuilt stupa is hollow inside, and many relics (not the hair though) are on display. While not spectacular like the Shwedagon, the river-front setting and the hollow stupa make it worth visiting.
Saint Mary's Cathedral: The cathedral's exterior has just been renovated and rededicated last Dec.'11. Still an ugly eye sore exterior but the superior Myanmarese dexterity of carving is shown in the interior's 14 Stations of the Cross. Images literally pop out of the screen in 3D fashion.
Holy Trinity Cathedral is the Anglican cathedral built by the British. It is one of two cathedrals in Yangon, and has a beautiful interior.
Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, located at 85, 26th Street, is the only synagogue in Yangon. It is a colonial relic, built in 1893. Its interior is beautifully maintained.
Mailamu Paya, located in the outskirts of Yangon, is a large expanse of land on which larger-than-life and colourful statues depicting Buddha's lives are located. Mailamu Paya also showcases a pavilion on a man-made lake, and several zedis.
Zoological Gardens, first opened by the British in 1906, contains Myanmar's most expansive collection of wild animals. During public holidays, the Snake Dance and Elephant Circus are performed for visitors. Open 08:00-18:00.
Mahabandoola Garden, located in the cantonment, is known for its rose gardens. Inside the gardens is the Independence Monument, built to signify Myanmar's independence. The garden offers a great view of the City Hall, and colonial buildings of the British.
People's Park, which occupies 130 acres, is located between Parliament and Shwedagon Paya and is known for its large concrete water fountain. Inside the park is a museum. The government collects entrance fees for tourists. Open 07:00-19:00.
Inya Lake, the largest lake in the city, recently renovated its shoreline. Some parts of Inya Lake's shorelines are accessible by foot, and are known for their gardens. Along Inya Lake's shorelines is the famous Inya Lake Hotel, now owned by Dusit and the Yangon University (in a beautiful park-like atmosphere). Surrounding the lakeside are many villas owned by military leaders.
Kandawgyi Lake (formerly Victoria Lakes). A large fungus-shaped lake northeast of the city centre. It was recently renovated, and foreigners must pay an entrance fee. At its northwestern tip is Bogyoke Aung San Park, which is on Natmauk Road. The Lake is best known for its Karaweik (located at its southeastern tip), a replica of a traditional Burmese royal boat. There is also a boardwalk around the southern edge of the lake, affording a better view than that from the gardens. However the entry fee for the boardwalk alone is 2000 kyats or $US2. It is cheaper to walk along the road footpath (sidewalk) with free view from the outside looking through the fenced park. Caution: If intending to go to the boardwalk, be careful where you are entering because a wrong entry means money down the drain that should have been allotted to a more noble purpose such as donating to a beggar. To go to the lake itself, you have to be ready to cough out the amount stated above to be paid at the entrance located in the middle of the south side road. But if your real intention is to get close to the Karaweik, the entrance is on the southeast corner and there is a separate charge. The charge to the Karaweik is 300 kyats. The lake is separated from the Karaweik by a fence and there is no way of simply crossing over although the view from the street outside looks like they are all integrated. 300k (+500k camera fee, +1000k video camera fee).
Aung San's House, located at Natmauk Road (near the German embassy). This was the house were Aung San lived, with his wife and three children, shortly before he was assassinated. The house is still in original condition, with many interesting items on display, for instance Aung San's car, his library and his suit. Outside is the pond where his son Aung San Lin drowned. This accident was one of the reasons why the family moved. Foreigner entry 300kyats. As of August 12, 2012, the house is open 10:00-16:00, and is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and gazetted holidays. No photographs allowed inside the house.
Aung San Suu Kyi's House, located at 54 University Avenue, used to be frequented by many tourists. The house used to be barricaded by a concrete wall and barbed wire, with surveillance and security to prevent documentation. Nowadays (Feb2013) with the change in the country opening towards democracy the NLD now practices freely and there is not much to see here except the outside of a wall. Getting to the area is as simple as asking a taxi driver to take you there and if driving past they will point it out to you.
Bahadur Shah Zafar Grave, located at Zi Wa Ka Street, is a grave of last of the Mughal emperors in India, as well as the last ruler of the Timurid Dynasty. After Indian rebellion of 1857, he was exiled to Rangoon, in 1858 along with his wife Zeenat Mahal and some of the remaining members of the family. Bahadur Shah died on 7 November 1862. Today you can see his tomb, and if you are lucky, a guide may be there to give you a lot of information about this Sufi saint. There is no entrance fee, but you can give donations to local Sufis.
Defence Services Museum was located in Yangon until 2011 but has moved to Naypyidaw, it has been reopened in Naypyidaw in March 2012 in the Zeyathiri Township. It has an Air Force, a Navy and an Army department.
Martyrs' Mausoleum, near Shwedagon Pagoda's North Entrance is a memorial built to honour Aung San and six cabinet members who were assassinated. It also contains the tombs of Queen Suphayalat, wife of Burma’s last king; nationalist and writer Thakin Kodaw Hmaing; former UN Secretary-General U Thant; and Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi. In 1983, the structure was bombed by North Korean agents attempting to assassinate the visiting South Korean president. He escaped, but 21 others were killed. The structure was completely rebuilt, and is now much less grand than the original, but offers a beautiful panoramic view of Yangon. It opens only on 19th July, the Burmese National Holiday to commemorate the assassination (on the said fatal day, 1947) of Aung San and other leaders of the pre-independence interim government.
National Museum, located on the relatively quiet 26 Pyay Rd., in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, displays many Burmese historical artifacts, including regalia of the last Konbaung Dynasty. The museum is open 10:00-15:00, and is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and gazetted holidays. This museum has one of the most quality collections in Southeast Asia - the best of Myanmar artistic heritage and superior craftsmanship - both Myanmar masters and unknown craftsmen but unfortunately it is in a wrong Third World hands. The architecture itself of the museum is a pathetic, awkward, tacky, and crude interpretation of modern architecture. The showcasing itself is the worse of the state of the art - captions and storyboards as if done by high school students for a school open house fair, graphics, most are handwritten, specimen documents in blueprint or photocopies, showcase cabinets that cry louder and take the thunder of attention from the display itself for its too much intricately and unnecessarily carvings. Jewelries and regalia kept in reflecting glasses and prison cell-like rooms complete with steel railings. One comment in the visitor's log indicates in big letters "LET THERE BE LIGHT!" due to poor lighting on the display. Halls and halls of exhibits have dimly lit display lights. Photography is prohibited and cameras and cell phones must be stored in lockers outside the museum entrance. Note: Do not buy books in the museum shop. Buy them at Innwa Bookstore with its varied selections, and other stores along Pansodan Rd.
Strand Hotel, located at 92, Strand Road, is the oldest and most famous hotel in Myanmar, built by the Sarkies brothers in 1901. It is a national landmark and was renovated in the 1990s after years of neglect. Its facade is rather unimpressive compared to other colonial buildings nearby, but the decor inside maintains an ambiance of earlier days.
WHAT TO DO
The Circular Train is a fascinating way to get a glimpse of daily life in Yangon.
The Dallah Ferry - to Dallah, a small village across the river from Yangon, is an interesting ferry ride, particularly if you won't have the opportunity to catch a local ferry elsewhere in Burma. The ride is brief but filled with all the craziness of a Burmese ferry: you can buy freshly sliced watermelon, cheroots and cigarettes, tea, all kinds of interesting looking food, various knick-knacks from the many vendors who pack the ferry.
Food Market Tour and Cooking Demonstration offered by the Governor’s Residence Hotel to experience the local way of life and the produce on offer in the local markets of Myanmar.
- Due to the unique laws of the country, street crime is almost non- existent. Pickpockets/Muggers receive a mandatory 5 years incarceration unless they can pay large fees to reduce the sentence and the city is policed mostly by non-uniformed police. These two unique features of Myanmar mean you will not experience any crime during your visit.
- Yangon is one of the safest big cities in the world. It is most unlikely that one can encounter a bag snatcher, pickpocket or a con artist in a crowded place.
- Most people, including single female travellers, will not have any problems roaming the streets alone at night, and carrying large sums of money around rarely poses a problem. Crimes against tourists are taken very seriously by the military government and punishment is often disproportionately severe. This, in addition to the strong Buddhist culture in the population, means that Yangon's crime rate lower than the likes of Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, and violent crime is especially rare.
- However, there have been isolated incidents involving tourists so it is best to take normal big-city precautions like avoiding lonely areas at night and always being cognizant of your valuables. As with everywhere else in the world, there is no substitute for common sense.
- Be aware of over friendly locals that offers to take you around or places in which they are heading towards, as they may actually turn out to be local tour guides. From the Yangon Airport if you are catching a taxi, you might be a approached by people giving directions to you and showing may even ride in the taxi to your hotel with you and throughout the journey will try to push their tour package. However, if you are up for the adventure travelling the way locals do riding the old bumpy buses; negotiate for a price with the locals. It is easy finding a local tour guide as they will approach you at tourist attractions.
- The most common crime in Yangon is being short-changed by a money changer, so count your Kyat carefully when you exchange money. Opt to exchange at the Bogyoke market, where the rates may be slightly worse but the jewelry shop owners won't rip you off. Do not fall for the "bad serial number" excuse -- another attempt to con you. (only "CB" serial numbers are bad). Be especially careful with the money changer around Sule Paya - they count the money right in front of your eyes, but will trick you while doing that (they have fast hands!). Travellers are strongly advised not to change money here.
- Another concern, though this is very unlikely to happen, is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There were a number of bomb incidents in 2005 - three bombs left in shopping malls caused numerous casualties in May, and in October, a smaller explosion occurred outside Traders Hotel. The perpetrators have not been identified and there have been no bombings since. In 2007, Yangon was the scene of numerous protests against the country's military junta and these protests were broken up by gunfire and by mass arrests. One Japanese photographer was killed. While it is unlikely that a tourist will be targeted by either the military or by protesters, events in a dictatorship tend to be unpredictable in how they evolve so, in the unlikely event that there are protests during your visit, be circumspect and avoid political rallies.
- Prostitution and drug trafficking are illegal though there are plenty of prostitutes in Yangon, often in bars owned by senior officers of the Army. Drug trafficking is punishable by death.
- Yangon's tap water is unsafe to drink. Always buy bottled water. Yangon's warm and humid weather makes it imperative to carry water around.
- Tuberculosis and AIDS (known as "A-I-D Five" among locals) afflict a disproportionately high percentage of the people. However, HIV infection is not at the epidemic level (infection rates are much less than 1%). In addition, there is a risk of dengue fever. Malaria is a risk in rural areas.
- Medical care is limited, but is most expedient at private medical clinics. Government hospitals are usually unreliable and require bribes. Do not seek medical care at the General Hospital (on Bogyoke Aung San Road, sandwiched between Bo Ywe Street and Lanmadaw Street); it is unsanitary and inefficient. Most guest houses and hotels will be able to provide you with the address of a private doctor with experience in treating foreigners. Be sure to take the proper vaccinations before you leave for your trip. Carry a small first-aid kit with you containing at least painkillers, band-aid, ORS and a loperamide-like medicine. Anti-malarial pills and DEET are recommended.
- Many hotels, shopping centres and restaurants offer toilets. However, aside from hotels, expect squat toilets throughout the city. Always bring toilet paper when going out. Try to avoid the need to use public toilets at regularly visited sites, such as pagodas and temples. Here the longyi or the Burmese version of the sarong works well. Since Myanmar men squat when they do their business, they can totally do so. Pants constrict the legs to squat properly and steadily creating the possibility of not making a correct trajectory on the hole.