Yangon (Rangoon) was once, in recent years, the capital city of Myanmar (or Burma). Even though it no longer holds this title, it remains the largest and most developed city of the country, and its primary commercial center. The city may have changed dresses once Myanmar opened up to tourism in 2012, yet it still exudes an authentic, untouched vibe.
Despite ancient cars having been replaced by modern models and international restaurants and bars popping up on the streets, plenty of the old Myanmar remains. Ancient temples, colonial buildings, cracked sidewalks and piles of hanging electric cables are common sights, and the contrast between the old and the new makes the city extremely beautiful.
We understand that Yangon is often overlooked in favor of sites such as Bagan, Mrauk U, and Inle Lake, so it’s not an uncommon thing to plan just one day in the city. So what should you see in the 24 hours you have once you arrive in Yangon? We’re here to answer that.
A Burmese breakfast favorite
Start your morning simply: With a cup of Burmese milk tea. The locals really love their tea. It is dark and quite strong but to sweeten it up, a spoonful of condensed milk is added. A cup of this will give you the energizing kick you need.
With a quick walk from your accommodation, you’ll likely come across a tea house – they’re everywhere. Nothing fancy, just a sidewalk establishment, with a crowd of early risers sitting on plastic stools, sharing news or gossiping about their lives.
Many of these establishments also offer mohinga – a Burmese delicacy typically consumed in the morning. This is a rice noodle soup with a fish broth base. Subtle, but delicious, this dish is a must have on your travels. It also happens to be the national dish of Myanmar!
A city walk under the cool sun
The morning is always a great time to go for a walk. You’ll get to wake your senses up just as the rest of the city wakes from its slumber. In Yangon, this is a beautiful experience. You’ll pass by street cleaners preparing the roads for a busy day of traffic, vendors setting up their street stalls ready to serve the hungry residents, white collar workers in a rush to finish their breakfast before heading into their office buildings, and grandparents walking their uniformed grandchildren to school.
The sun is also not harsh at this time, so there will be minimal sweat. We suggest you start at Maha Bandula Park, a vast green space in an otherwise concrete jungle, that dates back to 1867. From here, you will get a great overview of the surrounding buildings. These include the Sule Pagoda, the City Hall, and the Sakura Tower, which is the tallest building in Yangon as of now.
Sule Pagoda is the centerpiece of the downtown Yangon area and should be your next landmark. This ancient temple is located right in the middle of a busy roundabout, which is surrounded by charming colonial buildings, local homes, and other religious sites including a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, a Jewish synagogue and a Catholic church which is a testament to the vast diversity the city holds.
Legend says that Sule Pagoda is even older than Shwedagon Pagoda (which is the city’s crown jewel – we will get to that later), however, the interiors are relatively modern. This almost 50 meter tall structure is extremely picturesque, especially come night when the flood lights come on and color the temple against the dark night sky. During the day, it is still beautiful and worth venturing inside for a bit.
Across from the Sule Pagoda is the large and imposing City Hall. Designed with a mix between colonial and traditional Burmese architecture, this building comes with large pillars, oval windows, and spires in addition to beautiful tiered roofs that mimic the design of Burmese temples. The city hall also seems to change its outfit throughout the years. Sometimes it is painted yellow. Sometimes even pink.
Walking east of the City Hall, you will come across other notable buildings including the High Court and the Minister’s Building where beloved General Aung San was assassinated in 1947.
Pro tip: Please note that when visiting these places of religious and cultural importance, that you dress modestly. Both men and women need to cover their legs and shoulders. You’ll need to take off your shoes too.
Dress up as the locals do
As you walk through the city, you’ll notice something about the Burmese people. Not their looks or their physiques – but rather the widespread use of their traditional garment called the longyi. Unlike most other Asian countries where traditional outfits are reserved for special occasions, the longyi is worn daily.
This is a traditional wrap-around piece of cloth worn by both men and women. It reaches the feet and is tied with a knot at the waist. It is just the piece of comfortable clothing you will need for the rest of your journey, so head to Bogyoke Aung San Market to get one custom tailored for you!
Bogyoke Aung San Market is one of the best places to get some shopping done in Yangon and you can buy all sorts of things here. It is an expansive market filled to the brim with colorful clothes and shoes to accessories, jewelry, souvenirs and fresh and dried food. You’ll find an overwhelming choice of fabrics for your longyi and get a simple one tailored on the spot to your measurements.
The more complex you want your design to be, the more time consuming and expensive it will be. The basic longyi will only set you back around 1,000-1,500 kyats (about $1.00 USD). This will be a great piece of Myanmar to take back home with you.
You can also have a local lunch at the market. There is plenty to eat!
A visit to the city’s jewel once you’re full
The Shwedagon Pagoda, a complex that covers an impressive 46 hectares, is your absolute must-see in Yangon, and the perfect next stop. Legend has it that there’s been a chedi (stupa) on this site for over 2,600 years. The story goes that two merchant brothers by the names of Tapussa and Ballika met Gautama Buddha during their travels and were gifted eight of his hairs to take back to Myanmar. It is said that within the pagoda lie the 8 hairs to this day.
Walking through the complex is an interesting experience. There are many things to observe. Monks are dressed in orange and brown robes. Locals are on their knees, with their eyes closed, in thoughtful prayer. Other curious tourists wander around donned in longyis and with their cameras at the ready.
The main stupa that is covered in 27 tons of gold is hard to take your eyes off from. The main stupa stands at an imposing 100 meters tall and the upper section features thousands of diamonds and other gems, including a giant 76 carat diamond at the very top.
At Shwedagon, there are eight planetary posts scattered throughout the complex, with the days of the week written on them. Why eight, you may wonder? This is because in Burmese astrology, Wednesday comes broken into two, so there are two posts for this day – one for the morning and one for the afternoon. Worshippers congregate around the post that correlates to the day they were born. The smell of incense fills the air.
Unfortunately, over the years, many parts of the structure have been damaged due to earthquakes and political raids, and many renovations have taken place, with its current configuration dating back to the 1700s.
A night in Chinatown
19th Street (or Chinatown) is where you need to end your night, after all the walking around. Similar to Khao San Road of Bangkok or Bui Vien Street in Ho Chi Minh City, this street is full of street food stalls, cheap hostels and backpackers drinking buckets of beer, discussing their Southeast Asia backpacking journeys. This street is popular for its Chinese-style BBQ, which is meat and veggies on skewers, grilled over a fire.
Many locals come here to unwind too, after a long day, and you’ll be undoubtedly invited over to their table for a beer or two, so take the chance to make some connections. Talking to the locals is a must-do while here, and how better to break the ice than with the clashing of beer mugs?
After your first day in Yangon, you’ll find yourself wishing you had more time to linger a little longer. The city is really worth at the very least two days. There are plenty of other sites of interest and a great way to cover them is by taking the Yangon Circular Train.
The tracks were built by the Brits in the late 1800s and will take you through small towns and local neighborhoods. It’ll take you at least another day to hop on and off this train and explore the quaint little stops. So, take our advice. If you have the chance to stay longer, do it.