I love landing into an unknown place at night. Everything around you seems dark and mysterious and slightly dangerous. Away from the comfort of your own bed, you know you are definitely not in Kansas anymore. Landing into Yangon from Bangkok, it felt like the wee hours of the night, and in reality it was only 7:00pm. Our car drove us through town as we headed to the hotel and we pressed our noses to the window trying to discover what was in store for us for the next ten days. As we passed the famous Shwedagon Temple, we asked our guide to stop so we could see it in all its glory. Two very bling Chinthes (the lion/dragon creatures) guard the majestic entrance and, alas, blocked our view of what Kipling called, “a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun.” We would have to wait until the light of day to bask in all its glory.
We were greeted like long-lost relatives at Yangon’s one true luxury hotel, Belmond Governor’s Residence. It’s really the best address in town for sleeping soft. The Mohinga alone is worth the trip – that’s the breakfast fish soup which is a staple of Myanmar cuisine and I just didn’t have enough of! Eat it wherever you can – as it is local to whatever city you are in. They even provide you with a recipe of it – which I need to try at home. Cox & Kings had put together our trip and they said we were lucky to have two nights there – it’s that busy, so book early. Teak furniture and ceiling fans set the scene and you feel like you are walking into a private club right out of the colonial past. We were greeted at the door and seated in the lovely waiting area sipping our welcome cocktail as they got all of our paperwork together. The hotel is now owned by the Orient Express, so everything is in tiptop shape. The rooms are spacious and comfy with everything you could want and more. I especially loved the lovely Lemon Verbena scented toiletries. The Wi-Fi was strong enough to Facetime our relatives back home. Too bad we weren’t there long enough to enjoy the pool which was designed to look like a lake, but we were coming back for one night after our whirlwind tour.
After the settling in process was complete, we were definitely ready to eat! Having been given strict advice from two Yangon locals, we headed down the street to Padonmar Restaurant. Where Burmese cuisine is concerned, I literally had no idea where to begin. There is one Burmese restaurant in London and it is always closed – at least when we try to eat there. The menu is a mystery, so I had my Yangonites provide me with a list of Burmese Best Bites: Gourd fritters, Pork in Soya Paste, Aubergine Salad, and the Best Bit of all, the unmissable Pickled Tea Leaf Salad. I cannot rave enough about the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad – it is full of flavors and textures that make your mouth yearn for more. Needless to say, we ordered it every place it was on the menu. We washed everything down with Myanmar Beer, which became our drink of choice.
We jumped into a cab after dinner and went down to Union Bar – an expat hangout, right next to the Strand Hotel and finished our nighttime jaunt with a walk around the quiet streets of the port.
Up super early to get a full-day of sight-seeing in before our plane at 3:00pm to Inle Lake. The first stop was back to the Shwedagon Pagoda – one of the great wonders of the world. A huge complex with its golden stupa looking out over all of Yangon. There are a thousand other buildings within the pagoda complex itself and all made up of different designs, colors and materials. We spent two hours with a guide taking it all in. Unfortunately, we were unable to see it at sundown when it reflects the setting sun in spectacular ways. There is also wireless and an ATM – at the pagoda – who knew this was even possible!
Yangon as Rangoon at the turn of the last century was once one of the great cities of the world and it is easy to see the remnants of that thriving, international port. In the midst of today’s urban squalor and chaos sit amazingly beautiful classical and colonial buildings. Everything is slightly hidden but it’s definitely worth the effort to find them. The Secretariat, the former High Court, the Pegu Club are all obscured by gates and trees and it will be incredible to see how they are transformed in the years to come. Rumor has it that the train station (below) is going to be a new Peninsula Hotel. We made our way to the Sule Pagoda and down Maha Bandula Park Street and then back up Pansodan Street and then down Maha Bandula Street. Then back to Scott’s Market – taking in every 19th Century building we could find. We even were able to fit in a visit to the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue – the most important one in all of South East Asia. Two of the most important departments stores in Rangoon, Rowe and Co and Sofaer & Co. were owned by Jews in the 19th century and thus, the synagogue was the richest in the area. It is set back in a busy street and would be missable if not requested. It’s also on the same street as the most important mosque.
A spot to seek out is the old Pegu Club, near the Governor’s Residence hotel on Pyay Road opposite the Russian embassy. This very exclusive club was the mainstay of the British in Rangoon. It was very close to everything a colonial Brit would need get to in a hurry – the barracks, parade grounds, and prisons. There was even the signature Pegu Club cocktail (2 oz Gin, .75 oz Orange Curaçao, .5 oz Fresh lime juice, 1 dash Orange bitters, 1 dash Angostura Bitters – for those long hot Burmese nights. Like any reputable colonial club, nary a Bamar was allowed entry. The building is still there behind a metal fence and in a terrible state. Today you can drink many a Pegu Club in the NYC bar of the same name – this time everyone is allowed in.
After our walk, we then went on a rampage of sightseeing that dizzied even the most stolid of tourists: Kandawgyi (or Royal) Lake and its surrounding gardens, Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, Botataung Pagoda, Ngahtatgyi Paya, and a few more pagodas thrown in. The Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda with its reclining Buddha had to be one of my favorites of the morning. It’s not often you see a six-story gold and white bejeweled Buddha on your travels.
We took a five-minute break at one of the many tea shops (this one is called At Tea House, near the University – very busy for a Sunday) that were where the locals met to discuss politics while eating steamed buns and drinking tea sweetened with condensed milk. It was great to be the only non-locals people there and a cool way to end the mornings travails. Buns and tea gulped down to get us off to the airport and onto Inle Lake.
Upon our return trip to Yangon, after ten fantastic, crazy busy days, we were welcomed back to the Governor’s Residence like long-lost relatives. Dumping our things for our one last afternoon in Myanmar, we headed out to do some last-minute shopping.
We enjoyed leisurely strolling through the most famous market in Myanmar – Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott’s Market) to search for trinkets we may not have found along our travels. The prices were pretty competitive if not cheaper than some of the places we had been, but as I always say: buy it when you see it as sometimes you never see that exact thing again. We bought a slew of jade bracelets and some very glam, over-the-top velvet slippers, but there is large portion of the market dedicated to gemstones and fabrics, neither of which held our interest. A late lunch next door at the tourist friendly Zwegli’s – basic menu but literally on the doorstep of the market – and then time to enjoy our last hours walking around revisiting parts of the city we had done so quickly ten dance previously. Then back to the hotel for some R & R before eating again.
A dip in the pool and a nap on top of the down duvet (our flight has been at 7:00am from Bagan) and we woke ourselves for our last supper, Myanmar-style. We were lucky enough to be invited to Feel Myanmar Restaurant by the parents of a friend of mine who emigrated to the USA years ago and now comes back to stay for the winter every year. They did most of the ordering but we did have to have the Pickled Tea Leaf salad one more time. A drink at the lovely bar at our hotel to toast a good night to the Shwedagon and off to bed to get up for our 4:00am wake up call.
- Belmond Governor’s Residence: 35 Taw Win Road, Dagon Township, Yangon: +95-1 229860
- Padonmar Restaurant: No.105/107, Kha-Yae-Bin Road, Dagon Township: +95 1 122 0616
- Zawgyi House: 372 Bogyoke Aung San Road, Yangon Myanmar – the food is not that great, but bathrooms are fab.
- Feel Myanmar: 124 Pyihtaungsu Avenue Street, Dagon Tsp, Yangon : +95 09 7320 8132
- Tea Shops: Let Yway Sin, Lucky 7, Acacia – these are the most well known ones – they were closed as we were in Yangon on a Sunday.
- 19th Street BBQ – Try the beer and BBQ! There are tons of places – just pick one.
- Union Bar: 42 Strand Road, Yangon: +95 9420 101 854
- The Pegu Club: 77 W Houston St, New York, NY 10012: +1 212 473-7348
- Bogyoke Aung San Market
- Shwedagon Pagoda
- Kandawgyi (or Royal) Lake
- Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda
- Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
- Colonial Buildings: Pegu Club, MahaBandula Square, Rowe and Co., the High Court, The Secretariat, the Strand Hotel and many more.