Although it is no longer the capital city, Yangon is still one of the most awe-inspiring cities that Burma has to offer. Wander through the colonial streets, perfectly preserved minus a good coat of paint, or discover the stunning religious monuments and temples that pepper a city somewhat caught between eras.
Take a casual stroll down Pansodan Street and you are instantly transported back to a 19th century British colonial town, when only five minutes ago you were wandering amongst now deserted 90's tower blocks. Though it can be slightly ghostly at times and utterly overwhelming at others, Yangon has never been a city to make you feel like a stranger. Home to Burmese, Chinese, Indian and western expats, the city is a true melting pot of traditions and cultures, all equally as welcoming, all equally as fascinating.
Presiding over all affairs is the glittering Shwedagon Paya, golden centre piece of the city and symbol of its enduring Buddhist beliefs and values. And what better to preside over than colourful food vendors and open'air markets that pack the city's jostling, vibrant streets. Prepare yourself for a population that likes to walk almost exclusively barefoot, even when it's not religiously required. But don't forget that religion is a very important part of life here and all visitors are expected to respect the customs and traditions, such as removing shoes before entering sacred places and wearing full length clothing.
Behind the glittering facades and public tranquillity, Burma's politics and government has long given cause for concern on a global scale. Independence from the British in 1948 brought with it civil war, followed by military rule from 1962-2011. Though the military allowed a general election in 1990, it failed to hand over power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) and put its chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. Since then she has been released and re-arrested multiple times, sometimes against both international and Burmese law. Recently, however, Burma has seen a democratic turn-around, with Aung San Suu Kyi elected to Parliament in April 2012 as a representative of the NLD.
Though the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) doesn't warn against travel to Yangon, be aware that there is a risk of terrorism in Burma as a whole, and that you should avoid all large political demonstrations and gatherings. For more information, visit the FCO website.
Needless to say, this city buzzes morning, noon and night, so why not escape for a little and head to the Kandawgyi Park. There is a small admission charge for foreigners but the relaxation of a short stroll around the park's quiet paths and shady spots is well worth it. To the southwest is the Karaweik, a large model of a traditional Burmese boat, which serves dinner accompanied by traditional entertainment. The food is sadly western orientated but the dancing is superb.
If however, you want to head right into the hustle and bustle, head to the Scott Market - a sprawling web of around 2000 shops, with some of the best handmade produce in Burma. The shopkeepers won't vie for your undivided attention, nor try to hard-sell you useless objects, they just leave you be to browse at your leisure. Precious stones, jewellery, clothing, bags and all manner of things are to be found down the packed streets of the market, and you are sure to find something worth your while.
The Shwedagon Pagoda should be at the top of any travellers to do list for Yangon and Burma as a whole. It is the most sacred site in the country for Buddhists, who hope to make at least one pilgrimage to it in their lifetime. According to Buddhist tradition, the pagoda has been a sacred site since before our world was created. Records confirm that there has been a pagoda on the site since the 6th century AD, but the one that stands today has been built and rebuilt countless times throughout the centuries and as such, looks new and beautifully maintained.
On arrival, leave the cable car ride to the top in favour of strolling up one of the long entrances to the temple. The east entrance is especially vibrant, with locals peddling their wares and orange cloaked monks serenely passing the time of day.
But it is the atmosphere both inside and outside that really makes this gilded building interesting. Everyday life meets the sanctity of religion in one beautiful splash of colour, light and sparkle. Believers pray at their respective shrines, whilst outside people gather to chat, swap stories and let their children run free. At sunset, the golden temple turns crimson in the sun's last rays and is truly a wonder to behold.
Every full moon, the city takes a public holiday, meaning that banks, bureaus de change and government offices will all be closed.
Money is also generally hard to come by in Yangon so make sure you bring enough for your trip. There are no ATMs in the city and you will be hard pushed to find a hotel that will accept a credit card. Tourists are charged for almost everything in US dollars, so if possible exchange a large amount before you come to avoid having to try to find somewhere later on. There are plenty of places to exchange US dollars to kyat, the official currency, but you will need very little of this as tourists are mostly charged in dollars.
Make sure the dollars that you do bring are in mint condition, with no creases, rips or stains. This shouldn't be a problem if you change money at a UK bank as notes are most often new. Shop, hotel and restaurant owners are strangely particular about the notes they will accept, so it is best to be on the safe side.
Though it may be advertised as a good place to visit, the Yangon Zoo is a depressing place, to say the least. The animals are kept in appalling conditions, fed little and forced to fight for scraps of food thrown by tourists. The elephants especially, have no space in which to roam and are chained at the ankles to stop them moving around the compound. Animal welfare standards are not the same in Burma as they are in the UK so if you do pay a visit, prepare to be a little shocked.
You will never run out of places to eat and things to try in this city, but some of the more recommended haunts are located in the downtown area. Any curry you can lay your hands on is a must - from beef and chicken to fish, in a variety of flavours and spices.
Dining in Yangon is a very communal affair. All the dishes you order will be served on the table together so that you can pick and choose different foods and flavours - the best way to try new things!
Though there is a wealth of handcrafted items to bring back and even the most inexperienced shopper won't have a problem finding a good souvenir or two, Yangon is famous for its tailors. Why not have a traditional Burmese shirt made, for a price that is next to nothing and a quality that is close to unbeatable. Leave about four or five days for it to be ready for you to wear in all its glory.
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