Yangon was made into the capital of lower Myanmar when the British annexed that part of the country in 1853. The capital has since been shifted to Nay Pyi Taw, some 240 miles to the northeast of Yangon, the former city is packed with exciting things for travellers to see and do. There’s fabulous colonial architecture to look at and mind-boggling religious sites to visit and explore. The only real question facing a visitor is where to start.
The 330-foot-plus gilded stupa is a must-see for anybody seeing Yangon for the first time but remember to bring US$5 to pay the entry fee. Keep in mind that the pagoda is a deeply religious site that holds special meaning for Myanmar’s Buddhist community – dress and act respectfully. Getting to Shwedagon is very easy – just say the magic word “Shwedagon”, and any cab driver will take you there.
Yangon is home to some of the finest examples of colonial era architecture still standing in Southeast Asia.The most easily accessible is the Strand Hotel on the road of the same name in downtown Yangon. More than 100 years old, the Strand is a luxury hotel with pricing to match. It’s also home to a happy hour on Friday afternoon that draws tourists and expats alike. The hotel features an imposing façade, super-high ceilings, large rooms and an air of snobbery that’s hard to miss. The Secretariat building, which covers a whole city block in Kyauktada township, is another site that should be on any visitor’s “must-see list”. As well as being steeped in history – independence leader General Aung San was assassinated there in 1947 – the Secretariat is a reminder of quieter times. While visitors are not yet allowed into the site, it’s possible to walk around the perimeter and gaze inside at one of the rapidly changing city’s old beauties and it’s spacious grounds.
St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral sits barely a stone’s throw from the Secretariat at the corner of Bo Aung Kyaw and Bogyoke Aung San roads in Kyauktada township. The cathedral is home to a large flock of Yangon’s Catholic faithful and the believers swarm the site on Sunday mornings and on religiously important days. The cathedral’s twin spires are visible from many vantage points across the city and the building attracts busloads of tourists every week.Beyond the iconic Shwedagon, Yangon is also home to an almost unlimited array of other Buddhist places of worship. Botahtaung Pagoda on Strand Road is popular because of its large and eclectic compound, Chauk Htat Gyi on Shwe Gondine Road in Tarmwe township has a 65-metre-long reclining Buddha image, while nearby Ngar Htat Gyi has a huge sitting Buddha image.There are also a number of Chinese temples tucked away in Chinatown, which covers a big chunk of Latha township. The Fu Zin Kan Hou Temple on Strand Road and Liao San Tao Temple on Anawrahta Road (both Buddhist) are excellent examples of these. And there are Hindu temples such as the Shri Kali (Anawrahta Road) and Maha Vishnu on 51st Street to feast your eyes upon.
If Yangon has the somewhat metropolitan air as a result of it being a port city, Mandalay is much traditional Myanmar and has a distinctly slower pace. The city is more or less set around the old palace, with its high walls and wide moat. For visitors there are numerous things to see and do, such as visiting the palace, walking up to Mandalay Hill to enjoy the view over the city, travelling to the old city of Amarapura and taking in the photographic glory of U Bein’s Bridge.
Mandalay Palace was home to King Mindon Min and King Thibaw before the former died and the latter was sent into exile by the British when they invaded. But it remains the dominant piece of architecture in the city today. For all its imposing façade, though, the palace doesn’t hold that much of interest for travellers. Inside there is King Mindon Min’s tomb, a culture museum, the Glass Palace, where the kings lived at the 33-metre-high Nan Myint Saung watchtower.
The centrepiece of Mahamuni Pagoda is part of the spoils won by King Bodawpaya in his victory of the Rakhine (Arakan) kingdom in the country’s west in 1784, the Mahamuni Buddha image. At about 4 metres high and cast in bronze, the image is revered in Myanmar Buddhism and thousands of male devotees visit every year to apply ever more gold onto it.
No visit to Mandalay would be complete without a visit to Mandalay Hill, which is also home to a luxury resort. At 230 metres high, the Mandalay gives a commanding view over the city and the walking trail up is packed with interesting shrines, resting houses for pilgrims and lookouts.
About 11 kilometres of the city up the Ayeyarwady River lies Mingun, which houses a perception-defying brick pagoda, the Mingun Bell and a host of other religious sites for visitors to explore.
Construction of the Mingun Pagoda was initiated by the King Bodawpaya, the same king who sacked Arakan and removed the Mahamuni Buddha image to Mandalay, in 1790. Intended to soar as high as 150 metres into the air, work on the pagoda, which is made from bricks, stopped when the king died in 1819. An earthquake in 1838 killed any chance the site could be restarted and left huge cracks in the structure, which you can still walk up today. But a word of warning – it’s a religious site and you cannot wear shoes or sandals, so if it’s a hot day try and get there early or you’ll burn your feet. On a road nearby sits the Mingun Bell, a 90-tonne bronze bell, which was also commissioned by King Bodawpaya back in 1808.
While the Heho airport services much of Shan State, it really is little more than an airport and travellers will quickly move on to other more entertaining destinations such as Inle Lake, Taunggyi or Kalaw.
The lake is one of the Myanmar’s major tourist attractions and it’s easy to see why when you arrive there. It’s a very large freshwater lake that measures about 22 kilometres in length and 11 kilometres at its widest point on a good year.
Tourists have a number of accommodation options open to them depending on their budget, with cheapish guesthouses available in the closest town of Nyaungshwe, luxury hotels on the water or resorts in the hills around the edge.
The main attraction of the lake is boat tours that travel to the most famous pagoda in the area (Paung Daw Oo), the Jumping Cat Monastery, a number of cheroot (Myanmar cigars) rolling workshops, silversmiths and weaving shops.
If Inle Lake is about sitting back in a motorboat as it glides across the peaceful waters, Kalaw’s major draws are treks into the surrounding hills to visit ethnic villages or the nearby reservoir and days trips to the Pindaya or Padah-lin cave complexes.
For many years Taunggyi has not been particularly well received by travellers and viewed mainly as a commercial town with perhaps some interesting markets and architecture.
However, in the past decade the Myanmar Vineyard has established itself nearby. In addition to producing a decent drop that feeds the growing local appetite for wine, the wineries also have hotels/guesthouses to allow visitors to holiday there and enjoy the serene environment.
BAGAN (Nyaung U)
In many ways Bagan is the equal of Cambodia’s lost city of Angkor Wat. But where the temples at Angkor are relatively closely packed, the pagodas and relics at Bagan are scattered far and wide across a 42-square-kilometre plain that includes literally thousands of sites.
Bagan is also well developed as a destination by Myanmar’s standards and is serviced by its own airport, as well as fast boats linking it to Mandalay along the Ayeyarwady River. Accommodation near the major temples in Old Bagan, at Nyang U, the biggest town nearby, or at New Bagan, which is slightly further afield, will fit any budget.
Daytrippers can also choose to visit the temple atop Mt Popa, which is an hour’s drive from Nyaung U.