Yangon – street feasts, the Circle line and the epic Shwedagon Pagoda

Yangon, the old capital of Burma, is a confrontation of the senses: from the kissing noises people make to catch each others’ attention, to the red-toothed, skirted men, yellow face painted women, and the strange driving that has people driving in right hand steering cars on the wrong side of the road.

But its delapidated colonial architecture, never ending street markets, tea houses and beer stations will capture your sense of fun and adventure. Just wandering around this city is an adventure in itself because you just don’t know what you’ll see. The below were my Yangon highlights:

Shwedagon Pagoda

You don’t have to be religious or know anything about Buddhism to come to the conclusion that Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda in, in a word, epic.

I was thinking of comparing its impressiveness to a European counterpart, like St Peter’s Basilica and its revered Sistine Chapel, but this really is something else. Imagine if Jesus’ face was surrounded by Vegas-esque lights and his life and times were commemorated in an outdoor theme park. Except instead of buying candy floss people bring their own packed lunches that they eat in the pleasant shade of the countless shrines to Buddha. My personal favourite is the reclining Buddha, pictured below.

The behemoth golden dome, which can be seen from all over the city like Yangon’s own Eiffel Tower, is circled by a series of mini chapels dotted around like numbers on a clock. You can peek in on monks praying quietly while devotees enthusiastically pour water over statues and their adorning flowers.

The only downside is being made to walk barefoot, but it’s all part of the experience, and you soon learn to hop from one shady spot to another so the hot tiles don’t scorch your feet (they inevitably will at some point though).

If I ever return to Yangon, which I hope to, I’d revisit the pagoda at night, when it is fully lit up like a magical Buddha-land.

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19th Street barbecues and a spot of nightlife

An upmarket food and drink scene is steadily growing in Yangon, but it’s the rough and ready food of the street that’s the  most authentic and satisfying.

Follow your nose to 19th Street, just past the hard to miss China Town temple arches. You’ll know you’re there when that woody, smoky barbecue smell hits you and before long, street vendors will be jostling for your attention, demanding your custom in a manner not unlike that of London’s Brick Lane. Try to find a table in the crowded street, vying for space against wide-eyed tourists and contented locals.

The rainbow-like barbecue skewers are piled tantalisingly high, like a meaty sweet shop selection. Sip cold Myanmar Beer as you take in the sight, smell and sounds. The street is like a parade, and the carnival-like feel is catching, with its dating teens, mobile music van blaring up and down, and pimply adolescents selling you flowers.

If you want to keep the party spirit going as the barbecues of 19th Street die down, head to local night hotspots Zero Zone and PM3. Both are on a seemingly seedy trip and require you to take a suspicious looking elevator – the kind you’re not sure you’ll come back down from – to the fourth floor beer garden. The beer garden is, surprisingly, a haven of quiet away from the messy, smoky, congested streets below.

The highlight isn’t just the endless beer or barbecued fish, but the entertainment – a Burmese X Factor style karaoke performed by the less than enthusiastic, timid waitresses. They stand nervously at the back of the restaurant, playing with their hair and fidgeting with their clothes as they watch their colleagues’ performances.

They don’t clap or smile, but simply stare at the girl on stage, as she bawls out a Burmese pop ballad. If she’s lucky, one note in 10 might be in tune. The waiters make a half hearted attempt at clapping and occasionally embarrassing the girl by placing something from the dress up box on her – a feature boa or cowboy hat even. We are beside ourselves but daren’t laugh as the reaction from the all male audience is scarily neutral as they sip their beers.

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Thone Pan Hla tea house

Forget your pain au chocolats and your Starbucks mega non-fat soy lattes – breakfast in a Yangon tea house is where it’s at. With tiny plastic seats and minimal menus, think of it as the traditional greasy spoon of Burma. We slurp up bowls of fried noodles instead of cereal as locals pore over newspapers, chat on their mobiles and meet friends. It’s near the gold topped Sule Pagoda, which also acts as one of the downtown area’s main roundabouts and home to a host of local fortune tellers.

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Yangon’s own Circle line

It might seem crazy to want to be a commuter when that’s the very thing you’ve come to Burma to escape from. But the Yangon Circle line is a far cry from the soul-less London rush hour we’re all used to. For 1000 kyats your ride is made official with a formal ticket that’s more like a certificate. Milling around on the platform is a motley crew of monks, teens, families, workers and of course, the obligatory food and drink vendors that sell fruit, water and snacks through the windows, carrying their wares from carriage to carriage on their heads.

Monks and all take their seats, and as the train picks up speed, it rocks back and forth like an over excited mother rocking a giant cradle. We ricket past village after village, the people who get on and off giving us bemused looks.

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So that was my Yangon adventure – tell me about yours!

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