Myanmar is hands-down one of the most beautiful countries that I’ve ever visited, and Yangon is the glittering jewel at the heart of the country. Although it’s no longer the capital city, it is still the largest city in the country, and there is plenty of history and culture to explore. You’ll probably need a visa to visit the country, but many travelers can get their visa issued online prior to their arrival into the country, and it’s relatively inexpensive. And with easy flights to Yangon from many international destinations—well, what are you waiting for?
Here are the top ten things to do in Yangon during your time there:
# 1. Shwedagon Pagoda
This shining symbol of Yangon is one of the city’s most-visited attractions, and for good reason. It’s uncontestedly one of the most important religious site in Yangon—and, in fact, in all of Myanmar! You can see the main stupa from all over the city, but it—and the gleaming dragons guarding the pagodas entrances—is even more impressive up close.
When to go: The pagoda can get pretty crowded at times, especially in the height of the afternoon. What’s more, remember that you’ll have to take your shoes off—and if it’s a bright, sunny day, that means your feet will be cooking on the ceramic tiles at noon! It’s better to plan your trip either earlier or later in the day (the pagoda is typically open from 4am to 10pm) to avoid the crowds and the heat.
Where to go: Shwedagon Pagoda, Township, Yangon
# 2. The circular train
Especially if you don’t have the time to venture far outside of Yangon, I recommend heading to the Yangon Central Railway Station and taking the circular train around the city to get a firsthand glimpse at life in Myanmar outside the cities. The train was built in the ’50s, back when British Imperialism was still in full force—and it hasn’t changed much since. One thing to note: there are no bathrooms on the train, and although you can get off and use restrooms in the little villages you pass through (many restaurants will let you stop in even if you’re not a customer), you’ll usually have to wait half an hour to an hour for the next train to come through!
When to go: The train journey takes approximately three hours to go the full way around—longer if you plan on stopping off in some of the villages. I’d recommend getting an early start, if you can, so that you know you have plenty of time to explore, but usually it won’t take you more than half a day to do the full loop.
Where to go: Yangon Central Railway Station, Kun Chan Rd, Yangon
# 3. Kandawgyi Lake
This beautiful park in downtown Yangon can be a great place to find some peace away from the bustle of downtown Yangon—plus, it’s got beautiful views of Shwedagon Pagoda as well as the large golden boat, pulled by incredible dragons (which you’ll see on Myanmar Beer cans, among other places). I also was lucky enough to walk across the boardwalk just as two monks were walking towards me and got to have a great conversation with them after I asked to take their picture.
When to go: The lake can be pretty really at any time of the day, but if it’s a nice day, you’ll definitely want to be there around sunset so you can see the sky turn beautiful colors behind Shwedagon Pagoda.
Where to go: Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon
# 4. Bogyoke Aung San Market
Another relic of British imperialism in Yangon, this market—formerly known as Scott Market—is worth visiting for the architecture alone. But it can also be a great place to shop for jewels, tapestries, paintings, woodcarvings, or any other handicraft souvenirs that you’re looking for in Myanmar. There’s even an amazing antiques shop up on one of the upper floors! If you’re looking for the authentic local market experience, you’re better off one of the other markets such as the Thiri Mingalar market, where you’ll find produce, fresh cooking, and more—but I still enjoyed my visit to Bogyoke Aung San.
When to go: Traditional markets will typically have better wares in the morning than in the afternoons and evenings—but that’s not the case with the mostly handicraft-oriented Bogyoke Aung San Market. Really any time of the day works well—although before making dinner plans, note that the market closes relatively early, around 5pm.
Where to go: Bogyoke Aung San Market, Bo Gyoke Road, Yangon
# 5. Sule Pagoda
Although not nearly as impressive as Shwedagon Pagoda, this pagoda is also interesting to visit, especially because it’s frequented by more of a local crowd. Whether you plan to visit or not, you’ll probably end up near Sule Pagoda at some point anyway: believe it or not, the pagoda is set right in the middle of a traffic circle in downtown Yangon, and you’ll find that many of the major roads in the area lead straight to it. So why not pop inside and enjoy the shade for a little while?
When to go: Unlike with Shwedagon Pagoda, you can really visit at any time of the day and find a good level of activity—but not too much. I still would rather go early in the day, when the monks are typically most visible, but it’s not as big of a deal if you go mid-afternoon when you have a free moment.
# 6. Take a walking tour
One of the best ways to orient yourself in a new city is to take a walking tour guided by locals—and although Yangon’s streets are laid out in a relatively grid-like fashion, I still found it was useful to take a tour. The Yangon Heritage Trust offers cheap tours, and they’re the ones I recommend—both for the wealth of information that you’ll glean from their tours as well as for the inexpensive prices and the different selection of routes that they offer.
When to go: There are tours offered in both the morning and afternoon, so fit one in whenever your schedule allows! You view available tour dates and times and book ahead on the Yangon Heritage Trust’s website.
# 7. Grab a bowl of mohinga
The first thing that I ate in Myanmar was the ever-popular mohinga, from a little road-side stall as I wandered around Yangon with some people I met at my hostel. And I found it again and again over the course of my time in Myanmar. It’s a staple food (typically eaten for breakfast but now served at all hours of the day), and everyone makes it slightly different—but the base of it is rice noodles and fish sauce.
When to go: Whenever you’re hungry!
Where to go: I won’t include a map for this one because you’ll find mohinga at nearly every roadside stall—and again, they all make a different variant of it, so I suggest you try as many as you can. Just walk up and grab a seat on one of the little plastic chairs. Don’t worry, most of these little stalls sell only one dish, so you can’t go wrong!
# 8. Visit the Strand Hotel
Fancy feeling a little posh during your trip to Yangon? This colonial-era hotel might be out of your budget, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stop in for a quick drink. The hotel has been in operation for over a century, and you’ll find that the architecture makes for a lovely backdrop. Personally, I recommend checking out some of Myanmar’s local beers (typically lagers), but you’ll find plenty to quench your thirst on the menu.
When to go: Evening is a great time to visit—you can sip on a drink while you watch the people around you. But mid-afternoon can also be nice time to visit: less crowded and an easy way to escape the oppressive midday heat!
Where to go: The Strand Hotel Yangon
# 9. Chinatown
Although it may seem counter-intuitive to visit Chinatown when you’ve come to Myanmar to experience Burmese culture, I find that it’s fascinating to visit different Chinatowns all over the world and compare them to one another. Anyway, the food in Chinatown—whether it’s barbecued skewers on the street corner or whatever else strikes your fancy—can be a nice change if you’ve had a little too much Burmese food lately!
When to go: During the daytime, Chinatown is still relatively busy, but it really comes alive at night—especially if you’re looking to grab a bite to eat from the food sellers there.
Where to go: The Chinatown of Yangon lies west of the Sule Pagoda – China Town, Yangon
# 10. Plan your trip beyond Yangon!
If you have even a little time, I recommend getting out of Yangon and seeing what else this magical place has to offer. One easy trip would be to the temple complexes of Bagan—usually you can find a night-bus out to the temples, spend a couple days exploring, and return to Yangon within a matter of days. Or, you could head further afield and do the popular trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Or head up to Myanmar’s other city, Mandalay. There are tons of different options, so talk to your hostel or hotel and then get yourself booked on the next available bus!
When to go: Myanmar’s rainy season goes from May through September—although usually, you’ll only have an hour or two of rain over the course of the day, which is easy to avoid if you’re in the cities. But if you’re planning on trekking or doing other outdoors activities, it might be best to wait until the dryer months!
Where to go: You have plenty of options for places to book your buses—but I found that JJ’s Express Buses were some of the most comfortable during my time in Myanmar. They can be a bit pricier than the alternative, but personally, I feel the air conditioning and comfortable seats—especially on an overnight bus while I was trying to sleep—were worth it.