The commercial capital of Burma (Myanmar), Yangon is a compelling mix of golden pagodas, colonial architecture, hastily-erected scaffolding and history-stained streets. As the country shifts towards a democracy, with the military government softening the controls they brutally exercised over the last half-century, massive change is underway. New cars clog Yangon's roads, media and human rights workers cover long-ignored issues, and businesspeople and tourists stream into the city, hoping to make a buck and get a glimpse of a city that seems to have been trapped in time.
Yangon was the British colonial capital until Burma's independence in 1948, and it was the independent country's capital until 2005 (the official capital is now Naypyidaw). Located at the confluence of two rivers just before they empty out to the Andaman Sea, it has a large harbour -- the country's principal port -- and enjoys a much-needed coastal breeze. The city can get very hot and very wet; the hot season sizzles from February till June, with average high temperatures close to 40 degrees Celsius, while the monsoons hit from June until October. November through February sees an average temperature of around 30 degrees Celsius and, weather-wise, is by far the best time to visit.
The city hosts the largest number of intact colonial buildings in Asia, although some might argue about the definition of "intact". The poorly maintained, crumbling buildings reflect a colourful history while providing a backdrop to the vibrant energy of Yangon's daily street life, bustling at their foundations. Yangon's tourist infrastructure is straining, while power outages remain common, footpaths mimic rubble and essentials elsewhere such as access to the internet remain unreliable luxuries at best.
Buddhist monks and nuns somehow blend into the crowded streets, drawing attention during their morning alms walks, with their sometimes block-long lines. Pagodas are abundant, but none is so famous as the one sitting atop a hill in the middle of Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda is a must-see.
Housing one of the two main airports to fly into Burma, Yangon may provide a bit of culture shock and awe. For one, you may be shocked at how awful the traffic is; the poor roads are made worse by an old law that makes two-wheeled vehicles illegal in the city. That's right: an Asian city of nearly 5 million people does not allow motorbikes or bicycles to be legally ridden, though crazy foreigners seem to be exempt from the rule. Bicycle rentals are now possible but taxis rule as the dominant vehicle. Traditional trishaws eke out an existence and buses are packed with nervous commuters as privatised bus companies race each other to the next stop.
Make sure to allow time to explore the nooks and crannies of the city slowly, as they will hold some of the most beautiful snippets of history and colour; linger in tea shops and get to know the delicious local cuisine. Government attractions such as the Drug Elimination Museum provide glimpses into social forces that have long been at work here, or visit markets such as Bogyoke Aung San and the late-night fish market. Art galleries are not so easy to find, but those that are around are filled with quality, sought-after works.
Yangon does not have much of a nightlife; the culture is conservative, though comparatively Yangon holds many more opportunities to unwind than even places such as Mandalay. 19th Street Chinatown teems with good spirited patrons at tables full of empty mugs and many restaurants now double as bars, with a couple of scattered clubs to be discovered.
For those who can't handle cities for too long, daily and weekend excursions can be undertaken, such as a mountain-bike treks through rubber tree plantations, villages and to the faux Golden Rock pagoda an hour outside of town. Take the ferry out to Dala for a look at the countryside or take a trip to Pyay for a weekend.
The people of Myanmar alone make a visit worthwhile. The average Yangoonie is curious, open and ready for a joke. You will still meet people who are genuinely interested to meet you and share their stories; sometimes at an alarmingly quick rate you'll find out their political views and history.
By Christopher Smith .