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.