The capital until 2006, Yangon (Rangoon) is Myanmar's largest city and its commercial center. It is truly developing, and full of juxtapositions: new high-rises abut traditional Southeast Asian shophouses while down the street from a frozen yogurt bar, a sidewalk dentist goes to work. Yangon's rich collection of colonial architecture is one of its biggest draws; The Strand and its surrounding side streets look today much as they did at the turn of the century, when Yangon—then Rangoon—was under British rule. Yangon’s most iconic sight is unquestionably the enormous gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, but what makes it worth visiting beyond that is the rich, vibrant life that spills out of people’s homes and onto the streets. Colorful and chaotic, Yangon is a feast for the senses. Grinning uniformed schoolchildren and preadolescent monks vie for sidewalk space as vendors hawk fried goods and longyi-wearing businessmen go off to work. On a street of Indian-run paint shops sits the country’s only synagogue, a 19th-century relic; blocks away rise the steeples of St. Mary’s Cathedral, another reminder of the city’s colonial past.
his 325-foot-tall gilded pagoda is Yangon's top tourist attraction and, at 2,500 years old, the world's oldest pagoda. It is simply stunning. Admission is free for locals, and you'll see families, kids, groups of teenagers, and solo visitors milling around the pagoda all day, every day—praying, meditating, and just hanging out. The space is massive and never feels crowded. Women need a longyi (traditional sarong) or knee-length skirt to enter the pagoda, and all visitors are required to remove their shoes in the parking lot. During Yangon's hot days the pagoda glistens in the sun—it can be truly sweltering, and the floor can burn your bare feet. A better option is to come after the sun's gone down, when the Shwedagon is beautifully illuminated. There is an elevator for those who do not wish to climb up.
Yangon Circular Railway
There's no better bang for your buck in Yangon than a ride on the city's circle line. The three-hour tour covers 46 km (29 miles) and 39 stations on a railway loop that connects tiny towns and the suburbs with downtown Yangon. You'll see urban Yangon followed by shantytowns, grazing cows, ponds, barefoot giggling kids, and lots of greenery. The journey starts from the grand Yangon Central Station, whose style combines colonial and traditional Burmese architectural elements and is itself a sight. The train is the great unifier, with vegetable sellers, monks, kids, and commuters all hanging tight. Trains leave from Yangon Central platforms 4 and 7, one going clockwise and the other counterclockwise; the kindly ticket seller will personally guide you to the proper platform. Tickets are available at the station master's office at platform 7. You may be asked to show your passport to purchase tickets.
The British created this artificial lake in 1883, and it's said to look much the same today as it did then. About 10 km (6 miles) north of downtown, the area surrounding the lake is home to the Yangon Sailing Club (established in 1924) and expensive homes belonging to Aung San Suu Kyi and the U.S. ambassador. You can circle the lake on foot in about two hours, and many of the paths are well shaded. Adjacent to the lake and next to Yangon University is the 37-acre Inya Park, enormously popular with young couples who come to canoodle, watch movies on their laptops, and gaze at the lake. There are small snack and drink shops near the parking lot and benches dotted all over. On the western side of the lake is Mya Kyuan Thar, a peninsula with a kids' playground and an amusement park.
The motto of this gallery, which opened in 1971 and claims to be Myanmar's longest-running gallery, is "Truth, Beauty, Love." The nonprofit NGO is dedicated to promoting local artists, and represents 21 of them. It hosts exhibitions every few months and also works with embassies and other NGOs to put on shows and fairs.
Strand Road and Southern Yangon
This meandering walk through southern Yangon gives a good overview of the city's streets, leading you to the Strand Hotel on Yangon's southernmost boulevard, adjacent to the river. Your first stop is Saint Mary's Cathedral (Bogyoke Aung San Road and Bo Aung Kyaw Street), a Dutch-designed Gothic Revival structure dating back to 1899. The cathedral survived a 1930 earthquake and the World War II bombings, although its original stained-glass windows were shattered and have been replaced. There's a small swing set in the cathedral's yard. Backtracking a bit, walk south and west toward Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue (85 26th Street, near Maha Bandoola Road), Burma's only remaining synagogue. Constructed in 1896, it's small but well maintained, with beautiful, simple stained-glass windows. Today its congregation contains just a few families. The street on which the synagogue sits is lined with Indian-run paint shops, and the shophouses are painted in gorgeous, eye-popping colors such