48 Hours in Yangon

Landing in a new city after dark is like being blindfolded until you arrive at your final destination. You have no idea what anything looks like until your first peek out the window of the hotel room (if you’re lucky enough to have a window). At the lovely Loft Hotel, we not only have a window but one that overlooks a welcoming little garden that attracts birds and which muffles the city noises. Pigeons, crows, and sparrows are the first to greet us.

Armed with the knowledge that one of the better Shan noodle restaurants is only a block or two away, we head over and into the fray of daily life in Yangon.

There are food vendors lining the streets almost the entire way, some selling produce and others with plastic chairs set out for customers eating prepared rice and noodle dishes. Our destination, though, is Aung Mingalar, a reputable Shan noodle house. We order Shan breakfast specialties including sticky noodles with tofu gravy and Shan noodle soup.

Sated enough, we walk downtown past dead animals, both those smashed on the street and those for sale and intended for eating. We pass by the Bogyoke market (which is quite boring, mostly jewelry shops), and pop into the nearby Sule Pagoda, one of the largest Buddhist shrines in the city. It is the first stupa we visit in Myanmar, and our eyes are fresh and easily impressed.

Heading south towards the heart of the old colonial city, we pause in the Mahabandoola Garden, where a mom wipes her baby’s bum with water from the public fountain and another little girl pulls up her pants after peeing under a tree. Between this, the crumbling colonial architecture, and all the panwallas, Myanmar really does remind me of India.

Rested, it is time to visit our friend, owner of the Myanm/Art gallery. Nathalie shows us around and talks about expat life and art in Myanmar. When she first moved here five years ago, the military patrolled the streets, there were still power outages every day and SIM cards cost $250, if you could even get one. Now it costs just over $5 to get a SIM plus a month’s worth of data, the power stays on all day, and nary a machine gun to be found.

Thankful for our mobile data, it makes it so much easier to navigate our way back to the hotel via Father’s Office, a cool bar owned by one of the city’s repats–repatriated Burmese citizens. Repats are a “force to be reckoned with,” Nathalie tells us, as they have the most power and potential to drive change in the country.

Sunset was spent circumambulating the number one site in Yangon: the Shwedagon pagoda. This is a pretty crazy place–easily one of the coolest and most impressive living Buddhist shrines anywhere. It is huge, gold, and shiny.

Evening beers are sipped at the brand new Burbrit brewing taproom in the embassy district. The place is promising, with a pleasant outdoor setting, free mosquito spray on every table, and 8 beers on tap. The beets might be yeasty, under-hopped, and made with malt extract, but they are all clean and drinkable. Plus, it is the first and only craft brewery in Myanmar.

There isn’t much to eat in this area (why do embassy districts suck for food and overall street life? Are all diplomats just really boring people?), but we walk to a place called Pandonmar. The tour group eating there was a red flag, but we ended up really liking the food. Got the pennywort salad, some funky fermented fish something or another, and deep-fried eel. For a place that obviously caters to tourists, the kitchen did not hold back on big, bold, intense flavours. Maybe we got lucky or just ordered the right things.

Day Two began just like Day One, waking up with the birds and breakfasting at the Shan noodle corner, only this time we tried the place across the street from Aun Mingalar called Thukha Yeik Food Center. Like Aung Mingalar, food was fantastic–only different because this place makes a million different mouth-watering curries designed for lunch. I had one for breakfast, because that’s the kind of person I am, and we also had coconut noodles, paratha rolled with mung bean paste, and a roti. Yum.

We also stopped into Gentleman’s Coffee Roasters–which undoubtedly takes coffee more seriously than most places in town. Likely expat-owned (though we don’t know their story yet), they pull a killer espresso and the bright, fruity house blend has Myanmar coffee in it. Super cool.

This day’s main excursion was to sit for three hours on public transportation–the “circle line” train. It is popular with tourists because it is an easy way to watch the world go by and learn how people here live.

After the train, we tucked into a bigger than expected lunch at Rangoon Tea House, one of the nicer places in town. They make sophisticated versions of classic Burmese tea house dishes like mohinga (which I eagerly ordered), tea leaf salad, pennywort salad, handmade noodles, parathas, and more…topped off by their top notch tea, made in a way very similar to teh tarik.

Then what better way to wrap up 48h in Yangon than with a total lunar eclipse??

While the lunar eclipse experience would have been transcendent at the Schwedagon pagoda because of all the chanting and whatnot, we found out about it at the last minute. A local rooftop bar (at the Alfa Hotel) sufficed.

Then there was Double Happiness on 19th St. Cheap (<$1) drinks in an old Chinatown shopfront (or former opium den?), friendly and localsy, playing obscure old disco and Grandmaster Flash. They should rename it Triple Happiness.

Tomorrow we fly to Inle Lake!

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