Yangon starts to come alive around 6:30 a.m. Take a morning stroll to beat the heat and watch the market vendors set up their sidewalk stalls, the religiously devout visit their worshiping place of choice, and the local tea shops in full swing.
Make time for tea
Tea shops are essential social hubs that served as a meeting place for the public even during Myanmar’s most repressive eras. Yangon has some of the most famous tea shops ones in the country. Small plates of food will be brought to your table; you can try them, or just set them to the side and order something from the menu. Also be sure to order a laphet yay, or Burmese sweet tea, made with varying combinations of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and black tea. The downtown Lucky Seven Teashop is famous in Yangon and has an English menu. Yatha Teashop is another local favorite, which also serves crispy samosas.
Costing only a few cents and taking about three-and-a-half hours, the Circle Line circumnavigates the city and is a great way to see Yangon. Locals in Yangon often take the train to get around, while street vendors use the train cars to hawk their food and wares. Try to get on one of the old, open-air trains to sit and watch the city go by. Taking the train in the middle of the day is also a great way to take a break from the heat.
Visit the pagodas – just not during the day
Even the most seasoned travelers find it hard to resist one of Myanmar’s biggest tourist attractions—Shwedagon Pagoda. Plated with over 8,000 sheets of gold and studded with thousands of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and other precious stones, the over 300-foot stupa dominates the Yangon skyline.
Go at sunset, when it’s cooler, less crowded, and the evening light provides a beautiful glow. The same goes for the Sule Pagoda, which is now the center of a traffic circle in the congested downtown roads. A sunset view from the neighboring park gives you the chance to take in the sight without having to put on the conservative clothing that can be stifling in the heat.
Get yourself some thanaka
One of the things people first notice when walking through Yangon is the whitish yellow paint adorning the faces and limbs of Yangonites. The paint is thanakha—a traditional paste made from water and the thanakha tree, and it’s unique to the region. You can get some for yourself, too: slices of the tree pieces and stone pedestal used to grind it on are for sale at all the local markets, and at Bogyoke Market. Ready-made pastes in small plastic containers are available too. Don’t be shy about letting a local put some on your face while you’re visiting. Many locals view visitors wearing thanaka or traditional clothing like the longyi as a sign of respect.
Stop at a beer station
In the evenings, a common local pastime is to head to a neighborhood sidewalk spot, sit on a low plastic stool, and drink a few cold beers. Some of the more popular beer stations will have a TV, so you can watch the latest soccer or lethwei (Burmese kickboxing) match. Check out 19th Street in Chinatown for a wide selection of beer stations that also serve good barbecue.
Take a Yangon Heritage walking tour
Yangon has one of the highest concentrations of colonial buildings still in use today. Many of the pastel-colored buildings have fascinating histories that provide insight into the country’s many political, economic, and social chapters. Free Yangon Walks can take you around town.
Bordering Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand, food in Myanmar is diverse. While more Western restaurants are opening, local food and drink is still where it’s at.
Mohinga is a rice-noodle fish soup that comes with various accoutrements such as fried chickpeas, egg, crispy gourd, and chilli flake. The dish can be found at stalls, tea shops, and restaurants across town, but to get the best bowls visit Myaungmya Daw Cho in the early morning or Rangoon Tea House any time of day. Lahphet thoke—a pickled or fermented tea leaf salad—is likely to be found at many of the same places. The potent salad comes mixed with tea leaves, garlic, onions, ginger root, nuts, seeds, dried shrimp, and more to form one of Myanmar’s most famous dishes.
…and dishes from other parts of Myanmar. As Myanmar’s cultural center, in Yangon you can find cuisine from all over the country, including places that foreigners are often denied permission to visit. Try Central Shan sticky noodles and fried tofu from Nang Htike, eastern Wa pumpkin moik and grilled pork neck from Root, spicy northern Kachin beef salads from Sha Yi Kachin Food, and pickled banana root southern Mon salads from Jana Mon Ethnic Cuisine.
Note: Never drinking the tap water and avoiding food that has been sitting out on tables or on the side of the street—ask for it freshly made instead.
Get something made
Clothing, watches, jewelry, furniture, glasses, custom coffee mugs: Yangon is a paradise for getting things made without breaking the bank. For a cheap pair of prescription glasses, or a good necklace, visit Bogyoke Market. Want an upscale, custom-fitted dress? Take a trip over to Virya Myanmar, which also sells custom accessories.
Take a river cruise
For an escape, take the ferry along the river in only ten to fifteen minute from Pansodan Jetty in the down town to Dala and Twante towns . The ride offers good views of the city’s riverfront and one can enjoy the bustle from the cheery vendors on board the ferry. Screeching seagulls will flock around the craft as passengers toss away crumbs and titbits.
When you get there, you can rent a bicycle for a few dollars or hire a guide to take you on a tour of the towns. Visit local craft store ChuChu, or stop at the Mwe Paya temple, which is filled with lethargic snakes fed by the local nuns. If you go back to the main city during rush hour, take a moment to grab a juice from one of the market stands and enjoy the people-watching. Be sure to cross the river before dark, though—you’ll have to pay a bribe to get boats to take you back to Yangon in the evening.