Although it ceded its capital status during the years of military rule, Yangon remains the de facto economic, religious, cultural and artistic capital of Myanmar. It is the start and end point of most trips to the country. Known as Rangoon when the likes of George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham were passing through, Yangon's crumbling colonial remnants seem a world away from the modern, capitalistic bustle that has reshaped other Southeast Asian cities. That all is changing, however, and quickly. This city of 4 million has witnessed a huge influx of foreign visitors in the past years, prompting authorities to modernize the city's infrastructure, telecommunications and hospitality industry. Today, Yangon is poised to lead Myanmar into a new era in its modern history.
Particular highlights include the elegant Strand Hotel, once frequented by the likes of Graham Greene and W. Somerset Maugham; the gleaming Shwedagon Pagoda, immortalized in poem by Rudyard Kipling; and the unique Shwe Phone Pint Pagoda, home to fortune-tellers and soothsayers.
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Visit the 70-year-old Bogyoke Aung Sun Market, where countless shops and hawkers peddle everything from Burmese silk and rattan to traditional musical instruments and tea.
This pagoda is said to date back more than two millennia and, according to legend, originally housed a hair of the Buddha. The earlier structure on this site was completely destroyed by Royal Air Force bombing in World War II, with the present structure having been rebuilt to original specifications after the war.
Go on a tour of Yangon's remaining British colonial buildings, led by an award-winning architect and historical scholar now based here. Highlights include the former diplomatic quarter, the majestic Strand Hotel, the Post and Telegraph office, and the Yangon Port Authority and the Customs Department.
Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s burgeoning art destinations, thanks to continuing political developments within the country. Visit the studio and instruction center of local Yangon artist and, pending his availability, chat with him about his influences and artistic philosophy, as well as the historical effects of censorship on local art and exhibitions.
Visit a local Yangon monastery for a private lunch with some of its resident monks. This is a very un-touristy experience where you will likely be the only foreign visitor. You will join the monks for their "lunch" at 11:00 a.m., their last meal before fasting for the remainder of the day. This is a great chance to witness firsthand the quotidian life of a Buddhist monk in one of Southeast Asia's most rapidly changing cities.
Go to a local gym for a lesson in Myanmar Letwae (Myanmar kickboxing), which differs from its Thai counterpart in that it is done without gloves. Chat with the students for a deeper insight into this ancient sport dating back to the 15th-century Bagan Era. Take a few of the boxers out to lunch at their favorite local restaurant, and speak with them about their lives and their sport.
Explore Yangon's National Museum, whose exhibition halls detail Myanmar’s history starting from ancient times, covering the tradition’s of the country’s ethnic minorities, the formation of the Burmese alphabet, the progression of painting from caves to the canvas, and other topics.
Visit the famed Shwe Phone Pwint Pagoda, site of Yangon's fortune-telling community, where over 30 astrology and fortune telling shops engage in one of Myanmar's oldest and most revered pastimes.
Spend the afternoon at the spectacular and seemingly endless Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma's most sacred temple and one of the world's great man-made wonders. “A golden mystery...a beautiful winking wonder,” is how Kipling described it. Archeologists believe it was built between the 6th and 10th centuries AD. Today, Shwedagon is very much a working temple, and is actually more like a collection of dozens of smaller temples, filled with devout Buddhists practicing their faith.
Visit a high-end jewelry shop specializing in quality gems and minerals. Pending her availability, the owner will gladly tell you about her family’s gem mine, give you a firsthand glimpse at how the stones are prepared for sale, and show you some very large and impressive items from her personal collection. The store is very popular among the country’s elite, and is well worth a visit.
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