Yangon, Myanmar: My Thoughts On An Odd City

Yangon, Myanmar: My Thoughts On An Odd City

“This has totally changed since the last time I came. They have paved streets now!” This was one of the first comments a Canadian woman said as we shared a taxi from Yangon’s airport to the city center.

Myanmar is one of the most mysterious countries I’ve visited to this day.  I did my research online before arriving to have a feel of what should I expect once there, but many sources were a hyperbole of an idea of what this country used to be, while others fell miserably short of what Yangon –and Myanmar in general– were for me.

Monks in Yangon, Myanmar
Monks at Shwedagon Pagoda.

It is understandable, though.  Myanmar is changing at an uber fast pace.  But don’t think for one second that this change is making Myanmar “just another country” in the blink of an eye – though they are trying hard.

Early in 2013, there were barely any ATMs and most things had to be paid in US Dollars.  Today (January 2014), you can find ATMs in all major cities (though not all of them work with all banks) and you are able to pay hotels and restaurants in Kyats (Myanmar’s currency).  This is part of their modernization, but city wise, Yangon is heading in all directions.

Parks of Yangon, Myanmar
Maha Bandoola Garden with Yangon’s City Hall in the background and Sule Pagoda to the left. One of the few snapshots of the city where everything does look well kept and manicured.

I have to point out something very curious to me.  There is no denying that Yangon is proud of its parks and gardens.  They trim and keep them as if it was their most valuable asset.  On the other hand, buildings rot and crumble in front of your very own eyes.

I’m not talking about small or lower class buildings; the former courthouse, other major buildings, and even some pagodas look like their glory days passed several decades ago and now are just slowly decaying until they reach total dilapidation.

Courthouse of Yangon, Myanmar
The former courthouse building. Now falling into pieces. But the gardens… beautifully trimmed!
Abandoned building in Yangon, Myanmar
One of the many abandoned buildings in Yangon.

I saw hundreds of workers dedicated to the upkeep of the gardens, yet not a single person to clean or keep up a building or the street.  I wonder why…

Man on Bamboo in Yangon, Myanmar
Ok, ok… I saw ONE man working on a building.

Under a first impression, Yangon feels like a shithole – pardon my French.  Well, let me take it down a notch.  It feels odd, uncomfortable, and messy at best.  It does, but I don’t want to just stop there and leave it like that.  Yangon must be like that for some reason.

I believe that even a city like Yangon must have some “gold nuggets” to make it worth seeing.  And if not, then at least you experienced it as it is.

Alley in Yangon, Myanmar
A typical street in the downtown Yangon.

I believe that the reason Yangon (and Myanmar in general) is the way it is goes way back in its history. The country has been plagued with a grinding poverty that gives no real opportunity to most of the population.

But in my opinion, what makes it feel even worse is that Myanmar used to be the richest country in Southeast Asia but is now the poorest.  How did they manage that?  Corruption and isolation, among many other factors.

As a country that experienced plenty of traumatic encounters with foreign nations as well as oppression in the past – going as far back to the Mongol invasion, to the British colonization, and later the Japanese – Myanmar developed this isolationist mentality and behavior that mostly rejected foreigners from its lands.

Nowadays, though, this mentality has eased drastically and the country now welcomes and “takes care of foreigners”, as they publicly state on street banners.

The truth is, Burmese are very friendly when it comes to helping and extending a welcome to a foreigner.  From my experience, many of them cared about my experience and some even went above and beyond to make sure everything was ok without necessarily getting all fussed about my presence.

Street seller in Yangon, Myanmar
A typical street seller.

Even though Myanmar had this isolationist ideal once, Yangon has always been a mix of British, Burmese, Chinese, and Indian influences.  I’d say the British influence is most noticeable in their now decaying 19th-century colonial architecture – that once glorified the former capital city, previously named Rangoon.

The Indian influence is strongly present in the way locals act and the poor upkeep of the city.  Honestly, Yangon made me feel like I was back in India, minus the intense crowds (actually, Myanmar was part of India under the British rule).

The Burmese and Chinese influences are expressed more in their culture and traditions, which thanks partly to their semi xenophobic behavior, have been kept strongly in their ideals and can be easily seen on the street on a daily basis.

Hindu Temple in Yangon, Myanmar
Hundreds of birds in front of a Hindu Temple.

This somehow makes Yangon a very exotic city.  There’s a lack of most international brands, most things are done in a “rustic way”, and there is a lack of tourism infrastructure – so almost everything is done the way locals do.

Street market in Yangon, Myanmar
The street market, where there is still color and something strangely pleasant in all the chaos.

A walk down one of its rundown alleys will give you a “culture” overdose – both good and bad.

The pungent smell of the gutters mix with the street food aroma; the burgundy clothed monks are to be found everywhere in the city; most people are comfortable walking barefoot anywhere they go; women wear the traditional Thanaka on their face to protect it from the sun; and most men still dress with a longyi –a long sarong-like garment– and chew betel nuts incessantly, giving them a reddened smile that will make you cringe at first.

And I can’t forget the betel nut spit stains found on every corner of the city (just like India!).

Lady with Thanakha in Yangon, Myanmar
A lady with her face painted with Thanaka – a traditional sun block cream made of wood dust.
Alley in Yangon, Myanmar
A typical street in the downtown Yangon.

Even though this might sound and feel exotic for us, these details are imperceptible to them.  The truth is, Yangon is a city with an identity crisis.

For starters, it was stripped of its capital status (was given to Naypyidaw, which was built from scratch, in 2005), its name was changed from Rangoon to Yangon –let alone the rename of its country from Burma to Myanmar– and it had its national flag redesigned more than once.

Most of the time you hear a mix of Rangoons and Yangons, as well of a mix of Burmas and Myanmars.  Which one rules?  Which they respect the most?  Which do they identify with?

Probably this lack of identity is what brings me back to the lack of care in the city (except for its gardens, oddly enough).

Maybe they don’t care about the British colonial buildings that served once as powerhouse representatives of their former capital and now sit front row in the cityscape, rotting away into nothingness. Maybe they don’t care about their city enough, now that it’s been downgraded to “just” the biggest city in Myanmar.  Maybe… Maybe…

Streets of Yangon, Myanmar
Building in Yangon. Their current state goes from semi-decent to completely dilapidated.

As a last note, tourism in Myanmar is booming, again thanks to the recent opening of borders and ease of laws and rules towards tourism.  Yet, Myanmar’s infrastructure does not evolve fast enough to keep up with tourism.

Demand has outstripped supply in most places where tourists are allowed (yes, there are parts of the country where tourists are not allowed).  Hotels now charge over twice the standard for Southeast Asia and most prices (restaurants, transportation, and sightseeing) are constantly rising.

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda. The holiest place in Myanmar.

In my opinion, Yangon doesn’t have much to show except for Sule Pagoda and Shwedagon Pagoda – the most famous sight of Yangon (very nice and impressive, but not worth the $8 entrance fee, in my opinion).

The rest of your experience is based on experiencing and absorbing the daily life of Yangon, the markets, the smaller temples, the mess, the never-ending traffic, and most of all, the people.

Man sitting at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar
Man at Shwedagon Pagoda.

I’m saying all this not because I hated Yangon or Myanmar, but because it is the way Myanmar is experienced.  Myanmar is rough and not easy to understand.

Not only the pretty makes for a good, interesting, and enriching travel experience; the downsides add much more to it than you can think of.   I didn’t really like Yangon, but Myanmar was my favorite country I visited last year, and this was part of the experience that made me love the country so much – aside from the beautiful and culturally rich destinations like Bagan and Inle Lake – which I really loved.

Still, it’s worth getting to know Yangon as an introduction to the rest of the country, which is a more remote and rawer version of what Myanmar is.

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6 thoughts on “Yangon, Myanmar: My Thoughts On An Odd City”

  1. I was in Myanmar in January 2015, and I hated Yangon, except for the pagodas which are still in the process of repair. 5 years from now will be a better time to go to Myanmar. Yangon needs to get it’s act together when it comes to many things including tourism. There are many holes in the structure of the country. It is basically in a state of decay, except the proud tourist traps like Bagon.
    I learned one thing in reference to this article above, about Yangon from a local guy. The Myanmar people bitterly resent the English and that is why they changed the names of the Country, cities, and streets. Burma is the name the English gave to this country as well as the aforementioned. They want to erase the presence of the English. This is likely why they let the colonial buildings rot.
    As much as the Myanmar people still have to be careful of what they say, there is still a stabbing bitterness in the minds about the government. They are still in the process of becoming a democracy and feel very positive about that much. Land owners are now protesting to get their land back from the greedy theiving Generals and Politicians. Before 2012 only military and political people were allowed to own cars. Now the hard working Myanmar people can buy cars at reasonable prices, so there are many new cars on the streets of Yangon. But they don’t know how to drive. Beep Beep Beep Beep Beep say ALL the cars as they PUSH thier way through traffic impatiently. They are agressive noisy drivers when stuck in traffic jams, which are not as bad as Bangkok. There is no ediquit in Myanmar. At least in Bangkok drivers cooperate with some patience and don’t honk thier horns excessively. This onrush of trafic is hard for the people to adjust to b/c it was not long ago that the roads were not crowded. Many buses stop in the middle of the road and hold up traffic so they can pick up fares. They get a piece of the action so they couldn’t care less if they are holding other people up. This is very noisy as drivers are very impatient and angry. So I would say that patience is by far not a strongsuit of the Myanmar people. A grinding bickering is also something heard, in Yangon particularly.

    1. You’re right about Yangon being in a state of disrepair. Due to how their government has been run (until recently), they barely have the resources to improve their city, so they are just making what they can with the little infrastructure they have. There’s no real tourism infrastructure in Myanmar (though that is slowly changing) so everything will feel so behind in comparison to other Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, for example.

      I’m not a fan of Yangon either, but I think it is one of the best places that will show you the real character of how people live in this country and how the country got stagnant due to “bad government.”

  2. You should not offend other country’s reputation with this kind of awfully lack of information!!!Why don’t you mind your own business!Yangon has its splendid places as well as breathtaking scenery which you can’t even imagine!Bear that in your mind!?

    1. As you’ll read in the title, this is my opinion of the place, not a universal fact. Each person can have a different experience in Yangon, and this was mine. I have all the right to share it. “Bear that in your mind.”

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