An unforgettable self-guided tour of Yangon
It’s no secret that Yangon is known by many, including its locals, as being a noisy, chaotic city, notorious for its traffic jams and construction. As more tourists and international businesses flock to the old capital, it is likely that these problems are only going to intensify – this coupled with increased time restrictions are causing travellers to have second thoughts about even visiting this historic city. Questions such as, “Perhaps we should stay in Bangkok for a couple of nights and fly into one of the other major cities?” or, “What if we flew indirectly to Mandalay?” are becoming all the more common. Whilst we won’t deny that these options will help you to avoid all of the above, Tour Mandalay truly believe that a trip to Myanmar is not complete without the inclusion of this fascinating metropolis.
Whilst most people are going to immediately default to using a car – which again, helps to explain the traffic congestion – it’s actually possible to explore a good chunk of the city on the back of a trishaw and foot. In fact, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to try out iDiscovers Yangon’s self-guided walking app for the iPhone – Tour Mandalay recently provided their thoughts on this in a review which you can read by clicking here. It’s important to add that the climate will play a big part in whether or not you are able to do this – the period in-between mid-March to mid-October is often very hot, wet or humid leading to conditions that are less than ideal.
If you happen to be around during the more bearable period, perhaps you would like to consider carrying out a self-guided exploration as per below? Doing so will provide you with a much more personal experience of Yangon and the chance to partially avoid the city’s chaotic nature.
1) Assuming you have an appetite, start your trip with some brunch at the recently opened Port Autonomy – this is currently our favourite restaurant for casual dining in Yangon and it provides diners with an unobtrusive location from which to carry out a bit of people spotting (especially if you’re happy to sit at the bar along the edge). Seeing as it was brunch and were yet to eat breakfast, we were keen to eat something substantial, Tour Mandalay’s two man team decided to opt for the tasty Korean Cubano sandwich and an authentically cooked huevos rancheros – both come highly recommended! *Please note that Port Autonomy has now closed and will soon relocate to the old Le Planteur restaurant (this will again be on a temporary basis). It is still possible to start this tour from the same area however.
In order to get to the area where Port Autonomy was previously located, request a taxi driver to take you to the point where Lan Thit Street meets Strand Road, ideally stopping off by the pavement on the far side. From here you will continue walking down Lan Thit Street, which at this point becomes more of a walking path, until you see to a couple of empty transit sheds. As you walk down, you will get the opportunity to pass local stalls which sell everything from clothes and footwear to fruit and veg.
2) Once you have finished exploring the area, it will then be necessary to seek out a trishaw driver. There’s usually a few waiting around the corner of Port Autonomy, if not, be sure to ask around and I’m sure it won’t be long until one arrives. Whilst locals can get away with three people on a bike, Tour Mandalay would like to suggest you get one each – doing so will provide you with a more comfortable ride and it is also gives the driver a sense of pride seeing as you have chosen him as opposed to a taxi.
At this point, we should mention that it’s useful to have a pre-dowloaded map of Yangon downloaded on your phone, whether that’s through Google Maps or a reliable equivalent. This allows you to pin point exactly where you would like to go without confusion. For this journey we would like to recommend you request the driver to take you to point where 49th Street meets Maha Bandula Road. This should cost approximately $1.5-2 per trishaw – most locals would say this is pretty steep, but we think it’s a bargain considering the amount of work involved.
3) This journey will take you from Port Autonomy along the historic Stand Road, passing some of the city’s major colonial landmarks a long the way. One of Tour Mandalay’s favourites is the iconic Port Authority building, which was built by the British almost 100 years ago in 1920. Needless to say that the walls of this building would have witnessed a lot over the past century, with the fall of the British occupation, Japanese invasion and Burmese coup d’état in 1962.
4) As you near 49th Street, you will notice that everything become a little bit more laid back. So much so that when the trishaw eventually stopped, we found this bus driver sleeping in a hammock which he had attached from the front of his bus to a tree. Ingenious! Assuming you’ve made you’re way to the point where 49th Street meets Maha Bandula Road, proceed to walk north up 49th Street until you reach Anawratha Road. On the corner you will find a local teashop which is always frequented with hungry locals.
5) Now you will need to cross over the road and turn left, so that you are now on the right-hand side of Anawratha Road. Continue along the road for approximately 4 blocks until you reach the Printing & Publishing Enterprise building located directly across the road – you can of course cross over but we find you have a better perspective from this side. This low-rise, red and yellow building first served as a distribution point for official publications arriving from India. It later became a printing facility in its own right and still serves this purpose today. If only we could get our hands on the first issue ever printed!
6) Cross over Thein Phyu Road, keeping to the right-hand side and soon you will arrive at the gates of St Paul’s School, established in 1860s, this is one of the oldest public schools in Myanmar. It now operates as a state school, which explains why the building and surrounding grounds are so well-kept. If you are lucky, you might even catch a game of football taking place on the mini pitch at the front.
7) Now for the highlight. Cross what looks like a yellow pedestrian crossing across to the other side of Anawratha Road. You will now catch a fenced off view of the 120 year old Secretariat Building, arguably one of the finest examples of colonial architecture in the country. Now the complex lies completely abandoned, but 100-years ago, it would have been full of busy British government officials as they went about running the country. The building has also witnessed the brutal assassination of General Aung San in 1947 along with six of his cabinet members. If only walls could talk…
You’re now going to turn right down Thein Phyu Road, allowing you to further explore the perimeter of the Secretariat’s walls. Whilst it is not possible to get inside, you can always stick your camera’s lens through the fence thus giving you the impression that you made it inside.
8) When you reach Maha Bandula Road, turn right until you can see a sign leading to Bogalay Zay Street. Once it is safe to do so, cross the road and walk down until you meet Merchant Road. Half way down you will notice the offices of the Yangon Young Woman’s Christian Association (YWCA). This is a great example of how to tastefully renovate and restore old buildings.
9) Once you reach Merchant Road, cross over and start walking left towards Thein Phyu Road (3 blocks).
10) After meeting with Thein Phyu Road for the second time, turn right and keep walking until you see the sign for a shop called Pomelo. The entrance isn’t very obvious so make sure you keep your eyes peeled – if you pass Monsoon Restaurant then you have gone to far.
Located on the second floor of a restored colonial building, Pomelo is a remarkable social business that aims to provide disadvantaged civil society groups with the opportunity to develop their existing skillset and create quality handmade products, whilst learning how to trade responsibly and profitably in an already saturated market. For those looking to purchase something memorable and less generic, Pomelo makes for a great souvenir stop and Tour Mandalay would strongly recommend a visit.
11) When you’re ready, make your way back down the steep stairs and turn right out of Pomelo and make your way through the doors of the nearby Monsoon Restaurant for some drinks. Tour Mandalay would recommend trying the freshly squeezed juice drinks – they’re a bargain at $2.50 and extremely refreshing.
12) Shortly after exiting Monsoon, turn right and carry on walking along Thein Phyu Road until it connects with Stand Road. If time permits, we would recommend walking ten blocks or so until you reach The Strand Hotel – doing so will provide you with another chance to marvel at Yangon’s impressive colonial past.