The main tourist sights of Yangon

Mark Levitin | Live the World

May 29, 2024

Let's be honest: most capitals in the world are boring. Well, Yangon is not. Even the main sights in the city are never overrun by tourists, and most of them represent Burmese culture as fully as the remote ruins of Mrauk U or tribal villages around the presently inaccessible Loikaw. Merely taking a ride on the circular train or the river ferry will immerse you deep in the essence of Myanmar - hold your breath, it's quite a dive. Photographers, of course, will have no shortage of ethnic portrait and street photo ops.

Shwedagon Paya

© Istock/AvigatorPhotographer

The main tourist attraction in Yangon, and the main Buddhist temple in all of Myanmar, Shwedagon Pagoda is one of those “not-to-be-missed” sights. A jungle of stupas and prayer chambers dominated by a giant spire, it looks particularly otherworldly when lit up at night, and may be worth a separate visit after dark. Predictably for a temple of this size and importance, it is full of activity any time of the day – pilgrims praying, vendors selling incense sticks, holy talismans, and refreshments, families and newlyweds taking selfies while asking for a blessing, fortune-tellers predicting the inevitably bright future, and monks reading sutras. A full day can easily be spent in this sacred compound watching and photographing the proceedings. The best time to be here, however, is the night of Thadingyut Festival, usually falling in November, when myriads of flying lanterns are released to the sky in and around Shwedagon.

Botataung Paya and Sule Paya

© Istock/Anya Newrcha

Two other important temples in Central Yangon are Botataung Paya and Sule Paya. Botataung also shelters a Buddha’s hair, and has a striking golden Buddha statue. Unusually, there is a reliquary inside the main stupa, and it is open to public – most Theravada stupas are sealed. The temple stands on the bank of Irrawaddy River, and religious activity merges freely with whatever trade the river supports – worshipers rub shoulders with fishermen and stevedores. The other pagoda, Sule Paya, occupies a busy roundabout in downtown Yangon. Little shops at its base offer palmistry sessions. Have your fortune told, or photograph this disappearing (well, not in Myanmar) custom.

Yangon circular train

© Istock/SeanPavonePhoto

Not a tourist attraction, but a genuine - and quite busy - means of public transportation, Yangon circular train provides a good glimpse of everyday life in this city. As it is true for most of Myanmar, medieval vibes mix with modernity here. See a businessman in a bespoke suit buy unidentifiable, but presumably edible substances from a vendor in a straw hat and eat them with hands. Watch a venerable old monk that wouldn't look out of place in a Shaolin movie shop online on a brand new smartphone. Or peek out of the window, where slums replace colonial relics, and commercial districts pop up between vegetable gardens as the train chugs on.

Yangon ferry

© Istock/gagarych

A similar experience to the circular train, but of aquatic nature. The main reason to do it is the view, so take the ride at sunset. Again, there is quite a lot of activity on board - peddlers, beggars, porters, and passengers of every social level. Start from Botataung Jetty to have a look at the namesake pagoda from the water, and travel north. While many websites recommend the Yangon-Dala ferry, it is a den of tourist scams, and the ride is much shorter than on the usual city route. Wooden boats also shuttle people to a variety of spots along the Irrawaddy, but they are off limits to foreigners at present - nominally, for the sake of safety.


© Istock/b-astudio

Yangon can easily be explored independently - it is a city, after all, not some forgotten inaccessible jungle. Most of it, in fact, makes for a nice, if slightly hectic, stroll. Public transportation network is vast and reliable enough, with buses, minivans, ferries and urban trains covering every area a tourist might want to visit. If you would nevertheless prefer to check the main sights on a tour, there are options focusing on the historical heritage, or the modern culture of Yangon. Street food is delicious, with choices ranging from Indian to Chinese, as well as Burmese dishes from every region of the country. Accommodation is a bit of a problem - since the junta has tightened the screws again, most local guesthouses are not allowed to take in foreigners, and your choice will be limited to slightly overpriced mid-range hotels. Some of them at least have - or imitate plausibly - a bit of colonial charm.

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