There were only two times on my entire ‘solo’ trip around Southeast Asia where I actually considered myself to be completely alone – my few days spent in Yangon and my short stint in Java. Neither are the easiest of places to visit as a solo traveller. However, whilst my time alone in Java represented the lowest, loneliest point of my whole trip, my time in Yangon was the opposite. I had in fact been craving some alone time so I relished those couple of days spent on my own.
As a belated birthday present, my parents had very kindly splashed out on a luxury hotel for my two nights in Yangon – a much needed respite after months of hostels and dorm rooms. Despite being located in the very centre of Yangon’s Chinatown, it took a mammoth effort by both myself and the taxi driver to find the place. But eventually I arrived. It was 8.30am and too early to check in so instead I headed out in search of some breakfast.
I hadn’t realised before getting to Yangon just how difficult finding food was going to be. I was accustomed to an abundance of restaurants, cafes and street food stalls but here I could wander for hours and not find anything. Literally. I really did wander for hours one day. I must admit now that my inability to find food is partly my own fault. To say that I am a fussy eater would be putting it mildly. And to top it off I am extremely squeamish with meat. So here I was, slap bang in the middle of the morning markets in Chinatown which, whilst interesting, offered no acceptable options for a picky eater. Had I wanted chicken feet or some other unidentified animal organ for breakfast then Yangon would have had me covered. But a plate of simple noodles was nowhere to be found.
Maybe I was searching in the wrong place, but my desire to venture further afield was tempered by the torrential downpour I had just stumbled into. And so, I am ashamed to admit, my first breakfast in Yangon consisted of a sweet chocolate cake and a cappuccino in a very Westernised doughnut shop.
Back to that torrential downpour. I didn’t realise it at the time but the rain would turn out to be my constant companion during my time in Yangon. Unlike other Southeast Asian cities I have visited, Yangon’s rainy season appeared to consist of epic downpours at regular intervals throughout the day, as opposed to the one-off 30 to 60 minutes of heavy late afternoon rainfall experienced elsewhere. And as a result, Yangon was the only place where the rainfall significantly impacted my plans.
Eating Indian Food and Sticking out Like a Sore Thumb
Surprisingly, out of everywhere I had visited in Burma, the locals in Yangon were the least accustomed to seeing tourists. Everywhere I went I was met with curious stares. People would stop what they were doing to look, some even trying to touch me as I walked past. For me, this was something unique to Yangon, something that hadn’t even happened in the small villages in the North of the country.
On my first afternoon there I finally found the Indian Quarter. I was there for the food. All around Burma I had been amazed by the utter deliciousness of the Indian food. Food that I still dream about even now. And the Indian Quarter didn’t disappoint – a bustling little district with restaurants lining the roads and street food vendors all around. Not a chicken foot in sight! I opted for a small, open-fronted cafe serving thali plates (my favourite) and masala tea.
Judging by the attention I received they certainly weren’t accustomed to seeing small, blonde, Western girls walk into the cafe. Especially not small, blonde, Western girls who were travelling alone. For entire duration of the meal I had a small audience watching me and scrutinising every mouthful. When one of my curries ran out a waiter I hadn’t even known was waiting behind me was at my side quicker than lightning to refill it.
But I couldn’t have cared less – I was eating delicious food. The first delicious food I had found in the whole of Yangon. A thali plate with individual portions of curries, daals and pickles served with rice, chapatis and poppadums. Hands down beating any of the rich, creamy Western versions back home.
A Bad Tourist
I was a terrible tourist in Yangon. In fact, I didn’t do a huge amount of sightseeing at all. Due to the unpredictable heavy rainfall I refrained from making too many plans. Instead I just wandered about drinking tea and soaking up the atmosphere. I didn’t even venture to see Yangon’s most famous and impressive attraction – the Shewadagon Pagoda. Okay that’s a lie, I did go on a 45 minute walk to get there but just as I reached it I once again got caught out by the mother of all downpours. Call me a wimp but by this point I was so over the rain so I jumped in a taxi and hot-footed it back to the centre.
I visited Bogyoke Aung San Market intending to leave with armfuls of souvenirs and handicrafts. Bogyoke is a huge, covered market in central Yangon containing over 2000 shops. And yet I must admit to leaving slightly disappointed. Mostly the shops were all the same, selling gems (mainly jade), jewellry and fabric, with a few handicraft shops scattered inbetween. It lacked the enticing chaotic atmosphere of some of the markets in the larger Southeast Asian countries – a good or a bad thing depending on how you look at it – but even so I would say its still worth a visit.
And that brings me to the highlight of Yangon (maybe one of the highlights of my whole trip) – my ride on the Circle Line, a commuter train that loops around the surrounding villages ferrying people to and from the city. How on earth could that be one of the highlights I hear you ask? Well, out of everything I had done and everywhere I had seen, the Circle Line was one of the most authentic experiences I had, watching the daily life of the commuters getting on and off the trains. And being alone meant that I was completely immersed in what was going on around me – the locals feeling comfortable enough to come up and speak to me to give me a glimpse into their lives. I won’t say too much more about it for now – there is a full blog post dedicated to the Circle Line on the way so stay tuned for that.
Other than that I simply spent my time wandering around, sheltering from rain, drinking tea and soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of the city.
50 Cent Mojitos
As is my style, I ended Yangon as I started it – on a hunt for food. After wandering around for at least an hour, I finally gave up, instead being enticed by a sign advertising mojitos for the bargain price of 50 cents. I am in no way a strong enough person to turn down that propostion. So that’s how I spent my last evening: drinking mojitos, eating tortilla chips and chatting with locals (as an aside: I was very careful about my mojito consumption that night, keeping my limit to only two drinks. Being a solo female traveller, I decided it would be unwise to stumble out drunk onto the darkened streets of a strange city).
Overall, Yangon is not an easy city to love. Its not particularly pretty, there are fewer sights than in other cities and the food leaves a lot to be desired (the Indian Quarter aside). And yet it has something about it. A certain charm. An authenticity that you rarely find in Southeast Asia these days. So if you’re flying into Yangon, don’t head out of it too fast – take a couple of days to explore and get a feeling for life in Burma’s largest city.
Note: My rants about the food in Yangon do not mean that I didn’t like any Burmese food. Quite the opposite – I actually loved the traditional Burmese cuisine that I tried around the country. I couldn’t get enough of the Shan curries and tangy tomato salads. Its just that, as a very picky eater, I personally struggled to find traditional food in Yangon that I didn’t feel squeamish about eating. Perhaps I need to work on becoming a bit more adventurous.