5 unexpected things to do in Yangon

After you’ve strolled through the forgotten colonial streets and you’ve marvelled at the towering stupas of the Shwedagon pagoda, once you’ve trawled through temples and street markets and maybe done a day trip to Twante, what else is there to do in Yangon? Sometimes, some of the best memories are of places that aren’t filled with tourists. These are spots that stay with you not necessarily because of the thing itself, but because of the way it made you feel.

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1: Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda

Asia is bursting with big Buddhas, but at 66m long this one is still special enough to inspire awe. Its face is an impressive 7.3m long. Its nose is 2.7m. Its face is gently smiling, calm and placid. It has a feminine air lent to it by sky blue eye shadow. Its robes fall in golden sweeps streaked in saffron. They are edged in ornate bronze detail as they brush the jewelled plinth it lies on. It is resting, it is at peace. As you watch the people here worshipping, you can’t help but feel that they are too. They sit by the head, cross legged or kneeling, looking up with hands pressed together. They bend to touch their foreheads to the floor in respect and humility. The low hum of prayer chants offer a soundtrack to the gentle smiles on the faces all around us. It is housed in a corrugated iron shed and it is dark when we get there. The people here have stopped by after work; touching base, returning time and time again to the same place to perform the same rituals. This place becomes them.

Tips: The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is free to enter. There is a small charge to store your shoes, but you can carry them if you like. It is located north of the Shwedagon pagoda and is quite a distance from downtown, so it’s probably worth getting a taxi.

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2. Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda

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At 9 metres high, this ornate golden figure is no match for the giant who rests just next door in the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda. What this Buddha lacks in size, however, is more than compensated for in style. It is intricately decorated with robes that spring to life with swirls and etchings. It has huge pink finger nails that delicately brush the ground and on its head is a bejewelled crown. Golden shafts of curling gold-work strike out from its body. An ornately carved wooden backdrop is dark and strong behind it. There are even less people here. We sit on the rug on the hard wooden floor. A young girl in front of us with jet black hair cut off sharply at the shoulder kneels to pray. A scrabby ginger cat brushes up against her. She pushes him away, then pets him. Someone strikes a gong 8 times. It is quiet and the sonorous sound deepens in the still night air. A man hurries over to us to assure us that we can stay –  “No problem”. From this we gather that it is closing and the few people inside begin to trickle out. Despite the smiling man’s friendly nods, we head for the exit, thanking him as we step through the partly closed gates.

Tips: From the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda turn right, head down Shwegone rd for 100mthen turn left through the arch signed Nga Htat Gyi Paya. Continue for 100m and take the covered staircase to the right. Free to enter. Closes at 8.

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3. Kandawgyi Lake and Boardwalk

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This lake lies directly in front of the Shwedagon pagoda, meaning you can see its spires on the skyline as you walk along the boardwalk. White crosses painted onto the sun bleached wood mark the dangerous places, the ones where you shouldn’t step. Avoiding them is a form of hopscotch. The boardwalk runs along the edge of the lake over the water and along little mud islands decorated with greenery. There is a temple shrine humming with flies. The Karaweik Palace, a restaurant and theatre aimed at tourists, floats on the water in excessive opulence. Water lilies dot the still surface. The sun begins to set, splashing the landscape with colour. The lights of the city come on and above the tree tops, above it all, the golden spires of the Shwedagon pagoda glow in the dusk.

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Tips: The boardwalk costs $2 for foreigners, though we got there in the evening and the gate was almost closed and the ticket booth was empty. There were lots of people squeezing through the gate, so we did likewise and wandered along till it got dark. Great for sunset when the sky throws its colours into the shimmering water.

4. Street Food

The street food in Yangon is plentiful and cheap. There is so much choice it is hard to know where to start. There are all kinds of things, some of which we recognise some of which we don’t. You eat at tables and chairs that would comfortably fit a four year old. Everyone, young and old, bends to these chairs without hesitance. This is how it is here. The table we sit at is red plastic, faded by the sun, it’s scratched surface showing memories of all those before us who have passed the time here. A big steel jug with hot water is the centre piece, supported by chipped white tea cups, turned upside down on the plastic. A bottle of runny red sauce nestles beside them. Coca-cola umbrellas above us offer shade from the steady sun as we watch the world go by. Two young children play on a toy motorbike beside us. They are intrigued by us and our curry at first, but soon we lose our fascination. Motorbikes are much more interesting after all.

Tips: A study in 2014 revealed that over a third of Yangon’s street food (from that which was tested) contained high levels of bacteria known to give you serious food poisoning. It’s always good to choose busy stalls and ones where the vendors wear gloves, but it’s still very much about the luck of the draw!

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5. The Cinema

Yangon is one of the few places in Myanmar where its easy to find a cinema. There are several lined up in a row on Sule Pagoda road. Each cinema shows a different film and the tickets cost less than a dollar. The seats, once plush red velvet, are now worn bare in some places, the cushions torn at the edges. At the beginning of the film, the national anthem plays to an image of the Myanmar flag. It is an animation, showing it flapping jerkily in a breeze. Everyone stands to attention. Watching a film in Myanmar is like no other cinema trip I’ve experienced. The audience is very vocal, shouting out their approval in confident tones. There’s some violence on the screen and it goes very quiet. Then we hear a voice behind us say “Kowneeee…” (good). Halfway through a man answers his phone and proceeds to have a full conversation. He doesn’t lower his voice or hurry his call. No one tuts. We definitely aren’t in Britain any more. The credits begin to roll and after just a few seconds, the screen goes blank and the lights come on. We look around and we are literally the only people left in the cinema. Everyone has already left. Now its just us and a few cinema staff sweeping rubbish out of the aisles.

Tips: Tickets cost between 800 and 1500 Kyat (about 80c to $1.5). The best seats are those on the balcony, though all offer a good view. Films are shown quite regularly, though we found that the one non western film that was showing when we were there sold out much before the others, so if you want a more authentic experience its a good idea to book in advance. This needs to be done in person at the box office. Even if you see an English or American film, it is still a worthwhile experience. Popcorn and snacks are sold on barrows outside the cinema itself. The air con can be ferocious, so take a jumper.

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