best things to do in yangon

8 Things to See & Do in Yangon – Myanmar’s old Capital

Visiting Myanmar without stopping off in Yangon, or Rangoon as it was formerly known, would be unthinkable.  As well as the crumbling colonial heritage, the old capital of Myanmar houses the incredible Shwedagon pagoda and a diverse ethnic mix.  This is what to see and do in Yangon, Myanmanr


We traveled to Yangon – the old capital city of Myanmar, from Myanmar’s new capital city, Napyidaw. It was a long old trip. Our train broke down on the way. Literally. It divided in two pieces. And not by design.

And so it was just about midnight when our train arrived into Yangon, where we found the Beautyland II hotel.  Our most expensive, and smallest, dampest, miserable room in Myanmar. The benefits were that it was close to the Railway Station and most of the things that we wanted to see in Yangon.  After a damp, “cosy” night we headed off on our colonial wanderings around the old capital city.


Yangon Shwedagon

Take a Day Tour Around Yangon

From the glorious Shwedagon to the Sule Pagoda and the circle line train, the easiest way to explore all that Yangon has to offer is to take a tour with an English speaking guide.

8 Things to See in Yangon

Yangon, or Rangoon as it was previously known, was the capital prior to the new city of Naypyidaw being announced as the new capital. Yangon is an interesting mixing pot of cultures. The Chinese and Indian immigrant culture is clear here.  There’s a China Town, where most visitors will go to eat BBQ and drink cheaper beer. Unfortunately, the Indian areas that we walked through en-route to China Town were somewhat full of trash, dirt and street food that I didn’t want to touch.

Yangon was established and laid out by us Brits in the 1850s. It’s easy to navigate and certainly, the centre is easy enough to walk around.  There is even a reminder of home in the combination of weather than Myanmar is throwing at us. One minute it’s 32 degrees, the next we are drowning in the monsoon rains, even though it’s the end of the rainy season.

1. Visit the Sule Pagoda in Yangon

The Sule Pagoda stands out as a landmark, or at least a roundabout, where it’s hard to take a decent photo because of the sheer volume of traffic. Similar to Charing Cross in London, all distances to other parts of Myanmar are measured from here. We’re clearly near to “templed out” status, as the foreign visitor charge puts us off immediately.  So we simply circumnavigate the exterior.  Then, we take our 18 months of South East Asian traffic negotiation experience and launch ourselves off and across the roundabout.  We weave through Burmese traffic and escape with our lives and limbs intact.

Sule Pagoda in Yangon

Each country seems to have unwritten rules about how to navigate busy roads as a pedestrian. Vietnam motorbike riders are supreme and will miss you easily. Indian drivers or riders of anything will aim for you, mainly because they’re looking elsewhere and you’re just a convenient thing to bump off. Here in Myanmar, it’s almost like they’re out to get you.

Being here at the Sule Pagoda is somewhat poignant.  We were visiting in the run up to the 2015 elections, which have proved to be historic for the country. The Pagoda has been a rallying point for pro-democracy activists in 1998 and 2007. It was during the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007 that the military opened up on unarmed protesters killing 9 people.

2. See Yangon’s Mahabandoola Garden

Independence Monument at Mahabandoola Garden, Yangon

Moving on from Sule we find the open square that is Mahabandoola Garden. Its peaceful apart from all the tourists seeking the peaceful garden touted by Lonely Planet.  The square is named after the leader of the Burmese forces during the First Anglo Burmese War.  It houses the Independence Monument commemorating the independence of 1948.  I remind myself though, that there’s a huge difference between Independence and freedom.

3. See the light blue City Hall in Yangon

It’s quite lovely round here. If you squint a little and use some romanticised imagination. The City Hall must have been glorious in it’s day.  It was built in 1924 .  It has a light blue coloring and dragons suspended over the main entrance.  They flank a peacock. Now if only the traffic would stop so I can get a decent photo!!

The light blue City Hall in Yangon

4. Visit the Supreme Court in Yangon

The Supreme Court building is beautiful. It reminds me of the court in Mumbai, equally gorgeous, but Mumbai isn’t crumbling like this. Mumbai’s court building is still used and maintained. Many of the colonial buildings here are crumbling quickly now and we take a wander round to see what else we can find.

Supreme Court in Yangon, Myanmar

We bump into another of the Sarkie Brother’s hotels. This time it’s the rather unimpressive (compared to Raffles in Singapore and the E&O in Georgetown, Penang) Strand Hotel.  It looks like its been restored to within an inch of it’s life without retaining the ambience. But then I am just looking from the outside, unlike some of her famous guests, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and Lord Mountbatten.

5. See the Secretariat Building in Yangon

The biggest and most impressive colonial building that we find is the Secretariat.  It’s all blocked off and almost disintegrating before our eyes.  It covers some 37,000 square metres of floor space and is the former seat of British power in Myanmar. It’s here where General Aung San and six cabinet ministers were assassinated on 19 July 1947.

Secretariat Building in Yangon

If his name is familiar, then it’s because he’s the father of “The Lady”, or “Daw” (Auntie), Aung San Suu Kyi.  The leader of the National League for Democracy after their success in the 2015 election.

While we haven’t been in Myanmar during the election, but about a month before, it’s been fascinating to read the history and to understand much more about the region. William Topich and Keith Letitich’s “History of Myanmar” is an excellent and easy to read history, that I couldn’t put down as we rode the rails throughout the country. The BBC’s election coverage and country information has also been superb.

6. Shop at the Bogyoke Market in Yangon

I’ve mentioned before that we’re a big “Templed-Out” and like the temple situation I think we’re Asian marketed out too. The Bogyoke market is for us, just another market selling more of the same stuff.

Bogyoke Market in Yangon

Although we do see the Thanaka bark (and indeed branches) for sale, in case we decided to protect our faces from the sun.

Thanaka bark for sale in Bogyoke Market Yangon

7. See Yangon’s Holy Trinity Cathedral

And sadly, the Holy Trinity Cathedral is closed up, although the history is mind boggling for the connections that I see.

Holy Trinity Cathedral Yangon

It’s foundation stone was laid in 1886 by Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy of India.  His name first came to our notice on our first days in India, as we journeyed on the ferry from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam, past Dufferin Point. That all these folks travelled this part of the world more than 100 years ago is staggering. 

I feel more than a little inadequate in my travels!

8. Don’t Miss Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda

The absolute highlight of Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda – the copy of which we saw in Naypyidaw. It’s a little outside of the centre, so we take a taxi out to it.  We arrive mid afternoon, hoping that the sunset will be pretty and not just a gloom like so many we’ve had recently.

Yangon doesn’t let us down. This is one of the most glorious temples we’ve visited. It doesn’t match the sense of peace I found in the Golden Temple at Amritsar, in the Punjab, India.  There are far too many pilgrims and tourists wandering around for that, but it’s absolutely stunning.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

The temple apparently enshrines eight strands of hair from the Buddha, Gautama, and relics from his predecessors. It is Myanmar’s holiest shrine and the symbol of national identity.

Even with all these people here it is beautiful. It’s the oldest stupa in Myanmar, dating back to 588 BC. It’s been added to by subsequent Burmese rulers.  It’s been looted by the Portuguese and the Brits and damaged by earthquake.

The assassinated General Aung San addressed a mass meeting here in 1946 demanding independence from Britain.  His daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke here in 1988 and marches during the 2007 Saffron Revolution also focused here too.

The stupa is 99 metres tall. It’s gilded by 22,000 gold bars.

Stupa at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

There are three octagonal terraces, 64 mini stupas and it’s crowned by a “hti” – an umbrella or crown.  The crown is set with more than 5400 diamonds, 2300 rubies and golden bells.  It’s topped with a 76 carat diamond that catches the first and last rays of the sun. Photo’s of the hti are shown in a small photographic exhibition.

hti from Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

At the base of the stupa are the principle shrines of the four Buddha’s Gautama, Kakusandha, Konagamana and Kassapa. As we circle the base we find the “planetary” posts.  They represent the days of the week and the associated heavenly body and animal. Wednesday gets two posts. Here in Myanmar astrology is taken incredibly seriously.  The ruling General of Myanmar who moved the capital to Naypyidaw supposedly did so on the say so of his astrologer.

There are shrines galore here.

From the solid jade Buddha from the Chinese Merited Association – made from a 324kg piece of jade from Kachin State, Northern Myanmar, to the Sun-Moon Buddha.

Multiple shrines and temples at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

There’s a memorial to the student leaders of the 1920 revolt here. Also too, a copy of the Buddha’s Tooth relic that’s held in the Temple of the Tooth that we visited in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

We find many pilgrims at the “wish fulfilling place” or the auspicious ground where folks pray to have their wishes granted. And there’s also a shrine to the place in which the 8 hairs of the Buddha were said to be washed.

sunset at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

My scepticism sadly rises at all these places where donations are given for what seem like surreal reasons.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon lit up at night

There is no denying the beauty of this place and the reverence that the Burmese people place upon it.  It’s a fitting end to our visit to Yangon.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon at sunset

All that remains is for us to take a trip to the train ticket office.  It’s cunningly disguised in what seems like a tin shed and an advertisement hoarding.  We need to acquire our final rail tickets to head to Mawlamyine.  That’s the end of our trip to Myanmar, and we will leave Mawlamyine to go to Sukhothai in Thailand.  It’s also where we’ll find the end of the Thai-Burma death railway.

Travel Tips for Exploring Myanmar

Final Words on 8 Things to See and Do in Yangon

Yangon’s crumbling history is a delight to see and experience. The golden pagodas and colonial buildings are stunning, the history feels just a fingertip away. It’s a glorious place to see.

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