Sleep evaded me the night before my flight to Myanmar (Burma). I’m always victimized by insomnia attacks whenever I get too excited, or anxious, before going on a trip.

In case you didn’t know, Myanmar is not the easiest country to travel in South East Asia.

Nevertheless, I was still more excited than anxious. I read a lot of blogs and met travelers, who have already visited  Myanmar, beaming with positive things to say about their experience. They raved about the beautiful temples, kind humble people, and loved that this country was not yet infiltrated by suckitude of  mainstream tourism.

Myanmar was also the last stop on my backpacking trip around Indochina. I was determined to make the most of my remaining two weeks before coming back home.

Thailand to Yangon Flight

I flew to Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, from Bangkok via AirAsia. My flight departed from Don Meuang International Airport 4:30am in the morning. Early enough to watch a beautiful sunrise behind the glass windows of the airport terminal. Was it a sign of good things to come?

Sunrise before boarding my flight at Don Meuang International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand 

Myanmar required all visitors to apply for a tourist visa, even passport holders from ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) member countries. I applied for my tourist visa at the Myanmar embassy in Vientiane, Laos. The application process was very easy since they didn’t require a lot of documents. The 28-day tourist visa costs US$20 and was issued after 3 working days.

Day 1

Arrival at Yangon International Airport

My anxieties quickly died away after breezing through immigration. It was time to start my potentially epic two week adventure in Myanmar soil.

Arrival hall of Yangon International Airport, Myanmar

First impressions of Myanmar

Taxi touts greeted us after we exit the arrival gate. The first thing I noticed was how most of the local men dressed differently. They were wearing sarong-like skirt bottoms called “Lungi” and had teeth heavily stained with betel nut.

Traveling around Myanmar was a constant surprise, especially because I did not do too much research before my trip. This country seemed very different from the rest of South East Asia.

Burmese people appeared mostly of Indian descent, many with Malay facial features and a hint of chinky eyes. As usual, I could still pass off as a local and I was seriously planning to do so by learning to speak a little Burmese. It wasn’t actually necessary, traveling around Myanmar was easy since most people engaged in the tourism industry spoke very good English.

Airport to Yangon City Center

Taxi drivers were not pushy at all. In fact, I did not encounter overly persistent touts the whole time I was in Myanmar. Burmese people did not seem to be overly concerned about capitalizing tourists like most touristy places I’ve recently visited.

After popping by the tourism information desk to ask for directions and get free maps, I walked to the highway and boarded a bus to Sule Pagoda, located in the heart of Yangon City Center, or simply, Central Yangon. Bus commute only costs 150 kyats (US$0.18 ), which was much cheaper than the US$10 taxi fare.

Along the way, I got excited when I saw a massive fortress-like structure peering out of the horizon. It had high walls laden with myriads of needle-like spires pointing to the heavens. In the center was the largest spire built to a height fit for a skyscraper.

I was already amazed and excitedly exclaimed to myself, “Myanmar is definitely something else.”

The massive structure could have been the Shwedagon Pagoda. This particular photo was taken days later.

Finding a hostel in Yangon City Center

Yangon was the biggest surprise during my whole Indochina trip. I did not expect this city to have some of the grandest colonial-era buildings in all of South East Asia.

Sule Pagoda Road coursing through the heart of Yangon. A contrast between the old, new, and eternal.

First, I had to find a hostel and get a good long sleep before seeing as much of Yangon my feet could handle.

I easily got lost in Central Yangon’s extensive grid-patterned roads. I passed by a few hostels, which were either over my budget or fully booked, before reaching Zar Chi Win Guest House (37th Street). A single room costs US$8 per night (with free breakfast; centralized aircon; shared TB).

Zar Chi Win Guest House housed inside a colonial-era building located at cor 37th – Merchant Streets

Day 2

Walking tour of Yangon

I started walking around the empty streets of Yangon before daybreak. The haunting aura was very alluring. The city center seemed like an Asian equivalent of Gotham City with all the “end of the century” western-style buildings sparingly interspaced by Burmese-influenced architecture and ancient temples.

Wandering around Central Yangon was incomparable to other major urban centers in South East Asia. As cliche as it is, the city was chock-full of strong contrasts and oddities.

Buddhist monk feeds pigeons in front of the Yangon City Hall
Ancient Sule Pagoda sandwiched between the Yangon City Hall and modern glass high-rise buildings
Burmese locals playing ball on the street before the morning rush hour
Myanmar Independence monument at Maha Bandoola Garden
Self-portrait with the Burma high court building
Customs House Building
Accountant-General Office (left) and Myanmar Port Authority (right) Buildings
Myanmar Economic Bank (left) and Yangon Division Court (right) Buildings
Strand Hotel

Changing Money in Myanmar

The currency of  Myanmar was “kyat,” pronounced as “chat.” It can be abbreviated as “Ks” or simply “K,” placed before or after the numerical value.

There were no ATMs in Myanmar that accepted withdrawal using foreign cards. Additionally, only a few establishments accepted credit card payment. The most practical option for tourists was to bring all the money needed for the entire duration of their trip.

Most banks and money changers only accepted US$. Not just any US$ bill. It had to be:

  • Absolutely “crispy” new with no bends, creases, marks, tears.
  • Printed after the year 2000, preferably after 2003
  • must not contain CB, BC or AB serial numbers

I should have exchanged all the money I needed at the airport because they offered the best rate at US$1 = K860.

Wasted a few hours at the money changer center along Thain Phyu road waiting for the currency exchange counters to go online. The exchange rate was US$1 = K853. You could imagine my dread reaction when they refused to accept two of my US$100 bills because of a minuscule center fold.

Fortunately, I only needed to change half of my money to kyats since most hotels charge in US$. They were not so particular about negligible folds. Train and some boat tickets are also paid in US$.

If you can avoid it, do not exchange US$ at the dodgy roadside “black market” peddlers. In case you’re curious, they usually hung around near Sule Pagoda.

People waiting for the money changer to open. The chaotic crowd was 10x as big when the counters went online.  Locals were considerate to let foreigners transact first.
US$200 worth of K1000 bills. Theft is not a common problem in Myanmar for tourists carrying wads of money. Of course, it is necessary to be discrete.

Yangon walking tour continued

Lunch at a local Burmese eatery. The curries are delicious! Meals usually come with complimentary side dish and hot tea
Love samosa!
Saint Mary’s Cathedral Yangon
Apartment block in Central Yangon
Grand towers of the Prime Minister’s building all fenced up :(
Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque
Burma High Court, my absolute favorite building in Yangon
Facade of the Burma High Court and closer view of its clock tower

Shwe Dagon Pagoda and Kandawgyi Lake

Later in the afternoon, I planned on visiting the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the most famous landmark of Yangon and holiest Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. I took a local bus (I think it was bus#43) to Kandawgi Lake and walked my way from there.

I was caught breathless by the surreal beauty of the Shwe Dagon Paya under the golden sunset.

Beautiful sunsets in Myanmar seem to be in glowing abundance. The sunsets were perfect in most days.

Wooden bridge at Kandawgyi Lake
Karaweik Royal Barge
Followed a wrong turn and stumbled upon the Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Beautiful ceiling paintings depicting the life of Buddha at Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Golden spires of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda  reaching out into the heavenly twilight
One small corner of the massive temple complex. My short visit was not enough to fully explore the Shwe Dagon Pagoda.
Huge bell inside ornate halls
Souvenir photo at Shwe Dagon Pagoda

Day 3

My itinerary wasn’t as busy on my last day in Yangon. I started with brunch and WIFI at Tokyo Bakery Cafe, the only affordable restaurant I found offering free WIFI internet. Speeds were very slow in all places that had online access in Myanmar. My hostel did not have WIFI internet. If you’re looking for a cheap hostel with free WIFI, I recommend Tokyo Guest House (200 Bo Aung Kyaw Street).

After brunch, I walked to the bus agency shops outside the Aung San Stadium to buy tickets to Bagan, my next destination. Passed by the Yangon Central Railway Station and abandoned Old Burma Railway Headquarters on the way back to my hostel (for check-out).

Brunch and WIFI at Tokyo Bakery Cafe along Maha Bandula Road (near Sule Paya). 
Bogyoke Market
Old Burma Railway Headquarters
Yangon Central Railway Station (left) and bus company shops at Aung San Stadium (right)
Inside Yangon Central Railway Station
Aboard the local bus#43 to Au Ming Lar bus station

Read my full Yangon 3 day itinerary.

Next destination: Bagan, Myanmar for four days