Like so many big cities Yangon is one of contrast. One minute you’re in the narrow smelly streets of Chinatown, the next sitting in gardens admiring the beautiful City Hall or rumbling along on the Circle Line train that chugs through the widely varied suburbs.

Then there’s the cocktails to be had at colonial hotel The Strand and of course the fabulous and famous Shwedagon Pagoda. For me there’s nothing better than a city of many parts and I knew I’d like Yangon as soon as we arrived.

IMG_3183We’d booked some internal flights, guides and drivers for later in trip through a very efficient Yangon based company so were met at the airport by their representative who started by apologising for his breath as he had been drinking beer. Couldn’t imagine that happening in England! He was great though and came with us into the city – and luckily wasn’t the driver. He did address us both collectively by name every time he turned around to speak though and I wondered if that was the norm or if it was the beer talking.

It was a slow journey and the congested streets, which seemed very dark until I realised we had tinted windows, were teeming with life. Our hotel was in Chinatown and as it was Chinese New Year it was even busier than usual. Stalls selling street food were everywhere, most often piles of kebab sticks threaded with all kinds of everything, some foods we recognised and some definitely not.

2016-02-11 22.59.22-1The following morning we had breakfast on the hotel rooftop and were immediately struck by how misty it was, a product of the very high humidity and something we’d see lots more of in Myanmar. We were also soon struck by how easy it was to walk around Yangon. In contrast to other countries in the East this wasn’t at all bad with actual pavements on many streets, albeit with some very large holes to navigate around.

We did a walking tour of the downtown area starting on Merchant Street which is lined with every type of food and merchandise imaginable – electronics, housewares and bound books to name a few – as well as umpteen tea stations with little plastic chairs to take a roadside perch and nearby market ‘stalls’ which are actually just produce spread out on cloths on the ground.

YangonThen we stopped off at Pomelo, a handicrafts store up a steep staircase on Thein Byu Road that sells a lovely range of products made by projects that support disadvantaged groups. We were desperate to buy from them so I was very pleased to find many things were both colourful and practical, including a sunglasses case which was something I actually needed. My friend bought a turquoise cat. Buying stuffed cats is a habit of hers I usually try to discourage, but on this occasion I let it pass.

YangonNot far along the river from here we visited our first (of many) temples in Myanmar, the Botataung Paya. There’s plenty to see including a interesting gilded corridor around inside of the stupa, a Buddha hair relic and a gilded bronze Buddha and it generally has a spacious feel with not too many people. That made it easy to wander around, although we did need to pose for a few photos – a common occurrence and was usually people visiting Yangon from elsewhere in the country where they don’t see Western tourists.

Cracking on with the walking tour there were lots of gorgeous colonial buildings to see like the Strand Hotel, the Port Authority and the Customs House, though some in better shape than others. The Minister’s Office for example was the former secretariat building of the British government, but when the capital moved from Yangon in 2005 the huge, beautiful building was left to fall into disrepair. It can only be peaked at from behind high cast iron railings and through trees which makes it very atmospheric. There’s talk of it being restored but it’s where General Aug San, father of current democratic party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was shot so it will be interesting to see what happens when she’s in power.

YangonElsewhere the lovely old immigration building that later became a department store to rival Harrods has now been restored again by a bank. Opposite is a baptist church and next door the fabulous City Hall. This overlooks the Mahabandoola Garden which has fountains and an obelisk in centre marking independence from the British. With the gorgeous Queen Anne style High Court building on one side too it’s a great spot to sit and take a well earned break from walking in the heat. Or if it’s lunch you’re after, just behind City Hall on 34th Street is the 999 Shan Noodle Shop. It’s tiny but does the best fried noodles and noodle soup for K1300/75p.

YangonClose to here too is Sule Pagoda which rather randomly sits on a traffic island in middle of road. When we went it was covered in scaffolding but being made from bamboo it wasn’t entirely unattractive. We were circling around it to see the four Buddhas at each entrance (standard for Myanmar pagodas) when a friendly guy started chatting about where we were from. Then he started talking about orphans, got his phone out to show photos and opened his notebook to show various currencies inside the pages including a $100 bill. He was horrified when I got our kitty purse out and being the end of the day it only had K5000/£2.90 left in it. He actually asked why we had so little money and if we only carried that much at home. He was clearly very cross he’d wasted so much time on us!

YangonA couple of streets across from here is the famous Bogyoke Aung San Market which is huge, colourful and piled high with fabrics, clothes, jewellery, puppets and basketwear. As we walked through we saw people were queuing up for free food at tables all along the main walkway. We found out later it was because the previous day had been Union Day, a public holiday that celebrates independence. The market was closed that day which happens on all public holidays so worth checking if there’ll be one when you visit.

YangonFrom here the map told us Yangon train station was just along the road. It wasn’t quite that close or straightforward and involved taking a footbridge on Bogyoke Aug San Road which leads to a walkway across the top of the platforms. But we found it and headed for platform 6/7 for the Circle Line – something that only has its name in common with the London Underground line. The ticket office is on platform and manned by a very helpful man who speaks English. There was a timetable of sorts but times seem to vary as did the direction of the trains, but with his help we got on the one we wanted.

YangonAs soon as you leave the city centre on the slow moving, bone shaking train the landscape starts to look quite different with some areas boasting big fancy houses while others looked poor and some almost rural. As well as seeing what’s outside the train though, the experience is as much about what’s happening on board. We were sitting opposite a police man called Aung Yee who look pretty miserable but was clearly respected by those passing through. A fruit seller carting a huge basket of apples through the carriages gave him one for free.

For most of the journey he was busy having lunch from a three part tiffin can – fluffy rice in the top section and then two other types of food to mix with it in the others, as well as something else in plastic bag. It was hard to tell what any of it was but he was certainly enjoying it.

YangonThe full loop of the Yangon Circle Line takes three hours but we hopped off after about 45 minutes at Tadakalay. There was a footbridge but we just followed the locals in walking across the tracks and had a wander through the village. We were rather half hearted looking for a pagoda that was in the area, but when it wasn’t apparent which way to go we flagged a cab back to town.

A very cheap cab ride (K3000/£1.74) later we were at Chaukhtatgyi Paya, home of a rather fabulous reclining Buddha. It’s 65m long, housed in a huge shed and really is quite spectacular. We spent quite a while walking from one end to the other admiring the Buddha’s serene face and enormous toes. Just along the street from here is Ngahtatgyi Paya, where there’s a huge seated Buddha. It’s also very impressive as is the carved wood panelling it’s sitting in front of.

YangonBut of course all of these are nowhere near as famous as Shwedagon Pagoda, the most stunning and sacred Buddhist site that we could see rising out of the mist from our hotel’s rooftop restaurant every morning. It’s a deeply reverred place for Buddhists who come to worship in their thousands every day.

At its centre is a huge stupa covered in gold leaf and diamonds that’s surrounded by a wide marble terrace reached by one of four long covered staircases – though there are lifts in most of the corners too. The terrace is packed with pavilions and halls where you can worship as well as many Buddha images (statues) and planetary posts named for the days of the week. Visitors pray at the post that represents the day they were born.

YangonLike a lot of Buddhist temples it’s pretty glitzy – we saw a lot of flashing disco lights on Buddhas on our travels around Myanmar – but there’s still something rather lovely and peaceful about hanging out there. We just sat on the edge of a pavilion and waited for the sun to go down after which the lights come on and the golden stupa glitters even more brightly. A truly spectacular sight, quite unlike any I’ve seen before.

YangonThe only thing left to share is where we stayed, ate and drank. Our hotel was the Grand United 21st Downtown, a fairly small but very central hotel with friendly staff in 21st Street, Chinatown. The rooftop restaurant was great for breakfast and for watching the sun go down with a glass of wine.

For downtown drinks there are a range of options from Mojitos at lively Kosan on 19th Street for K900/52p, to colonial cocktails at the Strand Hotel where there’s wood panelling, comfortable chairs, ceiling fans and live music – a sort of jazzy version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow sticks in the memory. We were there on Friday night when drinks are half price though they were only £5 to start with.

YangonWe ate not far from there too at the Union Bar & Grill which was very cool and popular with ex pats and embassy staff, as is the Garden Bistro where we had lunch overlooking Kandawgyi Lake before taking a stroll along the boardwalk. At the other end of the price scale we equally enjoyed the 999 Shan Noodle Shop mentioned earlier and the cheap eats in Chinatown.

When we came back to Yangon for a night at the end of our trip we stayed in Bahan Township, a very different part of town, much closer to Shwedagon Pagoda and in an area where there are lots of embassies and pretty big houses. Here we stayed at the Winner Inn, ate at Sharky’s which does great pizza and pasta (after two weeks you need a change from rice and noodles) and before that had sunset drinks at the rooftop Vista Bar which has good cocktails, a great view of Shwedagon and was clearly popular with a professional after work crowd. As I said at the start of this post, Yangon is a city of many parts and lots of contrast and my advice is to go soon and enjoy all of the different sides of it .

YangonClick on an image below to scroll through the gallery. Also check back on the Myanmar section of my blog for more posts about this fabulous country in the near future, including one on how I put the trip together and advice and tips learned along the way