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Published February 16th 2015
Some of Yangon's often-overlooked highlights
The bustling metropolis of Yangon is packed with things to do, places to visit and sights to see; but its sprawl is so vast and its pace so quick that you're in danger of missing out on some of the Burmese city's true highlights.
Mahabandoola Gardens, Yangon
Of course, Myanmar's biggest population centre boasts such jewels as the Inya and Kandawgyi Lakes, Shwedagon Pagoda and the Mahabandoola Garden, but there are numerous other spots that may not be mentioned in your guidebook. Take a look at our list of seven things you simply must do if you visit beautiful Yangon.
1. Eat in China Town
You are in Myanmar, and chances are you didn't come half way across the world to sample a Chinese takeaway, but believe me, you are going to get plenty of chances to eat traditional Myanmar food on your journey, so bear with me on this one.
Yangon's China Town is as much a part of the city's cultural fabric as any of its more traditionally Burmese neighbourhoods. Located downtown, just to the west of Sule Pagoda, this area of the city boasts a myriad of shops and restaurants, many of them secreted down impossibly narrow side-streets. These businesses offer a wide range of Chinese and Burmese culinary delicacies.
My advice is to lose yourself in the neighborhood and find yourself a bite to eat the streets in this part of the city are arranged in a grid, so it's easy enough to find your way again after having been "lost".
2. Take a ride on the Dalah ferry
The Yangon River is just to the south of China Town, and a short ferry ride takes you to Dalah; a "small town" of almost a million residents existing in relative obscurity just over the river from Yangon. Dalah is the gateway to the Irrawaddy Delta region, but venturing down there requires rather more than a few hours and is a little ambitious for this list.
An approaching ferry, viewed from the Dalah ferry port
However, the ferry ride alone is a fascinating experience. Commuters, monks, tourists and hawkers rub shoulders on the busy, 10 minute crossing, and, as day turns to night and the evening light falls on the vast container ships arriving from all over the world, the view from the upper deck offers a fresh perspective on this magnificent city.
3. Face your fears at Dalah's snake temple
Undeniably one of the Yangon region's best kept secrets, Dalah's snake temple is truly a must-see for any visitor to the area. It's a little tricky to find, so it's a good idea to chat to some locals before you embark on the trip, and preferably find a Burmese companion to accompany you.
Heading south-west from the Dalah ferry towards Twante, the snake temple lies just beyond the turn-off to the huge suspension bridge spanning the Twante Channel. It is about 25 minutes from the ferry by rented scooter and well worth the trip.
Thirty-seven pythons live here in this temple supported by stilts above a small lake. The snakes are apparently vegetarian, and subsist solely on a diet of milk and the prayers of the resident nuns and monks. Stepping through the door and witnessing the snakes writhing around the Buddha statues is an experience like no other.
4. Pay homage at the Bototaung Pagoda
Continuing the reptilian theme, but this time back in Yangon proper, is the Bototaung Pagoda. Located in the eastern part of central Yangon, just north of the river, Bototaung boasts some stunning, gold-encrusted interior corridors and is arranged around a central shaft containing a scared Buddha hair relic.
Not the best picture, but you can see the incredible size of the beast!
In the pond outside the stupa, visitors can see hundreds of terrapins, basking in the golden glory of the stupa itself. Among them is one absolutely enormous creature, more tyrannosaurus than terrapin. No one was able to tell me how he or she got there, or how it grew to be so big, but it's there alright, and it is a sight to behold!
5. Swing by Aung San Suu Kyi's House
As the mother of modern Burmese democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi is revered amongst some Burmese citizens, and feared and detested by others. Despite the nation's more open approach to political discussion in recent years, it is still inadvisable to raise the topic of Aung San Suu Kyi when speaking with locals, as doing so could get the Myanmar resident into serious trouble.
Responsible visitors who are interested in the recent history of Myanmar and the inspirational story of Aung San Suu Kyi can pay a visit to her home at 54 University Avenue, a few miles north of downtown. There is no museum or visitor's centre, merely a locked gate, but visiting the site allows a unique connection with the turbulent recent history of this beautiful but troubled country.
6. Give alms to the monks
Each morning, the monks and nuns of Yangon's numerous monasteries arise early and venture out to receive donations of food from local residents and business owners. Offering alms to monks and nuns is a major tourist attraction in other parts of South East Asia, but Myanmar's tourist board for better or worse seems to not to have got that memo. As such, you are likely to be alone with the locals as you offer your alms, and not surrounded by throngs of camera-toting tourists.
A few things to bear in mind when offering alms: never touch or engage with the monks unless they speak with you first, do not block their path and do not climb any structures in order to get a better photo, as this will raise you above the level of the monks in a disrespectful manner. As with anyone in Myanmar, never point at the monks with your foot.
A good time and place to give alms is on the Mahabandoola Road, west of Sule Pagoda, between 7:30 and 9am. This also gives you chance to check out the local morning market.
7. Sample some Burmese Tea
You'll have rather a lot on your plate during your visit to Myanmar, so don't forget to find time to enjoy a cup of traditional Burmese tea in one of Yangon's many tea houses. The side streets between the Mahabandoola Gardens and Bototaung Pagoda offer numerous opportunities to drink this sweet, milky tea with the locals, so pick one you like and dive right in.
Brave adventurers may even attempt to get the attention of the tea house waiter in the traditional Burmese fashion; by sticking out your lips and making a loud "kissy" sound in their direction. For the rest of us, a polite wave of the hand and an awkward "umm excuse me" should suffice.