Posted by: Sam Olsen | June 22, 2012

A visit to Burma: 48 hours in Rangoon

 

 

In honour of the visit by Aung San Suu Kyi to the UK this week and her historic address to the Houses of Parliament, we thought we would produce a guide to visiting Rangoon in the Independet’s style of ‘48 hours in…

Make sure you go this autumn, when the weather is at its best, and before the massive crowds of expected tourists change things too much.

48 Hours in…Rangoon

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Now the tourist embargo has been lifted, Burma is the new holiday destination on everyone’s lips. The country, once one of Asia’s wealthiest, has been stagnating under military juntas for decades, meaning that Rangoon has not seen the mass development that has destroyed the old cultures of many of the continent’s major cities.

With only a few weeks until the rainy season, and this autumn predicted to host of record number of foreign visitors, get to Rangoon now and beat the rush. The city is changing fast.

Touch down

We travelled with Thai Airways (0844 561 0911), which have regular flights to Rangoon via Bangkok. There are no non-stop options, but Malaysia Air (0871 4239 090) via Kuala Lumpur is another single change alternative. Air India (0208 745 1020) and Air China (020 7744 0800) also fly from London, but you will have to change twice (in Delhi and Calcutta, and Beijing and Kunming respectively) which is not such an easy experience. In addition, Qatar Airways (0207 341 6066) have announced direct flights from Qatar to Rangoon starting in October.

Rangoon airport is to the north of the city. There is no train to the city centre but there are plenty of taxi drivers happy to take you to your hotel. Most of them speak good English, and the journey should cost you around $10 (£7), but agree the fee first as meters are not always used.

Get your bearings

Although replaced by Naypyidaw as Burma’s capital in 2006, Rangoon remains the economic and cultural core of the country. The city is situated on a peninsula surrounded by three rivers, where four million people live in an area slightly smaller than Cape Town.

The grid-pattern city centre, where almost everything of interest is to be found, lies in the south, sandwiched between the Rangoon River and Lake Kandawgyi. The main tourist information office in Rangoon is located in the city centre, directly opposite Sule Pagoda, but there is a desk at the airport too.

Be aware that credit cards are hardly accepted anyway, including many hotels, and ATMS are non-existent. The US dollar is ubiquitous, alongside the local Kyat.

Check in

The Strand Hotel (www.ghmhotels.com/en/strand-Burma, +95 1 243 377) is probably the most famous hotel in Rangoon, and was built as the smaller sister of the more famous Raffles in Singapore. Lying at the heart of the riverfront on Strand Road, rooms start from around $250 including breakfast.

The Governor’s Residence (www.governorsresidence.com +95 1 229860), at 35 Taw Win Road in the midst of the embassy quarter, is an old teak mansion known for its swimming pool and several excellent restaurants. Rooms from $205.

The Savoy Hotel on Dhammazedi Road (www.savoy-Burma.com, +95 1 526289) is one of Rangoon’s most delightful hotels. Set around an enticing pool the hotel has a family atmosphere and a good bar to enjoy a long gin and tonic. Prices start at $150 per night.

With all these prices it is important to note that extra tourists means extra inflation, and room charges seem to be going up by the week. Check before you go as offers do exist, but remember that not all hotels are online so you may need to call, old-fashioned style.

Day one

Take a view…

Burmese trains: colourful

… from the Rangoon circular railway. This 45.9 km loop journey takes 3 hours to complete but gives you a good introduction to life for the average local as it sweeps through the townships. Buy a ticket for a $1 (passport required) on any of its 39 stations. Runs 0345h to 2215h daily.

Lunch on the run

Try one of the typical Burmese restaurants that abound on every street corner, where sitting on the floor at a low table is not uncommon. Indian curry houses, where the food is a little less oily, are common too, despite a large proportion of the Indian population being forced out of the city in the 1960s. Avoid the goat brain dish and settle for some easier-on-the-stomach masalah dhosa and coconut curry.

For a more healthy and perhaps more comfortable alternative head to Monsoon (85-87 Thinbyu Road (Lower Block), Botataung – near the Strand hotel), a Burmese restaurant with a rather pan-Asian feel to its menu and a nice drinks selection. Try the spring rolls with ginger followed by the Wether Acho Chet, described as a “sweet and rich” local pork curry.

Take a hike

Although locally derided as the “people zoo”, the National Races Village is a good way to understand the diversity of Burma. Each State and Division of the country is represented in the buildings on display there, and actors dressed in varying traditional costumes act as guides and also sell food and clothing. Don’t be surprised to find yourself the only non-Burmese visitor, as foreign tourists, never a common site in Rangoon, don’t often make it here.

Window-shopping

Scott’s market (Bogyoke Aung San Road) is where locals and tourists converge to get the latest deals on antiques, handicrafts and

Scott’s Market is equally impressive inside and out

foodstuffs. Built in 1926 and named after the civil servant that reportedly introduced football to Burma, the market is also the best place to change money: avoid banks as they give by far the worst exchange rates in town. Burma is known for producing some of the world’s highest quality rubies and sapphires, and Scott’s market is a good place to find a bargain. Just make sure you get an export certificate and remember that the US (but not the UK) still bans the import of all Burmese gemstones.

An aperitif

Rangoon is not flush with decent bars, so the hotels remain a good place to enjoy a sundowner. Friday nights see the lively expat community descend on the Strand Hotel to drink: go there to find out more about what it’s like to live here. Otherwise head into the streets downtown to find one of the many local stalls selling beer. Just bring a torch for when the power cuts strike. Beers start from $1.50.

Dining with the locals

If you are feeling adventurous then try the street food on 19th Street, at the heart of the city’s China town. At 5pm the small street is closed to cars and the restaurants start their evening barbeques, popular with locals and expats alike.   “Fatty’s restaurant” as it is known – owned not surprisingly by a portly local gentleman – serves particularly good Burmese food, like pickled tealeaf salad and skewered quails eggs. You will eat all you can for less than $3.

Day two

Sunday morning

Go to church

The Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda is the single most important religious site in all of Burma, and probably Rangoon’s most impressive site. Covering an area of 56 hectares, the gold and jewel covered paya is attracts Buddhist pilgrims from across Asia as well as the odd Western tourist. Visitors often spend hours at a time there soaking up the warm atmosphere, at once both deeply spiritual and slightly secular. Open 6.30am-10pm the entrance fee is $5. Make sure you dress appropriately: keep your legs covered and leave your shoes at the door.

There are numerous other Buddhist buildings to visit apart from the Shwedagon paya. Not many cities can claim to have a 2,000-year-old traffic island, but that’s exactly what Sule Paya is these days. A 46 m octagonal-shaped stupa that, according to legend, was built way back then to house a strand of the Buddha’s hair, it is another must-see in a country where 85% of the population follows his teachings.

For those more interested in colonial architecture, the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Bogyoke Aung San Road, next to Scott’s market) is one of Asia’s best examples of Indo-Gothic architecture and has a beautiful interior.

A walk in the park

If you want to combine parks and animals then the Botanic Gardens are worth a visit. Founded in 1906, the park really comes alive on public holidays. Open 0800h-1800h.

Nearby is Kandawgyi Lake, which lies to the north east of the city centre and makes a pleasant place for a stroll. Check out the gigantic replica royal barge, the Karaweik, which now houses a buffet restaurant.

Sunday lunch

For a more upmarket Burmese dining experience try Padonmar (105/107 Kha Yae Bin Road, Dagon Township). Judging by the photos on the wall, Sonny the owner knows John McCain, the 2008 US Presidential candidate, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. The chicken dishes are popular, but don’t miss out on the snakefish, which is delicious, and good for food one-upmanship back home. Expect to spend $12 per person for food only.

Take a ride

Stunning rural Burma

Burma’s trishaws have to be experienced. Looking like a bicycle with a sidecar, their indefatigable peddlers make for a serene journey at just the right pace to absorb the street views and smells. The best place to ride one is across the river in the village of Dhala. Simply take the ferry (the terminal is at Pansodan Road Jetty opposite the Strand hotel; tickets cost $1 from the tourist window (you will need to show your passport) and when you alight the other side choose an English-speaking trishaw driver from the dozens there. Ask for a tour of the local area, including a small Buddhist pagoda where (another) one of the Buddha’s hairs is reportedly kept. If you are lucky you will see the local boys fishing in their own unique style: emptying out small ponds to expose the fish within. Take the ferry back to Rangoon.

Cultural afternoon

One name to remember in the country’s recent history is Aung San, the father of both an independent Burma and of international democracy’s current belle, Aung San Suu Kyi. His former house, to the north of Kandawgyi Lake, was where he lived with his wife and three children, shortly before he was assassinated in 1948. The house is still in its original condition with numerous articles of the ‘General’ still there, including his car and his suit.  (closed Mondays, Tuesdays and public holidays)

Further north is Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, on University Avenue, but there’s not much to see bar the high metal gates and a wooden shack next door where the security service used to spy on visitors.

The icing on the cake

Rangoon is home to the highest number of colonial buildings in Asia, with a reported 200 registered amidst its leafy streets. Many of these are decaying, but the increased openness of the country is already seeing a number of them restored. The former High Court and Secretarial buildings are some of the continent’s finest of their type still surviving. Although a moratorium has been imposed on the demolition of buildings over 50 years old, expect the cityscape to change quickly over the coming months and years.

Rebuilding the past

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