9 Do’s and don’ts before travelling to Yangon, Myanmar
Get excited for new experiences in the land of the golden pagoda’s! Are you preparing your travel to Yangon? Then you probably have your sarong packed for temple visits and crispy dollar notes in your wallet. But here’s stuff you would never think to prepare for. Check this out before stepping on that airplane.
By Anna Livia Cullinan
1. Don’t read this book!
In Burmese Days George Orwell goes back to his years as a colonial officer in Myanmar
George Orwell’s ‘Burmese Days’ is one of iDiscover’s favourite books. So don’t get us wrong, it gives a great feel for what the place was like in the colonial days. But Myanmar is so much more than that. Why not pick up an amazing female-authored biography that describes the complex history. Having this narrative in your mind as you explore the city will help you see everything just that little bit better.
Our favourite books:
- The White Umbrella chronicles the life of the first-first lady of Myanmar. From her childhood in Shan State as member of a royal family to when she meets the author in a Canadian retirement home.
- The Golden Parasol tells the story of a daughter and her father who ran the first English newspaper in Yangon.
- One more must-read, by a male author this time, is River of Lost Footsteps by the grandson of U Thant, the first ever secretary general of the UN. Thant Myint U’s compelling personal account of his family’s and his country’s history will keep you entertained on long bus journeys
2. Do: bring your broken watches.
At Sule pagoda, Yangon’s horologists repair your old watch on the spot
We all have them, those watches that stopped working and we plan on fixing. Well, a little-known fact about Yangon is that it’s a city of horologists.
The most famous ones are dotted around the base of Sule Pagoda but once you recognise a horologist stand you can spot them all across Yangon’s downtown. They can fix your watch in a matter of minutes usually for around 3,000 Kyat or US$3. If you’re lucky they also might have a local vintage watch to sell.
“A little-known fact about Yangon is that it’s a city of horologists”
3. Don’t get a haircut.
Get a trim at this local barbershop in 491-50 Merchant Street (Image: Turquoise Mountain)
That’s right, you’re probably thinking with the heat it’s best to shed some locks before getting on the plane, but save that treat for when you’re in the city. There are many amazing barbershops, which are usually no wider than an arms width, tucked into equally impressive old buildings all across Yangon. Sit down in an antique chair and relax.
And for the ladies, there are plenty of female hair salons. These brightly coloured salons are an oasis in the city and a good place to hang out during the heat of the day. A wash and blow out here can take anywhere between one and two hours. They take their job seriously, and even lay you down on a massage table just to wash your hair and throw in a full head massage. This treat will set you back as little as 5,000 kyat (US$5). Time it right and Yangon’s barbers will have you looking great with lots to talk about, just in time for sunset cocktails.
Some of our favourite salons:
- Nail Art, Spa & Foot Reflexology, 1/F 433 Merchant Road. Open everyday 8:30am-9.30pm (Secretariat & beyond)
- Tucked into the recently restored 491-501 Merchant Street is the 39th street Barber Shop. Open Mon-Sat 9am-6pm (Secretariat & beyond)
- Modern Spa Beauty, 30th street between Mahabandoola and Merchant street across from the Mogul Shiah Jamay Mosque. Open every day 9am-9pm (Indian Quarter)
4. Do: bring your favourite shirt or dress.
For a real local experience, get a dress made at ‘sewing street’ in the Indian Quarter
Not to wear but to have it copied. The traditional fabrics in Yangon’s markets are stunning. From hand-woven chin shawls to brightly coloured longyis – the traditional wear for men – and there are many beautiful options to choose from. Simply bring your favourite dress, go to one of the local tailors and have them copy it. The traditional fabrics don’t have a lot of stretch so best to bring something in a non-stretch fabric like oxford cotton. It takes between a week and ten days so drop it off when you first arrive and pick it up before you fly out.
Material is often sold in longyi cuts which means it’s 2 yards and a hands width, which is plenty for a shirt or dress. Generally, to be safe you need1½ to 2 yards for a shirt and 3 for a knee length dress.
Our favourite tailors:
- Pyone left a corporate career to launch her own design label Virya Couture, pioneering ethical fashion in Myanmar, 96, 39th Open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm (Secretariat & beyond)
- Another good choice is the always reliable Globe Tailor, 367 Bogyoke Aung San Street. Open daily 9.30am -5.30pm
- Or simply go to ‘sewing street’ on 28th street upper block in the Indian Quarter, where you can pick from 50 odd stalls where young guys work away at some antique singer machines. They’ll fix anything from a suit to a suitcase.
5. Don’t plan every night.
Be in the know about the latest happenings in Yangon through the iDiscover facebook page. Image: Two Humans Travel
Facebook is king in Myanmar. Before 2014 sim cards cost over 300 US$ but now they’re as cheap as one dollar. With the rapid growth of internet access in Myanmar Facebook was quickly adopted as the fastest and easiest way to share information. If you want to know what’s happening, check the iDiscover Facebook page for cool events and happenings near you.
“Did you know that sim cards went from US$300 in 2014 to just one dollar now?”
6. Do: Take time to read up on the history.
U Thant was the first non-European Secretary General and held the position of a record 10 years. Image: UN Archives
The tourist infrastructure might not be the well-oiled machine it is in many other countries. Part of the charm is that the country is still off-the-beaten-track and not yet discovered by mass tourism. We love Yangon for this very reason but it does mean that sometimes it may be difficult to find the right information.
The country has a complex history and has sat at literal and figurative crossroads for centuries. Just knowing a little before you come will help you recognise the significance of a lot of what you’ll see. Some places are perhaps a bit old school or quirky, but embrace the peculiarities that this country has to offer and you’ll be in for a unique experience.
- U Thant House – escape the faster parts of the city and enjoy a beautiful house and garden while learning about one of the first United Nations secretary general. 31 Panwa Lane (enter from Inya Road), Kamayut Township, email@example.com. Open Fri-Sat-Sun 10am-5pm
- The Drug Elimination Museum – a quirky and rarely visited place where you can spend 15 minutes or four hours… Drug wars are a big and sometimes controversial topic here in this country that has traditionally been one of the world’s biggest opium producers. Don’t miss the large recreation of a Shan poppy field in the centre of the building, the ‘stairway to insanity’ designed to scare children from drug use or the dioramas where you can eliminate drugs with the click of a button. Kyun Taw Rd, Yangon. open Tue- Sun 9am-4pm
7. Don’t over pack
That can be hard, we know! But trust us, you will want to buy so many things. Myanmar is famous for its lacquerware, jewellery, rattan items, traditional toys, and fabric. There are lots of social enterprises that work with local groups to add modern twists to the traditional crafts. Hand-made products not just make for great souvenirs but also support the traditional craftsmen. Why not bring home a traditional Myanmar mandolin or a clay flowerpot as a souvenir.
Use the iDiscover Yangon Good Guide to find social enterprises and independent shops, where your money goes a long way and reaches the right people.
8. Do: work with a travel agent
We love the sense of adventure and belonging that comes with independent travel, but when you venture outside of the main cities things can get complicated. Travel agents can take a lot of that stress away and make sure you have all the right paperwork and get to see really unique parts of the country. Plus the tour guides in Myanmar are wonderfully enthusiastic about their country they will make your trip all the better.
Two travel companies we like:
- Sampan Travel – a relatively new but award-winning travel company that offers beautiful bespoke tours in some of the most unique parts of Myanmar
- Kiri Travel – only works with sustainably run companies that respect precious ecosystems and heritage sites
9. Do: travel responsibly and download the iDiscover App
Support local businesses to keep Yangon’s unique culture alive
Myanmar offers the opportunity to do tourism right. It’s one of the many reasons iDiscover is so passionate about working here. Downloading the iDiscover app not only gives you a GPS based map to navigate around the city it also suggests how can spend your money respectfully and responsibly. The app is your personal guide to those local shops that have been there for generations so they can survive for another generation. By spending there you help to keep local culture and heritage alive and we hope it helps you to love Yangon as much as we do. Please let us know!
Also make sure to check the Myanmar tourism website for some valuable tips for traveling Myanmar in an ethical and culturally sensitive way. It is not only a great resource but also highlights the work of Myanmar’s famous cartoon artists.
Guest curator Myanmar – creative spirit & talented urban designer
Anna Livia Cullinan is originally from Ireland, grew up in the US, studied in the UK and now calls Myanmar home. Many years in film industry have creatively shaped her mind until she was ready to venture out in the big world. Anna Livia has found her muse in vibrant and mystical Yangon.
Anna Livia’s favourite spot in Yangon: breakfast in a local teashop in the Indian Quarter