Rangoon
Burma / Myanmar
By Joshua H. Liberatore

The crown jewel of a true Southeast Asian adventure is Rangoon, a fascinating paradox of a city. For a country as small and poor as Burma, it's a very populous capital city, replete with urban variety, colorful markets, some world-class architecture, and plenty of the unpredictable charms associated with other large cities in the region. The Buddhist temple complex, Shwedagon Pagoda, is a stunning architectural wonder, and the winding backstreets provide endless hours of marvel for the curious traveler.

Yangon, as it's known locally, is also a living vestige of a prior day, testament to an economy and service infrastructure left behind. One notable example is the lack of street lights and commercial-level electricity after dark. Rangoon's side streets are candle lit by early evening during the winter, and though still very much alive with street food and fruit vendors, tea shops and other hangouts, and locals shopping and socializing, the darkness can be disconcerting for visitors. WhatsCheaper.com reminds you to have a clear path mapped back to your hotel or guesthouse. Despite this slight discomfort, Rangoon is incredibly safe. Your only real risk is in getting lost.

Some human rights activists have argued that tourist travel to Burma is unethical, given that the associated proceeds buttress the repressive military junta that has run the country for a generation and kept its people poor and wanting basic services. WhatsCheaper.com acknowledges those concerns, but one must simply recognize different ways of visiting a place. Even if you can't avoid the airline flights – travel by road in Burma is tedious, extremely slow, and unreliable – you can maximize precious income for local businesses in the myriad other choices you make. Eat on the street or in small, family-run restaurants, hire local guides for treks and other excursions and tip them directly (not the tour operator), make small purchases from independent craft vendors, and in general, just be cognizant that the closer your dollars – or kyat (pronounced "chet") for small transactions – stay to the street level, the better the chances are that ordinary Burmese will benefit from your visit.

Although unmetered taxis are available in Rangoon, most Burmese will be travelling by foot, bike, or shared pedicab. WhatsCheaper.com notes that public transportation options are limited and somewhat frightening, but will reward the adventurous traveler. Hop on a crowded "bus" – many resembling large pickup trucks with a canopy roof and maybe some strips of leather to hang on to – and hold your breath. You'll be rubbing shoulders with Rangoon life at its most intimate and mundane, and you will never forget the experience. A great way to see Rangoon is by bicycle, which you can rent at your guesthouse or nearby. Some of Rangoon's more out-of-the-way temples are best reached by bicycle.

Burma is nestled between three culinary goliaths, India, China, and Thailand, and its distinctive cuisine bears the marks of all three. Curry-inflected stir fries, spicy vegetable and fish dishes, roti and other pastry offerings, and tropical fruits of dazzling sweetness and color all reflect fertile supply chain that finds a hub in Rangoon. WhatsCheaper.com recommends a distinctive local treat: the refreshing avocado shake. Perhaps modeled on the Indian lassi, this thick and filling beverage provides the perfect lift after a long day of walking in the subtropical heat. As is true throughout Southeast Asia, the best eating in Rangoon is at street level. Find Rangoon's main market areas and sit down at a vendor serving up fresh, savory dishes. Pay in kyat, take in the scene, and move on to the next stall. The tiny little chairs you will sit at may seem absurd and uncomfortable at first, but they offer a chance to experience Rangoon life at its most authentic.

From Rangoon, you can plan trips to nearby Kalaw, the recommended jumping-off point for hill tribe treks in the Shan State. If you've tried trekking in the more commercialized tourist markets of Vietnam or Thailand, WhatsCheaper.com believes your experience in Burma will defy all comparison. The Burmese countryside offers an unparalleled opportunity to view agricultural techniques that have not been updated in centuries: mule carts, hand-held scythes, primitive irrigation rigs, harvests gathered and carried to market by hand. Burmese rice and vegetable farmers are living reminders of the unmechanized way in which food used to be grown all over the world. On these tours, small groups of hikers are equipped with a local guide and a cook, spending one night in a village hut and the next in a monastery. Treks typically end in Nyaungshwe, a colorful market town situated at the base of Inle Lake, on which foot-paddling fishermen have mastered an idiosyncratic, hands-free method of rowing their small skiffs while gathering nets. Visit WhatsCheaper.com (http://www.whatscheaper.com/flight.php) to book your flight to Yangon International Airport today.

MUST SEE IN Rangoon LIST:

  • 1. Shwedagon Pagoda
  • 2. Ngwe Saung
  • 3. Karaweik Hall
  • 4. Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar
  • 5. Botatoung Pagoda
  • 6. National Museum
  • 7. Sule Paya
  • 8. Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue
  • 9. Memorial to the Forgotten War
  • 10. Maha Bandoola Garden

Rangoon EVENT CALENDAR:

  • 1. Hta-Mané Festival - January
  • 2. Shwedagon Pagoda Festival - March
  • 3. Myanmar New Year's Day - April
  • 4. Watering the Sacred Bo Tree Festival - May
  • 5. Nayone Festival - June
  • 6. Dhama Sakya Day - July
  • 7. Thadingyut Lights Festival - October
  • 8. Kyauk-taw-gyi Festival - October
  • 9. Kahtein Thingan Weaving Festival - November
  • 10. Karen New Year - December

PHOTO GALLERY