As the borders with most neighbouring countries (Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand) are closed for international travellers, the gateway for visitors to Myanmar is the former capital and economic centre of the country: Yangon. It’s a widespread city which doesn’t have the hectic traffic scenes of Bangkok or Saigon and indeed deserves the name “garden city” with its tree-lined lanes and parks. The compact downtown area offers a colourful mix of people from all over the country, including those from Indian and Chinese descent, working and living in a setting of colonial buildings mixed with modern architecture. We will take you for a stroll through Pansodan Street with the colonial high court, banks and other buildings from the British colonial empire days. Just around the corner the majestic Strand hotel is a place not to be missed. When entering the building you can feel the history of more than a 100 years. Many celebrities like George Orwell and Mick Jagger stayed at the Strand. During the Second World War the bar was used as a stable for horses from the Japanese army. One of the highlights of every visit to Yangon is of course the visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda with it’s over 2000 years of history. This pagoda impresses even the most “temple-fatigued” tourist as the atmosphere is somehow mystical, sacred as well as easy-going and vivid at the same time. People from all over the country will visit the pagoda at least once in their life. Besides seeing thousands of devotees praying and meditating you will also see youngsters walking around with their fiancée and families chatting and having a good time. Any time of the day is good to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda and although most guide books suggest to visit at the end of the afternoon we think the best time to visit is the early morning before breakfast or in the evening (the pagoda closes at 10pm) when it’s quiet.
Yangon has plenty of other things to offer. Just follow in the footsteps of Aung San, the father of the nation who is adored by every family in the country for his fight for independence. Other options are visiting one of the many meditation centres. Take a cooking class or go shopping for (fake) antiques, lacquer ware, hand woven fabrics or traditional handicrafts. From Yangon you can make great daytrips to the countryside like to Twante pottery village, to the pagoda in the river at Syriam or the temples and pagodas in Bago. Nature lovers will be impressed by the birds and natural beauty during a boat trip through the Moeyungyi Wetlands (about 2.5 hours drive from Yangon).
From Yangon several multiple day trips give us the chance to explore more of the countryside or simply enjoy the beach. A five hour drive to the west will bring you, oassing the umbrella making city of Pathein, to the beaches in Ngwe Saung or Chaungtha. Ngwe Saung has a beautiful wide and long beach with crystal clear waters and an absolutely ``do nothing`` feeling. There is a good choice of boutique hotels in different categories and plenty of local restaurants in the village. Chaungtha is a popular beach resort for local Burmese families from Yangon and can be crowded in the weekends. The village has several karaoke bars and beer stations hence ``quiet time`` is a bit more difficult to find. Hotels at both beaches are open during the rainy season although most tourists prefer to visit these beaches from October to the middle of May.
Going east from Yangon (by train, bus or private car) we can explore one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Myanmar Buddhist and maybe one of the strangest (or unbelievable) sites for foreign tourist: the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo Pagoda). A big rock with a small pagoda built on top of it, is balancing on the edge of a mountain and looks as if it could tumble into the ravine below at any moment (luckily some hairs of Buddha precisely placed in the pagoda prevent the rock from falling). The site can be reached after a short walk (1.5 hours) or a long walk (about 7 hours) and apparently taking the long route for 3 times in a lifetime will bring good luck. Surrounding the Golden Rock are numerous local teashops, rest places and monasteries as well as local souvenir shops (many of them offering traditional Myanmar medicine). We continue south from the Golden Rock to arrive in Mawlamyine (Moulmein), the capital of Mon State, a typical sleepy town where time stood still. Hpa An in Kayin state can be reached by boat from Mawlamyine and is a bustling and friendly town with interesting caves to visit.