10 things you didn't know about Yangon

Discover an unexpected side to Myanmar's largest city, which has a lot to offer – from family-friendly attractions to great cuisine and nightlife.

The enchanting city of Yangon.
  • Jessica Mudditt
  • December 2018

Formerly known as Rangoon, Yangon is the most populous city in the South-East Asian country of Myanmar and well known for its golden Shwedagon Pagoda. However, there’s more to this place than the temple and here, we reveal 10 things you might not realise about this amazing city.

Yangon is changing fast

The city has witnessed incredible change since Myanmar embarked on reforms in 2010. While many of these changes were political and financial, there have also been some fundamental changes affecting peoples’ daily lives. Wi-Fi, Facebook, Coca-Cola, mobile phones and international banking – none of these things were accessible to the general public a decade ago.

Burmese cuisine isn’t like Thai food

Myanmar (formerly called Burma) and Thailand might be neighbours but it appears they seldom swapped recipes. Other than the staple of steamed rice, the two cuisines have little in common. Burmese food is less spicy and people are often surprised to discover it’s more similar to food in neighbouring India. One of its most famous dishes is khow suey, a coconut milk-based curry noodle soup. Yangon is a fantastic place to acquaint yourself with the classics, try shan noodles or a tea-leaf salad at Monsoon Restaurant or Rangoon Tea House.

Tea-leaf salad is packed with flavour
Tea-leaf salad is packed with flavour.

It’s not the capital of Myanmar

For all intents and purposes, Yangon is the capital city – economically, culturally and by size – so you could be forgiven for never having heard of the actual capital, Nay Pyi Taw. Yangon held the title until 2006, when then-ruler Than Shwe announced the move after years of secret construction on a former swamp. It’s still a mystery why this was decided. Nay Pyi Taw is a ghost town and serves as the administrative capital only.

It is, however, Myanmar’s biggest city

The days of Yangon feeling more like a town than a city are over, yet its reputation as a former colonial outpost lingers. Today, it’s a sprawling metropolis of between five and seven million people (the statisticians can’t agree) spread over a space a little smaller than Singapore. It’s the country’s most cosmopolitan city and although English isn’t widely spoken, you’ll be able to get by.

It's a family-friendly destination

There may not be big-name theme parks but that doesn’t mean Yangon isn’t good for families. Kids are absolutely adored and will be fawned over by warm locals. There are some great spots to take the whole family – you just have to know where they are. Hop aboard the rollicking circle line train, do a lap of the zoo or hire a paddleboat at nearby amusement park, Happy World.

Kids will appreciate these cute souvenirs
Kids will appreciate these cute souvenirs.

Yes, there are ATMs

Thankfully, the days of furtively carrying around enough cash to last an entire trip are over. ATMs arrived here in 2013, after international sanctions were eased, and today there are plenty around. However, there are still a few quirks in Myanmar’s monetary system, the biggest being that US notes must be in pristine condition to be converted to the local currency of kyats (pronounced “chats”).

And it has a nightlife scene too

Just five years ago, Yangon was so sleepy after dark that the embassy-run British Club used to sympathetically open its doors to anyone in town who fancied a tipple – and it was the social event of the month. Since then, there’s been a blossoming of venues and there are now some great pubs and at least a dozen rooftop bars with killer views of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Tip: the best is the neon-happy Yangon Yangon – it’s the city’s highest bar and has a resident DJ.

Chinatown never sleeps in Yangon
Chinatown never sleeps in Yangon.

Yangon is not the cheapest Asian destination

While the cost of hotel rooms start from about $40 per night, you don’t get quite as much value for money as you would in other South-East Asian cities, which is one of the reasons a backpacker scene is yet to emerge. Likewise, if you’re avoiding the city’s public transport system (which can be confusing for visitors) the costs of scooting around town in taxis can also add up. But that’s not to say there aren’t ways to save in Yangon. Ride the circle train or dine out on street food – it’s incredibly cheap and delicious.

It’s home to one of the world’s most sacred sites

Shwedagon Pagoda is among the planet’s most important Buddhist sites. According to local legend, the glittering pagoda has origins dating back 2600 years and it’s believed to contain relics of four past Buddhas. Attracting pilgrims from around the world, it’s laden with 27 tonnes of gold leaf and dominates the skyline.

Myanmar's pinnacle site - Shwedagon Pagoda
Myanmar's pinnacle site - Shwedagon Pagoda.

It is one of Asia’s safest cities

Petty street crimes are less common in Yangon than in other major cities in the region. Tourist scams are also rare. Of course, it always pays to be alert, particularly at night. The biggest danger is probably coming a cropper on the pot-holed pavement.