Tag Archives: moving to myanmar

Best books on Myanmar: My personal favourites

You won't be starved for choice when it comes to books about Myanmar
You won’t be starved for choice when it comes to books about Myanmar

As the third Irrawaddy Literature Festival draws near, I thought it timely to write a post about my favourite books on the fascinating country that is Myanmar. There’s so much good literature around that I won’t even limit myself to a top 10 (I’ll keep adding as I keep reading!). Aside from two exceptions, each of the books listed were published before Myanmar’s political and economic reforms began in 2011. The country has changed a great deal over the past few years, so I’m looking forward to reading new works that depict the “new” Myanmar (insofar as I know, none yet exist) as well as seeing greater literary freedoms utilised by Burmese writers. But of course it goes without saying that becoming familiar with Myanmar’s turbulent and complicated past is necessary to understanding the situation in the present day.

So here, in no particular order, are my favourite books…

1. The Trouser People, Andrew Marshall (2002)

Due to the country’s dictatorial and colonial past, a lot of books on Myanmar are distressing and depressing: this one is too, but there’s also a lot of humour in it. Marshall, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who currently works for Reuters, retraces the steps of a highly eccentric British civil servant and adventurer called Sir George Scott, who was knocking through Myanmar’s jungles back in the 19th century. The historical research is superbly intriguing and is paired well with what has and hadn’t changed in Myanmar over the last hundred years or so.

For example, the origin of the incredibly popular lotteries (the mobile versions of which play some great disco tunes nowadays) can be traced back to the reign of King Thibaw, who was Myanmar’s last monarch as he was deposed of by the British (FYI – a wonderful account of the king’s exile and life thereafter can be found in Amitav Ghosh’s A Glass Palace).

Marshall writes:

“Misruled by a feeble, gin-soaked tyrant and his evil queen, the kingdom slid towards anarchy. In a last-ditch attempt to refill the royal coffers, Thibaw’s ministers seized upon the idea of public lotteries. Tickets could soon be bought at booths on every street corner, although many people were bullied into buying them by roving thugs employed by lottery managers.”

2. The Burman – His Life and Notions, Shway Yoe (Sir George Scott), (1882)

Anyone who reads this book will understand Marshall’s fascination with Sir George Scott, who spent three decades of his life in Myanmar and travelled extensively – often with the purpose of “negotiating” deals with the leaders of ethnic minority groups to surrender to the British Empire. Scott was nothing short of obsessed with local customs, geography and history and this book is the product of his extremely copious note-taking skills. As the title suggests, Scott’s approach was simply to record his detailed observations, which makes it more of a book to dip in and out of than to read from start to end. Have a flick through – chapters such as “Ear boring,” “Lucky and unlucky days” and “Wizards, doctors and wise men” certainly piqued my curiosity… As did learning that when it comes to Burmese names, the more it rhymes, the better (hence the popularity of men called Ko Phyo [Ko-Pee-Oo]).

While some of Scott’s commentary strays into the cringe-worthy and antiquated, the Scottish journalist (who is also credited with introducing football to Myanmar) is for the most part entertaining and insightful.

He writes this of the dual education system in place in colonial-administrated Burma:

“In the English school you learned to make money, and in the Burmese school you learned to be happy and contented.”

3. Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, Inge Sargent (1994)

This is an extraordinary and tragic memoir written by the Austrian wife of the prince of Hsipaw in Shan State. It opens dramatically when the couple arrive in Yangon by ship in 1953 – as it is only then that Sargent discovers her new royal role (and the regal name immediately bestowed on her, “Thusanda”). Her husband Sao Kya Seng embarks on a series of reforms to improve health and education and redistribute land in a non-feudal manner and as a result, quickly becomes a popular but “reluctant prince”. The couple have two children and “Thusanda” feels great affection for the mountains and peoples of Shan State – she describes everyday encounters with unabashed girlish delight. Unfortunately, a significant flaw in this otherwise captivating book is that it’s written in the third person – which makes for awkward passages of glowing self-description:

“It was Thusanda in her courtly splendor who stunned the assembled guests into admiring exclamations. As Sao led her through the assembled crowd, ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ were audible from all directions.”

Sargent’s fairytale life is shattered when her husband disappears shortly after a military coup led by General Ne Win takes place in 1962. He is never seen again, despite her desperate efforts to find him in the years that followed, both in Myanmar and Europe. The famed Sao Kya Seng  is presumed to have been tortured and killed in prison. It’s simply heartbreaking.

4. Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, Benedict Rogers (2010)

Putting a biography together  about one of the world’s most notorious and reclusive dictators couldn’t have been anything other than an extremely tough task. Basic information such as Senior General Than Shwe’s date and place of birth are speculated rather than known – which arguably contributed to the aura of fear that surrounds him to the present day. Rogers never met his subject, who took over from Ne Win in 1992 and ruled with an iron fist until his resignation in 2011. However the writer and human rights advocate is clear about presenting rumours as such and acknowledges a natural temptation towards bias – fortunately his efforts to avoid it appear convincing. Nonetheless, Than Shwe’s resignation (just one year after his biography was published) was a stunning move and took many by surprise: general consensus was that power would not be relinquished other than in the event of his death, and certainly not then followed by the ushering in of a more democratic form of governance.

“Most people agree that if Than Shwe were to die tomorrow, Maung Aye would succeed him automatically, because of his position in the hierarchy. But if Than Shwe can transfer power to a person in a manner and timing of his choice, his successor is more likely to be General Thura Shwe Mann.”

Than Shwe ultimately handpicked President Thein Sein as his successor, however many claim that his retirement is partial at best and that he stepped down voluntarily in order to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted for human rights abuses committed under his watch.

5. Nor Iron Bars A Cage, Ma Thanegi (2013)

Ma Thanegi is a fesity, forceful writer: she’s sort of Myanmar’s answer to Germaine Greer. Her irreverent memoir recounts nearly one thousand days spent as a political prisoner under a harsh military junta – her “crime” was serving as Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal assistant. She was arrested in 1989, the year after the opposition leader’s election victory was declared null by authorities and followed by a violent crackdown against the nationwide pro-democracy protests. Ma Thanegi begins by asserting that the international media exaggerated Insein Prison’s reputation for torture and that some female prisoners falsely claimed to have been raped in the misguided belief that it would somehow further the cause of democracy in Myanmar.

“It does not matter to me whether readers believe my accounts or not; they have the right to believe what they want. What disgusts me is the number of people I have met who were actually disappointed or upset that we weren’t raped by the male guards.”

While the quality of writing is sometimes uneven, Ma Thanegi presents an intimate account of life as a female political prisoner with an eye for both the absurd and redeeming. The friendships she struck up with the sparrows and mice that sometimes entered her cell were among my favourite passages. Her voice is refreshingly authentic.

6. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, Thant Myint-U (2008)

The combination of genres this book comprises – memoir, travelogue, politics and history – makes it the perfect beginning to your Myanmar debriefing. It’s intensely readable and engaging – which makes the process of absorbing a vast quantity of information perfectly possible and not at all overwhelming. Thant Myint-U is a former UN peacekeeper and his grandfather was the third Secretary General of the UN from 1961 to 1971 (and is credited with playing a major role in averting the Cuban missile crisis). Thant Myint-U vividly describes how he felt as a young man returning to Myanmar to attend his grandfather’s funeral, which was turned into a nasty power play between the military and U Nu’s loyal supporters – many of whom were students. Thant Myint-U currently serves as the chairperson of Yangon Heritage Trust, a non-profit organisation that is working hard to protect Yangon’s architectural past. When Obama visited Yangon late last year, he and Thant Myint-U took a walk together to survey his plans. Impressive.

7. Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin (2004)

There are three reasons why I really, really like this book. The prose is superb, it investigates the contradictions within George Orwell during the time he served as a jaded British policeman in colonial-administered Burma, as well as offering insightful commentary on the harsh realities of everyday life in Myanmar under junta rule. Emma Larkin is a pseudonym: little is known about the American journalist who made discreet, repeated visits to carry out research while managing to protect both herself and her sources. I was lucky enough to interview Larkin last year – you can read the full interview here.

When Orwell began his five-year stint in Myanmar in 1922, violent crime was so rife that it was considered one of the most dangerous places in Asia. The anarchy was almost always attributed to the so-called racial inferiority of the Burmese. While Myanmar nowadays has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia, Larkin points out a new and worrying trend of law enforcers once again distorting the truth:

“In order to please the central military command, the police leave crimes unreported, so that their division will look good and crime-free, at least on paper. When people go to the station to report crimes, the police often ask them if they are sure they want to file details and try to convince them not to do so. I once had my wallet stolen in Mandalay, and when I suggested to the friends that I was with that I should report it to the police they laughed.”

38th Street is home to Bagan Book House and a collection of open air bookstores
38th Street is home to Bagan Book House and a collection of open air bookstores

8. From the Land of Green Ghosts, Pascal Khoo Thwe (2002)

Pascal Khoo Thwe’s memoir is rooted in the mysticism of his childhood and the dramatically painful struggles of his early adulthood. While most books tend to divide readers into those who loved or loathed, this book (at least anecdotally speaking) seems to be roundly adored. I’ve never heard a bad word said about it.

Pascal was born in a remote area of Myanmar: so remote that the installation of a lone traffic light almost immediately caused an accident and was promptly removed. However it was less his village’s physical remoteness than the regime’s iron clad grip on the flow of information that created the time capsule conditions in which he grew up. Below is one of many examples:

“In 1977 we were finally told that the Americans had landed on the moon… We also heard that Elvis Presley was dead.”

News of the death of The King caused intense public grief and non-stop musical renditions. The socialist government felt so threatened by this outward display of pro-Americanism that it issued a decree stating that guitar players were decadent “street ghosts.”

Pascal was born into the Padaung tribe, which is arguably one of the world’s most identifiable. Female Padaungs (or at least, those conferred with the honour) wear brass coils around their elongated necks, which has led to them being dubbed ‘giraffe necks’. His own grandmother’s neck was 14 inches long, which no doubt added to the aura that surrounded her while she told incredible ancestral tales.

Pascal’s life is turned upside down when Myanmar’s political situation takes a series of deeply sinister turns. He joins a guerilla army after his girlfriend is raped and murdered, and manages to survive the hellish conditions of jungle warfare before fleeing to Thailand. A chance encounter eventually lands him in Cambridge University. You simply couldn’t make it up.

9. The Road to Wanting, Wendy Law-Yone (2010)

Could there be a dreamier title for a book? It’s doubtful – particularly as this particular ‘wanting’ is an actual town on the Chinese-Myanmar border (and FYI ‘Muse’ is another border town imbibed with a similarly haunting melancholy). This is the story of Na Ga, who was separated from her poverty-stricken family at a young age and endures slap after slap in the face (often quite literally) in quick succession. She forms a relationship in Thailand with a farang of questionable intent, and who sets her off on a long journey – the purpose of which this resilient woman questions every step of the way. The introduction is unforgettable and the prose is particularly well-crafted: I struggled to put it down long after I should have been asleep.

The Road to Wanting was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2011.

10. Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma, Wendy Law-Yone  (2013)

Wendy Yaw-Yone was 16 when her father, the founding editor of the prominent English language newspaper The Nation, was thrown into prison. General Ne Win had seized control of Myanmar in a coup d’etat the year before, in 1962. Despite her father’s requests to read his manuscript in the 1970s, Law-Yone refrained from doing so until he passed away in 1980. She discovered a wealth of incredible anecdotes and an intimate rendering of her father’s dreams and frustrations – perhaps most notably his thwarted attempt to overthrow the regime and restore democracy following his release from prison in 1968. Law-Yone’s memoir interweaves her own experiences, which began in her birthplace of Mandalay. She  too was interrogated at length and incarcerated briefly before fleeing the country. Her encounter with the dreaded MIS is worth quoting at length:

My interrogations lasted from nine at night until nine in the morning; the inquisitors working in teams of four and changing shifts at 3am. Exactly what they were hoping to find out was difficult to pinpoint. Again and again I laid out my reasons for wanting to leave the country… I saw no reason for concealing the facts… The colonel in charge had the names of every foreigner I had ever met, and reminded me of the precise details of each and every meeting. What could I tell him about any of these foreign friends?

“But Colonel,” I said at one point, “don’t you already know everything about everyone in the country?” I was careful to appear sincere and not sarcastic.

“We are not God,” he replied, apparently flattered.

To understand the impact Ne Win’s despotic rule had on individuals and families, there is arguably no better book than Golden Parasol – which like all Law-Yone’s books, was banned in Myanmar until as recently as three years ago.

11. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Literary legend George Orwell took no prisoners when he penned this scathing account of life in Myanmar under British colonial rule. He wrote the novel almost seven years after returning to England from his five-year stint as a police officer serving the Indian Imperial Police Force in various parts of what was then Burma. Yet even despite the lag-time, his novel first made its debut in the United States, as Orwell’s descriptions of a fictional town (based on Katha in Sagaing Region) were so starkly realistic (as indeed were many of his characters), that his British publisher shied away in fear of a potential libel law suit.

Essentially, this is a story about the racial bigotry that prevailed virtually uncontested in the dying days of British Burma. It centres around a friendship between an Indian doctor called Veraswami and – gasp – a European teak merchant. Thirty-five-year-old Flory has become utterly disenchanted with colonial rule and admires much of Myanmar’s culture – and as a result, finds himself alienated from the likes of those who frequent the British Club – a club Dr Veraswami desperately wants to join. When a deputy commissioner, who is also Kyauktada’s club secretary, posts a notice suggesting that Dr Veraswami’s request be considered because, “as yet there are no Oriental members of this club, and as it is now usual to admit officials of gazetted rank, whether native or European…” the reaction from a junior officer, Orwell writes, is this:

“He’s asking us to break all our rules and take a dear little nigger-boy into this club…. That would be a treat, wouldn’t it? Little pot-bellied niggers breathing garlic in your face over the bridge table.”

Burmese Days is painfully poignant; its characters flawed and confused – and all the more disturbing by virtue of Orwell’s observational prowess. It attracted a significant amount of criticism from his colonial contemporaries when it appeared – and to which he replied: “I daresay it’s unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen.”

12. Another Man’s War, Barnaby Philips (2014)

This is a true tale that is both tragic and heart-warming, as it describes how two African soldiers were hidden for nine months by a Rohingya family during the Second World War – and reunited almost six decades later. The two young men, Isaac Fadoyebo and David Kargbo, arrived in Yangon a year after it had fallen to the Japanese forces, who would have advanced all the way up to Calcutta unless the Allied Forces were able to defeat them in strategically-located Myanmar. It’s essential reading for those seeking to come to grips with the impact of the Second World War in Myanmar – and will undoubtedly lead to ruminations on the oddities of war itself. Veteran foreign correspondent Barnaby Philips tells the story through the eyes of Isaac Fadoyebo, who was left stranded in enemy territory following a surprise attack by the Japanese in Rakhine State. He writes:

“It would only take one person to betray David and Isaac, with fatal consequences. So they needed to do everything within their limited powers to ingratiate themselves with the villagers. They had no money or possessions to hand over, but they did have faith. Or at least, they could pretend to have it. The villagers had already asked them several times if they were Muslim. Now, David and Isaac set out to convince them this was indeed the case.”

13. Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China, Bertil Lintner (1995)

Bertil Lintner has been reporting on Myanmar since the 1980s, with Land of Jade being the first of several books he’s penned. In the early 1980s, he and his pregnant wife set out from India to travel overland into Myanmar and through to China. The journey spanned 2,200 kilometres, took 18 months and involved crossing the northern rebel-held areas – where a ceasefire continues to elude the country. Lintner was determined to access these remote, dangerous and malarial infested villages and jungles in order to report back to the world on what was happening inside the troubled nation. Whilst this is certainly a noble pursuit, at times it is difficult to swallow the author’s decision to bring along his wife and newborn child (who is most often referred to as “the baby”). Although Lintner is at pains to point out that his wife, an ethnic Shan, had longed wished to return to her homeland, the timing still seems incongruous and it is unfortunate that the reader learns so little about her character (which must have been undoubtedly strong). Furthermore, Lintner’s presence endangered locals (sometimes fatally) and is problematic in terms of seeming to imply that only an outsider (or Westerner even) was up to the task of reporting the “truth”. He writes:

“The news was not good. The Burmese Army was closing in on three sides, presumably aiming for 2nd brigade headquarters. It was uncertain whether the offensive had been prompted by our stay of more than three weeks in the camp.”

Despite these moral ambiguities, Land of Jade contains some valuable insights that still resonate 20-odd years later.

Jessica’s top tips for Yangon, Myanmar

Whether you’re contemplating moving to Yangon, planning a trip as a tourist or already living here, my top tips will help you make the most of your experience in Myanmar’s bustling commercial capital.

These days, Yangon is a city on the move. It also has some incredible street art, such as that pictured.
These days, Yangon is a city on the move. It also has some incredible street art, such as that pictured.

A few months ago I was asked to do an interview with Jetstar’s inflight magazine. By mistake I answered every question instead of just a handful (oops), but as I receive quite a few emails from people who are about to move to or visit Yangon, I thought it might be handy to add a few more tips and post them here on my blog.

Artwork at River II Gallery, Yangon
Artwork at River II Gallery, Yangon

Where can I find reliable info on Yangon?

The absolute best source of “real-time” information is a Google group called Yangon Expat Connection. It has thousands of members – both expats and locals – and its forums contain a rich reserve of advice (tip: try searching before posting). I wrote an article about its history for The Myanmar Times, which you can read here. If you are looking to rent a flat, buy a car/motorbike/furniture, find a Myanmar language teacher etc it is incredibly helpful – and it also keeps you up to date with what’s going on in the city – whether it be a new gallery opening or a sporting team created. For event listings, try myanmore.

The latest edition of Lonely Planet Myanmar came out in September 2014 – and it’s a worthwhile investment because the changes that have taken place since the previous edition was published in 2011 are vast. Click here to read my interview with coordinating author Simon Richmond, who spent a great deal of time updating the guide for our benefit.

Rest assured that Perfect Guesthouse didn't make the cut for Lonely Planet's recommended hotel recommendations
Rest assured that Perfect Guesthouse didn’t make the cut for Lonely Planet’s recommended hotel recommendations

Another welcome new release is a book called “Expatriate in Myanmar: A Guide for Newcomers” by Janice Merchant. Frankly, the title undersells the content, which spans 200-odd pages and took 18 months to research. In addition to providing advice on planning your move, the shopping, entertainment and services directory is a boon for longish-term expats and has also been praised by locals (so I’ve heard!) for condensing need-to-know info in a very readable form. It’s stocked in Yangon’s popular bookstores such as Bagan Book House and Monument, or buy the e-book. Click here to read more about what it offers.

Scour local artwork at Bogyoke Market and find yourself a treasure
Scour local artwork at Bogyoke Market and find yourself a treasure

Should I move to Yangon? This is a question I’m frequently asked because as Myanmar’s economy rapidly expands, an ever increasing number of foreigners are being offered the chance to relocate. The short answer is yes. Why? Because Yangon is unlike any other city (at least those I’ve known) and anyone with an open mind will be amply rewarded by the experiences you’ll acquire. Until quite recently, Yangon was more of a town that a city, but so much has changed in a commercial sense (and will continue to at a rapid rate) that many of its infamous hardships (such as hundred dollar SIM cards, zero international banking and censored internet browsing) no longer exists. To me, the best thing about Yangon is that it has retained its unique charm and element of surprise. Over the past couple of years I’ve spent hours commuting in taxis (due to the dire state of public transport) yet I still find myself looking out the window rather than reading a book or checking my emails – just because Yangon’s street life is so interesting. And each township has  its own distinctive quality – to the point where you may begin to wonder whether you’re still in the same city.

Best bars: Yangon’s oldest ‘expat’ watering hole is 50th Street Bar and Café on (no surprise) 50th Street. A lot of new places have popped up in recent times – some close as quickly as they open, or move premises due to high rents. As most venues have a Facebook page, it’s worth checking that the address listed in a guidebook or whatnot is still correct.

The cheesy-sounding Friendship Bar on Dhamazedi Road isn’t at all cheesy – and it’s also an easy venue for large groups. Union Bar is a swanky alternative – there’s two for one martinis on Friday nights and they pack a punch. Its “sister” bar and cafe, Gekko, is also beautifully designed and opened in March 2014. Water Library and Cask 81 caters for high flyers – The Water Library reportedly has the widest selection of spirits and liquors in the country (see photo above for proof!). Other great places include Sapphire Lounge, Mojo Bar (which has a terrific dance floor and is always packed on weekends), Flamingo Bar, Gossip Bar and Escape Bar. There are a lot of places sporting great views of the Shwedagon – examples include the bar on top of Alfa Hotel and that at Hotel Esperado. I did a bar crawl recently for My Magical Myanmar in search of Yangon’s hottest nightspots, which you can read here.

The Water Library
The Water Library

Though it’s more of a beer station [pub] than a bar, Kaung Myat is fantastic. It’s next door to the well known Ko San bar, which is a cheap, cheerful and increasingly popular hangout for locals and expats alike. There’s a Ko San at Hledan junction but I prefer the Chinatown venue, which is on the upper block of 19th Street (also known as ‘Beer Street’). At Ko San, you can sit out the front and soak up the atmosphere, or soak up your beers inside with aircon.

Top three shopping spots: Bogyoke Aung San Market is geared towards tourists and has a fantastic range of jewellery, lacquer ware, paintings, clothes and antiques – it’s reasonably pricey though. Junction Square shopping mall has a huge range of fashion and it’s possible to buy Lacoste and other top range brands for almost half the price of Singapore or Australia. I like a clothing store downstairs called Rag and Denim, and it also has Etude House – lovely cosmetics and beauty care from South Korea. Citymart Marketplace on Dhamazedi Road is Yangon’s best supermarket – almost any craving can be satisfied here and it has specific portions of aisles for foods from Australia, Italy, Japan, Korea, and so forth. That said, stocks tend to change from week to week so buy in bulk!

Facebook Fashion?!
Facebook Fashion?!

Top three places to catch a live band: Since MTV organised a concert at Peoples’ Square in January, a number of international bands are beginning to tour in Yangon. The outdoor venue has a backdrop of a 2000-year-old, 60 tonne gold pagoda, which is magical.  50th Street Bar and Cafe has regular gigs and it’s a beautiful building with a spiral staircase cutting through the middle. Allaince Francaise is probably the only other venue available for live music. Yangon also has a vibrant hip-hop and metal scene. Concerts by Myanmar artists are usually advertised on billboards. Open mic sessions are held at Nawaday Gallery. Myanmore and Yangonlife provide comprehensive nightlife guides on their websites.

Gekko Bar and Cafe
Gekko Bar and Cafe

Best day trip from the city: Dala village – take a ferry from opposite the Strand Hotel and 15 minutes later you’ll find yourself in another world. Hire a  trishaw or motorbike to get around. Visit in the afternoon and you’ll see women carrying huge containers of water on their heads after pumping water from the wells. Ask your driver/trishaw to stop off at a palm toddy drinking station. Toddy is a local brew across Southeast Asia and India that has quite a kick. NGOs neglect this area for a variety of reasons, so please make a donation if you can. Hope School and Orphanage is one of many worthwhile causes here and it’s well known to trishaw/motorcycle drivers.

Acacia Tea Salon is pricey but oh so pretty...
Acacia Tea Salon is pricey but oh so pretty…

Where can I get a great steak? Onyx Restaurant (opposite Savoy Hotel on the corner of Inya Road and Dhamazedi Road) is fantastic. The wines are wonderful and the prices impressively low.

Best place for outdoor exercise: The pavements in Yangon aren’t at all reliable for jogging – you could end up a foot deep in sewerage! So I recommend Kokhine Swimming Pool – a complex with two 25-metre pools, plus a great restaurant and bar (to pack a few calories back on!). There’s a 50 metre swimming pool on U Wisara Road (the National Swim Centre) but you need to sign up for a monthly membership (which is about K25,000 and you need to bring your passport).

Enjoy family fun at Happy World Amusement Park in Yangon
Enjoy family fun at Happy World Amusement Park in Yangon

Best local nature spot or park: Kandawgi Lake is 110 acres and it’s great during the night or day. There is a boardwalk around the lake, which has a stunning royal barge (also a restaurant) and there is also a public swimming pool. Quite popular with joggers and people having a picnic – there’s also a large selection of lake-front restaurants. Inya Lake is also beautiful.

If you need a giraffe with a scarf, head straight to Pomelo! It's my favourite handicrafts store in Yangon - and it's all fair trade.
If you need a giraffe with a scarf, head straight to Pomelo! It’s my favourite handicrafts store in Yangon – and it’s all fair trade.

Best coffee: Hard question… Sharky’s probably has Yangon’s finest coffee (and delectable home-made ice-cream, bread and all things deli-related), though there are now multitudes of places serving great coffee. As you’ll see in the comments below, a reader called Ian suggests that the swanky Boon Dutch Deli and Espresso Bar, which is next to Bogyoke Aung San Market, trumps anywhere else in Yangon. Yangon Bakehouse in Pearl Condo is another excellent choice – and it’s a feel-good one too, because the social business trains women from disadvantaged backgrounds. Coffee is also widely available at streetside eateries, though it’s sometimes made with two-in-one sachets. Try asking for “coffee kaka” which is stronger and less sweet.

Photo supplied by Yangon Yoga House
Photo supplied by Yangon Yoga House

Best yoga: Yangon Yoga House has an excellent yoga studio and a wide variety of classes taught by yoga master Jojo and other instructors, as well as pilates and barre. The class schedule is posted on the website – you can book online or try your luck and just drop by (which I don’t recommend for the Sunday class I attend as it’s really popular). You can pay upfront or get a discount with a 10 class pass.

DSC03443
Yangon has an abundance of colonial architecture

Is Yangon a safe city? Yes – it may be one of Asia’s safest cities. Incidents of crime are very low, particularly against foreigners. I’ve had friends visit from Cambodia and Vietnam and they were shocked to learn that you don’t have to keep a close eye on your bag while drinking at a beer station or whatever. Traffic is possibly the biggest danger – but it’s far less nerve-wracking or congested than in places such as Jakarta, Delhi, Dhaka or Mumbai.

My husband and I with traditional Burmese dance performers at Karaweik Palace
My husband and I with traditional Burmese dance performers at Karaweik Palace

Best date restaurant (or spot for intimate dining with a partner): L’Opera serves wonderful Italian food and the wine glasses are generously filled. The candlelit interior overlooking the garden dining area is particularly romantic and the service is really good. The French restaurant L’alchemiste, which faces Inya Lake, is also very beautiful.

Where can I buy furniture for my home? MK Furniture at Excel Treasure Tower has nice some really nicely designed pieces from Thailand – it’s located under the Shwegondine flyover (however it will relocate in October 2015 – to where, I am not sure I’m sorry). Modern House Furniture on Yaw Min Kyee Street has fantastic couches that can be custom made (delivery is 10 days after ordering) and are great value. If you have deep pockets, head straight to Marchetti close by, on Kabar Aye Pagoda Road. Cooking appliances, plastic ware and furniture at lower prices can be found at Gandamar Wholesale, which is on the corner of Waizayandar Road and Gandamar Road in Mayangone Township. On the ground floor is a supermarket – there’s not a massive range of imported foods but it’s perhaps a little cheaper than Citymart and the alcohol range is excellent (ie a case of 24 Dagon beer cans costs around $12). You can also try posting on YEC or checking the forum regularly, although things are sold pretty quickly due to the high number of members it has (around 2,000). Ocean super stores are also good and popping up in different parts around town.

Most beautiful view in Yangon: It has to be the gold and glittering Shwedagon Pagoda – it’s Yangon’s most iconic structure hands-down, and fortunately it’s so enormous that it can be seen from most parts of the city. The restaurant on the 17th floor of Sakura Hotel has a 360 degree view – it’s a good place to get yourself orientated, though the food isn’t much chop (there’s a rule: no food = no camera). Vista Bar (next to Yves Rocher at Shwegondaing intersection) has a fabulous view and it’s a beautiful bar. Same goes for Sapphire Bar.

Myanmar fare
Myanmar fare

Best cheap eat: Lucky 7 is a chain of street eats that are reliably delicious and pretty hygienic. Lucky 7 serves everything from Shan noodles and avocado juice to Myanmar’s national dish, the noodle fish broth known as mohinga. It’s a little tricky finding Lucky 7 though, because the red, white and blue logo is in Myanmar.

A favourite or “secret” spot: If you turn left instead of right at Inya Lake from Kabar Aye Pagoda Rd, there’s a sweet little coffee shop (with plastic, child-sized chairs, which is actually pretty common in Yangon) overlooking the river and a view of Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s house. It’s definitely a date spot for locals, who can be seen here and there cuddling under the privacy of an umbrella…

Best place to change currency: Yangon International Airport is a convenient option on arrival, now that black market rates are the same as the official exchange rate (the latter of which used to be a fraction of the black market rate). However there are so many places to change money these days, as well as ATMs for VISA and Mastercard holders, that you won’t find it a hassle. Downtown options to exchange money include Bogyoke Market and Summit Parkview Hotel. Make sure you bring pristine US currency though – anything older than 2006 will be knocked back, or if a note has the tiniest of marks on it.

Pansodan Scene is a beautiful gallery and it also hosts public lectures on Sundays, as well as Burmese classes, as pictured. Its located on the upper floor of 144 Pansodan Street.
Pansodan Scene is a beautiful gallery and it also hosts public lectures on Sundays, as well as Burmese classes, as pictured. Its located on the upper floor of 144 Pansodan Street.

Where to go if you want to party: GTR Club on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road (turn right as soon you approach Inya Lake Hotel) gets going from 10pm and is packed by midnight. There are two poles on small stages – usually occupied by a group of friends rather than hired dancers or anything saucy like that. DJ club is opposite, but gets a smaller crowd. Dress to impress at both. MBox is also fun – it’s opposite People’s Park (has karaoke too) on Ahlone Road at the Yangon International Hotel compound. And there’s a newish club downstairs called Rehab that’s even better… It hosts a monthly LGBT night – FAB – which is a lot of fun. The Lab at Shwegondine has a great atmosphere for drinks, as does the ‘speakeasy’ called Blind Tiger in Yaw Min Kyee. Sadly, the local authorities introduced an 11pm curfew in Yangon in mid-2015, so things have been decidedly quieter ever since. The nightclubs I mentioned still go all night (I hear!).

Where to go if you prefer a quiet night out: The Curry Table at the Governor’s Residence is a buffet style meal in the grand, open-air teak building, overlooking the pool. It’s less than US$50 a person and includes unlimited beer and green tea. Gorgeous art, divine food and deeply atmospheric. I also love Coriander Leaf, an Indian restaurant very close to MBox (see above) and Alamanda Inn in Bahan Township.

Best cinema: Nay Pyi Taw Cinema shows US releases and has a 3D cinema. It also hosts international film festivals fairly regularly. There are also cinemas at major shopping centres, such Junction Square. Mingalar cinemas owns most cinemas and you can check timings on its Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mingalarcinemas?ref=ts&fref=ts If you’d like to see a Myanmar movie, go to Thamada cinema downtown, on Alan Pya Pagoda St. It’s best to buy a ticket at least an hour in advance or you’ll find yourself in the lower circle. There’s no English subtitles but it’s great fun all the same.

Sunday brunch at Inya Lake Hotel is nothing short of fabulous
Sunday brunch at Inya Lake Hotel is nothing short of fabulous

Best theatre: The only theatre I know of is the National Theatre, which is on Myoma Kyaung Street in Dagon Township. There are also cultural shows with traditional Burmese dancing held each night at 6.30pm at Karaweik  Hall (the royal barge on Kandawgyi Lake). A friend said the shows were excellent. Dinner is served in the hall also.

Where to get pampered? There’s an abundance of hair, nail and beauty salons throughout Yangon and services are extraordinarily good value. Tony Tun Tun has a great reputation for hair and Fancy House (which has a few outlets, including at Citymart Marketplace and a very large one in Parami) – is wonderful and also offers massages and waxing. Men are welcome also. However I enjoy going to the family-run beauty parlour around the corner from my place – a one hour massage costs just $5 and together with a hair wash and blow wave, plus toe and fingernails painted, it costs me just $12 all up!

Best place to see live sport (and what sport): Myanmar people are crazy about football and although they’re less crazy about their own league than the English Premier one, watching a match during the Myanmar National League at Thuwana stadium is the best way to go.

Enjoy a lavish cultural show at Karaweik Palace
Enjoy a lavish cultural show at Karaweik Palace

Most unique tourist experience: The Yangon Circle Line is a really old train that does a 50 kilometre loop around Yangon – at parts the scenery is very rural and it takes about three hours to do the full loop. The train leaves from Yangon Central Station and costs a dollar, but it’s possible to jump off at any station and see where you end up (there’s an interesting pagoda close to Insein station, for example, which is at the halfway point of the loop). As well as watching vendors sell anything from bird feeders to cosmetics inside the carriages, it offers a glimpse of life in Yangon – particularly of those less fortunate and who eek out an existence by the side of the railway lines. Water buffalos can be seen swimming in muddy ponds during the wet season and there’s a massive ‘car cemetery’ where cars from the government’s car substitution program are stacked about 20 metres high, for about a mile.

Taking a trishaw for a short trip is another great local experience - expect to pay around K300 for five minutes or so. And they aren't powered by babies ;)
Taking a trishaw for a short trip is another great local experience – expect to pay around K300 for five minutes or so. And they aren’t powered by babies 😉

Best local dish: I love Myanmar’s salads – they’re like no other salad I know. Lahpethoke (pronounced lapeto) is a pickled tea leaf salad and it is considered a delicacy. Other ingredients included tiny dried shrimps, onion and sesame seeds. It’s served at most street cafes as well as restaurants. Try to scoop the meat or veg in your curry onto the plate of rice to avoid gaining weight from eating a tonne of oil (a mistake I made!).

Best restaurant to try local produce: Monsoon Restaurant offers authentic Myanmar, dishes in a very comfortable and elegant setting, and a three course meal with a few glasses of Myanmar wine is likely to cost less about $20. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair dined there during a quick trip to Yangon in November 2013, if that’s anything to go by! Its menu also includes Cambodian, Laotian, Vietnamese and Western fare. There’s also a chic yet cheap gallery upstairs that exhibits works by disadvantaged groups. It’s called Pomelo – I highly recommend getting souvenirs there. Green Elephant is another option, although it’s geared towards tourists and the curries lack enough spice and are quite oily despite recommending itself as a healthier Myanmar food option. Padonmar Restaurant has a very pretty garden for outdoor dining, as well having private rooms that are great for functions or special occasions. Click here to read my review of Padonmar.

Alamanda Inn in Golden Valley is a lovely French restaurant and boutique hotel
Alamanda Inn in Golden Valley is a lovely French restaurant and boutique hotel

Best way to get around: An air-conditioned taxi (it’s the only way really, as the buses are hugely overcrowded and difficult to navigate if you don’t speak Myanmar). The chances of finding a taxi with AC are increasing, although metred taxis don’t exist. Expect to pay 1500 kyats for a short trip and about K5000 per hour and bargaining increments go up (or down) by K500.

Best place to stay: If you book early and can afford the rooms that start at $400, the Governor’s Residence is a cut above the rest. It’s surrounded by lush gardens and the pool is spectacular. Word has it that it’s the number one choice for visiting celebrities as well. For the budget backpacker seeking a backpacker scene, try Motherland Inn II. I’ve heard really good things about the bed and breakfast at Bike World Yangon, which is located outside the downtown area. For longer visits (or even one night), try Yangon Home Stay – $40 a night and you have a home set-up with all the facilities that entails. Alamanda Inn (also a restaurant, mentioned above) gets rave reviews too.

Downtown Yangon
Downtown Yangon

Best local festival: The water festival, better known as Thingyan, celebrates the Myanmar New Year and provides a welcome respite from the April heat. Water-throwing stages are set up in all the major cities and towns. It’s virtually impossible to stay dry as only the monks are spared from the high-pressure hoses and super soakers… I also love Thadingyut, “the lights festival,” which takes place at the end of October.

Where do most expats live? In Golden Valley, Bahan township. I used to live further out in Parami (past Inya Lake) and I think it’s beautiful there too. I’m now in Tamwe and I like being close to the downtown area (about 20 minutes) but with less intense noise and traffic congestion. Shangri-La serviced apartments have a good rep and more and more families are moving in there. I know people who pay as little as $150 a month for a flatshare in the downtown area, though I think $400 is about the norm. The best way of finding a rental property is through Yangon Expat Connection. The worst thing about renting in Yangon is that rent must be paid up front – usually a minimum of six months or a year. Paying a year ahead is advisable, because landlords frequently hike up the price after the six month lease has come to an end. If it’s any consolation, I’ve heard that in Jakarta, landlords demand two years rent in advance… If you go through an agent here (advisable), you will also need to pay a month’s rate to them.

Where to buy pets: There’s a pet shop on the ground floor of Yuzana Plaza, but conditions are fairly dire and depressing. I wrote an article about the pet import/export process, which you can read here. Better still, adopt a pup from Yangon Animal Shelter. They’re always on the look-out for people willing to foster a pup, even temporarily. I wrote an article about the shelter, which you can read here (my post also contains a list of vets in Yangon). For pet supplies such as cat litter and toys – even scratching posts – try Hello pet shop at Excel Treasure Tower, under Shwegondine overpass. You can also leave a donation for the Yangon Animal Shelter while there.

Yangon's Drug Eradication Museum is one of the city's quirkier attractions - and is possibly the creepiest!
Yangon’s Drug Eradication Museum is one of the city’s quirkier attractions – and is possibly the creepiest!

Best brunch: Inya Lake Hotel, without a doubt. The buffet range for every course is out of this world and the setting is really beautiful, particularly from the outside area, which overlooks a beautiful lake. It’s great value at $25 per person because it also includes unlimited sparkling wine and beer. From 11am to 2pm every Sunday. Other alternatives include Kandawgyi Palace and Sedona Hotel. September 2015 update – My new favourite place for brunch is Square Restaurant at Novotel Hotel. It’s an all you can drink and eat extravaganza for $30. The spread is eye-boggling.

Where to take the kids: Either the Yangon Zoo or Happy World, an indoor amusement park. Keep an eye on your kids at the zoo because it’s pretty “interactive”! DON’T take your kids to the Crocodile Farm in Thaketa – it’s not even safe for adults!!

Best place to relax: Lunch at the Strand Hotel. It’s the epitome of old world charm and a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle downtown. Needless to say the food is faultless too.

The Yangon Circle Line train
The Yangon Circle Line train

Must-have souvenir: A set of Burmese currency from the old days, featuring a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San. Available at Bogyoke Aung San Market. November 2013 update – Aung San will soon appear on Myanmar bank notes – so get the vintage ones while you can! Traditional parasols are very beautiful (and lightweight) – as is Burma’s famous lacquerware products.

Tricks at Thaketa crocodile farm
Tricks at Thaketa crocodile farm

Where can I buy second-hand furniture? Beats me. Sure, there are regular “for sale” postings on YEC, but they tend to be sold in a flash for pretty high prices. Iit’s beyond me why there aren’t yet any second hand furniture stores in Yangon.

Best local art gallery or artist: The River Gallery at the Strand has Andy Warhol-esque monk paintings, plus a great variety of antique styled souvenirs. In October 2013 it opened a second gallery, River II, just up the road from The Strand itself. Its range also includes modern art sculptures for the French artist Robert Patrick, who has lived in Myanmar for about 25 years. As Gill the owner once told me, Myanmar is possibly the last place in Southeast Asia where it’s possible to buy art made by the best for less than US$10,000 (!). Nathalie Johnston’s blog, Myanmar Art Evolution, is a wonderful resource for getting the lowdown on all things Myanmar art.

Best local designer or boutique/menswear shop: There’s a men’s tailor at Bogyoke Market called Mantops that’s a hit with my male colleagues. The fabric and stitching is a real bargain for the price apparently. I myself have never had tailoring done in Yangon due to language difficulties and a friend who has lived here for nine years says it’s not worth the hassle of returning for re-fittings time and time again.

Look like a local and slap on the thanaka!
Look like a local and slap on the thanaka!

Thing to do that will make you look like a local: Ladies can wear thanaka, which is a sandalwood paste that acts as a sunscreen and controls oil – most local women won’t leave home without it. Men can wear a lunghi, a one-piece wrap-around cloth. But there’s no buttons, zippers or ties so be sure to practice at home first! If you’re feeling adventurous, get yourself some betel to chew on. It’s a mild narcotic that you chew, not swallow. The “blood stains” you’ll see almost everywhere are courtesy of betel spitters.

Where to send your kids to school: International School Yangon has a strong reputation and I was very impressed by its (resort-like) grounds. Horizon is also great. There is still a shortage of international schools, despite the addition of some new ones, such as the British International School.

Where to buy a newspaper: It’s still not easy finding an English language newspaper on the streets of Yangon. Sometimes you’ll find what you’re looking for at Citymart or Family Mart supermarkets, or in cafes. The only daily English language papers are The Global New Light of Myanmar and The Myanmar Times. English language weekly newspapers/magazines include Myanmar Business Today, Mizzima and Irrawaddy. Most hotels and cafes have a good stock.

Where to see a doctor: SOS Clinic at Inya Lake Hotel is meant to be good – but a consultation costs $88. When I fainted and fell on my head and needed stitches, I went to Yangon General Hospital. They did a good job – I had them removed at Bahosi Hospital on Lanmadaw Street and have but the faintest scar. If you need a pap smear, I believe Victoria Hospital in 9 Mile is the only place that can do that.  The Australian embassy also has a medical clinic.

Can I buy tampons, the pill and condoms in Yangon? Yes to all three. Tampons arrived on supermarket shelves in 2015 – they can be found (in small quantities) at CityMart Zawana Junction. Condoms and contraceptive pills are widely available at convenience stores and are mostly limited to the Marvelon brand.

Where can I meet local and foreign journalists? The Myanmar Foreign Correspondents’ Club has meet-ups on the first Tuesday of every month on Chinatown’s 19th Street (also known as “Beer Street”). Join our Facebook group for more details. It’s also a good forum for posting journo-related questions. I hope this helps, but things change so quickly in Yangon that this post will always be a work in progress. Please leave a comment if you find something different or better than the above…