Since 2012 however, the gap between the country and its more developed neighbours has begun to shrink at rapid pace. Visitors flying into Yangon now arrive at a brand new efficient airport before being whisked away in modern taxis to a growing choice of five star hotels and resorts.
Where flights were once few and far between, it’s now easy to fly from Singapore, with popular low cost carriers like Tiger/Scoot now operating regular flights to the former capital. Visas are much easier to attain as well, with on line applications processed quickly and with minimum fuss, a huge difference to the previous experience of waiting in line for hours at the consulate. With the visa policy expected to relax further in early 2017 for Singaporeans, this makes the city an ideal destination for a long weekend visit.
If you’re looking to get an early start, catching the 7:20am Tiger flight from Singapore on a Friday morning will allow you plenty of time to explore the city’s top attractions over the weekend – with Myanmar time 90 minutes behind Singapore time, you arrive with the whole day ahead of you. Yangon is a city that’s transforming itself in real time so now is the perfect time to visit for a taste of the old and the new.
Early morning in Asia is market time and a good place to start your tour of Yangon is Bogyoke Aung San Market in the city centre. This old colonial structure, formerly known as Scott Market, was built by the British in 1926. Housed in a large sprawling building, it’s the ideal place to shop for souvenirs like fabrics, jade, pearls and lacquerware. As is the case across the continent, bargaining is a must, so brush up your negotiating skills before you arrive – as long as all concerned are happy with the price finally reached, everyone is a winner. For a more local affair, head to the less touristy Theingyi Zei Market nearby, the largest traditional market in Yangon, where locals flock to its five floors for the wide choice of fresh vegetables, fish, meat, supplies and traditional medicine.
After surviving the busy aisles of Yangon market life, complete the experience by trying out some of the local cuisine. It’s at the market where you’ll find the authentic tastes of the national cuisine, with nothing watered down for less experienced palates, so tread carefully with the chillis. Alternatively, see another side of the city and escape to the tranquility of French restaurant, Le Planteur, for a well-deserved rest and lunch. Located next to a small lake, this beautiful colonial structure has been lovingly converted into an all-day excellent dining destination. Here Chef Gil Dumoulin and his team offer excellent cuisine throughout the day in a stylish space that encompasses a casual bistro, fine dining, high tea and a well-stocked wine bar. Chef Gil learned his trade at some of the best restaurants in Paris before embarking on a career that has taken him across the world, with time spent in Morocco, the Caribbean, Indonesia, Algeria and Egypt. At Le Planteur he offers a fine dining menu of classical French cuisine with some Asian touches as well as a more casual international bistro menu. Whether inside its refined dining areas or al fresco on the terrace overlooking the water, Le Planteur is a must-visit for all foodies while in Yangon.
After a long lunch, walk off the calories at the city’s greatest landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This enormous golden stupa still dominates the Yangon skyline and is a must-visit site when in the city. Built over 2,500 years ago, according to legend, this enormous monument houses important Buddhist relics and stands over 100 metres tall. The pagoda itself is surrounded by a network of smaller temples, stupas and shrines, so there is plenty of interest for visitors. Late afternoon is the best time to visit, as the sun slowly sets over the city, revealing Shwedagon’s true beauty in the softening light.
Another recommended French restaurant is the Le Cellier, located on the 14th floor of the city’s five-star Novotel Max Hotel. With sweeping views across the city to the Shwedagon Pagoda and beyond, Le Cellier offers both a fine dining menu and a more casual selection of tapas and light meals. As its name suggests, it also offers an impressive wine cellar, stocked with over 400 bottles of premium vintages. With such an amazing view, we’d recommend going to Le Cellier in the evening for the complete experience. Enjoy canapés and a bottle of champagne on the terrace as the sun sets over Shwedagon Pagoda before taking your table inside to sample Chef Brice Caro’s creative take on classical French cuisine.
One of the city’s newest five star properties, The Novotel Yangon Max takes this popular brand to a new level, offering levels of luxury, amenities and comfort more often associated with the hotel group’s top tier Sofitel brand. Situated in downtown Yangon, not far from the airport, the hotel is an excellent choice while visiting the city. With facilities that include a fully-equipped fitness centre, a spa, a tennis court and an expansive pool terrace with bar, there is plenty for leisure travellers to enjoy. Business travellers will also appreciate the hotel’s generous meeting and conference facilities – the hotel’s ballroom is so impressive, it has quickly become the wedding venue of choice for Yangon’s social elite. Backed up by a wide selection of bars and restaurants and beautifully designed guestrooms and suites, it’s easy to see how the hotel has become such a firm favourite for both local and international travellers.
For those looking to extend their visit to Myanmar by a couple of days and get out of the city, we’d recommend experiencing the natural beauty of destinations like Bagan and Inle Lake. Where the former is well known for its landscape of ancient pagados and crumbling stupas, the latter was until recently less on the tourist trail. However it is fast becoming the country’s top destination so again, now is the ideal time to visit.
Inle Lake has been home and lifeblood to the region’s Intha people for centuries. They have survived by fishing its plentiful waters, growing fruit and vegetables in an extensive network of floating gardens and weaving the lake’s lotus flowers into beautiful textiles and silks. Located a short flight from Yangon to the north east of the city, Inle Lake and its surrounding countryside is a magical natural wonderland and provides the idea place for visitors to relax and unwind. Set high on the Shan Plateau, the lake is blessed with a crisp cooler climate than Yangon, especially during the winter months of November through to February and it can get quite chilly in the early mornings or evenings out on the water.
To get to Inle from the region’s Heho airport, it’s a 30-minute drive to the town of Nyaung Shwe, where travellers then board one of the fleet of long boats that provide access to the growing number of lakeside hotels available. These include both friendly local wooden guesthouses built on stilts over the water and more luxurious international hotels like Novotel Inle Lake Myat Min.
Like its counterpart in Yangon, this recently launched property offers high standards of accommodation, set in an area of outstanding natural beauty. Guestrooms are spacious, comfortable and feature all the mod cons you’d expect from a five star resort – think flat screen TVs, huge bath tubs, rain showers and a gloriously comfortable bed. With a spa, infinity pool terrace, fitness centre, two restaurants and a bar, this resort is geared towards those wanting to spend a little longer at the lake, something you’ll definitely want to do as soon as you arrive. To keep the active happy, there is a wide choice of excursions on offer and bicycles are provided so guests can explore the surrounding countryside at their leisure.
For an unexpected Asian experience, we’d recommend visiting the Red Mountain Estate winery, located a short bike ride from the Novotel. Here the estate’s vineyards, at an elevation of over 1,000 metres above sea level, produce a variety of wines including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Visits are encouraged and the winery offers two beautiful terraces on which to enjoy a bottle of wine or two with friends, with the lake providing a stunning backdrop.
Activities on the lake include visiting a series of ancient monasteries and temples, watching the region’s artists, silversmiths and weavers at work and enjoying some elevated local cuisine at restaurants like the classy Inle Heritage House. The highlight for many though will just be cruising the lake’s many scenic waterways, watching the local people going about their everyday life and enjoying the surrounding natural beauty, far from the distractions of the modern world.