For our second day here in Yangon, we wanted to explore the city center by foot by following a Downtown Yangon walking tour that Mimi had found on the Internet and then take the circle train around the city and its suburbs in the afternoon.
We started the day with our complimentary breakfast at Hotel Accord. The food quality was okay but the selection was relatively small. They only had a couple of fresh fruits and fruit juices for instance. There were only a handful of other guests having breakfast when we got there around 8:30am.
We took a taxi to get to downtown and start our walking tour. While Yangon is nowhere near the size of Bangkok, it is still quite big and other than the downtown area, it’s not pedestrian friendly at all. In fact, the downtown area itself is barely acceptable: if you’re not paying close attention, you could easily fall into the sewage drain as there were many holes on the sidewalk due to missing or damaged cement slabs covering the extensive sewage channels.
We were dropped off in front of Sule Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in the middle of a roundabout, its stupa was under renovation.
Facing it was a large mosque. Next we walked by the beautiful twice-rebuilt Yangon City Hall building, a very wide complex in excellent condition with a row of palm trees perfectly aligned in front of it. The contrast between the maintenance state of that official building and the overwhelming majority of other buildings in the city is very apparent. I am curious to know how they allocate their funds!
We then saw the former immigration office building, once one of the largest department stores in all of Asia and now seemingly abandoned. On the other side of Mahabandoola Road was the Immanuel Baptist Church. We stopped at the Maha Bandula Park for pictures. We later learned that tourists are supposed to pay an entrance fee to visit the park however nobody stopped us at any point. It must be one of those never enforced rules. This little city park was very nicely maintained with fountains, flowers and well-groomed trees.
We could tell that it was a popular place for locals to hang out during the weekend. We saw at least two dozen young couples each sitting below a tree. After we did one loop inside the park, we exited from the south side and kept going in the direction of the Yangon River.
We passed by many small streets and larger avenues in very bad condition with aging building facades and trash everywhere on the floor. The traffic was also very limited south of the park. The street pictured below is actually far from the worst road in that neighborhood. We were a little surprised to encounter this so close to the city hall.
We kept going more south and eventually reached Strand Road, a large east-west thoroughfare right next to the river. Traffic was very sparse even on this large road.
On the left was a luxury hotel from the colonial era named after the street it is on: the Strand Hotel. Mimi liked it and compared it to the Raffles Hotel which we visited in Singapore. I was not as impressed, though I’ll admit it was definitely standing out next to other run-down buildings in the area.
After quickly checking out the pier, we walked back all the way to the starting point of our tour and went west on Mahabandoola Road. The sidewalks there were filled with locals slowly making their way through the very dense stands of merchants selling anything from street food to Chinese knockoffs of the iPhone. The small perpendicular streets had mostly residential buildings with small stores on the ground floor. We also saw a couple of beautiful mosques there. Some of the larger buildings on the main road had their roofs covered with large satellite antennae.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we wanted to check out the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, the one and only remaining synagogue in all of Myanmar and a religious home for the Jewish community of less than 40 people. I had learned about its existence while reading about Yangon online and definitely wanted to see it.
Unfortunately it was closed every Sunday and today was a Sunday so we could not visit the inside. It’s located on No. 85 of the 26th Street, pictured below. I also got the back of the entrance gate with Mimi standing on the street.
We crossed Mahabandoola Road using an overpass. This is a view from there with the Sule Pagoda at the end.
We stopped by a Singaporean restaurant to quench our thirst and have lunch. The local beers were pretty good, the food was just okay, the restrooms were horrible. After lunch we wanted to take the Yangon Circular Railway so we walked in the direction of the Yangon Central Railway Station. On our way there, we passed by the Bogyoke Market, a large market specialized in gems and jewelry with some art galleries and antique shops as well. People there were very nice, not at all pushy for us to buy something.
We arrived to the train station around 2pm, in time to catch the 2:30pm circular train, also the last one for the day. Like most buildings in Yangon, the train station was aging.
This is another view from within the train station.
Inside, we were treated extremely well by all the members of the staff. They spoke good English and explained how to get to the right track and where to buy a ticket. The person who sold us the tickets even told us to sit not too far from him so he could come tell us when our train arrives. As tourists, we felt really pampered. It made me wonder whether signs like the one pictured below (of which there were many throughout the station) are really necessary. People of Myanmar have been consistently nice and welcoming with us so far which makes traveling here pleasant and help compensate for the generally poor infrastructure.
There were not too many people at first though more locals started arriving as it got closer to 2:30pm. This is inside of the train station waiting for our train to come.
We did not have to wait too long. The train came on time and the ticket booth agent confirmed it was the right one. Here’s our train getting to the station. Surprisingly to me, there were very few tourists waiting with us and even fewer that were already on the train when we boarded it.
Our long circular train ride started and lasted for the next three hours. Fortunately we were able to grab two seats next to each other from the moment we boarded. We stopped by dozens of much smaller stations along the way and took many videos. While some stations had more people than others, they mostly looked the same, with tons of garbage right on the ground as we got close to the station itself and a busy market in front of the train tracks (the main station didn’t have any of that).
Inside the train, people of all ages (including a few kids and many young teenagers) were walking from car to car to sell all kinds of snacks and beverages, as if it was a moving extension of the markets outside.
By far the most popular item with the locals was corn on the cob for 50 Kyats only (that’s just 4 cents!). We decided against buying our own after seeing the guy handle the corn and the bills with the same hand. The most impressive sight for us was an older woman holding two little stools with one hand and balancing a three foot diameter platter on the top of her head while walking in the shaky train. On the platter, she had all ingredients necessary to prepare a full meal including soups and sauces. Whenever someone would order from her, she would put both stools down, sit on one of them, lay the large platter on the other one and start preparing the meal right on the train!
Most areas the train went through seemed very poor, even by Yangon standards, with rows of shacks made exclusively of wood and corrugated metal. It’s not clear how many of these even had a direct access to water though many seemed to have electricity and even a satellite antenna.
Back at the main railway station at 5:30pm, and pretty happy to be back on our feet again.
While walking out of the station, we saw a toddler all by himself rolling on the dirty floor and crying at the top of a staircase. After witnessing a few local people walk by, stare at him and walk away, we decided to inform one of the train agents. Mimi explained the situation with a mix of simple English and charades. She made the rocking baby motion with her arms and pointed up to the stairs. The agent followed us to the corner where we had found the young boy. He kneeled down and shook the boy around gently, presumably asking him where his parents were. The boy didn’t respond and continued to cry. The agent stayed with the child and told us he would take care of him and call the police. We left the train station a bit unsure if he was just saying that to make us go or if he was actually going to take care of the toddler. Ten minutes after leaving, we circled back through another path from the back: we wanted to see for ourselves. We were happy to see that the little boy was no longer where we found him. We will never know if the toddler was abandoned there or even if the train agent really did call the police, but we at least felt like we tried our best to deal with the situation in a foreign country. Later that night we looked up Myanmar’s orphan situation online. Here is a link detailing the phenomenon of poor rural Burmese parents leaving their children in Yangon to be raised by institutions with better educational opportunities.
For dinner, Mimi brought us to LinkAge, a training restaurant to teach street kids to become chefs and waiters. The place was quite hard to find at night as it’s not at street level. The inside is very cute with lots of paintings on the walls.
We ordered Burmese food, including Lahpet, a Burmese tea leaf salad several times recommended by our friend Laurent (yes, the one from AmandeLolo!). The entrees were very good but both Mimi and I were very disappointed by the tea leaf salad. It was way too salty and even ignoring that it just didn’t taste that good. Not sure if we’ll give it a second chance… For dessert, we got a Burmese-style semolina cake with chocolate ice cream.
And of course there was the staff, our first reason to pick this place to begin with. The kids were super cute and very well mannered and had pretty good English. Our waiter was the second from the left. He did not know what Wi-Fi was and got made fun of by all the other kids for his ignorance.
The two of us with the kids.
That was the end of our second day in Yangon and we took a cab back to our hotel to get a well deserved night of rest.