A Backpacker's First Day in Yangon


Yangon is a crazy city, with monks and motorbikes sharing dusty alleys that are either framed by buildings that look like they were razed by the Japanese yesterday... or bright gold stupas.

Traffic, palms, Lina, cars, buses and Monks

For a girl who's lived in a lot of cities, Yangon was like nothing I'd ever experienced. What stuck out for me more than anything was that you couldn't just show up and find your way around. Places to stay and eat are more or less undiscoverable and it is only with a guidebook and a lot of luck that we were able to find a place to stay and eat.

$27 view from our room the second night from the pagoda view room in the White House Hotel. It's either gold or rundown. Shwedagon Paya in the background.

The real standout of Yangon for us was 2500-year-old Shwedagon Paya. This collection of 82 shrines, temples, and stupas covers several city blocks and was beyond anything we imagined. The entire complex is supposedly built on a hill in which eight hairs of the Buddha are buried. Buildings have to be retouched every two years with gold leaf, which makes the original stupa, built in the 15th century by Queen Shinsawbu and gilded with her own weight in gold, seem an easy feat in comparison. The main stupa, or zedi, is now about 100m tall and has accumulated more than 53 metric tons of gold leaf.


From monks that meditate for hours, to entire extended families having their dinner picnic inside a temple, Shwedagon dazzled with its over the top gold leaf, mirror mosaics, and LED lights above Buddha's head.

hand made glass mosaic columns creates ever changing art

We spent several hours moving from temple to temple (barefoot, of course) and taking in the viewpoints that each wooden floor brought. Rob was able to capture amazing scenes, but our camera missed:

  • monks walking on the different rungs of the main stupa as the sun set behind them
  • chanting of all kinds intermingling between the temples
  • worshippers lovingly washing the many Buddha statues as a sign of respect

All in all, Yangon seems like a city of contradictions, with so much money going to temple upkeep and so little going to repairing the buildings destroyed in WWII and the more recent cyclone in 2008. What infrastructure changes are happening seem to be occurring on the personal level. On a 100 degree Sunday, we saw groups of men--starting at age 10 and ending at around 70--digging trenches in flip flops for what we can only assume will be a pipe for running water. The people, if not the government, seem dedicated to fixing their city. We hope they're able to do it without losing sight of their past.

on Sunday

More Yangon

Interested in seeing Yangon and Shwedagon Paya without paying for a plane ticket? Check out our Yangon photo tour. Want more details or planning a trip on a budget to Yangon? Check out our Yangon travel tips.

You can also share your top backpacking tips for Yangon by leaving a comment!