Most trips to Myanmar start and end in Yangon, the country’s largest city. Especially if you’re crunched for time, it makes the most sense to make Yangon (formerly Rangoon) your home base and go on short excursions to some of the surrounding must-see sites.
With impressive hotspots like Shwedagon Pagoda and Bogyoke Aung San Market, you may not even feel the need to leave Yangon, but here are a few of the best day trips you can take if you’re up for an excursion.
Yangon Circular Train
If you’d like to see how Burmese locals live, hop aboard Yangon’s rickety Circle Line train. This commuter rail transports almost 100,000 people daily, connecting rural suburbs and townships to the city center. The 28-mile loop takes about three hours to complete and offers a unique look into everyday life in and around Myanmar’s economic hub and former capital city.
Expect to see vendors hauling goods, men toting betel nut to chew, and longyi-clad women bringing their market goods home. Unfortunately my camera died almost immediately, so the memories only live in my mind. This post from The New York Times will give you a real feel for the experience.
For another quick trip out of the city, I highly recommend taking the Yangon River Ferry to Dala. Despite its location just across the river from downtown Yangon, Dala remains largely rural and underdeveloped due to a lack of infrastructure. Getting ravaged by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 didn’t help matters either. The natural disaster claimed 138,000 casualties and destroyed the area, which has yet to be built back.
This makes your visit even more important, as your kyats go to support the locals if you book with them directly. Just be cautious of scams. We experienced one of the most common tricks firsthand when our guides told us that the price we agreed upon at the beginning of the trip was actually the cost per half hour. Luckily we’d been warned in advance that this might happen, and firmly refused to pay the exorbitant final price. We each coughed up a little bit extra and graciously thanked our guides as we firmly walked away towards the ferry. My advice? Be firm in your negotiations with the trishaw-driving tour guides, clarify the FINAL price, and pay up front to avoid getting ripped off.
But I promise the trip is worth the time spent haggling. The ferry ride over itself is a major highlight. Like the Circle Line train, it’s packed with hawkers transporting goods and locals outfitted in traditional longyi and thanaka. I was so wrapped up in people-watching, I hardly even noticed when we reached the other side of the river just five minutes later.
Getting off the boat is an overwhelming experience, as the locals swarm in and compete with one another to act as your guide. Don’t just go with the first person you see; you’re less likely to encounter a scammer the further you are from the jetty. A two-hour tour around town should be about 3,000 kyat per person.
The first stop on the tour is the local Shwe Sayan Pagoda. Not too impressive compared to Myanmar’s other temples, but a nice stop nonetheless. I really enjoyed learning more about the Burmese zodiac and paying homage to my animal sign ~ the guinea pig.
Your sign is determined by the day of the week you were born. Born on Friday, my fellow guinea pigs and I are known as artistic, imaginative, and innovative. But we can be largely indecisive as we always want something new (ain’t that the truth!). On the upside, we make great friends due to our sympathetic, kind, and loving nature.
From there, we took a long-tail boat ride through a fishing village of stilted shanties, and witnessed the effects of the cyclone firsthand. The damage seemed to get increasingly worse when we got back on land. The military regime rejected international assistance after the storm and caused even more people to die in its aftermath. I pray that Myanmar’s lovely people will receive better treatment under the new government.
Hands down my favorite day trip, you must factor in a visit to Kyaikityo Pagoda ~ otherwise known as Golden Rock. According to local legend, Golden Rock is held in place by a strand of the Buddha’s hair, looking as though it could topple off the side of the cliff at any moment.
Golden Rock is a revered Buddhist pilgrimage site, located at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo. The drive to the top is an exhilarating thrill ride that will have you praying for your life at every turn. A hilarious sign at the bottom of the mountain says the fare up to Kyaiktiyo is 3,000 kyats, including life insurance.
We visited Myanmar during the rainy season, which made the ride even more terrifying. Mist and fog enveloped us on all sides, making it impossible to see anything in front of us. We all let out a collective sigh of relief when the truck dropped us off to make the final walk up to the rock. Or if you don’t feel like walking, you can always get carried up like the badass pictured below.
There’s a mysterious air to Myanmar due to its years of isolation that’s amplified by its mystical history as a deeply spiritual Buddhist country. Add in a layer of fog and haze, and you’ve got the makings of pure magic.
I couldn’t tell if my hair was standing on the back of my neck because of the cold air, the army presence at the top of the mountain, or the mystical forces surrounding this sacred place.
We booked our tour through the Pickled Tea Hostel, which included a stop in Bago on the way home. Many people make an entire day trip out of visiting Bago to experience everything the old ancient capital of Burma has to offer. We had just enough time to check out the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha in all of its glory.
Just heads up, a lot of places in Myanmar make you pay a camera fee to take photos. It’s typically only about 300 kyats (22 cents!), so it’s money well spent.
Tell me, are there any great day trips that I missed? Please let me know in the comments below!
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