yangonYangon is the gateway through which most foreign tourists enter Myanmar, and it’s well worth setting aside several days or even a week to explore this fascinating city and the surrounding region.

With a population of nearly 60 million people, Yangon is the biggest urban area in the country, a dynamic and unique metropolis that straddles the modern and traditional worlds. Gleaming new shopping centres offer brand-name products from throughout the world, while just around the corner small markets buzz with shoppers buying locally produced goods. While many teenagers have taken to sporting hip-hop fashions in recent years, it is still common to see men young and old shunning Western-style trousers in favour of traditional sarongs called longyis.

Among Yangon’s biggest attractions are its numerous Buddhist shrines, the most famous and spectacular of which is Shwedagon Pagoda. This 98-metre-high golden spire, located at the top of Singuttara Hill, can be seen from anywhere in the city, towering above the hectic urban landscape like a glowing beacon of peace and serenity. The pagoda platform holds a dazzling array of shrines where devotees gather to meditate, make offerings, meet friends and share food. It is a vibrant, life-affirming atmosphere where visitors can experience firsthand the essence of Buddhist culture in Myanmar.

Other important Buddhist shrines include the riverside Botahtaung Pagoda and the amazing reclining Buddha image at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda. Hundreds of years ago, ancient Sule Pagoda was situated in the middle of wild swampland but now anchors downtown Yangon with its highly visible location in the middle of a busy traffic circle.

The downtown area is also home to many impressive examples of architecture dating back to the British colonial era, including City Hall, Strand Hotel and the sprawling Secretariat building, where General Aung San, Myanmar’s hero of independence and father to Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated on July 19, 1947. A walk around downtown will also reveal Yangon’s cultural diversity, and visitors will find not only Buddhist pagodas but also Christian churches, Islamic mosques, Hindu temples, Chinese temples and even a Jewish synagogue during their explorations. Yangon also has its own Chinatown, while other areas show a heavy Indian influence. This cultural diversity is reflected in the wide range of cuisine available in the city, from traditional Burmese curries; to ethnic foods from Myanmar’s border areas such as Shan and Kachin States; to Asian favourites from China, India and Thailand; to gourmet fare from as far away as France and Italy.

There are many options for short side excursions from Yangon, including day trips to quiet villages across the river. Thanlyin is the site of Kyaikkyauk Pagoda, which offers great views of the surrounding countryside, while in nearby Kyauktan village, Buddhist pilgrims take boats out to the mid-river Yele Pagoda to feed the catfish. The small town of Twante is famous for its traditional pottery and cotton-weaving industrie, . About 80 kilometres north of Yangon, the town of Bago has enough pagodas, monasteries and ancient historical sites to warrant an overnight stay. For visitors wanting to penetrate deep into the Ayeyarwaddy Delta, Pathein nearly 200 kilometres to the west of of the city, is a worthy destination. It’s the best place in Myanmar to see traditional parasols being made, and it’s also conveniently located along the way to two of the country’s most popular coastal destinations, Chaungtha and Ngwe Saung beaches.