When I was growing up in Rangoon, the population of the city was barely half a million. We were always proud to proclaim that Rangoon was a big city with a small town flavor. Now the population has grown to five million inhabitants, and unfortunately, the city has lost most of its old charm with daily traffic jams, and construction of new hotels, office buildings, etc. can be seen everywhere. However, many of the colonial-era buildings are still standing in the downtown area. Recently, there has been talk about demolishing these old buildings and constructing new luxury hotels in their place. I sincerely hope this will not happen as I feel that the younger generation should know about the country's heritage, i.e. as evidence of the past.

After the country regained independence from Great Britain in 1948, Rangoon was officially designated as the capital of the Union of Burma. However, in 2005 the government at that time moved the capital to Naypyidaw which is about 200 miles or 320 kilometers north of Rangoon. In line with this move, nearly all of the government offices moved to Naypyidaw, but Rangoon still remains the nation's largest city and commercial hub. I should mention here that in 1989, the city's name was officially changed to its original name of YANGON by the government. Yangon in Burmese means, "end of strife."

Sule Pagoda Road in the center of Yangon is regarded as the main street of the city. Actually it is not too long, and one can actually walk across it (I have done it a couple of times) from one end to the other. The road begins after you cross the bridge near the main railway station and ends at Strand Road (now known at Kan-nar Road) near the Yangon River. Sule Pagoda Road has many well known sites, such as Sakura Tower, Traders Hotel, several cinemas, the main Fire Station, a big Muslim mosque, Independence Park, and City Hall. However, the most imposing architecture here in the heart of Yangon, is the Sule Pagoda which is between City Hall and the mosque. Interestingly enough, a Christian church is also nearby which reflects the city's (and the whole country's) diverse cultures and religions. Of course, one musn't miss Scott Market or 'Bogyoke Zay' which is the city's main market for shopping for both locals and foreigners alike. It can be reached by a leisurely 10 minute walk from Sule Pagoda Road. You can see many interesting and mysterious articles on sale on the sidewalk along the way too!

If you are in Yangon, and you miss out on the great Shwedagon Pagoda, then you can't say you've been to Yangon, or for that matter Burma/Myanmar. Considered by many to be the 8th wonder of the world, this resplendent work of ancient architecture is really the landmark of the city, indeed the whole country. Even after seeing it numerous times, I still make it a point to go there on my trips "back home." So many articles have been written about this oldest historical pagoda in the world that I really can't add much here. Except to say that although I am not a Buddhist, I am simply spellbound by this magnificent pagoda every time I see it. A gentle reminder to all - visitors are not allowed to wear shoes or socks on the grounds of the pagoda. You can either leave your footwear at the entrance, or ask for a plastic bag which is provided free of charge. Even Hillary Clinton and President Obama had to follow this rule when they were there last year! The admission fee for tourists is USD 5 per person.

As Yangon is the main gateway to Myanmar, the majority of international travelers visiting the country will land at Yangon International airport (the other international airports are at Mandalay and Naypyitaw). Immigration and Customs formalities are usually quick, but the lines are getting longer and longer due to the increase in tourist arrivals compared to a year ago. To accommodate the surge of incoming passengers a new international airport is to be built later this year, but is expected to be completed only in 2016 or 2017.

Once you step out of the airport you'll find an abundance of taxis, and I'm sure several drivers will approach you. The normal fare should be 10,000 kyats or around US10. If he asks for more you can bargain with him, or go to the next one. There is a foreign exchange booth at the airport, and also an ATM machine. Gone are the days when one has to change your dollars and euros on the street from shady blackmarket dealers. All the banks in the city, as well as the ATM machines will give you the day's exchange rate which currently runs between 900 and 940 kyats (the local currency) to one US dollar. A note of caution here; you may be approached by someone on the street offering to change money. Do NOT accept their offers as you are likely to be cheated. The banks will give you a much better rate and the correct amount too.

Yangon is one of the safest cities in the world, but as in any other big city it always pays to be prudent. Having said that, even venturing out alone at night is not a problem, except you may get lost somewhere, but don't worry, there will be someone to help you find your way. Most people in the city speak English reasonably well, and many are eager to talk with foreigners. You may find the Buddhist monks to be the most enthusiastic when it comes to chatting with international travelers. And don't be surprised if some monks even invite you to visit their monasteries! By the way, Buddhist monks are forbidden to have any physical contact with women, so ladies beware!

It is fairly easy to get around Yangon. Although local buses ply to all parts of the city, I wouldn't recommend them as taxis are plentiful and more comfortable. Unfortunately, they do not use meters, so be sure to agree on a fixed rate before taking any taxi. Remember, bargaining at small shops on the roadside is the norm, so polish up on your negotiating skills and you may end up getting a better deal than even the local folks, like it happened one time when my American friend managed to lower the price down even more than I did!

In the evenings take a stroll along the bund of Inya Lake (enter from the Pyay Road side). I often did that before, and have always enjoyed looking at the yachts sailing on the scenic lake. Speaking of lakes, don't forget to go to Kandawgyi Lake. The sunset view across the lake with the majestic Shwedagon pagoda in the background is a sight to behold. While at this lake, you might want to take in the cultural show, plus a buffet dinner at the Kandawgyi Palace (separate review of this place already posted in another article here) to watch the traditional dances of the various minority groups of Myanmar. Kandawgyi Palace itself is a floating restaurant on the lake, built intricately in the shape of a mythical bird called the Hintha. This legendary bird of Myanmar supposedly possessed a pleasant melodious cry. A walk around this large restaurant is a photographer's delight, and you will find yourself taking many pictures.

I WISH YOU A WARM WELCOME TO MY HOMETOWN!

UPDATE September 10, 2013 - Due to a tremendous growth in the number of tourists visiting Myanmar this year, Yangon is presently facing a hotel room crisis. I read in a recent news report, and also heard from my friends and relatives there, that a growing number of travelers are taking the streets, monasteries or friends houses for the night. Therefore, please make sure you have a confirmed hotel or guest house reservation if you are planning to travel to Myanmar in the near future!