Cocktails & Crocodiles
Cocktails & Crocodiles
Rangoon… such an interesting place. As a clerical note, the name Rangoon is actually a bit dated. In 1989, Burma's name was formally changed to (The Union Of The Republic Of) Myanmar. Included in this change was the decision to change the name of Rangoon (Burma’s largest city) to Yangon. However, much of the international community, as well as many of the minority groups within Burma, were not on board with this name change. For this reason you will still hear the names said both ways… I'm gonna stick with "Rangoon" because I just like the word better.
This guide was written at the end of a long chronology of my adventures through Burma. The article before this, left off with me destitute and alone, on the side of the highway, after an overnight bus from Taunggyi (the capital of the Shan State) had dropped me off and just driven away. Well, you’ll be glad to know that I managed to get a taxi, and it all turned out okay.
The first time I was in Rangoon I was at a bit of a loss. There was just so much going on. I could have pushed onward and gone somewhere else in Burma, but I wanted to come back to Rangoon. I didn’t feel like I really understood the place yet. I won’t leave a place (assuming I have a choice) until I feel like I have sort of risen above the chaos and found some degree of understanding. I had 3 days until my flight left to Bangladesh left, so I decided to use that time to poke around the city and figure it all out once and for all. I stayed in 30th Corner Boutique Hostel, which was awesome. At 13 USD per night, it’s one of the cheapest places in the city, and it was great—certainly better than Backpacker Myanmar, where I stayed my first time around.
So, first off, I need to give the biggest shout-out and thank you EVER to my girl, Alexis, for taking me under her wing, and showing me the real Rangoon. It was quite a different experience than what I had had the first time around, and one that I would definitely never have been able to have without some help. As it turns out, Rangoon is the Brooklyn of Southeast Asia. It’s still a pretty sketchy place right now, but in a few years, this is where the cool kids will hang out. Here's a quick index of what you're about to read...
Plus a couple restaurants.
Plus a couple restaurants.
So let me give you the rundown of all the places I was brought to by the local crowd. Some of it was pretty awesome. It’s mostly pretty expensive, at least compared to the local foods, but that’s to be expected with western establishments in this part of the world. This is by no means all that Rangoon has to offer, but it should give you a pretty substantial peek at the scene.
Address: 77-79 Pansodan Street, Yangon, Myanmar
This was the first place I went to, and by far my favorite thing on this list. After a long walk through Rangoon’s dimly-lit, Kafka-esque streets at night, this place felt warm and welcoming. As my unofficial tour guides explained to me, teahouses were the places where, in the old days, intellectuals and revolutionaries would gather to talk about religion and politics. These topics are controversial normally, but Burma has a past filled with violent censorship and political persecution. These teahouses were symbols of defiance and enduring spirit. Rangoon Tea House is the first ‘upscale’ teahouse to come about in Rangoon, but I’m sure that others will follow.
As far as Burma is concerned, this place might be the original "Hipster." It ain't cheap either. Or, at least not by Burmese standards. Compared to a night out in New York City, this place costs next to nothing. During my visit, I got to try and see a wide variety of menu items, and everything was great. It should also be noted that Rangoon Tea House holds cool events for the local community on a fairly regular basis. It's definitely worth a look if you are ever in Rangoon!
Address: 22 Kabar Aye Pagoda Road, Yangon, Myanmar
Port Autonomy used to in a warehouse down by the harbor. In its hey-day, it was apparently the “place to be” in Rangoon. However, sadly, it was shut down by the government when they issued their latest curfew. That’s right: there is now a curfew for businesses of 11pm in Rangoon. This place has managed to stay open by relocating to a tucked away little spot a bit farther out into the suburbs (if you can really call them "suburbs). That was a speed bump for sure, but it seems to be back in full force.
When the taxi dropped me off, it felt like I walking into a restaurant somewhere on the French Riviera. The inside of this place had a distinct, Gatsby-style of elegance to it. We walked out the back door and were guided to the bar on a board walk illuminated by tiki torches. Port Autonomy which famously has 2 pet geese, who like to walk around the bar honking and flapping their wings at people. Their names are Pigalle and Gowanus. It’s not a cheap place to drink, but it’s very cool.
Address: 168 West Shwegondaing Road, Yangon, Myanmar
This is Rangoon’s premier (and, I'm pretty sure, only) rooftop bar. It’s obviously not quite on the level of the rooftop bars I’ve been at in Bangkok and Singapore, but Vista Bar has a much more unique view to offer: front row tickets to the Shwedagon at night. The Shwedagon is Rangoon's most famous pagoda. It's also the nation's tallest, at 344 feet. No other pagoda built in modern times is allowed to surpass this height, which is a weird fact. Anyway, the point is, It’s not a bad thing to have as your back drop.
Vista Bar is not crazy expensive, so it makes for an affordable night. They even have shisha (if you’re into that kind of thing). You don't want to miss out on this place! When you leave, I would recommend saying a firm and immediate ‘no’ to the taxi drivers that are waiting outside. Cross the street and put your thumb out to catch a random one. Taxi drivers waiting outside of upscale establishments like this one are looking to rip somebody off. Don’t let that somebody be you.
Address: 85-87 Thein Phyu Rd, Yangon, Myanmar
This is as much a restaurant as a bar. It’s a nice place and it’s got a cool atmosphere. I’d recommend it for lunch or dinner if you’ve got some cash to throw. It’ll feel still cheap compared to expensive meals in the West, but by local standards, this is an upscale establishment. This is the kind of place where men where vintage suits and smoke cigars. It feels very Hemingway-esque.
Upstairs, a nonprofit operates, selling artisan goods for the benefit of impoverished and marginalized minority groups in the war-torn Rakhine State. The Rakhine State is home to the majority of Burma's Muslim Rohingya population, who are currently being subjected to borderline genocidal treatment by the Burmese government, although concrete information about this is hard to come by. The Boutique is called Pomelo, and if you're ever in Monsoon, you should check them out!
Address: 535 Merchant Street, Yangon, Myanmar
Founded by Iraqi-Jewish transplants to Rangoon, Gekko is actually a Japanese restaurant. I'm sure there's a great story there, but, unfortunately, that's pretty much all I know. The end result of that story must have been pretty good though, because Gekko is one of the coolest little places I’ve ever seen. The bar is great, and they have a pretty extensive alcohol menu, if that’s all you’re interested in. But that's not all...
They also have big, private, Japanese style rooms on the top floor for bigger events. I didn’t try the food, so I can’t really vouch for that, but if the drinks are any indicator, it’s going to be amazing. Oh, and P.S. in addition to the food and drink menus, this place has a cigar menu. And yet, the restaurant somehow doesn't smell at all like smoke. I'm not sure how that works, but I'm not complaining.
Address: G-A10, Shwe Asia Building (corner of 47th Street & Mahabandula Road) Yangon, Myanmar
This is a Rasta-themed bar, which in other cases might be lame, but the owner of this place is not only Jamaican, he’s usually there mingling, so you can meet him. It also normally has a live band, which is cool. Another plus about this place is that their prices are in the local currency, not USD. Many of the aforementioned places like to charge in USD to get a better exchange rate. Locally, this is know as kind of a snooty, shitty thing to do. So this is a point in favor of 7th Joint.
It’s not an easy place to find… it’s sort of around a corner, hidden behind a big empty building, but it’s very cool once you find it. I was meant to be meeting people here, and I was wandering around the darkened streets for ages before an older Burmese man saw me, took pity on me, and led me to the door, laughing all the while. I guess he knew that there was nothing else I could have been looking for in that area. Shout out to that guy, whoever he was.
Address: 11-F Bocho Street, Yangon, Myanmar (Behind the Union Business Center)
If you want to stay out past curfew, this is basically your only option. That’s pretty much its only virtue. It’s a club, with flashing lights, beating beats, and thumping bass. If you’re into that, great! If you’re not, and you still want to stay out late, you’re out of luck in Rangoon, unfortunately.
It costs quite a bit, and they will make you check your bag at the door, which is has pros and cons I guess. When I went there, it was for a LGTB event, and it was packed. But even on nights where there is no event happening, they supposedly fill up pretty fast, so if you want to get in for sure, it’s best not to be fashionably late.
We're done with the bars & restaurants now; this is REAL!
We're done with the bars & restaurants now; this is REAL!
It’s not a restaurant; it’s an actual crocodile farm. You go there pretty much to buy a bucket of meat and throw it into the water to watch the feeding frenzy. It was a challenging taxi ride to arrange because it’s pretty far off the beaten path. I don’t have an address for you this time. It was on a muddy, nearly impassable dirt road, far from the main circuits of the city. When we finally arrived though, the huge, creaky, mossy gate doors swung open, and we got out of the car.
There were essentially 2 tanks. The first one was for alligators. It was small, and the alligators were pretty inactive.
The other one held a pretty huge expanse of muddy, brown water. Inside there was a freaking colony of dinosaurs. The boardwalk that allowed us access to the farm seemed to also be rotting, because many of the planks flexed and bent beneath my weight when I stepped on them. It was a lot like the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay, but falling through this, bridge would have potentially fatal consequences. There were a group of young Burmese boys that were laughing and playing near the edge. I walked past thinking to myself how crazy a childhood I would have had if my ‘neighborhood spot’ had been a goddamn crocodile farm. I’d have been lucky to graduate 5th grade.
The way it works is that you pay 1,000 MMK (0.78 USD) for a small bucket of meat and a pair of tongs. Then you throw the meat into the water and watch the feeding frenzy beneath you. Check this out:
We bought at least 4 buckets each before we had had our fill. I aimed most of my slabs of meat for their bodies instead of their mouths, because that would create the most thrashing. I offered a piece of meat to the group of Burmese kids to throw in, but they were scared. Maybe one of their friends had recently been eaten or something. It wouldn’t surprise me given the state of things in that place. There wasn’t much in the way of safety.
A few final walks with my camera.
A few final walks with my camera.
I did a lot more exploring during my last few days in Rangoon, but I mostly stayed clear of the tourist attractions. Honestly, Shwedagon Pagoda is pretty much the only “attraction”, in the classical sense of the word, but I actually decided to skip that, and in retrospect I feel good about that. I had seen it from afar a million times so I didn’t want to pay the 8,000 MMK (6.23 USD) entry fee, plus the 20,000 MMK (15.56 USD) in collective cab fairs, to see it up close. I had also been thinking about taking the boat across the Yangon River, but when I got to the boat station I discovered that they charge white people almost 10x the normal price for a simple ticket across the river. It’s one thing when some tour guide at Mingun Pagoda tries to hustle me, but when the price discrimination is systemic like this I have a real issue with it. So I didn’t cross the river, and I don’t regret that either.
Overall though, these instances were standouts. Throughout most of my experience in Burma, I found people to be much less discriminatory towards me than in other places, like Vietnam or Indonesia. To give you some examples, at one point we got a long taxi ride for free in Mandalay, if you remember that story. At another point, in Rangoon, a few of us were in a taxi that was stuck in traffic. The driver turned to us and said, ‘it will be faster for you to get out and walk from here’. He gave us directions and refused our money. These kinds of experiences were a breath of fresh air after a year in Hanoi, where I had to have my guard up 24/7, lest I be ripped off.
My unofficial tour guide gave me the architectural city tour, as well as a few tips on buying street food, so take a look through this gallery. It includes the secretariat building, where Aung San, who led Burma to freedom from the British, was assassinated. Conspiracy theories about this aside, the building is now completely closed, but for 1 day per year. Unfortunately, that 1 day was not any of the days that I was there. Look at my pretty pictures:
It was beautiful weather for most of my time in Rangoon, but towards the end my luck ran out and I got caught in a rain storm. Here are a few photos I took of that ordeal as I jumped from umbrella to umbrella to get back to my room:
I loved my time in Rangoon... but that doesn't mean that I loved ALL of the food that I tried. I was all set to leave on my flight to Bangladesh (my next destination)… but then, the night before I was supposed to leave, my luck really ran out. I got food poisoning. I spent the night spewing steaming, disgusting liquids out both ends, and I ended up having to push my flight back a day. So let this be a lesson to all of you to be careful what you eat. Luckily it was the rainy season, so the hostel didn’t have any shortage of beds available… actually I’m not sure if they would have had a shortage of beds available in any season. Tourism really isn’t a big thing yet in Burma. Anyway, the next day, I woke up late and farted my way to the airport to get on with my life.
Don't worry, it wasn't any of the above establishments that poisoned me. If you want to learn more about the foodie scene in Rangoon, you should check out Yangon Foodies. That would be a good place to ask about reliably safe places to eat, and where to find what food. And if you want to learn more about Burma as a whole, check out the Burma Index, where all my adventures are archived according to location. And if you have any questions, don't hesitate to get in touch with me and ask!