Yangon

YANGON, STILL OFTEN known by its colonial name of Rangoon, is a city of distinct cultures and architecture. It is filled with red-robed monks, gleaming pagodas and grand historical buildings, many of which have faded colonial charm not seen elsewhere in Asia. The city is well known for its magnificent 2500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most spectacular religious shrine and an impeccable symbol of the country in which Buddhism dominates every aspect of life. Thanks to the diversity of ethnic groups living in the city, Yangon embodies a variety of cultures, cuisines and religions with numerous Hindu and Chinese temples, cathedrals, mosques and a synagogue. The city’s vibrant street life is filled with street-side stalls offering a selection of local and regional dishes, numerous teahouses crowded with chatting locals and open-air markets crammed with fresh produce.

The largest city in Myanmar, Yangon, still possibly identified by its former name, Rangoon remains a town of surprising contradictions. Still greatly evident, are the decades of cultural and economic isolation shown by the old district downtown with its never-ending streets of colonial buildings that are decaying, unreliable electricity and crowded rust bucket buses. The intercontinental signs and chains gradually overriding lots of other cities in the area are noticeable by their total nonexistence, and the basics of downtown city life –street hawkers, a high honeycomb cafes on the roadsides, dilapidated marketplaces and ascending stupas – appears in areas oddly unharmed by the contemporary world.

However, the winds of change are breezing already across the city, with lots of old-model Japanese cars crowding the streets of the city, together with a fast rising number of posh hotels, classy local fast-food joints, lighted billboards, and shops stocking the latest tablets, smartphones, and other digital accessories. All of these represent the bizarre feeling of a city alienated in time: with one being meticulously modern although several decades obsolete – which is possibly the core of the city’s unusual appeal.

For tourists, Yangon is truly a city of two halves. The old colonial city –or downtown Yangon, as it is popularly called – continues to be by far the most fascinating area in this fast growing megalopolis, a captivating metropolitan landscape of quaintly rotting colonial buildings spotted with Buddhist pagodas covered with gold paint, markets, mosques as well as Chinese and Hindu temples. Going northward, therein lies the never-ending villages of contemporary Yangon, a mostly bland city sprawl spotted with a series of florid Buddhist shrines and the Kandawgyi lakes and sylvan lakes. The most prominent position is occupied by the astounding Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most stunning Buddhist temples in the world. It is also important to discover some of the other enormous Buddha statues pagodas that dot the area.

Brief History

A comparative newcomer by standards of Burmese, Yangon is mostly created in the colonial era, even though its roots can be traced as far back as the early Burmese history. In the early 11th century, the Mon set up a fishing village up here called Dagon. The Mon's were wielding power in the Lower Burma, even though it continued to be a somewhat remote place in spite of the respected Shwedagon Pagoda being there. King Alaungpaya, the person who founded the Konbaung Dynasty, in 1775, captured Dagon, renamed it Yangon and diverted trade here from close by Thanlyin, formerly the main port hereabouts. During the First Anglo-Burmese War which lasted from 1824-1826, the British captured Yangon but gave it back to the Burmese in 1827 after the end of hostilities.

The unexpected and sudden rise of Yangon to national superiority happened after the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, during which the city was recaptured by the British. The town which was formerly modest was chosen as the location of British Burma's new capital, on account of its spot at the Indian Ocean and Ayeyarwady River's meeting point, passable for about 1600 km into the center of the country. The very old Mon waterside settlement was destroyed and an ostentatious new city design was put out, rooted in the gridiron plan produced by army engineer Alexander Fraser.

British Rule

After Upper Burma was conquered in 1885 during the Third Anglo-Burmese War, colonial Rangoon (as the British called it) became the acknowledged commercial and economic center of Burma. New ostentatious buildings were built in the stylish Indo-Saracenic and Neoclassical styles, new schools, hospitals, and colleges were set up, a railway was built, parks and Kandawgyi and Inle lakes created to supply the new city with water. A significant number of people also migrated from other parts of the British Empire to the new city, particularly India, which gave the city a distinct sub-continental taste that remains to this day.
Rangoon came to be the center of the independent movement of Burmese, after World War I, spearheaded by students from the Rangoon University created by the British and culminated in a sequence of nationwide strikes in 1920, 1936 and 1938. Finally, during World War II, the British were finally overthrown at which point the city fell under Japanese occupation (from 1942 to 1945), before being recaptured by the Allies in 1945, after suffering grave damage.

Independence

Upon independence in 1948, the capital of the new Union of Burma became Rangoon. The city sustained its exponential expansion outwards, with new outskirts growing to the northern part of the ancient colonial center. Simultaneously, the demographics of the city make-up altered significantly, with numerous Burmese of Indian descent, plus the city which once had a sizeable community of Jews and other cultural groups, departing after independence and subsequently throughout New Win’s isolationist rule of the 1960s. Several street names of the old colonial city were altered, and the nation’s military rulers changed the name of the city from Rangoon back to Yangon in 1989, even though various local and international organizations did not recognize the changed name, and the old name is still in circulation to this day.

In 2005, the city experienced a major symbolic setback when a new Burmese capital was founded at Naypyitaw. Nonetheless, in spite of being deprived of its status as the capital city and losing some ministerial privileges on the way, Yangon is still to a great extent the political, economic and cultural core of the country. They have a population in excess of four million now and is spread over an area of more than sixty square kilometers.

Downtown Yangon

The old colonial-era city – or generally known as downtown Yangon now – continues to be the soul of the contemporary Yangon and by far its most fascinating district. Designed in the 1850s by the British, downtown encompasses a geometrical network of streets, just about 1km deep and 5km wide, though the initial design is grossly insufficient to handle the sheer weight of 21st-century pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and becomes congested regularly, on both the pavements and roads.

Downtown continues to be one of Asia’s great colonial-era designs, notwithstanding fast expansion, with streets beset with neoclassical municipal buildings in several states of heavily-blemished, hot-overload deterioration. Overlaid on the outdated fabric, the busy street life of Yangon persists, with pavements and roads crowded with street hawkers, shoppers, food stalls, touts, traffic, and red-robed monks too numerous to believe – this is definitely somewhere that’ll be nice to pass slowly so as to enjoy the details. It is equally a place that offers the best sense of Yangon’s multiethnic heritage, with a dense confusion bearded Muslims, thanaka-smeared Burmese, pale Chinese and dark-skinned Tamils, everyone steering their way leisurely between countless pavement cafes and street-side stalls.

Sule Pagoda

Situated at the very core of downtown Yangon, the Sule Pagoda is the most obvious of all the temples in Burmese. Its rising golden stupa provides the old colonial city with its major landmark, towards which all streets appear to meet. The Pagoda is situated at the center of the British grid plan of the 1859s, it continues to be the heart of downtown life, both culturally and physically (the entire distance to other areas of the country are still calculated from the pagoda, very much like the Burmese version of London’s Charing Cross). When lighted at night, the pagoda is exceptionally stunning even though it appears somewhat absurd during the day, isolated within a bustling roundabout, in an endless swirl of traffic and with a chain of small shops implanted into its sides facing outward.

History has it that the pagoda was constructed when the Buddha himself was still alive, however, a more likely, although prosaic, account is that it can be traced as far back as the Mon era in the tenth century, or thereabouts. Queen Shinsawbu enlarged the stupa to its current size (43m high), and is said to preserve one of the hairs of Buddha, provided by the Buddha himself to the Balika and Tapissa brothers, two travelling traders from Myanmar. In recent times, the Sule Pagoda served as a vital assembling point for pro-democracy advocates throughout the 1988 revolution as well as the 2007 Saffron Revolution – and was the scene of a ruthless genocide during the latter, when the military opened fire on unarmed protestors.

There are 4 staircases leading up to the pagoda from every cardinal point, with 4 identical shrines linked to the base of the stupa at the top of all the staircases, all outdone with flashy golden roofs. The stupa itself is seated on an octagonal base similar to the standard Burmese design but is rare as both the spire and bell of the stupa take the octagonal shape, instead of the circular shape embraced by almost all other stupas in Burmese.

Mahabandoola Garden

Mahabandoola Garden is a peaceful city park providing a heavenly square of open green space in the midst of the super-compressed streets of downtown Yangon, as well as a shrine to Burmese nationalism. The garden was previously named Fytche Square in honor of the Chief Commissioner of British Burma, Albert Fyche. It was subsequently renamed after the fabled leader of the Burmese forces all through the first Anglo-Burmese War, General Mahabandoola (or MahaBandula), and is likewise the abode of the ascending Independence Monument, honoring the independence of Burmese in 1948. The Mahabandoola garden, with tiny bonsai-like topiary trees, is a fine place to relax your feet after the overcrowded downtown pavements, and also provides great sights of the neighboring Sule Pagoda and City Hall. Some palmists practice their craft outdoor along the west side of the garden, despite being a common spot for t’ai chi practicing locals before and after work.

Around Mahabandoola Garden

The best collection of colonial buildings in Yangon lies crowded in the region directly to the east of Mahabandoola Garden and down Pansodan Street. On the northern side of Mahabandoola Gardens lies the sky blue City Hall (1924), its neoclassical shapes brightened with a riot of ersatz-oriental attractive motifs comprising chintzy stone latticework, pagoda-topped roofs and a couple of dragons suspended above the major entrance, and a peacock in-between.

Opposite the garden is a large, slightly French-looking building formerly a department store that was converted into the Immigration Department. It has undergone a major renovation recently and now looks pristine; an illustration of how these splendid ancient buildings might appear if enough money, time and love are invested.

On the other side of Mahabandoola Road, a couple of uniquely prickly spikes top the Immanuel Baptist Church of 1952 (the first church commissioned by a missionary from American in 1885, after it was destroyed in World War II), while on the east side of Mahabandoola Gardens is the previous Supreme Court building (1911) in general Neoclassical style with cream details, topped by a giant red-brick clock tower.

Pansodan Street

The city’s most prominent address was once the Southern end of Pansodan Street, and to this day the street is lined with an authentic beauty display of fine old colonial structures. Beginning from the junction that links Mahabandoola Road, the Government Telegraphic Office is the first major building, though it now looks a tad dilapidated, with an upper storey that is crumbling and a radio mast plunked hastily on top of the roof.

The tacky Sofaer’s Building, erected in 1906 by the Rangoon-educated, Baghdad-born Jewish brothers Meyer and Isaac Sofaer south of here, on the east side of the road at the junction with Merchant Street. This used to be the heart of city life, the shops selling Scottish whisky, German beer, English sweets and Egyptian cigarettes as well as the city’s Reuters telegram office. Some part of the ground floor has now been used to manufacture floor tiles and Lanarkshire steel beams preserved in its original place, even though the remaining part of the ground floor is now boarded up and regrettably look dilapidated.

The Internal Revenue Department with Art Deco flourishes is situated opposite Sofaer’s. If you move further down by the left, you'll find the big and somewhat plain Inland Water Transport office, its cornice bedecked with seashells. It was the former headquarters of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, owned by the Scottish which operated the largest fleet of river boats in the world in the 1920s, having more than 600 vessels transporting about nine million passengers yearly.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation is located next to it with its solid-looking vaulted gold doors beneath a pretty silver covering and strange frontage of green semicircles, with the heads of lions set along the roof cornice. At the street's bottom rests the magnificent building of the Myanmar Port Authority with its landmark tower and massive vaulted windows, with roundels adorned with ships and anchors between.

The Strand Hotel

The Strand Hotel is located in Downtown Yangon’s address for the wealthy and famed. It looks like a sedate aged duchess in the middle of the notorious hubbub of Yangon’s notable, but derelict, waterfront Strand Road. The Strand which started operations in 1901 was the invention of Tigran and Aviet Sarkies, two of the four Armenian-descended, entrepreneurial Sarkies brothers, who set up a chain of luxury hotels all through Southeast Asia counting the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang as well as the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.  The hotel which was strictly for whites (it was not until 1945 that the Burmese were admitted) was portrayed by John Murray in his Handbook for Travellers, as the “best inn east of the Suez” with guests including Somerset Maugham, Lord Mountbatten and Rudyard Kipling. After independence, it fell into really bad shape but was reopened in 1993 following wide restorations.
 
The Secretariat

The gigantic Secretariat (also called the Minister’s Building), is the most striking of all Yangon’s colonial monument. A gigantic red-brick neoclassical edifice inhabiting an entire block of the city, spreading out over 16 acres and with 37,000 m2 of floor space – approximately two-thirds the size of Paris Louvre. The Secretariat which was finished in 1902 (though the west and east wings were added 3 years afterward), remains the most famed historically noteworthy colonial building in Yangon; the former seat of British administrative power in Burma; the place where Aung San and six members of cabinet were killed in cold blood on 19th of July 1947; as well as the spot where the independence ceremony of the country took place the next year. Afterwards, it was used as the national parliament building until the coup in 1962, when it became off limits. The whole building is presently sheathed in scaffolding and tarpaulin awaiting a decision concerning its future and, with any luck, renovation – an enormous job, which could cost nothing less than $100M and “probably one of the world's biggest momentous restoration projects”, as described by Al Jazeera in recent times.

St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral and around

Directly north of the Secretariat, lies the city’s main Catholic place of worship and the country’s largest church, the magnificent St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral.  A Dutch architect Jos Cuypers (son of Pierre Cuypers, who created Amsterdam’s Central Station and Rijksmuseum) designed the building and was completed in 1899 in a neo-Gothic style very similar to that of the rival Holy Trinity Anglican cathedral across the city. Regrettably, it is usually under lock and key apart from when services are holding, when you can appreciate the remarkably tiled and vaulted interior.

The cathedral's Southside houses the enormous B.E.H.S (6) Botahtaung of 1860 – only two out of all the colonial-era Basic Education High Schools (B.E.H.S) which still dot the city. It was formerly called St Paul's English High School and was also one of the most privileged schools in Yangon at the time. On the east, on Theinbyu Road, you'll find the all-girls B.E.H.S (4) Botahtaung which was previously named St Mary’s Convent School, this is another excellent old colonial memento still being used today.  A beautiful Sikh temple is on the southern side of the school, whereas across the road is the past Government Press (also another beautiful red-brick Neoclassical edifice, now regrettably in ruins).

Sri Devi Temple

Devi is the name of the Hindu mother goddess and the Sri Devi Temple is dedicated to her. The temple offers religious help to lots of Indian-descended Yangonites inhabiting the sub-continental commune just about the eastern end of Anawrahta Road (the present-day Yangon descendants' formerly ever-present Indian community that settled in the city during the British rule era). The temple has the typical colorful gopuram in addition to red-and-white walls with stripes as well as an inner temple protected by a couple of Brahmins residents.
 
Botataung Pagoda

The Botataung Pagoda which is the second of colonial Yangon’s two main Buddhist pagodas is located on the far eastern side of downtown Yangon. The name which literally means “1000 officers” refers to the king's soldiers who supposedly created a guard of honor to make merry on the influx of valuable Buddhist relics from India. The present complex can be traced as far back as the Mon Era, just about the same period as The Shwedagon Pagoda, even though in 1943, a stray RAF bomb largely obliterated (they were targeting the Yangon wharves close by). On January 4th, 1948 the Burmese first day of independence, reconstructions work began. When renovations were being done, a formerly unidentified chamber of relic containing an extraordinary treasure was discovered. In it was a valuable collection of 700 hundred items such as jewelry, gold, precious stones, brass and silver statues and most notably, a pure gold stupa-shaped relics container with two little body relics enclosed and hair believed to be a relic of Buddha.

The best part of the temple is the 39m-high gilded stupa, especially its empty interior. A luxuriously designed tiny corridor runs through the stupa's inside, with ceilings and walls wrapped in golden panels, whereas a doubly stunningly decorated little shrine where the Buddha’s hair relic is kept, together with some other items from the unearthed relic chamber, displayed in pretty glass cabinets at the stupa’s center. The stupa's surrounding terrace is strangely big and somewhat dilapidated. On the western side of the terrace is a long hall which houses more than a few beautiful gold-covered Buddha and a distinctive Myanmar-style temple-cum-fairground attraction, including a rotating table with numerous alms bowl on top of it, where tourists try to toss folded-up banknotes.

In the inner courtyard's south-west corner, take a look at the temple’s nat shrine, which comprises an image of the pagoda’s white-turbaned nat guardian, or Bo BoGyi (“great grandfather”), and a Shin Upagot shrine beside it. Round the corner, at the southern part of the structure is a huge but somewhat ugly Buddha of 2008, seated in a marquee in front of the river, with beautiful views of the water.

Bogyoke Market and around

The Bogyoke Market or Bogyoke Aung San Market (official name), is located on the northern side of downtown Yangon. It is the main tourist honey pot of the city, the abode of Myanmar’s most varied and stranger-friendly souvenir shops, set of jewelry- wallahs, as well as other consumer collectables. 
 
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