As Myanmar’s largest city and most commercial hub, Yangon, or Rangoon, represents the country’s progress, which is most apparent in the tremendous number of cars everywhere on its streets. But while the heavy traffic represents economic growth and modernity, the city’s architecture still shows the country is very much a developing country. It also reflects the country’s British colonial heritage and its cultural diversity.
Colonial-era buildings are everywhere from regular apartment buildings to the gated villas by the city lakes, but the most impressive examples are the early 20th century colonial-era government buildings, cathedral and hotel located downtown near the riverfront. It’s been said Yangon has the most existing colonial buildings in the region, which would be impressive given the competition – Saigon, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur etc. Yangon exists specifically because of the British because it was they who built it in the mid-19th century. Yet ironically but also fittingly, the city’s main landmark, besides Shwedagon Pagoda, is Sule Pagoda, very much a Burmese building and which sits at the center of a roundabout. South and East of Sule Pagoda are where the most impressive colonial buildings are, including the Secretariat, the riverfront Strand Hotel and the central post office.
Besides the colonial buildings, Yangon has many different types of religious buildings. There’s a towering immaculately-maintained cathedral, mosques and Chinese temples, and Hindu temples adorned with tall mounds covered with colorful statues above their entrances in the South Indian style. Yangon is also multiracial, with the Burman majority (which the country’s former name Burma was derived from) coexisting alongside Mon, Rakhine, Indian and Chinese minorities. The street where I stayed in when I flew into Yangon was part of the “Chinatown” district and my hotel manager was a local Chinese who spoke Mandarin to me. Even with the Burmese (Burman, Mon, Karen etc) who weren’t Indian or Chinese weren’t homogenous, with there being a wide array of skin tones and hair waviness.
The combination of British colonial buildings, the noticeably multicultural population and the use of English makes Yangon look and feel very different from say, Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, and I wonder if it resembles South Asia, given Myanmar borders India on its west.
Besides Shwedagon Pagoda and the colonial buildings, other places of interest I went to included the national history museum, which was interesting but not too well maintained, and whose main attraction was the impressive Lion Throne, a large golden throne filled with exquisite carvings that Burmese kings used to sit on.
I also went to the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India who was exiled by the British to Yangon after the failed Indian Mutiny in 1857. But, I did not get to see the actual grave because when I visited the site, I found out it was a shrine and being Friday afternoon, there were services going on. Hence why the site is called a Dargah, an Islamic shrine built over the grave of a saint, who in this case is Bahadur Shah. The guy by the gate was kind enough to wave me in when I told him why I was there, but I saw that the actual grave was in the basement where the women were (men and women worship separately in Islam). I could have still gone right in and played the dumb tourist (I am obviously not muslim) because I was so close, but I decided to let discretion and common sense prevail and walked back out without seeing the grave.
At night, the streets near “Chinatown” are alive with teeming numbers of locals sitting by roadside food vendors having dinner. It might be called a night market except that it is a lot more casual and informal. The downside is that there aren’t much restaurants so I did resort to eating fried rice from these vendors which came up to something like 50 cents US. When I came back to Yangon from Mandalay, I stayed on the other side of the city in the east where there were more formal restaurants.
I had a very good lunch at an Indian restaurant featured in the Lonely Planet, but I had worse luck when I had a mediocre dinner at a relatively modern restaurant. To top off the not-so-good experience I was given water, then charged for it, with a service charge on everything, and the waitress pretended not to understand English when I asked her about this. I learned my lesson- sometimes fancy restaurants in underdeveloped countries are often not worth it (I’ve had better experiences in Phnom Penh and Hanoi).
I have to say Yangon is not the most attractive city and a lot of its buildings are in need of a good scrubbing. Even some of its most grandest colonial buildings were abandoned or rundown. The ones that were maintained look fine and remind me of Trinidad, which was also a British colony and has some decent colonial buildings albeit in a more tropical climate.
In general, the city lacked the charm and the attractiveness of even Phnom Penh, which boasts a nice riverside walkway and clean, tree-lined roads with not as much traffic, and I certainly erred by spending almost four full days there.
Dargah of Shah Bahadur, the shrine above the grave of the last Mughal emperor of India. The grave was in the basement which was accessed by the stairs in the middle, covered by the small roof.
Abandoned Secretariat, which housed ministers’ offices and parliament
St. Mary’s Cathedral
Sneakily-taken photo of my dining spot for two nights. The food was cheap and tasty, but not sure I’d have dined there twice if there had been more choices.