Yangon

Formerly Rangoon, capital of Burma, now Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city is a fascinating blend of the old and increasingly new. It was basically a village until the British made it the capital of what was then a province of India (and buffer zone against the French to the east). There are a large number of grand Colonial buildings from that era, some renovated, many in an advanced state of decay.

And while there isn’t the high rise skyline of many South East Asian cities there are plenty of new buildings around.

The contrast is clear between the tourist trap of the Bogyoke Aung San Market, and the flash new Bogyoke Aung San Market (shopping mall) next door.

I was surprised by the variety of religious buildings, given that the majority of the population is Buddhist. There were several large churches and cathedrals, the most stunning being the beautiful Catholic Saint Mary’s Cathedral built in 1909.

The Anglican Holy Trinity Cathedral completed in 1894 was also pretty impressive.

There were a number of Sikh and Hindu temples, including the simple Sri Sri Durga Bari and the Southern Indian style Sri Varatha Raja Perumal.

Most of the mosques date back to when Yangon was home to a sizeable Indian population during the British era, including the colourful Bengalisu Sunni Mosque, the large Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque and the simpler Mogul Shiah Mosque.

There is even a synagogue, with the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue dating from 1896 to serve the then Jewish population of 2,500, which is now a small fraction of that.

There are Chinese Buddhist temples, the best being Kheng Hock Keong, a hugely atmospheric place at the southern end of Chinatown.

Of course there are plenty of Buddhist temples, the most central is Sule Paya Pagoda, which also functions as roundabout in the centre of the city. While smaller in scale than others in the city, it is a representative pagoda complex.

The neighbouring Maha Bandoola Gardens are home to the Independence Monument, and surrounded by the impressive colonial era City Hall, High Court, and the former Rowe & Co department store, now a bank.

In midtown there are a couple of huge Buddha statues, the largest being the recline giant at Chaukhtatgyi Paya.

But the most attractive is across the the road at Ngahtatgyi Paya.

Yangon is a bustling place, but far more manageable than Bangkok or Hanoi for wandering the streets.

The Secretariat Former Ministers’ Office was the administrative hub for the British until Burmese independence. Sadly in 1947 the independence hero Aung San and six of his cabinet ministers were assassinated in the building by a political rival. The vast complex of buildings were abandoned, but are currently undergoing restoration, and a tour is possible to explore the interior and better understand what happened here on 19 July 1947.

The National Museum is home to an extensive and mostly interesting collection, though it is often poorly lit and displayed. The Lion Throne is an impressive introduction, and there are some wonderful pieces if you can find them. Allow at least a couple of hours to visit when you’re feeling fresh. I’d recommend starting with the top floors first, and letting gravity help you down as there is a lot to see.

Kan Daw Gyi Lake seemed a work in progress, with a few nice spots but more often a building site around the edges. It is home to the fanciful Karaweik Hall, a reinforced concrete replica of a royal barge built in 1974 and only accessible through booking an expensive dinner and dance show.

To end with Yangon’s most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda, adorned with 27 metric tonnes of gold and thousands of precious gems, an exercise in excess given the widespread poverty in Myanmar. At sunset the gold glistens but the crowds also throng, go at dawn for a more restful experience.

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