FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Morning wanders in downtown Yangon

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 7, 2017

A good night’s sleep set me up nicely for a day exploring the highlights of Yangon and the time to correct my first impressions of Myanmar, which had mostly revolved around the painfully slow flow of traffic around the city and the distressing sight of some of the many thousands of stray dogs.

I knew from the start that one day in Yangon would be hopelessly insufficient to do the place justice, but I was determined to see as much as I could in the time available. To help make the most of my time I made good use of the plentiful taxis across the city. On every occasion a fair price was offered, with the short hops I took costing between £1.50 and £4 each.

Yangon Central Station

DF1251 runs around at Yangon Central Station

The first taxi took me to the starting point for my day’s exploring – Yangon Central Railway Station. The somewhat tired building, constructed between 1947 and 1954, is a marvellous example of Burmese architectural style (incorporating tiered pyatthat roofs) that must have been quite a statement in the early days of independence. The bridge on Zoological Garden Road offered a great vantage point to watch a few of the 215 trains a day which pass through the station.

It is worth seeing now as there has been talk of moving the station out of the city centre altogether. On top of that there are plans in the offing for a massive complex of high-rise hotels, office blocks and retail space surrounding the station which could change the view considerably.

A trip on the Yangon Circular Railway, a journey of around 3 hours, is a popular option for many visitors but not one that I could fit into my tight schedule. After lingering for a little while I continued my walk to Sule Pagoda, which sits at the heart of the colonial quarter.

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda was as much a mainstay of Colonial Rangoon as its more obvious neighbours (such as City Hall and the Supreme Court) having been fixed at the centre of the British road system in the mid-nineteenth century. To this day it is the point of measurement for all distances to the old capital.

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

The pagoda is located on a roundabout with a constant flow of traffic around it, including many colourful local buses with passengers hanging out of the doors. The eclectic appearance of the pagoda is completed by its encirclement by a diverse range of small stores.

Outside the entrance two women sat with bowls of sparrows and was rather surprised to be asked in good english whether I wanted to buy one (to release for good luck). I passed on the opportunity and made my way in (entry fee $3). Hopefully the sparrows didn’t have to wait too much longer to acquire their freedom (or, if unlucky, end up as a ready meal for the crows perched in wait!).

As is the custom I removed my shoes and socks before beginning a clockwise wander around the impressive golden stupa. I didn’t really know what to expect, but soon began to appreciate that any visit to a pagoda rewards curiosity and an attention to detail. I particularly liked the roundel featuring a rather startled looking white rabbit (symbolic of the moon). If ever there was an image of a rabbit trapped in the headlights this is surely it!

A startled rabbit at Sule Pagoda

A startled rabbit at Sule Pagoda

I retraced my steps from Sule Pagoda and walked over to Mahabandoola Gardens, a beautifully maintained park bounded by colonial buildings but with Burmese independence at its centre in the form of a 50 metre tall white obelisk. The independence monument was installed in 1948, where a marble vision of Queen Victoria once looked upon her far-flung outpost. From here I took a wander of the colonial landmarks, shaking off the persistent offers of postcard sellers and tour floggers.

Colonial Quarter

It had been quite apparent from the off that Yangon is a city in transformation, riding a wave of tourist dollars, but as a shiny new city emerges you can’t help but notice that the colonial foundations which should be one of its strongest assets are at real risk. It is heartbreaking to see these once magnificent buildings in such terrible disrepair with broken windows, crumbling plaster and trees growing through the brickwork.

The largest of these sites, the vast Secretariat, must be a real headache for developers. The red-brick complex set on a 16 acre site was the centre of the British administration and later became home to the first Burmese Parliament after independence. However, it is mostly remembered for one of the darkest moments in the history of the country – the assassination of Aung San (1915-47) which deprived the country of its unifying father figure at the moment he was needed most.

The Secretariat

The Secretariat

I was interested to read that the board of trustees have looked to Somerset House in London as a model for the redevelopment of the site, seeking to create an arts and cultural centre, combined with a museum to capture its history. It sounds like an appropriate use for the historic site, compared to many other colonial buildings in the city which have been earmarked for conversion into retail space or high end hotels. I hope the end result truly delivers the space back into the hands of the public in some form.

The Yangon Heritage Trust, founded in 2012, has been working tirelessly to highlight the risk to the overlooked architectural treasures of the city and their incredible potential. I made an unplanned stop to their modest exhibition on the first floor at 22/24 Pansodan Street and really wished I could have found the time to go on one of their walking tours. I hope their visions are realised and that they can succeed in creating Asia’s most liveable city.

As I headed away from the colonial city centre I realised that my progress was already a little slower than I had anticipated so, after a quick stop at St Mary’s Cathedral, took advantage of an inexpensive taxi to get me back on track for an afternoon focusing on palaces, parks and pagodas.

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