My Trip to Burma: Yangon, Part 1 – Cool Colonial Architecture

We stayed at the Hotel Grand United 21st Street Downtown., located on the edge of Chinatown.  Nice hotel, good price, friendly staff.  After a restless night (still frazzled a bit from the long flight and lost luggage), we headed up to the 9th floor of the hotel for breakfast.  There’s a lovely terrace up there, with nice views over 21st street and Mahabandoola Road, the main stretch.  Breakfast was surprisingly varied and tasty, too.  I don’t normally eat fried rice and noodles for breakfast, but I adapted quickly.  I did snag some toast and jam, and of course, some bacon.  And potatoes.  And cake. And another piece of cake. 
The view from the terrace was pretty nice.  Off in the distance, you can see the golden stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda.  We’ll be visiting that later this afternoon.

At 8:30, we met with our guide, Myo, and driver, Tarzan. Our incredibly long day of sightseeing, in oppressive, coma-inducing heat, is about to start.

Burma is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia.  Shaped like a kite with a long tail, it lies between two other huge countries – India and China – and has a pretty long border with Thailand.  At 262,000 square miles, Burma is actually 30% larger than neighboring Thailand.  Interestingly, it is almost exactly the size of the state of Texas.  The population is about 51.5 million, compared with Thailand’s 65 million and Vietnam’s 85 million.
Yangon is Burma’s largest and most populous city. Although Yangon is no longer the capital, it remains Burma’s commercial heart and the core of its spiritual life.   For tourists, the city is divided into two halves.  There’s “downtown Yangon”, the old colonial city, which is the most compelling. It’s a fascinating urban landscape of decaying colonial buildings interspersed with spectacular gilded Buddhist pagodas, Hindu and Chinese temples, mosques and markets.  North of there, you have the suburbs of “modern Yangon”, a calmer landscape dotted with a smattering of Buddhist shrines and peaceful Inle Lake and Kandawgyi Lake.  International chain stores and brand logos are conspicuous in their absence, and the streets that are bustling with pavement cafes, merchandise hawkers, ramshackle markets and stunning stupas, look practically untouched by the modern world.  And yet, late-model Japanese cars are starting to appear on the roads, chic five-star hotels are sprouting, illuminated billboards are being erected, and smartphones and tablets are becoming commonplace.  It’s a schizophrenic city, a city divided in time: at once totally modern, and at the same time totally out of date.  I suppose this is a big part of the city’s appeal. 
            We started our tour in the heart of downtown Yangon, a geometrical gridiron of streets too narrow to deal with modern day pedestrian and vehicular traffic. Our driver took a few blocks east, to St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral.  It’s the city’s principal place of Catholic worship and the country’s largest church.  Designed by Jos Cuypers (son of Pierre Cuypers, the guy who designed Centraal Station and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, my favorite city), it was finished in 1899.  Nice neo-Gothic style.  It’s usually locked, except when services are being held.  Today, there was a wedding, so we got lucky and were able to see the interior.  

 Just south of the church is The Secretariat.  Of all the colonial structures in Myanmar, few are as historically important as the Secretariat (also known as the Ministers’ Building), an imposing Victorian complex beyond a barbed wire fence in downtown Yangon. The red brick building at No. 300 Theinbyu Road encompasses an entire city block, sprawling over 16 acres and with covering an area of 37,000 square meters, which is roughly 2/3 the size of the Louvre. This building served as the headquarters for the British-Burma administration during colonial times and later for Myanmar’s independent government. It was here that independence hero Bogyoke Aung San and his colleagues were assassinated in 1947, shortly before the country became a free republic, and where many of Myanmar’s most important Parliament officials worked in the coming years.  It is of immense historical significance in Burma.  Despite this, the 120-year-old Secretariat, like many buildings of the former capital’s colonial era, now stands in a terrible state. It is currently wrapped in scaffolds and tarps. Restoring this building would be an absolutely monumental task. Al Jazeera described it as “potentially one of the largest historic restoration projects in the world”, likely to cost well over 100 million dollars. I would have given anything to see it up close.  In fact, if we didn’t have our tour guide with us, I would have found a way in somehow.  There were lots of workers lazily renovating the place, and I think we could have snuck in somehow.  From what I could see, it looked majorly impressive.

Always on the lookout for kitties, I spotted this one nearby, as we continued on to our next site, an Armenian Church.

Our next stop was a small church, the Yangon Armenian Church, which dates back to 1863.  It is the oldest surviving church in Yangon. It served Yangon’s Armenian trading community who had been there since the 17th century.  The land the church was built on was a gift from the King of Burma who had a good relationship with the Armenians of Rangoon.  He rewarded them with this piece of land.  The church is distinguished by its tropical architecture combined with Gothic features.


The interior was pretty nice, and upstairs was a really old church organ.   There was no one in the place, surprisingly, and we were free to just walk around and explore the place. 

As we continued our walk, we passed a guy selling betel leaves.  This is something you chew, and it gives you a bit of a buzz, supposedly.  Habitual betel chewers are constantly spitting globs of red saliva everywhere, and over time, it turns your teeth a nasty shade of reddish-black.  I was curious about it, so our guide treated me to a sample.

I kinda liked it, and I definitely felt the buzz.  It was like a little jolt of caffeine.
Next stop:  the famous Strand Hotel. This is downtown Yangon’s hotel to see and be seen in.  Opened in 1901, it’s the brainchild of Aviet and Tigran Sarkies, two of the four Armenian Sarkies brothers, an entrepreneurial family who established a string of luxury hotels throughout Southeast Asia including the Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern & Oriental in Penang.  Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, and Lord Mountbatten stayed here.  It fell into disrepair following Burmese independence in 1948, but reopened in 1993 after extensive renovations.  Elegant teak and marble floors, mahogany and rattan furniture, paddle fans, and the absence of a swimming pool helps preserve the Raj-era ambience and charm.  A real treat is to sample this atmosphere over high tea in the famous Strand Café, while listening to the soothing strains of the saung gauk (the traditional Burmese harp).  Our guide, Myo, showed us around the colonial-looking lobby, with a glimpse into the dining room and the bar.  Also on the premises are a few gift shops and galleries, some of which contained truly lovely items that, if I had more time to browse, would likely have purchased.  The Strand Bar is a happening hot-spot, but alas, we won’t be going there tonight.  Our flight to Bagan leaves at 6:10 a.m.  We have to get up at 4:00 a.m., as our driver is coming to get us at 4:30.  There’ll be no drinking or partying tonight, I’m afraid.

 Not far from the Strand Hotel is the jetty where you catch the ferry to the village of Dalah.  Although the village is just across the Yangon River, it might as well be on another planet, as the contrast between the crowded streets of Yangon and the rural landscape of the Delta is supposedly pretty surreal.  We didn’t go to Dalah, but we did check out the ferry station, which was pretty hectic.

The ferry station is at the very southern end of Pansodan Street.  This was once one of the city’s most prestigious addresses.  The street is still lined with impressive old colonial edifices.

Here’s the Customs House, complete with clock and cupola.  It’s crumbling and dilapidated, but still a stunner.

Across the street is the Myanma Port Authority building, with its landmark tower and huge arched windows.  Note the nice decorations of ships and anchors around the windows.

 Our survey of colonial architecture continued.   We came upon the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, with its solid-looking vaulted gold doors and fancy silver canopy.  This used to be the Yangon branch of Grindlay’s Bank.  It was turned into a national museum in 1970. In 1996, the building returned to its banking status and becomes a branch office of the Myanmar Industrial Development Bank, which operates under the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation.

At the junction of Pansodan and Merchant Street is the chintzy Lokanat Building, also known as Sofaer’s building.  It was built in 1906 by Isaac and Meyer Sofaer, Jewish brothers born in Baghdad and educated in Rangoon. This building was the epicenter of city life.  The Reuters telegram office was here, and there were shops selling German beer, Scottish whisky, Egyptian cigarettes, and English sweets.
Internal Revenue Department, built in 1936, is opposite Sofaer’s Building. Nice Art Deco flourishes.  Note the original “Rander House” sign. SAW THIS
This entire stretch of Pansodan Street was really charming.

In the middle of the block on the next street, we come upon the High Court.  This Queen Anne-style building was completed in 1911.  The municipal red-brick façade and lofty clock tower epitomizes the pomposity of the Raj at the height of its power. Nice lion at the top.
The red-brick colossus below with white ionic columns above its entrance, is the Government Telegraph Office. It is the first major building at the junction of Pansodan and Mahabandoola Road.  The upper story is crumbling and a radio mast sits on the roof.
Downtown Yangon has one of the world’s greatest collections of colonial architecture, and they are doing a good job preserving their core, with entire streets still lined with original buildings, like the one I posted above.  The buildings themselves, however, are neglected, some being subdivided into shops or apartments, some abandoned to squatters, and some pasted over with advertisements and satellite dishes.  The cost of preserving them would be immense.  As I mentioned above, to restore the Secretariat to its former glory would take about $100 million dollars!  Thankfully, in 2012, the Yangon Heritage Trust was established by influential historian Dr. Thant Myint U.  Their aim is to establish a citywide plan for conserving the historically significant buildings.  We stopped by the Yangon Heritage Trust to get a little dose of history.
A short stroll west, and we were at Mahabandula Garden. It was originally called Fytche Square after Lieutenant-General Albert Fytche, a 19th century Chief commissioner of Burma. It’s a peaceful city park within the busy, compact streets of Yangon.  The park was renamed after legendary General Maha Bandula, the leader of Burmese forces during the First Anglo-Burmese War. The general masterminded a valiant but ultimately unsuccessful resistance to the British invasion of 1824. While parading around the front line dressed in full regalia (under a gilded parasol, to boost the morale of his men), he was killed by a mortar shell. The park is now home of the soaring Independence monument commemorating Burmese independence in 1948.  The garden itself is dotted with little bonsai topiary trees.  Along the west side, you’ll see lots of palm readers plying their trade. Before and after work, many locals come here to practice tai chi.  We stopped and rested here for a while before heading into the Sule Pagoda.  Not a lot of trees here, but nicely manicured lawn and topiary trees.  A peaceful respite.

Looking north from the park, you see the sky-blue City Hall. Built in several stages from 1925 to 1940, it was among the first large buildings to use a hybrid style that  combines European design with traditional Burmese flourishes, like the pagoda-topped roofs, stone latticework, and peacocks. City Hall is the site of several major historical events. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the Rangoon War Criminal Trial opened on March 22, 1946 and was held here; City Hall was converted into a courtroom.  General Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) made his last public speech on the balcony here on July 13, 1947, only 6 days before he was assassinated.  City Hall is a major focal point for political demonstrations.
Just across the road from City Hall, the Immanuel Baptist Church, built in 1952, is easily spotted, with its pair of distinctively spiky spires. The original church was commissioned by an American missionary in 1885, but it was destroyed during World War II. 

Our next destination was the principle tourist attraction in the city.  It’s commonly called Scott Market (after the municipal commissioner at the time it was built) although it’s officially known as Bogyoke Market, or Bogyoke Aung San Market.  It is home to Burma’s most diverse and tourist friendly collection of souvenir shops.  You can buy just about any kind of junk you desire here.  Jade, lacquerware, paintings, and clothing. The main alleyway through the center of the market is lined with dozens of jewelers selling gold, silver, emeralds, and jade jade jade.   Built in 1926, it was renamed Bogyoke (“General”) Aung San Market after the country’s beloved independence leader in 1948.  The market was busy, but not insane like the Bin Tay and Ben Thanh markets in Saigon.  If we weren’t with a guide, I would have probably done more shopping.  I did manage to snag a t-shirt for my buddy Brad.

East of the Bogyoke Market, Bogyoke Aung San Road is usually busy with hawkers selling all sort of stuff like old coins and colonial-era bric-a-brac, etc.
At the end of the block is the fine old Yangon Railway Building.  It was magnificent looking, but we weren’t able to get too close to it, because it was surrounded by scaffolding.  It was undergoing a major renovation.
We doubled back and strolled west of the market.  This takes you to the Yangon General Hospital, another British-era landmark and scene of a particularly vicious massacre on August 10, 1988. Soldiers fired into the hospital, killing injured patients who are assumed to have taken part in anti-government protests, along with doctors and nurses. Two weeks later, Aung San Suu Kyi made her first ever publish speech on the hospital grounds.
Before going to Myanmar, we rented the movie “The Lady”, a biopic about Aung San Soo Kyi.  There is a memorable scene that takes place in Yangon General Hospital in which government soldiers attacked and killed patients in the hospital.  I had read about this while researching our trip, but the movie really depicted the harrowing brutality of the attack.  While leaving the market, I asked our tour guide if we could detour through the hospital grounds, to visit the site of the events that ultimately inspired Soo Kyi to stay in Yangon and take action.
Here’s one last look at the striking colonial architecture of Yangon

 In one of the storefronts at the base of these buildings, I spotted an unthrifty-looking kitten (clearly has conjunctivitis), and a cat who looks related.  It’s frustrating that I can’t treat that little kitten.  A few eye drops in the right eye would fix that right up.

It looks like we covered a lot, but that was just the morning!  In my next post, I’ll show you the two big pagodas in town (the Sule and the Botataung), and then we’ll go north of the city to see two huge, prominent Buddhas, before the star attraction – the Shwedagon.

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