Yangon (Rangoon)

Yangon (Rangoon) is Myanmar’s largest city and its commercial center. It is truly developing, new high-rises abut traditional Southeast Asian shophouses while down the street from a frozen yogurt bar, a sidewalk dentist goes to work. Yangon’s rich collection of colonial architecture is one of its biggest draws; The Strand and its surrounding side streets look today much as they did at the turn of the century, when Yangon—then Rangoon—was under British rule. Yangon’s most iconic sight is unquestionably the enormous gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, but what makes it worth visiting beyond that is the rich, vibrant life that spills out of people’s homes and onto the streets. Colorful and chaotic, Yangon is a feast for the senses. Grinning uniformed schoolchildren and preadolescent monks vie for sidewalk space as vendors hawk fried goods and longyi-wearing businessmen go off to work. On a street of Indian-run paint shops sits the country’s only synagogue, a 19th-century relic; blocks away rise the steeples of St. Mary’s Cathedral, another reminder of the city’s colonial past.

The garden city of Yangon maintains its charm with wide, tree-lined avenues, tranquil lakes and majestic colonial architecture. It is home to one of the ancient wonders of the world, Shwedagon Pagoda, a 98-metre-high stupa whose golden glow can be seen from throughout the city. The greenery of Yangon provides an enchanting backdrop to the beautiful shrine.

Shwedagone Pagoda

According to legend, the pagoda was built 2500 years ago and was enshrined with hair relics of the Buddha. Over the centuries, kings and commoners alike sought merit by donating gold and jewels to the stupa and the umbrella at its apex, which is now decorated with more than 80,000 pieces of jewellery and topped with a diamond-studded orb. The platform at the base of the towering pagoda is packed with about 100 pavilions and shrines, where pilgrims from all over the country show their reverence for the Buddha. Here, visitors can see into the heart of Myanmar’s Buddhists as they pray and offer flowers, incense and candles.Visit Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk to watch the sunset over Yangon and enjoy the gentle sound of the pagoda bells chiming in the evening breeze.

Yangon originated as a small town called Dagon on the outskirts of the ancient kingdom of Okkalapa. In 1755 the founder of the Third Myanmar Empire, King Alaungpaya – who reigned from upper Myanmar – conquered the southern parts of the country and renamed the town Yangon, meaning End of Strife. After the British colonised the south they turned the town it into a busy port. The British have long since departed but they left a legacy of beautiful colonial.Take a walking tour of the downtown area’s majestic colonial architecture, including a stop at the elegant Strand Hotel for afternoon high tea.

Yangon offers a whole range of sights and experiences. There are of course hundreds of pagodas – Botahtaung, Sule and Chaukhtatgyi among the more famous – as well as Hindu temples, Islamic mosques and Christian churches. The National Museum displays relics from the days of the ancient kingdoms, while the Gems Museum holds collections of uncut rubies as big as bricks as well as the world’s largest piece of jade. The park around Kandawgyi Lake can be explored on foot, as can the city’s numerous markets.

The most popular among visitors is BogyokeAung San Market in the downtown area, with its hundreds of stalls selling everything rom rubies to lacquerware to silk.

For those in need of refreshment, Yangon hosts a wide choice of restaurants. Options include elegant continental cuisine; Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thai and other Asian dishes; and of course local Myanmar fare.

A short drive out of Yangon takes you to a different world of sleepy villages. Thanlyin and Kyauktan are typical small towns with old monasteries and pagodas hidden among the trees. The annual festival at KyaikKhauk Pagoda in Thanlyin is one of region’s major country fairs. Nearby Twante is famed for its pottery works where ancient techniques are still used.

To the north of Yangon, along the road to Mandalay, lies Htaukkyant War Cemetery, a tranquil, beautifully landscaped plot of land maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and holding more than 6000 graves of Allied soldiers who died during World War II. The centrepiece is a huge marble monument engraved with the names of nearly 27,000 soldiers with no known grave. Beyond that is Bago, once called Hanthawaddy when it was the capital city of a Mon kingdom. The main pagoda in town is Shwemawdaw and its annual festival in April is one of the biggest in lower Myanmar. The huge Shwethalyaung reclining Buddha image, once lost to the jungle, was only rediscovered in the 19th century by engineers repairing a railway. Its huge size has been exceeded by the recently completed Myathalyaung Buddha on the southern end of town, which is now the third-biggest reclining image in Myanmar.

Take a daytrip north to explore Bago’s fascinating religious monuments, including Shwemawdaw Pagoda and the Shwethalyanung and Myathalyaung relining Buddha images.