History Comes Alive in Yangon

PROGRESS is inevitable in Yangon, in a country just opening up and changing after Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory in Myanmar’s first free election in 25 years.

Mass tourism may even set in, which prompted me to take a week-long holiday in the nation’s former capital before it is awash with tourists.

In a frenzy of exploration, it was a revelation to find Yangon’s historical attractions still intact and coexist with its current cosmopolitan vibe. Its growing fortunes are also evident, from the traffic jams to skyrocketing land prices from an influx of local and foreign investors, among others.

Yet, the slums with shanty housing and dilapidated infrastructure reflect a lengthy economic stagnation, as you will quickly discover in a taxi from the airport into town.

Home to six million people, they include South Asians, Chinese Burmese and indigenous groups such as the Rakhine and Karen.

It is easy to explore Yangon on foot or by taxi; negotiate the fare beforehand, since the taximeter is seldom used.

Along bustling grid-like streets, untainted by mass tourism, food stalls and other trades do brisk business. Tea shops are especially popular among the locals, chatting over fresh brews or chewing on betel nut leaves.

Rangoon, as Yangon was formerly known, is well represented in Western literature. The young Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell, enjoyed holidays here, away from his life as a policeman in provincial Burma, and later wrote the book Burmese Days.

Inspired to pen Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Noel Coward described “the heat of noon [in Rangoon] is just what the natives shun”. Pablo Neruda, as a consul in 1927, had an affair with his “Burmese panther”, a beautiful woman whose jealousy inspired his poem Widower’s Tango.

Theological allure

One of the most religious Buddhist places in the world, almost everywhere you turn you would see a stupa (dome-shaped Buddhist shrine) or a temple. There are also mosques, churches, Hindu and Sikh temples, and an old-yet-well-maintained synagogue, reflecting the diverse population.

At places of worship, dress modestly; most locals wear the traditional 2m-long, 80cm-wide longyi, sewn into a cylindrical shape and similar to a sarong. A traditional longyi for men is called paso, and htamain for women.

The grand Shwedagon Pagoda, 99m tall, shimmers in the sun and towers over the downtown area. One of the country’s most important religious sites, devotees and monks perform rituals such as washing statues of deities, offering flowers, worshiping and meditating at the spots indicating the day they were born.

The premises, adorned with gold plates, include the tallest stupa with 4,531 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carats. Walking around the pagoda, we saw the hti or little golden umbrella, a finial ornament placed on top of Burmese pagodas. In precolonial times, the hti indicated social status and was only used with special permission.

The hti byu, or white umbrella, was one of five articles featured at royal coronations and used only by the Burmese king and chief queen. The highest officials and royal princes owned golden umbrellas, while red umbrellas were for lower-level officials.

Historical journey

Most downtown roads lead to the Sule Pagoda — which has hosted political events, rallies and protests — where it is surrounded by government buildings, offices and a bus depot.  Across the pagoda, the ornate Sunni Jamai Mosque grabbed the world’s attention when United Nations representative Ibrahim Gambari prayed at its air-conditioned hall in 2008 during his trip to negotiate Suu Kyi’s release with the Myanmar military government.

Nearby, the Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, built in 1896 in 26th Street, is probably the city’s last remaining Jewish holy site with two torah (Hebrew scrolls) as the centrepiece. It is uniquely situated next to a mosque, surrounded by Muslim and Indian traders and residents who help out in cleaning the place.

Over 2,500 Sephardic Jewish people, along with the British from India, came to Myanmar due to teak wood trade. During the Japanese occupation, most of the Jewish community fled the country, and only 20 of them remain. Musmeah’s last rabbi left in 1963.

Yangon also has the highest number of colonial edifices in the region, showcasing Victorian, Queen Anne, neoclassical, art deco and British-Burmese styles. For an insight, take a free heritage tour by Yangon City Walks guides. Register online or simply turn up at the car park opposite the city hall and look out for the guides carrying green umbrellas.

Every Wednesday and Sunday at 4pm, the tour starts at Maha Bandula Garden, named after General Maha Bandula who fought against the British, and takes you to prominent spots such as The Strand Hotel next to the Yangon River.

Established in 1901 by the Sarkies brothers, Armenians who also founded Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and Penang’s Eastern & Oriental Hotel, The Strand hosted swanky events before it was nationalised by socialists in the 1960s.

During his stay in the 1970s, Lonely Planet guidebooks’ founder Tony Wheeler said The Strand was in bad condition. “By 11pm, you are likely to feel pretty lonely in the lounge area [with] just the occasional Strand rat scampering across the floor to keep you company,” he observed. A restoration took place in 1990 in a joint venture between the Burmese military government and Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha. The 32-room hotel reopened three years later.

Nearby, early 20th century edifices such as The Law Courts, Custom House and Port Authority are laid out in a chessboard pattern on streets centred on Sule Pagoda. Peek inside an abandoned building, which housed the accountant-general’s office and currency department, and you will see a beautiful ornamental staircase.

In Merchant Road, you cannot miss Sofaer’s Building — designed by Isaac Sofaer, a Jewish immigrant from Baghdad — with an exterior featuring Italianate flourishes. It is also one of the few buildings fitted with the city’s first electric lifts. Travel + Leisure magazine wrote: “If visitors weren’t brave enough to use the lifts, they could ascend sweeping staircases carved from premium teak felled in the jungles of upper Burma.”

In the heyday of 1910, Sofaer’s Building housed an upscale emporium and upstairs, the Reuters office sent telegrams of news from around the world.

The tour comes full circle at Maha Bandula, where Yangon City Hall around the corner stands out in traditional Burmese tiered roofs, green peacock ornamentation above the central doorway and local motifs on pillars.

Burmese flavours

Originating from the colonial British-India period, Burmese tea shops are almost exclusively male domains. Men squat on small stools at roadsides and make kissy sounds at waiters taking orders.

Curry and rice define Burmese cuisine. Other local favourites are Chinese steamed buns, Indian flatbread and grilled meat typical of Muslim cooking.

Chic dining spots like Rangoon Tea House will appeal to visitors wary of hawker fare hygiene, but fancy trying such staples as mohinga — a bowl of rice noodles and fish soup — curry, tea leaves and pennywort salads, samosas or bel thar mont (duck meat empanadas). Sixteen tea blends are also on offer. Each is colour-coded in the menu, showing the different ratios of black tea, condensed and steamed milk.

At roadside stalls, we enjoyed the coconut noodles, similar to Malaysian curry laksa, and spicy Shan noodles filled with sour mustard greens from the Shan region bordering China, Thailand and Laos.

Before leaving, we made a stop at Shwe Ba restaurant, open in the daytime and accessible only by taxis in the Bahan residential area in the north central part of Yangon. Named after a famous 1960s actor who lived nearby, the acclaimed restaurant offers over 40 different Burmese dishes, but we recommend the spicy fishcakes and the signature fish intestine curry. It was a delicious ending to our trip.


Source: The Edge Markets

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