Perhaps more commonly known by it's colonial name Rangoon, Yangon is Myanmar's largest city and its commercial and diplomatic hub. For many years it also used to be the capital, until in November 2005 the government unexpectedly decided to move the capital to a newly built town in central Myanmar called Nay Pyi Tay. No reason given!
Yangon is a city of contradictions, perhaps mirroring what's happening on a larger scale across the country. Rich cultural past, unknown modern future, disheveled image. The best way to really discover it is to walk through it's core.
The heart of the city has a very colonial feel. There are some gorgeous buildings like the old City Hall, Customs House and High Court building that are unfortunately in complete disrepair. But with a little imagination, and hopefully soon with some foreign investment, these buildings can be revived back to their former glory. As you walk around you will also notice that the streets is where everything happens in Yangon. They are full of life. Street vendors literally take over the whole sidewalk. You will also notice the different enclaves of Indian and Chinese shop keepers. And mosques, churches and temples sit side by side, symbolizing the cities religious freedom. Shockingly, some of the newest buildings are also the most abandoned. We saw several residential high-rises that have been left in abandon, and on the central square, right opposite the Independence Monument is a tower which was to be a Sofitel Hotel. But due to the embargo, the building has been sitting empty for over a decade.
Sometimes I looked at all the beautiful buildings and felt despair for they looked so decrepit that perhaps, I thought, they're beyond salvation. In a way it reminded me of Havana. Potentially beautiful, however, realistically destined to be torn down. However, something tells me that Yangon will find its way and strike a new identity. Big things are to come soon to this beautiful Golden Land.
SIGHTS TO SEE:
> Shwedagon Paya: this is the most sacred of all buddhists sites in Myanmar, one that all Burmese buddhists hope to visit at least once in their lifetime. It is gorgeous! The main stupa, which has been rebuilt many times due to earthquakes, rises 100 metres above ground and is topped with diamonds and other precious stones. What made the visit very special is that there were hardly any tourists there and you really felt you stepped into a working temple, unlike in Thailand, where you often feel you're visiting a tourist attraction.
> Reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Paya: this Buddha is much longer than its more famous sibling in Bangkok, yet it's housed in a warehouse type structure which makes it look too contemporary and the housing is obviously just functional. The story goes that there used to be a giant standing Buddha on this spot, which then collapsed on to the floor. Thus he is now reclining! The area is surrounded by adjoining monasteries.
> White albino elephants: if you've never seen an albino elephant, this is your chance. Three of them are held in a compound close to the airport. Don't be fooled. They're not completely white, but more pink-ish. And due to their uniqueness are revered by the royalty.
> Bogyoke Aung San Market: if shopping is what you're looking for, this sprawling market, also known by its former British name Scotts Market, is for you. Handicrafts, paintings, jewelry, fabrics, woodwork, carpets, antiques, tailoring … you name it, Scotts Market has got it!
> Naga Monastery: on the last day, prior to departing Yangon, we stopped at this school for Buddhist monks. Both girls and boys live in this monastery and go to school here. Contrary to my understanding of a monastery, the children here are taught regular classes such as biology and chemistry as well as Buddhist teachings. The boys and girls were so cute and curious about us. I imagine not many white people pass by! What astonished me here is that when you see male and female monks together, with shaved heads and big curious eyes, it is so hard to discern their sex. Girls without hair, can easily be confused for boys and vice-versa. A shaved head literally strips you of your identity.
> Sabai Sabai (232 Dharma Zedi Road, Bahan, Tel 951 544 724): we were craving Thai food one evening and our guide recommended this restaurant. He was right … fantastic Thai food in a local joint.
> Monsoon restaurant and bar (85 - 87 Theinbyu Road (lower block) Botataung, Tel 951 295 224): If you're unsure about trying the local Burmese cuisine, this restaurant with a colonial ambience is the place for you. The menu covers a wide selection of local as well as Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laos food. I tried the wonderful yoghurt chicken curry, a local specialty, and it was delish. Don't forget to visit the store in the loft. Beautiful local handicrafts in a characterful loft on top of the 3-storey building.
> Zagyi House Cafe: this restaurant adjoins the Scotts market so it's a perfect place for lunch prior to submitting yourself to the countless allies full of shops in the antique market.
> Governor's Residence: I never knew Orient Express had a hotel collection - I always associated the brand with luxury trains - but this is one of them. And it's a beautiful property! A former residence of the British governor which has been converted into an intimate boutique hotel. The main building is an expansive colonial house with large verandahs and a completely open upper floor (meaning no windows/doors) which contains a billiard table and a tropical lounge area where you can drink your gin-tonics, play cards, or read books while listening to the rain outside. The rooms are very spacious and the big comfy beds covered with plush duvets, which you will need at night for the air-con was on full blast and we could not for the life of us figure our how to regulate it!
> The Strand Hotel: I was slightly disappointed by this hotel. This of course is the Raffles of Yangon. The grand dame which has housed royalty, nobility and celebrities in its long history. Located right in the centre of Yangon, on Strand Street, the property seems very confined with no real connection to its surroundings. The hotel basically faces warehouses and the harbor on the opposite side of the street. But definitely something to see … especially the bar where many a famous person sat and drank herself into the humid night.