Like many Southeast Asian cities, the streets of Yangon are chaotic and energetic. While we checked out the colonial architecture in Downtown Yangon, we also encountered the vibrant Burmese street life that included mobile street vendors, roadside eateries, and wandering Buddhist monks dressed in pink robes seeking for donations. As a city of about 5.5 million, Yangon has the most diverse population in Myanmar, with Bamar the main ethnic group, along with Indians, Chinese, Rakhine, Karen people, etc. Such diversity is reflected by the distinct cuisines available in restaurants. With 135 ethnic groups, and bordering nations including India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos, the vigorous cultural fusion of distinct influences is strongly evident in the street food of Yangon.
Buddhist monks, including groups of young monks, could be seen throughout Downtown Yangon. They came out mainly to seek for food donations.
Fruits and snacks were sold everywhere on the sidewalk, including the pavement in front of the City Hall.
Despite of recent controversy, Ang San Suu Kyi is still to a great extent the symbol of human rights in Myanmar.
There was a street market along the east side of Maha Bandula Park.
Some vendors were selling dry goods but most were actually street food vendors.
Snacks and more food at the east entrance of Maha Bandula Park.
The pink robes of the Buddhist monks stood out against the old building facades of Yangon.
Plastic chairs, makeshift tents, and temporary tables of street food vendors were set up at side streets.
With the happy customers at the street food vendors, the city was filled with a somewhat laid-back atmosphere. Even dogs were having a relaxing time in the early afternoon.
We saw an abundance of fruit vendors at street corners in Yangon.
Lime, oranges, mandarin oranges, pineapples, bananas, dragon fruits, and grapes are the most popular fruit on the street.
Traditional longyi (a 2m long cloth sewn in cylindrical shape) is widely worn in Myanmar for both men and women.
Longyi comes in all kinds of patterns and colours.
Ang San Suu Kyi remains as the face of Myanmar.
Cold drink shops are popular in Yangon, offering soda, juices, and snacks.
Canopies of historical buildings provide desirable weather protection for street vendors.
Even the downtown area is full of a sense of community, with happy vendors and customers seem to know each other well.
This traditional bakery shop sells all kinds of cookies, sandwiches and bread.
Where the sidewalk was not wide enough, vendors spread their merchandise out to the street.
After the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, the East India Company’s annexation of Pegu province put Yangon into British hands. In 1885, the Third Anglo-Burmese War resulted in Britain’s complete annexation of Burma, and Rangoon (now Yangon) was named as the capital of Burma (now Yangon). From 1852 until Burma gaining independence in 1948, Rangoon saw major urban transformation under the British, with splendid colonial structures constructed all over the downtown. After independence, political and military turmoil among ethnic groups threatened the survival of the new nation, and then in 1962, a coup d’etat brought the nation into a 48-year military dictatorship until the first civilian elected president came to power in 2010. During the period of political turmoil and authoritarian rule, Yangon, together with much of Myanmar, was largely isolated from the outside world. Many colonial buildings from the British era were neglected and left for natural decay. Ironically, Yangon’s decades of lack of development led to the successful preservation of Southeast Asia’s largest concentration of colonial architecture. Recently, international investment began to pour in as the country gradually opened up. Some historical buildings had since then became redevelopment targets for foreign developers. Before heading north to visit Shwedagon Pagoda, we spent a brief time wandering around the lower downtown of Yangon to admire its awesome but fading colonial architecture.
Yangon City Hall, one the most prominent colonial building in the city, stands across the street from Sule Pagoda. Designed by Burmese architect U Tin and completed in 1940, the City Hall is a fine example of Burmese colonial architecture where local influence (in this case the multi-tiered pyatthat roof) has been incorporated into the otherwise largely Western design. The City Hall building exemplifies nationalist Burmese architecture at the twilight stage of colonial rule.
Across the street from the City Hall, the Ayeyarwady Bank occupies the former Rowe & Co. Department Store building. Completed in 1910, the Rowe & Co. Department Store was the most splendid shopping venue in Rangoon. This century-old building featured a innovative steel structural frame, electric lifts and ceiling fans over a century ago.
Across the street from the City Hall, the Mahandoola Garden (Maha Bandula Park) has long been a public park at the heart of Yangon since 1868. While we were there, audience seating and a stage were set up for an upcoming event.
Also designed by Burmese architect U Tin, the Independent Monument at Mahandoola Garden (Maha Bandula Park) was erected at the centre of the park in 1948 to commemorate the nation’s independence, replacing the former statue of Queen Victoria at the same location.
Flanking the east side of Mahandoola Garden (Maha Bandula Park), the former High Court is one of the most iconic buildings in Yangon. It was also one of the first in Yangon to have toilet and plumbing facilities as well as electricity. During the military rule, the Supreme Court was replaced by the socialist Council of People’s Justices controlled by the General. Today, Myanmar’s Supreme Court has been relocated to the new capital Naypyidaw.
Further south from Mahandoola Garden, at the intersection of Sule Pagoda Road and Strand Road stands the baby blue and white Myanmar Economic Bank building (formerly Bank of Bengal and then Imperial Bank of India). The Imperial Bank of India was the most prominent bank in colonial Burma, serving like the central bank for the nation.
The former Accountant-General’s Office and Currency Department were housed in a magnificent building with three octagonal towers. These former colonial departments oversaw taxes and trade customs for British Burma, which was belonged to the Government of British India.
Today, the building is in poor condition, especially for the wings along Bank Street and Mahabandoola Garden Street. Overgrown weeds took over parts of the building facade.
The building hasn’t changed much since the Japanese bombing in 1942.
This former Accountant-General’s Office and Currency Department building was partially occupied by Yangon Divisional Court and Department of Pensions nowadays.
Each of the octagonal towers houses a ornate spiral staircase.
The red-brick Customs House is one of the few historical buildings still serving its original functions today.
Since 1916, the two-faced clock has been the iconic feature of the Custom House.
Further down Strand Road, we arrived at Myanmar Port Authority (former Port Trust Office). The corner tower is an iconic landmark for the city, both for today and back in 1920s, when the new building was erected to reflect Rangoon as one of the busiest port in the British Empire.
Myanmar National Airlines occupies the 1920s building of the former Bombay-Burmah Trading Corporation, whose diverse business included exporting teak wood. Right next door stood the splendid Strand Hotel, the 1901 glamorous hotel for affluent visitors in the early 20th century. In 1993, the hotel was fully renovated with a budget of USD 10 million.
The former National Bank of India building (now Myanma Agricultural Development Bank) was built in 1930. Designed by Thomas Oliphant Foster and Basil Ward, the same architects who had done the Myanmar Port Authority building, the beautiful entrance canopy and the golden entrance door remain as special features of Pansodan Road.
Written with “A Scott & Co” and “erected 1902” on the triangular pediment of today’s YCDC (Yangon City Development Committee) building, this colonial architecture had witnessed the era when Rangoon had a strong trading connections with Scotland.
Wandering in Downtown Yangon offered us a chance to see a number of the city’s finest colonial buildings in just a short walk. Throughout the walk, we passed by many anonymous buildings from the British era.
We planned to visit Secretariat (Ministers’ Building), the former administrative centre of British Burma and Yangon’s most important colonial building. On our way, we passed by several more interesting historical buildings. Unfortunately the Secretariat complex was not open to the public. We could barely see it from outside the fence, and decided to move on to Shwedagon Pagoda.
After lunch at 999 Shan Noodle House, we walked over to the City Hall. Across the street from the City Hall stood Sule Pagoda, the iconic octagonal stupa that marked the heart of Yangon. We decided to pay a quick visit to this wonderful monument before venturing further south.
Built in the 5th century BC, the 2600 year old was said to even predate the famous Shwedagon. The stupa was built in the style of Mon pagoda architecture, back in the era when the Mon people was a dominant ethnic group in the region. The Mon people was also responsible for spreading Theravada Buddhism throughout Southeast Asia. The Mon name of Sule Pagoda is “kyaik athok ceti”, meaning “stupa with a sacred hair enshrined”. Legend has it that the Sule Pagoda contains one of Buddha’s hairs given to merchant Tapussa and Bhallika. The rest of the same strand of Buddha’s hairs were said to be kept at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Before the British set out to develop Yangon and its port area, Sule Pagoda was situated on an island surrounded by a swamp at the banks of Yangon River. The British drained the area, constructed a prominent roundabout centred at the Pagoda and defined Sule as the heart of Downtown Rangoon (now Yangon). Today, Sule pagoda remains as an iconic spot of the city, and has served as the centre stage of civilian rallies and demonstrations throughout the years.
We crossed the street from the City Hall to the east entrance of the Sule Pagoda.
At the entrance, we followed the rules and took off our shoes and socks, left them with one of the staff, purchased admission tickets and then climbed up the stairs to the main worshiping area. This was our first experience of walking barefoot in Myanmar.
The first thing we saw beyond the stair was a cosy and golden altar with many pilgrims.
Outside of the covered altar was a series of small golden shrine surrounding the base of the octagonal pagoda. It’s important for the Burmese to know which day of the week they were born in order to find the right shrine to worship. There are eight planetary shrines around the pagoda, each represents a planet as well as a particular day of the week, with Wednesday split into two (am and pm).
Water and food can be found at the pagoda complex, usually donated by Buddhist worshipers, who believe good deeds are one of the basis for path of enlightenment.
Soon we reached another entrance of the Sule Pagoda. Entrances of the pagoda are arranged at the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west.
The corresponded altar of this entrance looked somewhat different than the one we first arrived at.
Like all shrines in Myanmar, gold is the single dominant colour of the octagonal Sule Pagoda.
At the Saturday shrine, another two worshipers were busy performing rituals and cleaning the altar with water.
Under the scorching sun, many worshipers stayed at the shaded area to mediate. It was interesting to see many young people were among the devoted worshipers.
When looking closely, the fine details and craftsmanship of the golden ornaments were overwhelmingly impressive.
At another entrance altar, colourful fresco depicted a number of Buddhist stories high up near the ceiling.
Each of the four altars has a distinct set of ornaments.
Other than the devoted worshippers, some locals were just hanging around in the pagoda area as if the space was a public park. In fact, Buddhist shrines in Myanmar do serve as community spaces that welcome everyone.
It was relaxing to walk on bare feet around the Sule Pagoda. Surprising we didn’t feel uncomfortable without our shoes and socks.
Near the entrance where we arrived, there was a group of people gathered at a pulley wire, waiting for the staff to send their prayer cards up to the pagoda by the golden prayer boat.
Via a wire pulley system, the golden prayer boat sends prayer cards of worshippers up to the pagoda.
A staff at the base worked the pulley to send up the prayer boat while a group of worshipers gathered to witness the process.
After one loop, we repeated the clockwise stroll around the Sule Pagoda for a second time.
After two loops around the pagoda, we walked down the stair where we first arrived, put on our shoes, and moved on to further explore Downtown Yangon.
Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was the capital city of Myanmar (Burma) until 2006. With 7 million inhabitants, Yangon remains as the largest city in Myanmar. Because of our tight schedule, we only had a day to explore the downtown where decaying colonial buildings from the British era mingled with bustling daily activities of the locals, and the Shwedagon Pagoda, the religious heart and biggest tourist draw of the city. Before that, we decided to first get a taste of the Burmese culture through sampling the local cuisine. We weren’t particularly hungry, but would want to try out a well known noodle shop: 999 Shan Noodle House. It was a half-hour walk to the noodle shop. What’s better to get a quick Yangon impression than wandering its lively streets?
Venturing out of the Loft Hotel, we headed east towards the north-south thoroughfare Alan Pya Pagoda Street. Local shops lined along one side of the street, while the opposite side was dominated by the large Park Royal Hotel.
One of the first building we encountered on Alan Pya Pagoda Street was Thamada (President) Cinema and Hotel. Opened its door in 1958, Thamada was Rangoon’s most prominent cinema with a fully air-conditioned hall and a great example of the cuty’s Modernist architecture.
A number of snack vending carts were stationed in front of Thamada Cinema.
Other than skewers or salad, fruit is also common snacks in Yangon.
Renovated a few years ago, Thamada Cinema remains as a popular cinema in the present, drawing sell out shows from time to time.
Further down the road we reached the intersection of Sakura Tower. Built in 1999, Sakura is a 20 storey building built by Japanese investors and architects. It offers office spaces up to international standards, with a restaurant at the top floor. While the top floors struggled to find tenants in the first several years, Sakura is now totally full as Myanmar opens up in recent years.
Next to Sakura Tower, the 1910 Bible Society of Myanmar (British and Foreign Bible Society) was the heart of Christian evangelical society in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, the foreign missionaries were expelled from the country, and was restructured in 1964 under national organization.
The strip of Bogyoke Road at Sakura Tower was known as Rangoon’s “Cinema Row” in the past, a designated entertainment district. The Nay Pyi Taw Theatre with its iconic patterned facade was built in 1961. Movie was and still remains big in Yangon (formerly Rangoon). The modernist patterned facade was popular back in late 1950s and early 1960s in Southeast Asia.
Further down we reached a busy intersection of Sule Road and Anawratha Road where a network of pedestrian overpass allowed us to gain a raised overview of this part of Downtown Yangon.
The overpass was occupied with vendors. Pedestrians loved to stop by the railing for a look at the changing surrounding skyline. Looking north, the top of Sakura Tower perched over the tree crown in the middle, and the Sule Shangri-La (Trader Hotel) dominates the the left side with its 500 rooms. Built by Japanese and Singaporean architects, the hotel never really fulfilled its tourist potentials due to the West’s boycott on the junta government. Rooms were sold at discounted prices. interestingly, it did attract a number of NGOs and UN agencies to set ups their offices here, and so as foreign journalists and some tourists.
At the southwest corner of the pedestrian overpass, a new 20 storey office building was under construction.
Further south we could see one of the city’s most important monument, the Sule Pagoda. It is known to be one of the oldest monument site in Yangon, some said around 2600 years old. Sule Pagoda has been and still is considered to be the heart of Downtown Yangon.
After a moment above the streets, it was time for us to return to the busy street scenes.
As we approached 999 Shan Noodle House, we began to explore the network of small side streets behind Yangon City Hall.
All side streets were flanked by buildings dated back to British Rangoon.
It took us several minutes to reach the right side street of the noodle house. It was fortunate that we had portable wifi device and mobile phone which we could get on Google Map.
Food vendors could be seen on many of these side streets. Groups of children monks were also a common sight.
After a little over half an hour of walk, we finally reached our destination – 999 Shan Noodle House. 999 is a famous restaurant in Yangon specialized in dishes from the Shan and Kachin States at Northern Myanmar. These states border with Yunnan Province of China, which is also popular with rice noodle dishes.
The pig knuckle noodle soup was tasty, and the pork texture was just right.
Stir fry rice noodle with local spices was also a popular dish at 999 Shan Noodle House.
After lunch, we continued to walk down the side street towards Yangon City Hall.
At the end of the street we again passed by a food vendor. They seemed to be everywhere in Downtown Yangon, especially at the end of side streets.
In Christmas 2017, we made a 4-day short trip to Myanmar for a brief getaway. For almost half a century, Myanmar was under military rule and few foreigners would visit the US sanctioned country. Myanmar saw a gradual increase of foreign tourists since the military junta was replaced by a civilian government in 2011. Despite recent improvements on the political situations, including the 2015 general election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy winning a majority in the parliament, the tourism industry has yet reached its full potentials, given the country’s rich sights and fascinating culture. Traveling in this Southeast Asian country that has yet been exploited by mass tourism and global commercialism was a charming experience.
Compared to Siem Reap in Cambodia where vibrant pubs and massage parlors mushroom near the sacred sites of Angkor, Myanmar’s Bagan still remains a sleepy village surrounded by 3000+ ancient Buddhist temples and stupas. Compared to many Asian cities where the urban skyline changes every year, Myanmar’s largest city and former capital Yangon remains an energetic city with the Asia’s largest collection of colonial architecture from its British era. Due to its years of international isolation, up until recent years Myanmar was a pristine destination devoid of international influences like Mac Donald’s or Starbucks. Although short, our 3.5 day of travel experience was absolutely inspiring, particularly for the magical moments at Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda and the stunning scenery of Old Bagan under the golden glow of the sunrise.
Our mileage rewarded flight took us for a 8-hour layover at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport. We walked over to the Novotel Hotel for a late dinner and a few hours of rest.
The Christmas tree and ginger bread houses at the atrium of Novotel Hotel reminded us Christmas was just three days away.
We returned to Bangkok Airport early in the morning. The first thing we saw after entering the secure zone was the Samudra manthan sculpture.
The Samudra Manthan sculpture depicted the Thai version of the Hindu mythology of cosmos creation.
We found our way to the boarding gate at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport.
We boarded a Thai Airways flight designated for Yangon of Myanmar.
The flight took roughly 1.5 hour. By the time we saw the Gulf of Martaban of Andaman Sea, the plane gradually descended towards Yangon International Airport.
From the airport, we took an official taxi to Loft Hotel, our accommodation in Central Yangon.
The lobby of Loft Hotel was causal and smart. We were greeted with fresh juice and lots of smile.
In the lobby, there were interesting handicraft on display. They were by Pomelo, a local fairtrade shop selling high-quality crafts made by disadvantaged people in Myanmar.
Part of the corridor of Loft Hotel served like a gallery space for paintings.
Through a corridor of paintings, we found our way to our room.
Our room was a neat loft unit, with a small living area and bathroom at the lower level.
With exposed structure, white washed walls, eye-catching pendant lights, charcoal paint, and brick cladding, the room interior design at Loft Hotel was sleek and comfortable.
The sleeping area was located on the upper mezzanine.
The Loft Hotel came as a little surprise for us. We anticipated more pleasant surprises as we ventured out to explore Yangon.
Other than the spiritual monasteries, wonderful mountainous scenery and marvelous night sky, one thing we miss from our Tibetan trip is undoubtedly the faces of the Tibetan people. Their devotion to Buddhism, friendliness to foreigners, connection to their Himalayan homeland, and colourful clothing contribute to a unique and beautiful culture that we would always remember.
One face we would certain miss is the cute dog that always lingers at the entrance of Trichang Labrang Hotel (赤江拉讓藏式賓館).
Despite the presence of tourism, there is still a community atmosphere in Barkhor Old Town near our hotel, especially in the morning when locals comes out to get breakfast and grocery.
Near our hotel, delightful kids often run around the narrow alleyways.
And so as Buddhist monks who found their way towards Jokhang Monastery.
Vivid colours is everywhere to represent the unique Tibetan culture.
Large flag poles are pilgrim magnets along the kora route around the Jokhang Monastery.
The forecourt of Jokhang Monastery is always a great place for people watching.
Pilgrims on the kora route of Jokhang Monastery in traditional clothing and accessories.
Prostrating pilgrims express their devotion to Buddhism through their physical actions.
Pilgrim and prayer wheels along the kora of Jokhang Monastery.
Pilgrim and prayer wheels at Sera Monastery.
Pilgrim at the kora route of the Potala Palace.
And that concludes the posts on our Tibetan trip 2017.
Our driver Sangzhu dropped us near our hotel Trichang Labrang (赤江拉讓藏式賓館) in Barkhor Old Town. After dropping off our bags, we stopped by the eatery beside the hotel for a quick bite. The friendly eatery owners, a talkative young couple, were excited to welcome us and chatted with us. We ordered a Nepali platter, fried momo and two cans of local beer to celebrate the completion of our road trip. The momos were quite delicious, and went well with the beer made with Highland Barley. It was the last full day of the trip. After filling our stomach, we didn’t want to visit any attractions, but spent time wandering in Barkhor Old Town, checking out souvenirs, watching people, and photographing anything that interested us, until the dinner time. For dinner, we decided to try the Tibetan hotpot at “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆).
After returning to Lhasa, we stopped by the small local eatery next door from Trichang Labrang Hotel. The young owners were friendly and talkative.
To celebrate the completion of our 6-day road trip, we ordered some local beer and highland barley wine.
The most delicious snack we ordered was the fried momo (Tibetan dumplings).
For dinner, we revisited the “Our Tibetan Restaurant” (咱们的藏餐馆), the atmospheric courtyard restaurant nearby.
Again we ordered the highland barley wine (青稞酒). The wine came in an interesting bird-like pottery jar.
The main dish of the meal was the Tibetan hotpot. It came with vegetables, melons, beef, ham and yak meat.
We wanted to linger around Barkhor Old Town for a little longer after dinner.
In front of Jokhang Monastery (གཙུག་ལག་ཁང༌། 大昭寺), pilgrims, worshiped on the stone pavers as usual.
Other than pilgrims, tourists also gathered at the Jokhang forecourt.
In front of Jokhang main entrance, more pilgrims gathered to worship, including some Buddhist monks.
The sky was getting dark but the Jokhang forecourt was getting even more crowded.
Some pilgrims preferred to stay near the large flag pole in front of the Jokhang.
Around Jokhang, groups after groups of pilgrims and tourists walked the kora in clockwise direction around Lhasa’s most sacred site.
The kora route was flanked one side by souvenir shops and the other by the majestic facade of the Jokhang.
Along the kora route, many pilgrims were performing prostration the entire way.
Some tourists treated the pilgrimage forecourt as a public plaza and sat on the pavers to chill out among the pilgrims.
Among pilgrims and tourists, chilling out in the Jokhang forecourt included this large and gorgeous husky.
We would certainly miss the spiritual atmosphere of the Jokhang forecourt.
On our way back to Trichang Labrang Hotel, we passed by one last time the store where we bought our bottled water everyday of our Lhasa stay. The next morning, we would take the airport shuttle bus near the Potala and fly back to Hong Kong via Chengdu. Although short, it was a delightful experience for the three of us on the unique Tibetan culture and magnificent Himalayan landscape. Hopefully next time we could have more time and travel further to the western corner of Tibet.