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Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Yangon

According to legend, the city started life as a small fishing village. Around 2,500 years ago two merchant brothers called on King Okkalapa and presented him with eight strands of the Buddha’s hair. The King instructed that a great Pagoda be built on Thainguttara Hill to house the relics. The town of Dagon was born. In 1755 King Alaungpaya swept through Myanmar, defeated the Mon army and captured Dagon. He re-named the city Yangon, meaning ‘End of Strife’. In 1852 the city became part of the British Empire and the name was changed again to Rangoon. After capturing all of what is now Myanmar in 1885, the British made Rangoon the new colonial Capital. In 1989 the government changed the city’s name back to Yangon and in 2005, the Capital was moved to the newly-built city of Nay Pyi Taw.

British Rangoon was nicknamed the ‘The Garden City of the East’ for its parks, lakes and wide avenues and the city became an important regional trade centre. Large numbers of Chinese as well as Hindu and Muslim Indians moved to the city to trade and build its infrastructure, making the city a cosmopolitan mix of ethnicities. Today’s Yangon, a city of 6 million people, is most famous for its colonial heritage and is probably the most intact British colonial city in the world.

Yangon is our favourite city. Impressive, imposing colonial edifices line the streets of the downtown district near historic Sule Pagoda. Then come the markets; Bogyoke Aung San and Theingyi, local produce markets like Bogale catering to city centre dwellers and the morning, and night markets that set up along the streets of the Indian district. In amongst the markets and side-streets are the places of worship; Buddhist Pagodas, Century-old South Indian-style Hindu temples, mosques and colonial churches of various denominations. Then there’s Chinatown; hidden temples and traditional food shops, barbeque stalls and fruit sellers.

And that’s just downtown. North of the railway station (which is a sight in itself) lies that ‘Garden City’; Huge parks, tree-lined avenues, picturesque lakes and hidden colonial mansions. It’s here you will also find the best hotels and finest restaurants – this is the culinary capital of Myanmar. And then there are the shopping districts such as Myaynigone, the art galleries and museums that chronicle the history of this ‘Golden Land’. And crowning all this, of course, is Shwedagon; that most magnificent of pagodas; the most sacred site in Myanmar.

Yangon is one the safest big cities in the world. This is a place to stroll, linger over a cup of tea in a streetside teashop, wander the back streets, bargain for unique gifts, make conversation. Many visitors give Yangon only a day or two of their time – we think it is worth all the time you can spare.

Hightlights
Shwedagon Pagoda.

Rising almost 100 metres from its base on a hill above the city, the magnificent golden Pagoda of Shwedagon is the most important and revered religious site in all Myanmar. Legend has it that the first pagoda on this site was built around 2,500 years ago to house eight hairs of the Buddha. It was certainly a landmark by 1586 when English trader Ralph Fitch described it as “The fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world”. Rebuilt over the years, the greatly enlarged form you can see today dates to 1769.

Shwedagon is gilded with some 60 tons of gold. At its tip is a gold ‘hti’ (umbrella) weighing over a ton and hung with gold and silver bells. At the very top of the ‘hti’ is a golden orb, 10 inches in diameter, studded with 4351 diamonds totalling 1800 carats and crowned by a single diamond solitaire weighing 76 carats. The main pagoda is surrounded by dozens of smaller shrines, temples, bells and pavilions, and hundreds or thousands of pilgrims paying their respects. We recommend hiring a guide to explain the stories and legends; to bring history alive.

In our opinion the hour before sunset is the optimum time to visit Shwedagon. Enter the pagoda complex via the East entrance, remove your shoes and walk uphill past the merchants selling items such as incense sticks, books, ceremonial umbrellas and money wheels. Walk around the pagoda clockwise and look up at the golden stupa, changing colour in the fading light. As the sun sets the pagoda is floodlit and shines like a beacon of hope across the city. Its beauty and majesty will leave you spellbound.

Sule Pagoda

This gilded, octagonal 151 feet high pagoda dates at least to the Mon period in the 14th Century and may be much older. Its original Mon name was Kyaik A-thote which means ‘Sacred hair relic pagoda’. The pagoda was built on a rocky spur jutting out of the surrounding swampland. The British, when they were planning the new business and administration district, drained the swamp and used the pagoda as the focal centre of their street plan. Sule, now ringed by shops and fortune tellers, is a popular place with city commuters, many of whom stop to pay their respects or meditate before boarding a bus home to the suburbs. It is an oasis of calm amidst the bustle of city life.

Botataung Pagoda

The ‘Thousand Military Leaders Pagoda’ is named for those who escorted relics of the Buddha from India to Myanmar some two millennia ago. Located on Yangon’s riverfront, Botataung Pagoda differs from the city’s other major pagodas in that it is hollow. The interior passageways are lined with gold leaf and glass mosaics and contain showcases displaying ancient relics and artefacts. During reconstruction efforts following damage sustained during WWII, a gold cylinder was discovered containing a hair, believed to be from the Buddha. In a hall on the west side of the pagoda is a 19th Century gilded bronze Buddha, originally kept at King Mindon Min’s Glass Palace. After a 67 year exile at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum it was returned here in 1952. If you would like to gain some ‘merit’ during your visit, you can do so by feeding the pagoda catfish and terrapins housed in a large pond.

St Mary’s Cathedral.

This downtown Catholic cathedral is Myanmar’s largest. The red brick colonial building was designed by Jos Cuypers, son of the famous Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers who was responsible for Amsterdam’s Rijkmuseum. The cathedral was built between 1895 and 1899 and survived WWII almost unscathed. The famous stained glass windows were, however, severely damaged by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.

Ngahtatgyi Pagoda.

This pagoda is famous for its huge and impressive sitting Buddha dressed in royal regalia. Surrounding the pagoda are several monasteries; one built of wood in traditional style, supported by 100 teak pillars and another in brick, with colourful Chinese motifs.

Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda.

The main attraction of this pagoda only a short distance from Shwedagon, is the beautiful, 70 metre long reclining Buddha – the third largest in Myanmar. The elegant Chaukhtatgyi Buddha is in resting pose and features life-like five feet wide glass eyes made by a well-known local glass factory. The Buddha wears a crown encrusted with diamonds and other precious stones, and clearly displays the 108 sole marks of a Buddha. This is a popular place to have your fortune told.

Kaba Aye Pagoda and Maha Pasana Guha.

The ‘World Peace’ Pagoda and ‘Great Cave’ are located in the north of the city a short drive from Inya Lake. They were built in 1952 in preparation for the Sixth Buddhist Synod, held from 1954 – 56 to coincide with the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha attaining enlightenment. The pagoda measures 34 metres around its base and is also 34 metres tall. It contains a 500kg Silver Buddha image and relics of two disciples of the Buddha. The great cave, measuring 139 by 113 metres is where the Synod was held. It can accommodate 10,000 people and is still used on important occasions.

Kandawgyi Lake and Gardens.

This attractive ‘Royal Lake’ and parkland is located north of downtown opposite the city zoo. The lake boasts a long stilt walkway where couples stroll during the cooler hours of the day, as well as excellent views across the still water to Shwedagon Pagoda. The park and its surrounds are home to many restaurants including one of our favourites, Sandy’s. At the eastern end of the lake sits the ‘Karaweik’, a highly photogenic attraction modelled on a historical royal barge.

National Museum.

Located on lower Pyay Road near the embassy district, the National Museum boasts a priceless collection of historical artifacts from the various Kingdoms of Myanmar. Included in the collection are the original, 8 metre high Lion Throne of King Thibaw Min, ivory chairs, paintings, royal ceremonial dresses, ancient archaeological finds and much more.


Bogyoke Aung San Museum

This 1920s house was the former family home of General Aung San and his wife, Daw Khin Kyi. The house has been kept as it was during the General’s lifetime and displays family photographs, the General’s taste in books and period furniture.

Gem Museum and Market.

Near Kaba Aye Pagoda in the north of the city, this museum displays some of the largest and most impressive gemstones you are ever likely to see. Included in the collection are the world’s largest uncut sapphire, largest cabochon peridot and brick-sized uncut rubies.

Bogyoke Aung San Market.

Whilst it may be cheaper to buy handicrafts and souvenirs from their towns of manufacture, this market housing over 2,000 small shops is by far the best ‘one-stop-shop’ in Myanmar. Located on the northern edge of downtown, Scott Market (as it is also still known) was built by the British in the 1920s and is considered a highlight of Yangon by most visitors.

The majority of the market caters to local shoppers; it is a popular place to buy clothes, fabric and shoes. Mixed in amongst these outlets are shops catering to foreign visitors. The choice is overwhelming; paintings, rattan, puppets, lacquer ware, wood carvings, musical instruments, antiques, shoulder bags – if it is made in Myanmar, it is available here. The rear section of the market is devoted to gems and jewellery. Remember to bargain! When you are tired of shopping there is a very atmospheric tea shop area in the centre-west section of the market. Sip tea and nibble on some snacks whilst traders all around you haggle over loose gemstones.

Yangon is the gateway to the Golden Land – most visitors enter Myanmar via Yangon’s tiny International airport. The city is, therefore the starting and end point of most visits. We generally recommend that visitors explore the city upon arrival, spending one, but preferably more days taking in the colonial architecture and street life of this fascinating, liveable city.

All flights to Upper Myanmar (Bagan, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Lashio and beyond), Ngapali Beach and the hidden wonders of Mrauk U and the far South (Myeik Archipelago) originate in Yangon so this is the most convenient place to start a tour of the country. If you do not want to fly, Mr Myanmar Travel can arrange a tour of most parts of the country by comfortable, air-conditioned car with an English-speaking driver and / or guide.

Mr Myanmar Travel arranges day tours of Yangon that take in the most interesting sights of the city. We can also organise some alternative day trips which take you away from the city into the surrounding countryside and onto the local rivers. Please see the ‘Daytrips from Yangon’ page of our website.

Yangon is also the base for many short overnight trips. Popular overnight, or two-night trips include the amazing Mt Kyaiktiyo (Golden Rock), Myaing Hay Wun Elephant Camp, The birding paradise of Moeyingyi Wetlands and short boat tours into the Ayeyarwady Delta, where you can anchor and overnight aboard near remote delta towns and villages. Longer overland (and river) tours can take you further, to Mawlamyine and Mon State, Hpa-An and Kayin State, Pyapon , Pathein and Meinmahla Kyun Wildlife Sanctuary by river and the beaches of Ngwe Saung and Chaungtha. Please don’t hesitate to ask us for details.

 

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