If you believe everything you read, Myanmar – or Burma, as some prefer to call it – has been having its moment every year since its initial opening-up by the former military regime in 2011. But with its return to democracy, now really is the time to go. The place to start is Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon – a city currently experiencing a quiet renaissance.
The Burmese Empire may have been one of Southeast Asia’s greatest, with a rich 2,000-year-old heritage of architecture, literature and the arts, until it fell to the British in the early 19th century. However, that history and
wealth lay in the centre and north of the country in Bagan and Mandalay.
When Ralph Fitch, the first Englishman to visit Burma, arrived in 1587, Rangoon was a diminutive fishing village, dominated by the gleaming, gilded Shwedagon Pagoda.
It was under British rule, from 1824 to 1948, when Myanmar won its independence, that the majestic edifices that line Yangon’s streets were built. Perhaps the most iconic was the colossal brick Secretariat building, where in 1947, General Aung San, the father of modern Myanmar and father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated.
It was under the military junta, which soon took power and ruled the country from 1962 to 2011, that 35% of central Yangon or some 1,800 buildings were demolished, according to the Yangon Heritage Trust, to create space for swanky new developments. A preservation project is underway, and now, under the newly elected democratic
government, there are real hopes that the 189 historic buildings that remain will be saved.
There are hopes for a whole lot more change too, and a palpable sense of optimism, not felt since the semi-return to democracy five years ago, sweeps through the gritty streets of this once-grand city. The atmosphere is electric. No more so than at the city’s beloved pagodas.
When I recently visited Yangon, I joined masses of barefoot locals, dressed in their best outfits, for their Sunday afternoon pilgrimage to Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist site, the shimmering, gold 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. It was impossible to move amongst the heaving crowds, so I joined them in their slow shuffle around the gilded, bell-shaped stupas, watching as they stopped to kneel down momentarily to light candles, place incense sticks and pour water over shrines at the temple base.
For naturally shy people, the Burmese are incredibly generous with their big, warm smiles, which form with ease. But now, they are matched by a sparkle in the eyes that wasn’t there under the previous repressive dictatorship. There is a sense of happiness and hopefulness that is contagious, and you see it most at the pagodas. I believe they are thankful that their prayers for peace, change and prosperity were finally answered.
March is a perfect time to visit Yangon too. It’s the festival of Tabaung, the last month of the Burmese calendar, which marks the end of the ‘cool’ season. Traditionally, in the countryside, this was the time when the harvest ended and farmers could look forward to some time off. Waterways flowed and local festivals were held on the riverbanks where stupas were built from sand.
In Yangon, on the morning of the full moon day of Tabaung, the city’s residents make a beeline for Shwedagon Pagoda to make merit by giving alms Worshippers circle Shwedagon Pagoda, stopping at shrines to light incense and sprinkle water on Buddha statues. A statue at Maha Wizaya Pagoda. Worshippers are offered cold juices in the late afternoon heat at Maha Wizaya Pagoda. to the Buddhist monks. It should be a particularly merry Tabaung in 2016 considering the recent change in government and the jubilation that followed the election and that has continued into the new year.
The pace of change that slowly began to gain momentum after 2011 – a change reflected not only by a surge in tourist arrivals, but also the number of new hotels, restaurants, cafés and galleries that have been popping up around town – has really picked up speed.
That development and the accompanying affluence is most evident at Bahan township (as the Burmese call their suburbs), where expensive cars are parked in the driveways of handsome mansions and shopping malls are popping up. Home to Shwedagon Pagoda, and many other shiny pagodas and temples, which earned it the name ‘Golden Valley’, it’s also the address of many of the city’s wealthier residents, tycoons and celebrities.
In recent years, Yangon has seen everything from The Loft, a chic, New York-style hotel aimed at hipsters and jetsetters, to a swanky, towering Best Western with its eyes firmly on the business traveller, open their doors. Fashionable cafés and restaurants, such as Le Planteur, Rangoon Tea House, Gekko, Hummingbird, The Lab and Port Autonomy, are filled with well-off locals, expats and tourists sipping cocktails and tucking into everything from refined French cuisine to creative renditions of traditional Burmese dishes.
Along with the restoration of democracy has come a relaxation of censorship, which has made it possible for the arts and culture to more fully flourish. On any given night, you might find a comedy show, a rock band performing, or an art exhibition opening at galleries like Pansodan, Deitta Gallery, Nawaday Art Gallery and River Gallery at The Strand.
Yangon has come a long way from its roots as a Mon fishing village called Dagon in the 6th century, when the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed on Singuttara hilltop. When you visit, make sure to take your camera and tripod to capture the surrounding city as much as the illuminated Golden Pagoda in all its glittering glory, because in another five years it won’t be recognisable. Get there now. This really is Yangon’s moment.
Jakarta to Yangon via Bangkok and Singapore
Flight Time 1 hour 25 minutes
Frequency 63 ﬂights per week
From Colours March 2016
5 Senses – Touch
BOGYOKE AUNG SAN MARKET
Run your fingers over the handwoven, vintage hill-tribe textiles made by ethnic minorities in Myanmar’s Chin, Kachin, Shan and Kayah states at beautiful shops such as Yo Ya May and Myanmar Folk Art in lively Bogyoke Aung San Market. The colonial-era bazaar in central Yangon is teeming with shops selling colourful fabrics and handicrafts, as well as smooth black lacquer-ware and handcrafted jewellery.