Before the boom in Rangoon

“Rangoon (or Yangon as it’s now officially known) is the former capital and commercial heart of Burma. Located in the south of the country, it has an estimated five million residents and the greatest number of colonial buildings in South-East Asia today.

Colonial Rangoon, with its spacious parks and lakes and mix of modern buildings and traditional wooden architecture, was known as “the garden city of the East”. By the early 20th century, Rangoon had public services and infrastructure on par with London. However, today its infrastructure is vastly undeveloped in comparison to those of other major cities in South-East Asia.” – Wikipedia

Within seconds of stepping outside Rangoon International Airport we experience our first power cut.

WELCOME TO BURMA.

Our hotel had arranged airport transportation and it seems we’re staying at the most popular budget place in town. We talk to a couple of other tourists on our bus, it’s their first visit. We discuss our plans, hopes, and share tips about what little we’ve learnt from the guidebooks and internet. There’s a nervous buzz of excitement, none of us really know what to expect. At least we’re not the only ones!

First impressions are positive.

The roads are wide-tree lined avenues, traffic is minimal (for a South-East Asian city of its size) and the city scape is dominated by the golden pagodas of Sule and Shwedagon, a welcome change to the high-rises of Bangkok and Seoul.

Downtown Rangoon

After checking in, we dump our bags and excitedly set off to explore with our out-of-scale tourist map.

It soon dawns on us that Rangoon is big, very big in fact. You can’t walk around very far, and I’m not sure most people would want too.

‘Pavements’ (if they’re worthy of the name) run adjacent to open sewers, it’s safer and much cleaner to walk on the road. Then there’s the stray dogs to contend with, and distinct lack of street lighting.

Despite having read about Burma’s low crime rate, walking through dark, relatively quiet city streets in such an obviously poor place as the only westerners around, having no idea where we’re going didn’t seem like a particularly bright idea.

However, the people were nice, shouting “Hello” to me and ‘Nihao” to Amelia. Which really made me chuckle, as I’m sure you can imagine.

After walking for twenty minutes and seemingly not getting anywhere, we decide to get a taxi to take us to a restaurant. Rangoons taxis are a spectacle in themselves.

Rangoon has the best selection of restaurants in Burma. However, the choice remains somewhat limited.

Before travelling I’d made the mistake of reading the FCO travel advice and Lonely Planet’s guide to staying safe and healthy in Burma. Subsequently I was paranoid about dying from a snake-bite, food poisoning or tropical disease of some sort. All seemed plausible. As a precaution I insisted we ate in the finest restaurants recommended by the guidebook. Which restricted us even more. The guidebook was our bible at this stage, for that was the only information we possessed.

Eventually, we found a nice Italian Restaurant, recommended by the guidebook (of course) and didn’t get food poisoning. A good solid start.

The next morning we set about exploring the colonial heart of downtown Rangoon. Already this felt like no other place I’d visited. We could count the number of western tourists we’d seen on one hand.

Colonial British building

Some buildings were crumbling, others looked worn, but some were quite simply magnificent – the epitome of imperial British architectural splendour. It’s politically incorrect to be proud of the Empire, but there’s no faulting the buildings and infrastructure we built.

After exploring ‘Old Rangoon’ and having lunch with a charismatic Italian pensioner who wouldn’t stop talking about the Roman Empire, we took a cab to Inya Lake. Rangoon’s largest lake and the home of democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi. There’s not a lot to see at the Lady’s house now, except for barbed wire, high walls and a couple of red flags. The lake itself is large and picturesque, hidden from view of the main roads and surrounded by vast mansions of the Burmese elite.

It was approaching late afternoon by now, the perfect time to visit the relatively unknown (outside of traveler circles) yet awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda. This truly is one of the most spectacular places I’ve visited.

It’s the most sacred pagoda in Burma with a golden stupa rising to a height of 99 metres on top of Singuttura hill, dominating the Rangoon skyline. The pictures don’t do it justice.

Monks at the Shwedagon Pagoda

The only negative (if there is one) – this is a tourist hot-spot, for good reason. If we didn’t see any during the day, we certainly made up for it at the Shwedagon. There were a good number of Senior European Citizens in large tour groups.

My only concern is that as tourism takes off in Burma, the Shwedagon will become a zoo for tourists (it’s going that way already) and the Burmese will be deterred from visiting their most sacred landmark. Hopefully the authorities will find a way of ‘nipping the problem in the bud’ before it get’s too serious.

Sadly, I’m not particularly optimistic.

As mentioned before, Rangoons infrastructure is somewhat basic. This includes transportation, which is primitive by modern standards. There’s no subway, monorail or reliable bus network. However, there is the Rangoon Circular Railway.This is a 28.5 mile 39 station loop system that connects satellite towns and suburbs to the commercial centre of the city. We’d heard it was an interesting way to see the different cross-sections of life in Rangoon.

We paid the $1 fare and off we went. It was a little long and slow but a fun experience nonetheless. The carriages teem with life, conversation and laughter as the locals travel between townships.

A train station on the Rangoon Circular Line

Our final afternoon was spent enjoying a spot of ‘Afternoon Tea’ at the renovated colonial era Strand Hotel. We paid $15 each for an afternoon and evening living in 1920’s style colonial luxury. You’d pay a lot more in London or Hong Kong. In the Strand we enjoyed 5* food and service in a grand historic setting, whilst rubbing shoulders with foreign diplomats, journalists and a who’s who of the Burmese expat community. There’s not many places in the world you could do that as backpackers.

In total we spent four nights in Rangoon. I wouldn’t advise spending much longer here as a tourist, but the same applies to most cities.

Some tourists hated it. It’s sprawling, dirty and poverty-stricken.

On the flip-side, I quite liked it.

It had an abundance of character and an air of authenticity. I felt there was a charm to the place. The lack of high-rise modern development and investment only added to the city’s unique character and heritage. Throw in the glaring absence (at the time of visiting) of Starbucks, McDonald’s, Nike and virtually all well-known international brands and corporations, and you have a unique, refreshing travel destination. Rangoon was different to virtually every other city we’ve been too in East Asia so far, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

For how much longer a city and country of such magnitude can remain isolated and undeveloped in this era of development and globalisation I have no idea.

If Burma continues down the path of reform, Rangoon will be at the forefront of development and investment. From what we saw and the people we spoke too; it’s a case of when, not if.

The question is, will it be sooner rather than later?

One of the main shopping streets in central Rangoon
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One thought on “Before the boom in Rangoon”

  1. Hi,

    This is Eugene from Malaysia.
    I will be going to Yangon on 31 Jan 2014.
    I would like to know which hotel that you guys stayed in your Yangon trip last time.
    It sounds good in location.

    Thanks.

    Regards,
    Eugene

    Like

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