Yangon

Introducing Yangon

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One of the best places to visit in Asia is Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Nature lovers will appreciate the city’s stunning lakes, shady parks and verdant tropical trees. These are the reasons why it is dubbed ‘The Garden City of the East’.

Though no longer the capital, YANGON remains Myanmar’s commercial heart and also the core of its spiritual life, thanks to the glorious Shwedagon Paya (Pagoda), while its colonial-era buildings (decaying as many of them may be) give the downtown area a historical charm which new capital Nay Pyi Taw – and Mandalay for that matter – will never possess. Whether you get lost in the city’s animated markets, seek out beer and barbecue in Chinatown, visit Hindu temples or take an eye-opening ride on a commuter train, Yangon’s streets provide a vibrant and engaging introduction to the country.

Most travellers spend most of their time downtown, in the grid of streets north of the Yangon River that has Sule Paya at its heart. The main reason to head out of the downtown area is Shwedagon Paya, although there a number of other attractions further north including the shady shores of Kandawgyi Lake, busy (but almost tourist-free) Hledan Market and the enormous marble Buddha at Kyauk Taw Gyi.

However, Yangon has more to offer than impressive scenery. This city is a melting pot—a diversity of cultures and communities in terms of people, settlement and religions. Because it serves as the country's main entrance and seaport, it is also the country’s centre of business.

Yangon was founded in 1755 by King Alaungpaya; he established Yangon on the location of a small town named Dagon when he dominated the lower part of Myanmar. He was the one who gave the name Yangon, meaning ‘End of Strife’. In 1885, the name was anglicised as Rangoon when the British annexed the country.

Yangon is a city that balances tradition, culture and modernity, making it a must-see for anyone who wants to see a different side of Asia.

Top places to visit in Yangon

Shwedagon

Few religious monuments in the world cast as powerful a spell as Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda (open daily 4am–9pm; charge, tickets are not sold to foreigners before 6am), the gigantic golden stupa rising on the northern fringes of the city. The holiest of holies for Burmese Buddhists, it’s also a potent symbol of national identity, and in recent decades has become a rallying point for the pro-democracy movement.

Its unique sanctity derives from the belief that the stupa enshrines relics not merely of the historical Buddha, Gautama, but also those of three of his predecessors. No one, however, has been able to confirm whether or not the eight hairs of the Master actually lie sealed deep inside the stupa, as the structure would have to be partly destroyed to reach its solid core – something the shrine’s custodians will never permit. 

It’s tempting when you arrive in Yangon to head straight for the mesmerising gilded spire on the horizon, but resist the urge if you can until early evening, when the warm light of sunset has a transformative effect on the gold-encrusted pagoda and its myriad subsidiary shrines.

Botataung Pagoda

It is said that when eight Indian monks carried relics of the Buddha here more than 2,000 years ago, 1,000 military officers (botataung) formed a guard of honour at the place where the rebuilt pagoda stands today. The original structure was destroyed by an Allies’ bomb in November 1943.

During the clean-up work, a golden casket in the shape of a stupa was found to contain a hair and two other relics of the Buddha. In addition, about 700 gold, silver and bronze statues were uncovered, as well as a number of terracotta tablets, one of which is inscribed both in Pali and in the south Indian Brahmi script, from which the modern Burmese script developed. Part of the discovery is displayed in the pagoda, but the relics and more valuable objects are locked away. Among these is the tooth of the Buddha, which Alaungsithu, a king of Bagan, tried unsuccessfully to acquire from Nan-chao (now China’s Yunnan province) in 1115. China eventually gave it to Burma in 1960. The 40-metre (130ft) bell-shaped stupa is hollow, and visitors can walk around the interior. Look out for the glass mosaic, and the many small alcoves for private meditation. The small lake outside is home to thousands of terrapin turtles; you can feed them with food sold at nearby stalls, thereby acquiring merit for a future existence.

National Museum

The National Museum (open daily 10am–4pm; charge) stands in a neighbourhood lined with foreign missions. The museum’s undisputed showpiece is King Thibaw’s Lion Throne, originally from Mandalay Palace – one of many valuables carried off by the British in 1886 after the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Some items on show here were shipped to the Indian Museum in Calcutta; others were kept in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The artefacts were, however, returned to Burma as a gesture of goodwill in 1964 after Ne Win’s state visit to Britain. The wooden throne, 8 metres (27ft) tall and inlaid with gold and lacquerwork, is a particularly striking example of the Burmese art of woodcarving. Among the Mandalay Regalia are gem-studded arms, swords, jewellery and serving dishes. Artefacts from Burma’s early history in Beikthano, Thayekhittaya and Bagan in the museum’s archaeological section include an 18th-century bronze cannon and a crocodile-shaped harp.

Sule Pagoda

The Sule Pagoda (open daily; charge) is the shining stupa at the city’s heart which the British used as the centrepiece of their Victorian grid-plan system in the mid-19th century. For centuries a focus of social and religious activity, the richly gilded monument rises from the middle of a busy intersection, surrounded on all sides by shops, swirling traffic and a proliferating number of high-rise hotels and office blocks – a location that belies the stupa’s great antiquity.

Its origins are believed to date back to 230 BC, when a pair of monks, Sona and Uttara, were sent from India as missionaries to Thaton after the Third Buddhist Synod. The King of Thaton gave them permission to build a shrine at the foot of Singuttara Hill in which the monks preserved a hair of the Buddha. The name “Sule Pagoda” itself, however, comes from a later period and is linked to the Sule Nat, or guardian spirit, of Singuttara Hill, who local legend claims showed the monks the site where the relics of three previous Buddhas had been buried. Inside, the pagoda’s shrines and images include four colourful Buddhas with neon halos behind their heads. As with all stupas, visitors should walk around it in a clockwise direction.

As well as its religious significance, the Sule Pagoda is iconic among the Burmese as the venue for several famous political demonstrations over the past three decades, most notably the rally of 1988 when the military opened fire on unarmed protesters, killing and injuring dozens. The monument also formed the focal point of mass gatherings during the Saffron Revolution of 2007.

See more Yangon travel advice here.

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