Last year, I took a trip to Myanmar for two weeks, during which Yangon was the starting and ending point. Scroll down to the end for photos or go to my Yangon gallery.
As Myanmar's largest city and commercial hub, Yangon, or Rangoon, represents the country's progress, which is most apparent in the tremendous number of cars everywhere on its streets. But while the heavy traffic represents economic progress and modernity, the city's architecture still shows the country is very much a developing country. It also reflects the country's British colonial heritage and its cultural diversity. Colonial-era buildings are apparent everywhere from regular apartment buildings to the gated villas by the city lakes, but the most impressive examples are the former Victorian-era government buildings and hotels located downtown near the riverfront. Yangon is said to have the most existing colonial buildings in the region, which might be true and impressive given the competition - Saigon, Phnom Penh, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur etc. Yangon exists specifically because of the British since they were the ones who built it in the mid-19th century. Yet ironically but also fittingly, the city's main landmark, besides Shwedagon Pagoda, is Sule Pagoda, very much a Burmese building and which sits prominently at the center of a roundabout. South and East of Sule Pagoda are where the most impressive colonial buildings are.
Besides colonial buildings, Yangon has many different types of religious buildings. There's a towering immaculately-maintained cathedral, mosques, Chinese temples, and Hindu temples adorned with tall colorful mounds covered with engraved deities above their entrances in the South Indian style. Yangon is also multiracial, with the Burman majority (from which the country's former name Burma was derived) coexisting alongside Mon, Rakhine, Indian and Chinese minorities. The street where I stayed in when I flew into Yangon was part of the "Chinatown" district and my hotel manager was a local Chinese who spoke Mandarin to me.
The combination of British colonial buildings, the noticeably multicultural population and the use of English makes Yangon look and feel very different from say, Bangkok, Hanoi or Phnom Penh, and I wonder if it resembles South Asia, given Myanmar borders India on its west.
Besides Shwedagon Pagoda and the colonial buildings, other places of interest I went to included the national history museum, which was interesting but not too well maintained, and whose main attraction was the impressive Lion Throne, a large golden throne filled with exquisite carvings that Burmese kings used to sit on.
I also went to the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor of India who was exiled by the British to Yangon after the failed Indian Mutiny in 1857. But, I did not get to see the actual grave because when I visited the site, I found out it was a shrine and being Friday afternoon, there were services going on. Hence why the site is called a Dargah, an Islamic shrine built over the grave of a saint, which in this case is Bahadur Shah. The guy by the gate was kind enough to wave me in when I told him why I was there, but I saw that the actual grave was in the basement where the women were (men and women worship separately in Islam). I could have still gone right in and played the dumb tourist because I was so close, but I decided to let discretion and common sense prevail and I walked back out without seeing the grave.
At night, the streets near "Chinatown" are filled with locals sitting by roadside food vendors having dinner. It might be called a night market except that it is a lot more casual and informal. The downside is that there aren't much restaurants so I did end up eating fried rice from these vendors which came up to something like 50 cents US. When I came back to Yangon from Mandalay, I stayed on the other side of the city in the eastern side and there were more formal restaurants. I had a very good lunch at an Indian restaurant featured in the Lonely Planet, but I had worse luck when I had a mediocre dinner at a relatively modern restaurant.
I have to say Yangon is not the most attractive city I've been to and a lot of its buildings are in need of a good scrubbing. Even some of its most grandest colonial buildings were abandoned or rundown. The ones that were maintained look fine and remind me of Trinidad, which was also a British colony and has some decent colonial buildings albeit in a more tropical climate. In general, the city lacked the charm and the attractiveness of even Phnom Penh, which boasts a nice riverside walkway and clean, tree-lined roads with not as much traffic, and I certainly erred by spending almost four full days there.