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.
There is a long history of settlement in this part of the delta, with the Mon village of Dagon growing up around Singuttara Hill (on which Shwedagon Paya is located) during the sixth century AD. After the area was conquered by King Alaungpaya in 1755, the village was renamed Yangon and its importance as a port grew. In 1852 it was seriously damaged by the invading British, who called it Rangoon and rebuilt it to their own plans; in 1885 the British made Rangoon their capital after expelling the last Burmese king from Mandalay.
The city was occupied by the Japanese during the World War II, but bomb damage was relatively limited. The decades of international isolation since then have meant that most of the city’s heritage buildings have been neglected, and in 2005 many were abandoned completely as the government moved its ministries north to new capital Nay Pyi Taw. Despite this, Yangon is still Myanmar’s commercial centre and has started to attract developers following the recent easing of international sanctions. It remains to be seen to what extent the city’s architecture will be revitalized.