Before being made the Capital of Burma by the British Colonialists, Yangon in former times was a fishing village of little importance, a mere jumble of thatched huts. Today the town is also famous for being Asia´s Garden City. Downtown Yangon is a jewel of Colonial Architecture – but alas this jewel is increasingly losing its splendour partly due to the encroachment of contemporary building on traditional sites. Historical Rangoon – as the city was once called – was designed by the same Englishman who did the urban planning for Singapore´s long vanished Colonial Quarter…….
Before being made the Capital of Burma by the British Colonialists, Yangon in former times was a fishing village of little importance, a mere jumble of thatched huts. Today the town is also famous for being Asia´s Garden City. Downtown Yangon is a jewel of Colonial Architecture – but alas this jewel is increasingly losing its splendour partly due to the encroachment of contemporary building on traditional sites. Historical Rangoon – as the city was once called – was designed by the same Englishman who did the urban planning for Singapore´s long vanished Colonial Quarter. The combination of stately buildings in the British neo-classical style shaded by rows of exotic trees is particularly enhancing. The city centre is dominated by the Buddhist Sule Pagoda believed to be more than 2000 years old. Its splendid golden dome (stupa) is one of the city´s landmarks and cannot be overlooked. Adjacent are India Town as well as China Town with their many small shops and food stalls – a stroll through this labyrinth is a rewarding experience of distant worlds. Yet Yangon´s most famous treasure is the indelible golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Yangon would not be Yangon without it. Famed as being the most impressive building in the Buddhist world – we are quoting experts in history of art – the Shwe Dagon reigns supreme on Singutara Hill overlooking the city, its 109 m golden stupa scraping the tropical deep blue skies. An unforgettable sight! But Yangon has much more to offer – more golden pagodas, the giant Reclining Buddha, Yangon River´s picturesque harbour plus the National Museum bearing witness of the country´s glorious past. Visitors to Yangon will see their dreams come true – the city has so much to offer – except a “nightlife”. An evening´s pleasure will be restricted to savouring the manifold delicacies of the Indian, Thai, Chinese, Western and indigenous cuisines which the many restaurants offer. What a nice way to end a lovely day in charming Yangon.
A more or less full day excursion to the Ayeyarwady´s vast delta is delving into Asia´s past: From Yangon River harbour we follow the Twante Canal (extended by the British) by boat for two hours to visit Twante by bicycle rickshaw or horse cart (large golden pagoda, interesting potters´ and weavers´ works) – return to Yangon by bus/ferry or by boat. Along the river banks we experience rural life, meet ancient boats drifting by aimlessly – in Twante eternal Burma casts its spell – unforgettable moments! George Orwell, England´s unloved famous son and outstanding novelist spent some of his days in Colonial Service in Twante and later wrote his much to be recommended book “Burmese Days”.
Halfday´s drive to Thanlyin – the former Syriam – once a most important trading post in British Lower Burma. Portuguese, Italian, Dutch as well as British traders left their mark on Syriam – but it was the devious Portuguese adventurer de Brito who brought notorious fame to the region. Survivor of a shipwreck he went ashore in Syriam, saved by the skin of his teeth. After a few years in residence he crowned himself King of Syriam in the self-created Kingdom of Syriam! That lasted until a Burmese King captured him and had him publicly quartered … Today we admire the remnants of a Baroque church built by Italians, take the row-boat to a tiny midriver island to see the Ye Le Pagoda and stroll across the vibrant daily market. En route we visit another two pagodas.
Do you want to see the country´s highest golden pagoda? Or the Reclining Buddha 55 m in length and 16 m in height? Or Kyaukpun Pagoda´s four huge seated Buddhas – sitting back to back facing the four points of the compass? Would you like to follow the studies of Buddha´s teachings with the monks of Kyakhatwaing monastery? Or rather just stroll across and enjoy the extensive river market? Well, it is time to follow us to Bago. At a 2 hours´ drive from Yangon we visit the former capital of the Mon-People. We travel Myanmar´s only “freeway”. While returning, you will have the chance to visit the temple (home of the nats according to local lore) dedicated to the guardian of travelling where motorists offer flowers to pray for a safe journey. Bago, called Pegu by the British and once an important sea harbour (before it silted up), has been reborn!
Reaching the Golden Rock 25 years ago meant a journey of several days on elephants´ back, nowadays the trip takes about 6 hours to Kinpun. This important venue for pilgrims is at the foot of a mountainous region and close to the Golden Rock. We leave Kinpun aboard pickups (sitting on small stools in the back) for a half hours´ steep climb and descend to reach the middle station with a more or less new hotel. From here it is a 1 hour’s climb by foot to reach the Golden Rock, where you pass the original hotel near the rock. Those not wanting to climb can hire a porter who takes them uphill in a bamboo chair. The reward is breathtaking: Way above the valley´s jungles, reaching far beyond a cliff, the mighty rock, encrusted with gold leaves by faithful Buddhist pilgrims, its peak crowned by a small pagoda! A hair of the Buddha is said to be enshrined here. And it is this one hair that holds the huge boulder, perched on a cliff, from tumbling into the abyss below – the magic of believing!
En route from the Golden Rock to Mawlamyine this now rather plain town was in its heyday the centre of the loosely connected Duchies of Dvaravati reaching from Thailand via Cambodia to the south of Burma and whose backbone were the Mon people. The implementation of Buddhism in Southeast Asia was the empire of Dvaravati´s great cultural accomplishment. Nearly 1000 years ago, this realm was defeated by the Burmese Bagan-King Anawratha, thus initiating the decline of the Mon. Fortunately spectacular monuments of the Mon culture presevered. In Thaton the golden pagoda Shwe Zayan and a Standing Buddha in superb Mon style remind us of their Golden Age which entered the annals as Suvannabhumi, Land of Gold.
When the British established their Colony, Burma, in the 19th century, they made Moulmein their first capital and this explains the perseverance of its colonial charms to our days. Famous British authors wrote about its former grandeur. Today, Mawlamyine is number three in size among the cities of Myanmar, situated 270 km SE from the capital. The surrounding hills – crowned with pagodas – afford the best view of the city on the river Salween which here joins the Gulf of Martaban. The city also can be reached by ancient ferries which connect Mottama (Martaban) with Mawlamyine. The city is attractive and offers pagodas as well as churches for visits. Exploration of the surroundings show special sights such as the strategically relevant building site of the infamous “railroad of death” (to be reached via Kyaikhami/Amherst, about 60 km). Planned by the Japanese, this railroad was to connect Burma via Thailand with Singapore (The Bridge on the River Kwai). A well-tended cemetery for allied POWs working on and dying for this railroad reminds us of these grievous times. Along the way several remarkable pagodas as well as the building site near Mudon of a 160 m Reclining Buddha enhance these excursions. Moreover the ever close beaches beckon to rest …
Hpaan, capital of Kayin State, is surrounded by lovely hills and mountains. This is perfect hiking country with its small lakes and many grottoes. Moreover taking time to enjoy the local market is a delightful experience. The colourful costumes of the Kayin women are a sight-to-be-seen. Hpaan is in between Mawlamyine and Yangon.
Looking at Pathein´s waterfront quays is living the past: Buildings of colonial times next to Chinese temples and Burmese pagodas, merchants offering their goods, street-stall-restaurants, sampans on water – what can be more exotic? Pathein, 180 km west of the capital, is – and always was – the “rice bowl” of the enormous Ayeyarwady river delta (300 kilometers wide), the stream who once was called Elephant River. Pathein is best reached by a comfortable ferryboat offering good cabins as accommodation for the night. The city is the gate to the beaches of Ngwe Saung (Silver Beach) and Chaungtha. Pathein can also be reached by bus after a long ride on bumpy roads! By the way: the much coveted Pathein Hti, colourful umbrellas to shade against the sun, is made in Pathein.
In 1877 the British colonists built a railroad connection between Yangon and Pyay, formerly Prome. It was the first to be built in the erstwhile colony. Today we reach this important trade town on the shores of the Ayeyarwady after a drive of 5 hours. The city offers very little of tourist value, however, it is the gate for excursions to the ancient brick pagodas built by the Pyu people who vanished for a long time. They were part of the Sri Ksetra empire which existed in the 6th century AD, hence the pagodas of Sri Ksetra are the oldest in Myanmar and are among the oldest of the entire Buddhist world. Archaeologists have partly restored some of these pagodas and have thus come across Buddhist rock etchings as well as small Buddha statues which can be admired at the local museum.