Yangon the best city to explore
Yangon is the major city in Myanmar; until 2006 it was the capital city and then the seat of government was moved to Nay Pyi Taw. Yangon remains the most important commercial city and most tourists will begin and end their journey in Yangon.
A place where modernity meets tradition – the energy in Yangon is palpable. It is a bustling and dynamic city undergoing rapid development. Busy streets are lined with food vendors at all times of day, and tasting different flavors of the street food will the be a highlight of any trip to Yangon.
The iconic attraction of the city is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 98-metre-high stupa whose golden glow can be seen throughout the city. There are many other stunning buildings as well, in fact, Yangon has more colonial architecture than any other city in South East Asia.
Yangon has a fascinating history, and one of the many walking tours around the downtown area is a good place to get a crash course. Yangon was originally a small fishing village called Dagon, after the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. In 1755, King Alungpaya unified the country and renamed the capital Yangon. Yangon is a combination of two words Yan meaning enemies and Gon meaning “run out” so its often translated as “end of strife.”
History in detail
By legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was founded 2,600 years ago but archaeologists date the earliest known parts of the site to the 6th-10th century when the Mon people were driven west from Thailand by the Khmer empire extending beyond Angkor. A fishing village “Dagon” developed around the temple and by the early 15th century Bamars had occupied the area.
The areas status changed after 1755 when King Alaungpaya, the founder of the last dynasty of Myanmar kings, conquered southern Myanmar. He renamed the town Yangon (“End of Strife”), made it the capital of his empire and extended its boundaries to the east of Sule Pagoda. Despite a series of earthquakes in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Shwedagon Pagoda continued to be repaired and heightened.
The British influence on the region began in the early 19th century when they established a trading station in Yangon. Their Arakanese interpreters mis-translated Yangon to “Rangoon” and they adopted the term “Burma” to reflect the area’s predominant Bamar ethnic group. A series of wars soon erupted – during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) the British captured Rangoon but restored it to local administration two years later before large parts of the city were destroyed by fire in 1850. During the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852) the British recaptured the city, and established the Port of Rangoon (1853); St Paul’s High School (1860); began construction of the railway (1877); and made Rangoon the administrative capital of what was then called Lower Burma.
The old city layout, based on a series of blocks each 800 feet by 860 feet (245 m by 262 m) was initially designed by Dr. William Montgomerie, the Superintendent Surgeon who had been involved in the planning of Singapore. The design was developed and constructed by a British Army engineer (Lt. Alexander Fraser), incorporating two artificial lakes (then called Royal Lake and Lake Victoria) created in 1882-3 to provide clean water supply.
After the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, the British annexed the remainder of Burma and Rangoon” prospered. Major developments included the Rangoon General Hospital and Saint Mary’s Cathedral (1899), the Strand Hotel (1901), Secretariat Building (1902), Victoria Memorial Park and Zoological Gardens (1906), High Court (1911), Governor’s Residence (1920), Scott’s Market (1926) and City Hall (1936).
This development was completed despite the city suffering six magnitude 7.0+ earthquakes between 1927 and 1931 and the launch of three nationwide strikes (1920, 1936 and 1938) by the Burmese independence movement. Unlike many other Asian cities, many colonial buildings remain, and the Yangon City Heritage Trust has compiled a list of c. 200 buildings and religious sites needing protection for their historical importance.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Japan invaded Burma in December 1941 and Rangoon suffered heavy bombing before its capture in March 1942 (allied forces re-took the city in May 1945). In 1947 (the year the airport was built) eight leaders of the pre-independence interim government including General Aung San were assassinated by political rivals while holding a cabinet meeting in Rangoon’s Secretariat Building.
The Union of Burma regained its independence on 4th January 1948 with Rangoon as its capital. Local names replaced old colonial names including Kandawgyi Lake (Royal Lake), Inya Lake (Lake Victoria), Bogyoke Aung San Market (Scott’s Market), Maha Bandoola Road (Dalhousie Road) and Anawratha Road (Fraser Road).
In 1952 the National Museum of the Union of Burma opened and the Kaba Aye Pagoda was built, but the post-independence period saw a succession of insurgencies across the country by Red Flag Communists, White Flag Communists, White-Band PVO, the Revolutionary Burma Army, Arakenese Muslims and the Karen National Union. Areas of northern Burma were also controlled by Kuomintaung forces after Chinese Communist forces defeated them in 1949. The rural fighting caused widespread migration and by 1960 Rangoon’s population had reached c.1.3 million as the city expanded to include the satellite towns of Thaketa, North and South Okkalapa and later Hlainthaya, Shwepyitha and North and South Dagon.
Anti-Chinese riots occurred in 1967, and three years later another earthquake resulted in the Shwedagon needing further repairs. In 1989, the government changed the country’s name to Myanmar and the city’s name reverted to its original Yangon.
Despite the economic situation, some development activity did take place, including the National Theatre of Yangon (1991), Myanmar Securities Exchange (1996), Myanmar Motion Picture Museum (1998) and Yangon City FM radio (2001). In 2002 construction started on a new capital at Pyinmana, 200 miles north of Yangon and government offices began transferring out of Yangon in 2005 – the new capital’s official name (Nay Pyi Taw) was announced in March 2006. As a result, many ex-ministerial buildings are now empty or under-utilized, many of which are heritage buildings in need of conservation.
Today Yangon is a vibrant city undergoing change on all dimensions (infrastructure; social; economic) at a pace and scale it last experienced 100 years ago – a city with a proud and complex history, whose inhabitants are busy making up for lost time to create a fresh future.
The best weather to travel to Yangon
Yangon has a tropical monsoonal climate, which means that it’s hot and humid all year round. Like other Southeast Asian countries, it has a rainy and dry season, but its dry season is split into a period of cooler weather and a prolonged spell of very hot weather.
- November to February: Yangon’s ‘winter’, when temperatures are a comfortable 19 to 33°C (66 to 91°F)
- February or March: the Shwedagon Festival celebrates the city’s most famous pagoda
- March to May: dry season brings oppressive temperatures that can reach 40°C (104°F)
- June to October: rainy season, characterised by short, sharp showers
- July and August: the wettest months; average rainfall in August is 602mm (24 inches)
‘Winter’ – November to February
Yangon’s ‘winter’ isn’t a winter as anyone in the northerly parts of the northern hemisphere would know it; the temperature is still a wonderfully warm 19 to 33°C (66 to 91°F), with December and January averaging 25°C (77°F) during the day. But that’s cooler compared with the rest of the year in hot and humid Yangon, and it’s much drier, too, and that’s why this is the busiest time to visit.
Another thing to consider if you’re visiting around this time is that the Shwedagon Festival takes place around February or March (its timing is based on the Full Moon). A riot of dancing, drama and tasty food, it celebrates the shimmering gold Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon’s iconic landmark.
Dry Season – March to May
he dry season in Yangon runs from March to May, and it’s oppressively hot and humid. The hottest month is April, when temperatures can get up to 40°C (104°F). If you do end up visiting during this season, the Thingyan Water Festival offers some relief from the heat. Marking the Buddhist New Year celebrations, it involves people taking to the streets to throw water at each other, symbolising washing away bad luck from the previous year.
Rainy Season – June to October
Yangon’s location on the south coast means that it gets a lot of rainfall, and the rainy season isn’t the best time for exploring its wealth of outdoor sites. That said, the rainfall tends to occur in short showers, so it’s fairly easy to seek temporary shelter if it rains when you’re out and about. The wettest months are July and August, with August receiving an average rainfall of 602mm (24 inches), compared to just 2mm in February.
Things to do in Yangon
- Visit Shwedagon Pagoda, a masterpiece of gilded stupas, tipped with a 76 carat diamond
- Sample mouth-watering street food on 19th street
- Shop Burmese handicraft and rubies at Bogyoke Aung San Market
- Stroll around serene Kandawgyi Lake, originally a reservoir constructed during colonial times
- Enjoy a British High Tea at the iconic The Strand Hotel, Yangon’s grande dame
- Explore the city’s history and architectural heritage during a guided walking tour
- Take a ride around Yangon on the circle train
- Get a taste of Burmese local life and take a ferry across the river to Dala
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