Rangoon (Yangon), Myanmar: A City in transition
The streets of downtown Rangoon (Yangon) are an all-out assault on the five senses of perception, but an enriching experience if one tries to absorb this historical cityscape. This photo essay documents something of the city before the buildings, people, lifestyles and cultures of the past permanently change, but hopefully preserving something from a very rich heritage.
Most foreign visitors only pass through the city for a day or two, usually to visit the spectacular and glittering Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) before moving on elsewhere. This is a pity as there is much to see exploring old Rangoon. The streets near the Yangon River reveal a rich, layered history of a large global port during the British empire, peaking in the 1920’s and 30’s and then leading to a rapid decline and decay from the 1950’s onward.
Cold War era style concrete multi-story buildings and living quarters were built as Burma (Myanmar) secluded itself from the rest of the world during post-independence years. However, the city is now undergoing a massive resurgence, with rapid modernisation due to international investment and the will of the Myanmar people. Yangon is now in transition as it moves into a new era.
The city is a historical melting pot of cultures and religions from the dominantly Buddhist Burmese to European and British colonial influences bringing together peoples and cultures from all corners of the former vast empire and commonwealth. There are people of Indian, Tamil and Bengali origin, Chinese ethnicity, and descendants of Middle Eastern traders, often living in separate sections or streets, keeping their own distinct cultures, religions and cuisine, yet still fused together in this crowded thriving city. It is not uncommon to see buddhist temples, churches, mosques and Hindu temples in close proximity. On 26th Street there is even a beautifully maintained 19th Century Jewish synagogue, the Musmeah Yeshua synagogue located within the muslim Indian city section.
Along Strand and Pansodan Roads there are elegant colonial buildings, some of which are in a state of decay and dilapidation, yet are still beautiful. Some have not changed for decades and are occupied by squatters, others still try to function as government buildings. However, many are being renovated and restored as new bank buildings, chique cafes, restaurants and shopping malls.
The challenge will be to preserve and maintain heritage buildings as new modern building expansion occurs. It is not hard to envisage parts of this city eventually resembling it’s wealthy Asian counterpart, Singapore in the coming years. For now, this has not happened. There is a real hustle and bustle on the streets as people go about their day-to-day business, carving out a living, just as they always have. The tea shop culture still remains – complimentary green tea is served everywhere for free as as a sign of friendship with modest charges for sweet coffee and the many delicious snacks served at these outdoor eateries.
One of the marked culture and technological changes in recent years is the proliferation of smartphones, particularly with cheaper models being imported from neighbouring China. People can be seen everywhere using these from street market vendors to monks and this certainly wasn’t the case only a few years ago. Internet access and internet cafes are now widespread and despite government controls, this is likely to have a profound affect as this old global port city, once known as Rangoon finally joins the rest of the world .