Explore Yangon, Myanmar: City of Golden Pagodas

David Eimer roams the colonial core and glittering Buddhist shrines of the former capital of Myanmar (Burma)

The magnificent gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, claimed to be 2,500 years old, dominates central Yangon, Myanmar's largest city. (Patrick Foto/Getty Images)

Yangon’s beating heart is the Shwedagon Pagoda, the holiest temple in all Myanmar (Burma), one of the most fervently Buddhist countries in the world. While new buildings zoom up in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the Shwedagon’s golden zedi (stupa), some 100 metres high, remains visible from many of the city’s 33 neighbourhoods.

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The Shwedagon is one of the liveliest places in Yangon, busy from before dawn till late at night. People come to pray, to promenade around the base, or just to sit and talk in its shadow. Legend has it that the Shwedagon is over 2,500 years old, and houses hairs of the Buddha brought to Myanmar from India; more likely it was established initially as a Hindu shrine by Indian traders who began arriving in what was then a fishing village from the fifth or sixth century AD.

Nothing is certain in Yangon’s early history. Despite being Myanmar’s capital until 2006 – when administrative functions were moved to the newly built Naypyidaw – and despite still being the country’s largest city, the earliest known written accounts of the settlement date from the 15th century. At that time it was known as Dagon and was little more than a collection of wooden monasteries and homes surrounding the Shwedagon, which had long since shaken off its probable Hindu origins and was already a famed Buddhist pilgrimage site.

The British remade the city, creating a downtown decorated with domes, cupolas and pillars

Another settlement of houses sat a couple of miles south of the Shwedagon in what is now downtown, alongside the river that connected Dagon to the Ayeyarwady delta and the Andaman Sea beyond it. It was this tiny town that the then Burmese king Alaungpaya renamed Yangon (‘End of Strife’) in 1755 to celebrate his victory over a rival kingdom.

Almost a century later, in 1852, Rear Admiral Charles Austen (brother of novelist Jane Austen) used the Shwedagon to guide a fleet of invading ships up the Yangon river. The British changed the settlement’s name to Rangoon and, by 1886, the country’s abundant natural resources were in British hands. As Indian and Chinese immigrants arrived, Rangoon was transformed into one of Asia’s first truly global cities, a multicultural trading hub that rivalled Calcutta (now Kolkata), Shanghai and Singapore.

Rangoon reached its colonial apotheosis in the 1920s, when its port was the second busiest in the world. By then the British had remade the city, creating a downtown with domes and pillars that wouldn’t look out of place in London. Today, Yangon’s collection of colonial-era buildings is the largest in south-east Asia.

Wandering downtown’s streets, packed with markets and teahouses, and dotted with pagodas, churches, mosques, Chinese and Hindu temples, and crumbing colonial edifices, is an essential Yangon experience. Perhaps the most striking building is the Secretariat, the seat of power in colonial times. With its red-and-yellow brick constructions set around a neat quadrangle, it’s reminiscent of a Victorian-era Oxford college.

Equally worthy of exploration are the tree-lined streets of Golden Valley, straggling south of tranquil Inya Lake towards the Shwedagon. Its teak and brick houses, dating from the late 19th and early 20th century, are surrounded by wonderful gardens that explode in colour when their flowers bloom. This district, once home to the British elite, is still Yangon’s smartest suburb.

Burma gained independence from British rule in 1948, but just 14 years later the military snatched power in a coup. The generals ruled for almost 50 years, denying its peoples democracy and human rights. In 1989, they renamed the country Myanmar, and Rangoon became Yangon once more.

Yangon was the site of the biggest demonstrations against the junta, including those during the so-called 8888 Uprising in 1988, during which Aung San Suu Kyi rose to fame after she spoke to a crowd of half a million protestors at the Shwedagon. Today, her National League for Democracy-led government is running Myanmar but Yangon, like the rest of the country, has yet to recover from the decades of neglect it suffered under the generals. Perhaps one day it will be a truly global city again.

Yangon in seven sites

1: Shwedagon Pagoda – Astonishing gilded temple built between the sixth and 10th centuries (or, according to legend, over 2,500 years ago)

2: Sule Pagoda –Spanning a traffic intersection in downtown Yangon, this golden pagoda is said to be even older than the Shwedagon

3: The Strand- Running alongside the Yangon River, colonial-era buildings include the newly restored Strand Hotel, built in 1901

4: Secretariat – Built from 1889 in the heart of downtown, the former seat of the British colonial government – a vast complex covering 6.5 hectares – was also used by the newly independent government from 1948

5: Golden Valley – The winding lanes of this neighbourhood are lined with palms and ferns, tamarind, teak and pipal trees that shade imposing colonial-era mansions

6: Inya Lake – Yangon’s largest lake was created by the British in 1882–83 as a reservoir to provide water to the growing city; today it’s a peaceful spot favoured by joggers, walkers, lovers and idlers

7: National Museum – Home to the giant, jewel-encrusted Lion Throne of Thibaw, last king of Burma, removed by the British in 1885

David Eimer is an author and former foreign correspondent. His latest book is A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma (Bloomsbury, 2019)

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This article was taken from issue 17 of BBC World Histories magazine, first published in August 2019