By 1900, Yangon’s tree lined streets channelled a huge diversity of cultures through what had become one of the great cosmopolitan centres of the region. A brief walk around the downtown of Yangon today will reveal the incredible and enduring diversity of its cultural makeup. Churches of all denominations such as Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Methodist, Chinese Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic and Anglican sit alongside Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Parsi temples. Sunni and Shia mosques, Buddhist temples, pagodas, prayer halls and monastic complexes such as Thayet Taw peacefully co exist. The breadth and diversity of religious practice seen in the downtown’s one square mile is remarkable.
During the early 20th Century Yangon’s port was the second busiest port in the world just after New York. Hundreds of thousands arrived at the docks and stepped into an exciting metropolis. People such as Mahatma Gandhi, George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Pablo Neruda, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover and many others all spent time here.Paul Theroux (1971) noted the grand architecture in his 1971 article in The Atlantic.
The decrepitude of the buildings in Rangoon is almost grand. The surfaces are shabby, but the shapes are extravagant, and the workmanship is obvious (Corinthian columns support one veranda; another, very graceful, is of wrought-iron lyres); their dereliction has splendor. Some have spires and others a score of ambitious balconies with pockmarked balusters or flowery balustrades, peeling yellow shutters, and lines of motionless wash hung out to dry—the clotheslines strung from the blossom of a cornice to the studs of that ornate pillar. Dates and names are given in medallions at the top of each building: 1903, 1914, 1922, 1927; Irrawaddy Chambers, Dawson's Bank, and The Chartered Bank (both painted out but legible).
The Economist, 2014). The wealthy had their parties catered by the specialists at the Sofaer. Cernea (2007) wrote a fascinating description of Baghdadi Jews in Burma in the early 20th century.
"Come you back to Mandalay,Before World War II, the Flotilla's fleet of 600 vessels was one of the largest in the world. The vessels were scuttled to prevent their falling into Japanese hands. Many of the wrecks are still in the river.
Where the old Flotilla lay;
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin'
From Rangoon to Mandalay"
Half a block further south is the Yangon Heritage Trust, at 22-24, Pansodan Street on the second floor. They have an active program to advocate for historic preservation and reuse. The waiting room has a fine display of historical photography. They had a clean toilet (relief) and offered us cold water (more relief).
At the end of Pansodan Street, you reach the Strand, which now no longer has a waterfront view because of the high walls surrounding the cargo terminals. And the traffic is horrendous. So turn left and go have a coffee in the historic Strand Hotel. It has the best espresso in Rangoon for now, the lobby is air-conditioned, and the toilets are clean. I stayed in the Strand Hotel in the 1950s for a few months. My mother remembers the mice and questionable food back then.
Economist article discussed the history of this last remaining synagogue.
This article is getting long. We will continue our tour of Rangoon in upcoming articles. Thank you for reading, and if I made some errors, please comment.
Here is a well-written blog on the Yangon heritage tour by a Swiss writer.
Travel + Leisure had a 2012 article on Rangoon's Rich Architecture.
National Public Radio (NPR) aired an article in June 2014 titled, "As Myanmar Modernizes, Architectural Gems Are Endangered."
Time Magazine had a 2012 article, "As Rangoon Races Forward, a Push to Preserve Its Architectural Past."
The Irrawaddy described how the "Heritage Tour Offers Insights Into Rangoon’s Illustrious Past."
The Economist described architecture in a 2014 article, "The way the old capital crumbles."
The Economist described "Myanmar’s last Jews, Burma’s bimah, A tale of conservation, faith and a surprising survival" in a 2012 article.
The Financial Times wrote about Rangoon's Forgotten Treasures in a 2011 article.
Cernea, R.F.,2007. Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma. Lexington Books, Lanham, MD, 177p.
Mann, Ruper-Angus. 2014. Yangon: A City at A Turning Point, M My Magical Myanmar, Logistics Media Company, February 2014, pp. 65-67 (accessed 14 Dec. 2014)
Theroux, P. 1971. "Burma." The Atlantic, (Accessed 27 Nov 2014).