Yangon: Off the Beaten Track

 |  April 3, 2015

Burma is back on the tourist trail, with the authorities hoping to welcome up to three million visitors this year.

Many will spend only a day or two in Yangon before heading to some of the country’s best-known attractions – the spectacular temples of Bagan, the majestic Inle Lake or the sun-kissed beaches of the south.

This is a pity, as Yangon – with its rich, cosmopolitan history and imposing colonial architecture – is a city that rewards exploration. Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell and Noel Coward are among those who have found inspiration in the sultry streets of Burma’s former capital, and today’s travellers can follow in their footsteps.

Many will marvel at the wondrous Shwedagon Pagoda, shop for souvenirs in Bogyoke Market and enjoy a gin and tonic at the Strand Hotel, which is still a byword for luxury. But those with more time to spare might want to check out some of the following attractions, which provide an intriguing glimpse into Burma past and present.

Historic Urban Heritage 

With its wide, leafy avenues and crumbling colonial architecture, Yangon is arguably the prettiest city in Southeast Asia. Its hundreds of Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings, in various states of decay, are vivid reminders of its illustrious past as a seat of government and great trading centre of the British Empire.

These include the Strand Hotel and the teak Pegu Club, commercial buildings and government buildings like the Secretariat, City Hall, the former High Court and the port authority headquarters. A stroll around downtown Yangon is the best way to take in these imposing edifices, which conjure up images of elegance and grandeur even amid the hustle and bustle of modern city life.

Unfortunately, a number of historic buildings have been demolished in recent years. But as Myanmar’s economy takes off and developers move in to build shiny new office blocks and retail centres, moves are under way to protect Yangon’s architectural heritage from the wrecking ball. A temporary ban on demolishing buildings over 50 years old has been introduced, and an NGO, the Yangon Heritage Trust, has been set up to preserve the city’s unique urban landscape.

The Na Gar Glass Factory

A derelict glassware factory may not be everyone’s idea of a tourist attraction, but this one in Yangon’s northern suburbs is fascinating.

The factory was destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, though owner Myat Ayee still receives visitors “two or three times a week” and is happy to show them around.

The grounds, well-hidden and overgrown with vegetation, are littered with tens of thousands of the items his factory used to produce en masse. Glasses, vases, pots, ashtrays, paperweights, jars, figurines and baubles in various colours lay forlornly in the dust, but can be cleaned up and bought cheaply by visitors, small chips can also be polished off on-site for a bargain.

The factory was opened by Myat Ayee’s father in 1949, and at its height employed about 60 people, though less than half that number worked there when Nargis hit. It used to be something of a tourist attraction, where visitors could watch glass being hand-blown. In the showroom – a simple wooden shack – Myat Ayee proudly displays a black-and-white photo of US astronaut John Glenn on his visit to the factory in 1966.

He will also give visitors a lesson in the art and science of making glassware, for he is a master craftsman and proud of it. For an interesting couple of hours and the chance to pick up some unusual wine glasses or other souvenirs, this is well worth a trip – but be a bit careful of any snakes you may disturb!

Na Gar Glass Factory, 152 Yawgi Kyaung Street, Hlaing Township, Yangon

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue

Myanmar’s only synagogue is another legacy of colonial times, when Yangon was a prosperous port city ruled as part of British India. In the nineteenth century, businessmen, soldiers, civil servants and chancers from all over Asia and beyond flocked to Yangon to seek their fortunes. Mosques, temples and churches were built – often next door to each other – to cater to these newcomers.

The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue was erected in the late 19th century for the city’s Jewish community, mostly Baghdadi Jews. At its peak the influential community numbered around 3,000, and the city even had a Jewish mayor in the 1930s. But many left during World War II and the number of Burmese Jews has since dwindled to around 20 people.

Today, this little synagogue stands proudly on a dusty sidestreet in downtown Yangon, in a largely Muslim neighbourhood with several mosques nearby. Relations with other communities are good, and after Cyclone Nargis the synagogue hosted an interfaith prayer service with members of the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Baha’i faiths invited.

Today, the synagogue is managed by Moses Samuels, who also runs a travel agency that arranges Jewish tours. Visitors are welcome, and may find themselves the only ones at the synagogue. Even those with little knowledge of Judaism will find its cool interior a welcome respite from the heat outside and a pleasant place to sit and reflect on the contributions this small community has made to the city.

Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue, 26th Street, Yangon

Tomb of Bahadur Shah 

This shrine containing the tomb of India’s last Moghul emperor, who spend his final years in exile in Yangon, is located in a quiet side-street near the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, an Urdu poet and devout Sufi Muslim, found himself caught up in the Indian rebellion against British rule in 1857. The British crushed the uprising, deposed the king and exiled him to Rangoon where he died in 1862, at the age of 87.

Fearing another insurrection, the British authorities buried him in a simple, anonymous grave behind the compound he had been held in. The British commissioner, Captain Nelson Davies, wrote: “A bamboo fence surrounds the grave for some considerable distance, and by the time the fence is worn out, the grass will again have properly covered the spot, and no vestige will remain to distinguish where the last of the Great Moghuls rests.”

As intended, the site became overgrown and forgotten by many. Then, in 1991, building work uncovered the original grave near the spot previously thought to be the burial place. Today, a new shrine houses the tombs of the emperor, his wife and granddaughter, and local Muslims visit to pay tribute to the man they honour as a saint. Prominent politicians from the Indian subcontinent have also visited to pay their respects, and there have even been rumours of plans to take the emperor’s remains back to India. Visitors of all faiths are welcome but, as with the synagogue should remember that this is a place of worship.

Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb, 8 Zi Wa Ka Road, Yangon

Secondhand Books

Yangon is a treat for bookworms. Although it lacks any of the big Western bookstores, there are several smaller shops specialising in local history, and secondhand book stalls around the city selling tomes in Burmese, English and other languages.

These are mainly clustered around Bogyoke Aung San Market and in Pansodan Street, near the corner of Merchant Street. This area is like an open-air library, where students come to buy used textbooks and passers-by browse the simple stalls – sometimes little more than a sheet of tarpaulin on the ground – for something that takes their fancy.

A huge range of titles are on offer, from academic books to potboiler thrillers, classic novels, poetry and perhaps a tattered copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days.

If you can’t find what you are looking for here, you may have more luck in the city’s small bookshops, which at least offer a semblance of order. Bagan Books specialises in old books on Myanmar, and is something of an institution in the city.

Here, you can find copies of rare old books by adventurers such as the botanist and explorer Frank Kingdon-Ward, Major Rowland Raven-Hart, who canoed down the Irrawaddy in the 1930s, and the colonial administrator Maurice Collis, who wrote a number of well-informed books on Burmese history. New books on Myanmar history and culture are also available, as well a few titles on other subjects.

Many of the books for sale are photocopies, and if the particular book you want is out of print, the staff can arrange for it to be photcopied for you.

Bagan Books, 37th Street, Yangon