Ghosts from Myanmar's colonial past

By Brett Atkinson

Myanmar's big city evokes New York and Manchester, finds Brett Atkinson.

The colonial-era City Hall building in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo / Brett Atkinson
The colonial-era City Hall building in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo / Brett Atkinson

The architectural ghosts of Manchester and Manhattan are alive and well in Myanmar.

Walking the languid streets of the Myanmarese city formerly known as Rangoon, northern England and New York are the last places I expect to be reminded of, but the resemblances are uncanny.

Downtown Yangon's checkerboard grid is a sleepy doppelganger for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Roads are linked with narrow lanes trimmed with tenements and fire escapes, and cooling river breezes - substitute the Yangon River for the Hudson - struggle through thoroughfares lined with commerce and pedestrians.

Even the street names have a utilitarian New York spin, as 1st to 56th Sts run parallel west to east.

Post offices, warehouses and law courts - all built of rich, red brick - are transplanted from Victorian England; their imposing colonial facades struggling to retain gravitas under waves of humidity.

While other Southeast Asian capitals such as Hanoi and Phnom Penh are increasingly spruced up by foreign investment, one of the British Empire's most refined cities remains subsumed under a dank cloak. Minimal traffic means Yangon is also a city that rewards exploration on foot.

I'm used to tropical climes, but a wave of humidity hits me hard as I exit my hotel just after 8am. Built in 1986 by the Sarkies brothers - also the founders of Raffles in Singapore - The Strand is a hallmark of Southeast Asian travel.

A palm-studded lobby segues to spacious suites trimmed with teak floors and canopied beds, and the hotel's graceful ambience belies a past that includes occupation by the Japanese army in 1941, and Mick Jagger a few decades later.

Previous guests have included Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, both celebrated in the hotel's Writer's Bar, Yangon's preferred after-dark destination for diplomats from embassies along Strand Rd.

During Myanmar's time as a British protectorate, the riverside esplanade was the first introduction to Rangoon for visitors travelling on the Irrawaddy and Yangon rivers from Mandalay.

Near the city's main post office, broken pavements host street vendors selling garlands of fragrant blooms and bookish fortune-tellers offer me guidance in measured English tones with a hint of the BBC World Service.

One block north on Merchant Rd, any pretence of restoration is jettisoned on rows of two- and three-story colonial buildings, still a faded yellow colour and a backdrop for Yangon's wheezing buses.

A right turn into Pansodan St reveals one of the city's best-restored British-era buildings, the Queen Anne-style Supreme Court, built in 1911. Topped by a clock tower and British imperial lions, it's an ironic structure in a country where justice is often dispensed on the whims of the ruling junta.

Past Immanuel Baptist Church in nearby Maha Bandoola Gardens, Yangon's commercial hub is the Sule Paya, a 2200-year-old golden temple occupying the city's main traffic roundabout.

In-your-face moneychangers with backpacks bulging with United States dollars and Myanmarese kyat mock local laws supposedly banning black market currency transactions, and a dribble of traffic eases by City Hall, built from 1928 and combining British and Myanmarese influences.

Effortlessly avoiding a slow-moving bus, a couple of slower-walking locals reinforce just how different Yangon is from its closest neighbours. Try that kind of laidback manoeuvre in downtown New Delhi, Dhaka or Bangkok and see how long you last.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Yangon has regular flights from key Asian hubs including Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur on SilkAir, Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways and Air Asia.

Where to stay: Suites at The Strand start at $180 per night.

Brett Atkinson paid his own way to Myanmar.

- NZ Herald

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