Rangoon to Yangon - The New Indian Express

Rangoon to Yangon

Published: 04th May 2014 06:00 AM

Last Updated: 03rd May 2014 10:16 AM

This looks like London 150 years ago”, said the Englishman named Frank. We are wandering through the tree-lined streets of Rangoon, now called by its native name Yangon; the way Burma became Myanmar. The urban silhouette roughly resembles Calcutta in the Sixties, which, like Rangoon, was built as a replica of London, almost during the same period.

In the late 19th century, during the height of their expansionist phase in the subcontinent, the British seized Burma, discarded Mandalay in the north as the nation’s capital, and began developing a new city on the banks of Yangon River. Rangoon was laid out on a grid around the ancient Sule

Pagoda, situated not far from the centuries old symbol of Rangoon—the Shewdagon Pagoda. Soon it became a busy trading centre. Colonial buildings flanking boulevards and overlooking parklands and lakes continued to be built.

After Burma’s independence in 1948, the British quit, but left behind an entire way of life: afternoon tea at the Strand Hotel, shopping at Scotts Market and teeing off at the Golf Club. Over time, the colonial flavour has largely faded, but what survives stands out in Yangon, where outsiders arrive in large numbers, almost half a century after Myanmar’s isolation from the world imposed by a military junta ended.

The guided walking tour through colonial memory lane starts at Mahabandoola Garden, earlier known as Fytche Square, the heart of British Rangoon. Its expansive green houses the Independence Monument, which replaced a rather large statue of Queen Victoria who was keeping a sharp eye on the surrounding colonial offices. Relics of the Empire that survive are the whitewashed City Hall, the red-brick High Court building crowned by a clock tower, the Telegraph Office, the Secretariat and the Immanuel Baptist Church where the city’s Christian community assemble for ceremonies.

A chaotic maze of streets lead towards the riverfront called the Strand. We pass an eclectic ensemble of red-brick and pastel-coloured buildings that housed the big and small wheels—officials brought from India— that kept the great Imperial machine well oiled. Rangoon’s Indian population outnumbered the locals. As a result, mosques and temples were built; the Kali temple and the Bengali Mosque being most significant.

Here, too, the colonial influences of Calcutta, Colombo or Singapore are present in Venetian windows, ornamented balconies and wooden stairs. The construction styles reveal the fashion of the time; the pillars, balustrades and domes highlighting the confluence of European and Asian influences. Unfortunately, time seems to be wearying of them, and these would soon make way for modern office blocks and residential blocks.

We break the journey at the fin de siecle Strand Hotel built in 1901. Once regarded as the “finest hostelry east of the Suez”, the three-story Victorian era hotel is famous for English afternoon tea. Cucumber sandwiches and Darjeeling tea amid teakwood rattan furniture, presided over by grand chandeliers and black-acquered ceiling fans recall the ambience of a bygone era.

From colonial to retail therapy is tourist karma in Yangon. Cruise the 2,000-odd shops of the Bogyoke Aun San Market, selling everything from rubies and silk to cheroots and betel nuts—going through a labyrinth of semi-dark corridors, not that long ago packed with Europeans. It is reminsecent of Calcutta’s New Market, still recognised as an iconic reminder of the Raj.

Dinner at the Governor’s Residence Hotel, a 1920 Burmah teak mansion, is a good way to end the colonial walk; it used to be home to honoured guests of the Empire. Now echoes remain, of the tinkling of silver spoons against porcelain cups and the small talk of ladies who would meet to exchange Rangoon tales a century ago.

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