YANGON: During the final years of its five-decade rule, Myanmar’s military junta moved the nation’s capital some 400 kilometers north, from the historical hub of Yangon to the newly established Naypyidaw — a purpose-built political epicenter in the mold of Brasília, Canberra, Islamabad and Washington DC.
This deliberate separation of business and power — of the people and those who rule them — might have suited outgoing strongman head of state Than Shwe, but seems equally apt for Myanmar’s contemporary, democratically elected leaders.
Amid the daily bustle of businesslike Yangon, you’ll find little concern for — or likely reporting of — the ongoing Rohingya conflict, 700 kilometers north in Rakhine State, nor of its international condemnation: A hard-hitting headline in the western media won’t stop traffic on Yangon’s dusty Anawrahta Road.
Like its inhabitants, Yangon is a city going places too fast to think about its destination. Since democracy was established in 2011 and foreign capital began flooding in for the first time in generations, it’s Myanmar’s biggest city — home to more than five million and four times larger than second-placed former royal capital Mandalay — which has benefitted the fastest, and the most.
To call Yangon a “city in flux” feels stoutly under-baked. The clash of past and present, of tradition and trade, is a familiar travelers’ trope, but there are few fresher or rawer transformations than the one hitting Myanmar. This “last chance” appeal incited 3.5 million tourists to park their morals and visit last year alone.
A visit to Yangon offers a ringside seat to globalization in action, and its discontents: Glitzy new shopping malls, apartment blocks and western fast-food restaurants have sprouted up like wildfire, making an uneasy truce with crumbling colonial buildings and local markets. These incongruous early spurts of urban renewal may line the pockets of patrons to colonial-styled, lake-sized mansion retreat Le Planteur — where the average main course is around eight times the country’s new minimum daily wage of US$4.80 — but one suspects the trickle down benefits are yet to be realized by the grizzled street-side traders hawking fresh fish from the floor.
A counterpoint to these extremes is found in the city’s characteristic religious monuments; centuries-old Buddhist icons scattered amid modern streets, implicitly recalling a richer time, spiritually and materially — balancing conspicuous fortune with karmic harmony.
The entire city radiates from the looming Sule Pagoda, a golden 50-meter-tall stupa proudly sat in the heart of a central roundabout adjacent to Yangon City Hall. Believed to date back some 2,600 years, it remains the focal point of local life, attracting worshippers at all hours of the day, and was notably the scene of 2007’s Saffron Revolution, which preceded the reforms to come.
More impressive is the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest site — and most iconic sight — a 99-meter tall monument which dominates the city’s skyline from atop Singuttara Hill.
Up close, it dazzles. The stupa’s entire surface is covered with gold plates, crusted with 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires, and topped with a 76-carat stone.
Visit at the cooler sunset hours to see the surrounding irregular complex of shrines overrun by families, workers and school kids making their daily devotional visit.
More recent history is unearthed at The Secretariat, a regal, 16-acre administrative center commissioned by the British shortly after the colonization of the country then known as Burma in 1885. Built in the proud, Victorian-style of the day — yet dazzling in sunbaked red and yellow brick — The Secretariat would endure as a central government hub long after the imperialists left, and is famously where then-Premier Aung San was assassinated, along with six cabinet ministers, on 19 July 1947, now celebrated as Burmese Martyrs’ Day.
The Yangon home in which his Nobel Peace Prize-winning daughter Aung San Suu Kyi — Myanmar’s first and incumbent State Counselor — spent 15 years under house arrest remains off limits to the public, patrolled by a single guard. But a big budget renovation of The Secretariat is set to be completed later this year, reimagined as a cultural complex featuring a museum honoring Aung San aside shops, offices, cafes and restaurants.
Visiting The Secretariat as part of a pre-arranged tour, our journey ends at a particularly pleasing, two-story block with a prime street-side vantage — once the ministers’ stables, but now elegantly fitted out ready for a new commercial client. The large curved windows, thick wooden columns and exposed brickwork would be perfect for an art gallery, I remark — before my guide corrects me with the tenant all set to move in: KFC.