Going global: Yangon’s tricky transformation

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Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon. (Shutterstock)
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Swe Taw Myat Pagoda in Yangon. (Shutterstock)
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Women sell fruit in Yangon's Chinatown. (Shutterstock)
Updated 10 June 2019

Going global: Yangon’s tricky transformation

  • The former capital of Myanmar still sparkles with former glories, even as global chains move in
  • The entire city radiates from the looming Sule Pagoda, a golden 50-meter-tall stupa near Yangon City Hall

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.


Chill out: top cities for a cold winter break

Get planning that all-important vacation now. (Shutterstock)
Updated 11 September 2019

Chill out: top cities for a cold winter break

DUBAI: Yes, we know, the summer holidays have barely ended. So is now really the time to discuss winter breaks? Well, we all need something to get us through the daily grind, right? And visualizing your next escape is a good way to beat those back-to-work (or –school) blues. Here are a few suggestions for great places to visit for a true ‘winter wonderland’ experience.

Bergen, Norway

Thanks to its coastal location near the Gulf Stream, the ancient city of Bergen can be up to 20 degrees warmer than Norway’s capital, Oslo, in the winter. (NB: It can still get very cold.) It’s a ridiculously picturesque location surrounded by astonishing scenery, from the mountains to the east to the fjords to the west. Its docks are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Vienna, Austria

The Austrian capital is so beautiful in the wintertime that it’s more like an artist’s imagining of a perfect winter scene than an actual place. And despite the temperatures, there is plenty to do and see even on the coldest days in this wonderful old city. It’s a great place all year round, but we’d recommend a visit to the winter market to really experience the magic of this place.

Bolzano, Italy

This unsung gem, located in a valley near the Dolomites range of the Italian Alps, might look like a typical provincial city, but as Lonely Planet says, Bolzano is “worldly and engaged, a long-time conduit between cultures.” Even if you don’t venture into the mountains themselves, at least take a cable car into the hills and enjoy the jaw-dropping scenery. It’s also a popular city for winter shopping, and Italians know how to shop.

Minneapolis, USA

It’s not the most obvious place to visit if you’re heading to America, but Minneapolis really shines in the winter. Aside from its numerous indoor options for culture-vultures and foodies (and its miles of climate-controlled pedestrian footbridges connecting much of downtown), the city is home to the Great Northern Festival (begins Jan. 23, 2020) — a 10-day celebration combining the premier winter events in the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul’s, which includes carnivals, hockey championships, live shows and more, much of which is free.

Abisko, Sweden

This small town, north of the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland, is just next to the stunning 75-square-kilometer Abisko National Park, which is widely recognized as possibly the best place in the world from which to view the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). As well as reindeer and lemmings, the park hosts the Aurora Sky Station — situated on Mt. Njullà — a site specifically created to ensure the best possible environment in which to view the phenomenon.