A Mammoth Tour of Downtown Yangon

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March 12th 2018
Published: March 12th 2018
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Woolly says – I had the map at the ready and a route planned for my Mammoth Tour of Downtown Yangon, hopefully the women would be impressed. Having studied the plan I’d felt that it would be fairly easy to navigate around the city as each street is numbered in the same way as New York, our first stop was on 40th street. Leading the way past some of the many food stalls it gave me a chance to look in more depth at the metropolis, on arrival our information had mentioned a poor infrastructure, but it was proving anything but. The roads and pavements were in great condition with nice white markings on them and except for an odd whiff of sewerage near the drain covers it appeared to be streets ahead of most places in India especially on the noise front, as cars passed quietly and without fuss or just sat in the jams without the constant need to hoot. Five minutes at a steady pace found us at just the right point and looking up at a rather impressive cathedral. Saint Mary's Cathedral was designed by Dutch architect and completed in 1899. It is the largest in Burma sorry Myanmar and was only completed through a land grant from the Government of India when Lower Burma was a province of British India. The outside looked lovely with it’s chequered brickwork, I led the way in.

Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures inside, but the huge arched ceilings continued with the brickwork theme, Woolly and I chuckled at the choice of claret and blue, villa colours!

Woolly says – The stained glass windows were really well done and depicted many of the most well known saints, an excellent first start. A quick check of the map and we headed off to our next destination. Eleven roads across and we took a left turn, our plan was to leave all things golden and pagodaish today, but I hadn’t been able to resist, and it fitted in with my theme rather nicely. It didn’t take the girls long to spot our second golden pagoda in Yangon, this one was an awful lot smaller than the previous days and shouldn’t take long to circumnavigate. I’ve never seen a roundabout like it and having crossed into the middle of the streams of traffic I was rather proud to hear the women gasp in joy. The Sule Pagoda, according to legend, was built before the Shwedagon Pagoda during the time of the Buddha, making it more than 2600 years old, it has been the focal point of both Yangon and Burmese politics and served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and 2007 Saffron Revolution. It certainly wasn’t as glam as it’s cousin in the uptown area, but it was lovely. Lots more gold to feast our eyes on and many more Buddha’s to gaze upon, being so much smaller we had managed to go around in a mere half hour and having collected the shoes and crossed through the traffic I presented my tour group with not one but two places to look at.

We had talked about looking at the colonial buildings that the city had and across the green grass stood one of those, City Hall was impressive, begun in 1926 and completed in 1936 it looked as though it had recently had another paint job.

Woolly says – The grass we were stood on was a part of The Maha Bandula Park named after General Maha Bandula who fought against the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–1826). The park wasn’t much more than some grass but it’s crowning glory was the huge obelisk in the centre which had been placed there in 1948 to mark Burmese independence. I took rather a fancy to the dragons that surrounded it and whilst the women took huge quantities of pictures I went around saying hello to them all. With no time to linger I urged my party onwards and led the way towards our next item of interest, they still hadn’t cottoned onto the theme which was making me chuckle. Thirtieth street gave us the Mogul Shia Mosque, an Islamic place of worship had first been built here in 1854 by Indo-Persian merchant families, the current structure was built in 1914, not the biggest or prettiest of buildings and one we couldn’t go into, but it added another religion to my list.

By this point I had realised how my small friends mind was working and smiled down at his beaming face, he was giving us an excellent tour.

Woolly says – Onwards we went and a further four streets down a helpful signpost took us straight to our next port. Mesmeah Yeshua Synagogue was

built between 1893 and 1896 and now serves the remaining 20 or so Jewish citizens of Yangon. It once was the spiritual centre of the mainly Sephardic Jewish community from Baghdad, approximately 2,000 Jews fled Ottoman and Iraqi persecution and settled in colonial Rangoon. Around half of the community left in the wake of the Japanese invasion in 1941, with 1,000 Rangoon Jews settling in Calcutta. It seemed sad that, so few actually still used the building, with no great hopes I asked the man at the gate if we could go in, ‘yes of course and please take photographs’, we couldn’t ask for more. Inside the building was lovely with a blue patterned ceiling and diamante ceiling lights hanging down, a small stage in the centre was a memorial to the Samuels family who have continued to maintain the synagogue. Even better came at the rear of the building where curtains stood open and two large silver containers were on display that contained the Torahs, I was delighted, even more so that it was the first Jewish building we had been able to capture on film.

A drink break was needed and having congratulated the furry one on his finds so far, we asked what we had in store next.

Woolly says – Jo always tells me that patience is a virtue and for once she would have to be patient. With our thirst quenched and our legs rested we set off to 19th street and a building that I knew would be a huge hit. The Kheng Hock Keong also known as the Qingfu Temple, is the largest and oldest temple to the Chinese sea-goddess Mazu in Yangon, it was originally built as a wooden temple in 1861 and completed in 1863 with the current brick building being completed in 1903. This had been a huge find as it was our first Taoist temple EVER! I gave myself a pat on the back and beamed at the other two who could hardly believe their eyes. The entrance was adorned with chinses symbols and dragons with Chinese male statues standing on guard, inside was another world entirely and I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was, the ceiling and supporting posts were incredible with their paintings and the gold that surrounded the various idols was amazing. Three large pots stood in the middle of the open area with people praying to them whilst the smell of incense wafted around us. As I went off to look at the idols in more detail the women started chatting to a lady.

The lady in question had welcomed us to the temple and explained that her Father lived around the corner and that she was here visiting him from New York, having discussed our travel route so far and our plans for seeing Myanmar she then kindly took us to each of the idols and explained that each one signified a different need for people to pray for, one for heath, one for children, one for good fortune and so on, it was fascinating.

Woolly says – The whole place was incredible and a great find on my religious list for the city. My tummy was starting to make loud noises so having chivvied the girls and thanked the lady I set off to our lunch destination. The heat was becoming unbearable and having checked the map I just hoped we would make it to the Strand before I expired. This poor hotel had quite a history and fitted into my second theme of the day which would start to develop once we had eaten. The Strand opened in 1901 and was built by the British entrepreneur, John Darwood, but was later acquired by the Sarkies brothers who owned several luxury hotels in the Far East, including the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. During the colonial period, The Strand was one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire with a clientele of exclusively whites, the brothers sold it in 1925. During World War II, following Japanese occupation of Burma, the hotel was used briefly to quarter Japanese troops. The following year, the Strand's ownership was transferred to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. For the first time in 1945 the Burmese became part of the hotel's clientele. After Burma achieved independence in 1948, the hotel was neglected by post-colonial governments and went into decline and wrack and ruin. Following a total renovation, the doors were opened once again in 1993 and it is now one of the best known hotels in the city. As we entered the air conditioned interior it was clearly a thriving business, I just hoped that Jo had enough to pay!

It wasn’t cheap but as we hadn’t paid for anything else so far, our daily budget was intact, the crystal glasses didn’t really fit with our shorts and hiking boots but undeterred we enjoyed every sip before sharing a huge mound of fish and chips, how British can you get!

Woolly says – It was delightful and having licked the last of the tartare sauce from my tail we headed back into the heat and the colonial part of the day. Pansodan Street had eight buildings to admire, most of them are now government buildings but the architecture was well worth a look, particularly the Port Authorities building with it’s tower, with photo’s taken the tour was close to completion just a couple more places to see although my paws were throbbing I couldn’t stop yet and limped on. Last but one on the list and a mere hundred and thirty paw strides on we stood admiring the former Ministers Offices which was currently under construction and looked as though it would be well worth coming back to see once completed.

We were all flagging by now, but I knew we weren’t far away from our base and I had an inkling as to the last place we would be going to.

Woolly says – Jo was onto me and I knew her eagle eye had already taken in our final photo opportunity, but I just had to add it into the day. Sri Kalima Hindu Temple was built in 1871 by Tamil immigrants, the Hindu goddess Kali is worshipped here and as we stood looking at the fine painting and carvings over the doorway I couldn’t have been happier. Six religions and eleven colonial buildings covered in one tour, I’m pretty sure that can’t be beaten, hopefully the customers will be tipping well!

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