The British had a habit, even within remoter areas of Britain itself, of translating local names into anglicised approximations all over its once mighty empire, and so it is that Yangon became famous in the west as Rangoon.


Although now Myanmar’s largest and commercially active city, it was originally a small settlement named Dagon, and other than as a site of pilgrimage, does not feature in the great sweep of the country’s long history.

The city was first built in 1755 by King Alaungpaya after his conquest of central Burma, and optimistically named Yangon, meaning ‘end of strife’. That the city, until recent times, subsequently became the country’s capital was due its crucial maritime accessibility and the convenience of the British.

The present capital of Myanmar is a purpose built modernist city, still under construction, on a site known previously as Kyetpyay halfway between Yangon and the northern city of Mandalay.

The city of Yangon, has its origins in its most famous sight, Shwedagon Paya, the impressive 99 metre glittering golden Pagoda that dominates the skyline from almost anywhere in the city, especially at night, when floodlights light up one of the world’s most sacred Buddhist sites. On a secular level, it is also an awesome sight and staggeringly precious piece of jewellery, embodying 27 tonnes of gold and thousands of diamonds within its structure.

Said to contain hairs of Gautama Buddha, dating from his lifetime around 600 BC, the site has evolved over time and, in earthquake prone Myanmar, has also inevitably undergone repair and restructuring. The present stupa is thought to have originally been built by the Mon people, during the latter part of the first millennium, with the process of gilding begun in the fifteenth century. Another feature of the lake is the more recent but picturesque barge temple of Karaweik Hall.

Adjacent to the splendid Pagoda, on the west side, the People’s Park is a great place to stroll amongst the greenery and get a sense of the scale of its presence. To the east, Kandawgwi Lake is another pleasant green space with views of the pagoda beautifully reflected in its waters and also features the zoological gardens.

A little way north of the lake, Ngahtatgyi Paya houses an impressively large 14 metre sitting Buddha, whist across the street Chaukhtatgyi Paya houses a colossal 65 metre reclining Buddha.

To the south of the Shwedagon Pagoda and its parks, the downtown and riverfront area features much of the colonial legacy of the city’s past, characterised by the grid system of roads that run parallel to the river.

Mahabandoola Garden is a good place to start if you want to soak up the Rangoon of Somerset Maugham, H G Wells, Rudyard Kipling and Aldous Huxley. As well as the splendid grandeur of the surrounding colonial structures, the garden itself is the home of the Independence Monument, which replaced the statue of Queen Victoria that used to sit here when the park also carried her name.

At the north-west end of the park, the shining presence of Sule Pagoda imbues the colonial era city hall with golden light, and is said to be even older than Shwedagon, while to the south, the waterfront area features the port buildings, Post Office and the illustrious Strand Hotel, sister to the Raffles in Singapore and the Orient in Penang. Beyond is another of Yangon’s impressive golden pagodas, Botataung Paya.

East of the gardens are the High Court and a little way further, the fine structure of the colonial era Minister's Office, presently closed to the public due to sensitivities surrounding the assassination of Aung San, which took place here, with planned restoration of the building as a cultural centre and Museum. To the north of the Minister's Office, close to Yangon Central Station, is St. Mary’s Cathedral.

Beyond the old city and to the north of Swedagon is Inya Lake, one of Yangon’s most upmarket residential districts where, on its southern shore sits the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, where she spent many years under house arrest.  

Nearby, the colonial era Fine Arts School is both a fine building and a good display area for viewing art. Inya Lake is a picturesque area, pleasant for walking, cycling, rowing and sailing and is a peaceful romantic destination for strolling lovers.