Yangon, Myanmar, by Ted Cookson

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by Ted Cookson
Published in July 2010
Dancers in Yangon, Myanmar, 62-second video clip
Vegetable sellers in Yangon, Myanmar, 64-second video clip

Sleepy Yangon is not on the itineraries of most travelers to Southeast Asia. However, the former capital of Myanmar is definitely worth a visit. With a population of over five million and yet one of the safest large cities in the world, Myanmar's largest city is a fascinating time capsule.

Founded as the fishing village of Dagon in the sixth century, Rangoon became the capital of Burma under British rule in 1885. After Burma achieved independence in 1958, many of the colonial names were changed. In 1989 the ruling military junta changed the names of Burma and Rangoon to Myanmar and Yangon, respectively. Although the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) -- along with the governments of China, Germany, Japan and Russia -- recognize these name changes, opposition parties within the country as well as other countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia and France do not. Nor are these name changes recognized by various international media organizations such as the BBC, the Voice of America, The Washington Post and most British newspapers. These countries and organizations do not recognize the ruling military government's legitimacy, let alone its authority to rename the country and its cities in English.

Surrounded on three sides by water and some 30 km (18 miles) from the Andaman Sea, the port of Yangon lies in southern Myanmar's fertile delta country. Dominated by the massive golden Shwedagon Pagoda three kilometers (two miles) north of the city center, Yangon is charming as a result of its dilapidated British colonial architecture. While in recent years a number of modern office and residential towers and hotels have been constructed in the city center, Yangon doesn't yet boast any real skyscrapers such as can be found in not-so-distant Bangkok. The majority of Yangon's buildings appear as if they have not been renovated in well over half a century. In fact, Yangon possesses more colonial-era buildings than any other city in Southeast Asia. If one ignores automobile traffic and congestion, the resulting architectural ambience is that of a cosmopolitan nineteenth-century city as Yangon still has the wide, tree-lined avenues that were constructed on a British colonial grid.

For decades the military government restricted entry to Burma by issuing tourist visas with a maximum validity of one week, and entry was only allowed by air. Nowadays tourists still arrive by air at Yangon International Airport half an hour north of the city center. However, an increasingly popular means of travel is via international cruise ship. Smaller cruise vessels can dock right in the city center only a short walk from The Strand Hotel, a famous colonial landmark. On the other hand, larger ships must dock farther down the Yangon River, a drive of at least an hour from the city center. The Yangon River is a tributary of the Irrawaddy, or Ayeyarwady, River.

The list of things to see and do in Yangon includes religious monuments, museums and shopping.

Shwedagon, the most beautiful and sacred of Burma's pagodas, dominates Myanmar's skyline. Sitting on 58-meter-high (188-foot-high) Singuttara Hill, Shwedagon's spectacular gold leaf-covered dome rises a further 98 meters (321 feet) above its base. While dating back only to 1769 in its modern form, the Shwedagon Pagoda was probably built originally between the sixth and tenth century by the Mons, one of the earliest peoples to inhabit Southeast Asia. It is said that the pagoda enshrines eight of Buddha's hairs. The "must-see" Schwedagon Pagoda which, incidentally, contains nearly two tons of gold leaf and an elevator, is one of the most important and interesting of Yangon's tourist sites.

The octagonal golden-spired Sule Pagoda, situated in a roundabout in Yangon's traditional city center, was built over 2,000 years ago and is also said to enshrine one of Buddha's hairs. Sule stands 46 meters (149 feet) tall and is surrounded by many small shops. During protests which took place in Yangon in both 1988 and 2007 it served as a rallying point for pro-democracy demonstrations.

Although the four-story national museum contains exhibits on history, culture, civilization and natural history, the most impressive displays are the 8-meter-high (26-foot-high) intricately-carved throne of the last king of Burma and the Mandalay royal regalia. These highly-ornamented artifacts made with a high degree of craftsmanship were used by Burmese kings and had great ceremonial significance. The gem-studded Mandalay regalia, which once belonged to the last two kings, was returned to Burma in 1964 from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in a gesture of friendship by the British.

Bogyoke Aung San Market, situated in a colonial building in downtown Yangon, is one of the most popular of Yangon's tourist destinations. Built in 1926, the market was originally named after a Mr. C. Scott, the British municipal commissioner. Today there are more than 1,600 shops in this market selling everything from handicrafts, art and jewelry to clothing; and there are even food stalls. The market is a popular place to shop for Burmese jade, rubies and other precious stones.

The best time to visit Yangon is from November until March or April. Then the northeast monsoon winds from the Yunnan plateau in China bring a long, dry period. The relatively low temperatures from November through February vary little, while March and April are somewhat warmer and the humidity is higher. On the other hand, during the period from May until October it is rainy and cloudy. Yangon receives 1,617 mm (103 inches) of rain annually. While rain generally falls in the afternoon and evenings, it is a good idea to carry an umbrella at all times.

Round trip airfare from Cairo to Yangon via Bangkok, using Egypt Air for the long-haul flights and Thai Airways International for the regional flights, is approximately EGP 6,920. While a tourist visa is required in advance for most nationalities, fortunately a helpful Burmese embassy is located in Cairo.

ABOUT TED COOKSON:  Egypt's most widely-traveled travel agent, Ted has been to every country in the world!  He has also visited 314 of the 320 destinations on the list of the Travelers' Century Club (visit www.eptours.com and refer to World Travel Club).  A travel agent in Cairo since 1986, Ted manages EGYPT PANORAMA TOURS, a full-service travel agency, at 4 Road 79 (between Roads 9 and 10, near the "El Maadi" metro station) in Maadi.  Contact Egypt Panorama Tours (open 7 days a week 9 AM-5 PM) at:  Tels. 2359-0200, 2358-5880, 2359-1301.  Fax 2359-1199.  E-mail:  ept@link.net.  Web site:  www.eptours.com

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