With a population of over four million people Yangon is the largest city and the most important center in Burma.
Yangon also known as Rangoon, is the former capital of Burma, and does not matter if officially the military government since March 2006 has relocated the administrative capital to Naypyidaw, 322 km north of Yangon.
In 2010 a U.S. State Department estimate the Yangon population at 5.5 million, despite of this Yangon’s infrastructures are really undeveloped compared with other similar cities in Asia.
Residential and commercial buildings have been constructed or renovated in downtown area of Yangon but most satellite towns that ring the city continue to be deeply impoverished.
Yangon has today six new bridges and five new highways linking downtown to its industrial core but Yangon remains without basic services such as electricity on 24 hour, regular rubbish collection, proper pavement and cleaning of streets.
Yangon is a combination of the two words “Yan” and “Koun” which mean “enemies” and “run out of” respectively form the meaning “run out of enemy” or “end of strife”.
The city (originally called “Dagon”) was founded probably in 1028-1043 by the Mon population. It was actually a small fishing village centered about the Shwedagon Pagoda.
In 1755, King Alaungpaya conquered Dagon and renamed the city Yangon.
The British captured Yangon during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824–26). During the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852) they conquered the southern part of Burma and transformed Yangon into the main commercial and political center of British Burma.
The new city was designed by an army engineer (Lt. Alexander Fraser) on a grid plan surrounded to the east by the Pazundaung Creek and to the south and west by the Yangon River.
Yangon became the real capital of Burma after the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885) when British conquered the whole region.
By the 1890s Yangon’s increasing population and commerce gave birth to prosperous residential suburbs to the north.
Colonial Yangon, with its spacious parks and lakes and mix of modern buildings and traditional wooden architecture, was known as “the garden city of the East.”
By the early 20th century, Yangon had public services and infrastructure on par with London.
Yangon during World War II was under Japanese occupation (1942–45) and incurred in heavy damages.
The city was retaken by the Allies in May 1945 and became the capital of Union of Burma on 4 January 1948 when the country regained independence from the British Empire.
Soon after independence many colonial names of streets and parks were changed to more nationalistic Burmese names. In 1989 the military junta changed the city’s English name “Rangon” to “Yangon.
The changes have not been accepted by many Burmese who consider the junta unfit to make such changes, nor by many publications, news bureaux including the BBC and foreign nations including the United Kingdom and USA.
During Ne Win’s isolationist rule (1962–88) and the current military government’s Yangon’s infrastructure deteriorated because no maintenance.
Yangon has the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia today. Many of them were demolished to make way for hotels, office buildings, and shopping malls.
Luckily about 200 important colonial buildings are today under the Yangon Heritage List.
Before World War II, about 55% of Yangon’s population (about 500,000 people at that time) was Indians working for the British, and only about a third was “Bamar” Burmese. Karens, Chinese and others made up the rest.
After independence South Asians and Indians were forced to leave during Ne Win’s government.
Yangon has become much more indigenous in its ethnic mix, since independence not only Bamar but many Rakhine and Karen are living in the city.
Some communities of Indians and Chinese still exist especially in the traditional downtown neighborhoods.
The city’s area increased from 72.52 square kilometers in 1901, to 86.2 square kilometers in 1940, to 208.51 square kilometers in 1974, to 598.75 square kilometers in 2008.
Since the late 1980s the city began a rapid spread north to where Yangon International airport now stands. The result is a stretching tail on the city, with the downtown area removed from its geographic center. Many satellite towns are today lined with one to two story detached houses with few access to the city’s electricity grid and receive little or no municipal services at all.
Yangon does not have any skyscrapers. The tallest building in Yangon is a 25-story condo in the city’s north.
The hallmark of Yangon is the 8-story apartment building with no elevators. The city regulation required that all buildings higher than 8-story install elevators.
Condos which have to invest in a local power generator to ensure 24/h electricity for the elevators are beyond the reach of most people.
The city regulation trying to solve the chaotic traffic problems prohibits the circulation of motorcycles and prohibits the use of the horn.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is, by far, the most important attraction in Yangon and something really unique in the world.
The Great Golden Pagoda, is a 99 meters high, it lies to the west of Kandawgyi Lake, on Singuttara Hill, dominating the skyline of the city.
Shwedagon is the most ancient historical Pagoda in Burma and in the world, accordingly to historical record is over 2500 years old and is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese with relics of the past four Buddha.
The historical record of Shwedagon Pagoda begins with two merchant brothers, Taphussa and Bhallika, from the land of Ramanya, in Burma, meeting the Lord Gautama Buddha and receiving eight of the Buddha’s hairs to be enshrined in Burma.
The two brothers made their way to Burma and with the help of the local king, King Okkalapa of Burma, found Singuttara Hill, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined.
By the beginning of the 16th century the pagoda had become the most famous place of pilgrimage in Burma.
The worst damage came from a 1768 earthquake that brought down the top of the stupa and it was raised to its current state by King Hsinbyushin.
When Myanmar Buddhists go to the pagoda, they know in their hearts that they are treading the noble path of the best of human nature such as generosity, loving kindness and compassion.
The pilgrim, on his way up the steps of the pagoda, buys flowers, candles, colored flags and streamers. They are to be offered in honor of the great stupa wherein are enshrined the relics of Buddha.
All donations are voluntary, from the smallest coin put into the box to the priceless jewels hung on the top of the pagoda. No fees are ever requested at pagoda the pilgrim can make whatever donation he want.
The British, during the First Anglo-Burmese War, immediately seized and occupied the Shwedagon Pagoda and used it as a fortress. Regretfully there were pillaging and vandalism one officer dug a tunnel into the depths of the stupa was to find out if it could be used as a gunpowder store.
The British India Office in London stopped the desecration and sent compensation from the British Commissioner of Burma began the renovations of the Pagoda in 1855 with public support and donations.
After the Second Anglo-Burmese War the stupa remain under military control for 77 years until 1929, but people were given access to the temple.
The “shoe question” on the pagoda has always been a sensitive issue to the Burmese people since colonial times. It was not until 1919 that the British authorities finally issued a regulation prohibiting footwear in the precincts of the pagoda. However, they put in an exception that employees of the government on official business. The regulation and its exception moved to stir up the people and played a role in the beginnings of the nationalist movement. Today, no footwear or socks are allowed on the pagoda.
Yangon was the center of major anti-government protests in 1974, 1988 and 2007. The city’s streets saw bloodshed each time as protesters were gunned down by the government.
For its everlasting importance many protests and strikes against rules and governments start at Shwedagon Pagoda.
On September 24, 2007 more the 20,000 monks and nuns marched at the Shwedagon Pagoda during nationwide demonstrations against the military regime and its recently enacted price increases.
On September 25, 2007, monks and supporters defied threats from Myanmar’s junta marching into Yangon streets.
On September 26, 2007, clashes between security forces and thousands of protesters led by Buddhist monks have left at least five protesters dead by Myanmar security forces.
Authorities ordered the crowd to disperse, but witnesses said the monks sat down and began praying, defying the military government’s ban on public assembly
The opposition said that monks were beaten and bundled into waiting army trucks, 50 monks were arrested and taken to undisclosed locations. Soldiers with assault rifles sealed off sacred Buddhist monasteries.
Protesting monks were denied access to the Shwedagon Pagoda for several days before the government finally relented and permitted them in.
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