Yangon boasts the largest number of colonial-era buildings in Southeast Asia, and has a unique colonial-era urban core that is remarkably intact. The colonial-era commercial core is centred around the Sule Pagoda, which is reputed to be over 2,000 years old. The city is also home to the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda – Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda. The mausoleum of the last Mughal Emperor is located in Yangon, where he had been exiled following the Indian Mutiny of 1857.
Yangon suffers from deeply inadequate infrastructure, especially compared to other major cities in Southeast Asia. Though many historic residential and commercial buildings have been renovated throughout central Yangon, most satellite towns that ring the city continue to be profoundly impoverished and lack basic infrastructure.
Bogyoke Aung San Market
Yangon’s favorite market was completed in 1926. Originally know as Scott Market after a Municipal Commissioner of the time, Gavin Scott, it is impressively sized; the main bazaar is 30 feet high and 440 feet long, with four additional bays opening out to each side. Built to house over 1,120 stalls, it is today a one-stop shop for souvenirs and all things Myanmar, from slippers and longyi to gemstones and jade.
Walking east on Bogyoke Street (Montgomery Street) you pass (RHS) the polychrome sculpture-crested Sri Kamachian Hindu Temple on the corner of Bo Sun Pet Street and St John’s Church (1900). Further down the block you find the old Railway Headquarters (1896) (LHS).
The simple but elegant building was constructed as the headquarters of the state-run Burma Railways, founded during the British colonial era in 1877. Now derelict for almost two decades, the structure is currently the centerpiece of a massive development project and is set to become a 5-star hotel on a property that will include tower blocs for office, apartment and retail space.
Then continue, turn left, cross the railway then right to Yangon Central Railway Station.
Yangon Central Railway Station
Yangon Central Railway Station was first built in 1877 by the British to support Burma’s first railway line, from Yangon to Pyay. The station was located on the southern side of the railway compound on the upper block of Phayre Street (now Pansodan Street) in the downtown area. The building was designed in the British Victorian Style and the access roads were bordered by grassy lawns. The beauty of the property prompted locals to praise the new structure as the Fairy Station.
The station become a favorite target for Japanese bombers during World War II. In 1943 it was destroyed by British forces retreating to India.
The station was rebuilt following the war according to a design drawn by engineer Hla Thwin and based on Burmese traditional architectural styles. The new structure was 5110 square meters (55,000 sq ft) in size. To the north were grass lawns, gardens and wide access lanes. The new design was approved by the Railway Authority on 7 May 1946. Construction was started in January 1947 by engineer Sithu U Tin and completed in May 1954 at a total cost of K 1.75 million. The opening ceremony of the new Yangon Central Railway Station was held on 5 June 1954.
St Mary’s Cathedral (1909)
St Mary’s Cathedral (1909) and Botataung High School No 6 ( St Paul’s School) Designed by Hoine-Fox after “Byzantine” models and later modified by Dutch architect Th. J. Cuypers to a more severe neo-gothic “style necessaries” the cathedral replaced an older Merchant Street Catholic Church whose site was sold to the municipality. Built together with St Paul’s High School, foundation work on this marshland was fraught with problems; despite nine feet of sand and ironwood pilings, the weight of the spires caused the foundations to buckle. Yet the cathedral survived the 1930 earthquake and Second World War bombings.
Built between 1889 and 1905 to house the seat of the British colonial government and designed by Public Works Department architect, Henry Hoyne-Fox, the style of the largest colonial building in Myanmar was mockingly referred to by British residents at the time as “bureaucratic Byzantine”. After independence from colonial rule, the Secretariat became the main Minister’s Office. As ministers moved into individual buildings, it fell into disuse and, when government shifted to the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw in 2005, it was abandoned but for a few hundred security personnel. Its future is now up for grabs. The possibility of a hotel was vetoed due to popular protest – the Secretariat has a poignant hold on the Myanmar psyche as General Aung San, leader of Myanmar’s independence struggle and father of Daw Aung San SuuKyi, was assassinated here along with six colleagues on 19th July 1947. Proposals have been floated to use various parts of the complex as a museum, college, theatre, and/or community center. To get a sense of this spectacular building, make sure to walk around the entire compound.
The High Court was built between 1905 and 1911 by consulting Architect to the Government of India, John Ransome, who was predecessor to John Begg (Central Telegraph Office). It is another fine example of Empire architecture; as the colony’s highest seat of justice, it was designed to be imposing and intimidating. Poised on the roof above the Pasodan façade are two lions statues, symbols of the British Empire. This building’s distinctive pinkish hue is attributed to the particular bricks used and was described by Ransome as a “pale crushed strawberry” color. The high Court has since moved to the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw and premises are now partially maintained through private funding which also supports a law library.
Central Telegraph Office
Designed by John Begg, Consulting Architect to the Government of India, and built 1913-1917, this building is an archetypal example of Raj architecture – its looming façade would not look out of place on the streets of London.Begg was based in Mumbai and made only one trip to Yangon before drawing plans for various administrative buildings in the city, namely the Custom House and the Government Press. Possible to go inside and have a look.
Rowe & Co. Department Store Building (Department of Immigration & Manpower)
In her memoir, The Moon Princess, Shan Princess Sao Sanda describes the Rowe & Co. Department Store as a “veritable Harrods of the East”. Designed by the Mumbai-based architect, Charles F.Stevens (son of Frederick W Stevens who created the famous Victoria Terminus in Mumbai), the building was considered the height of modernity when it was finished in 1910. Electricity had only just been introduced to Yangon and Rowe & Co boasted one of the city’s first lifts and halls cooled by electric ceiling fans. Sao Sandarecalls, “Rowe’s proud boast was that here was nothing in the world that could not be bought from them.” Like all foreign firms, Rowe & Co. was nationalized after General Ne Win took over the country in 1962 and building later became the Department of Immigration & Manpower. It is currently being renovated as a hotel.
This unique structure was the first public building to blend Burmese and western architecture. Initial plans drawn up in 1913 were colonial in style but construction was postponed due to World War I and lack of funding. By the time the project began in 1925, nationalism was a much stronger force in Myanmar and Burmese politicians campaigned for a city hall that reflected their own traditions. The job was given to architect Sithu U Tin who used as inspiration the temples of Myanmar’s ancient capital Bagan and adorned the building with three-tiered pyatthat roofing and traditional iconography in the form of peacocks and naga (serpents). A municipal report of the time proudly stated that the building marked “ a new era in secular Burmese architecture”. Today, the municipal authority is called the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) but you can still see the original insignia on the iron gates of the back entrance, which reads Municipal Corporation of Rangoon.
Straight ahead you can see Sule Pagoda, but we are turning left on MahaBandoola Garden Street with Immanuel Baptist Church (1885) and the High Court on (LHS). On (RHS) you find MahaBandoola Park.
This green area was originally known as Fytche Square (after Chief Commissioner Fytche of the 1860’s and had a large pond and a bandstand where the Independence Monument now stands. The lighted clock tower you can see on the High Court from this side is now a landmark, but was initially dismissed as “designed by a convict with a grudge”.
The Reserve Bank of India
Inspired by Palladian and neo-Classical design, this grandiose building demonstrates the sheer wealth and power of the great trading cities of Asia. The building has been used as a bank ever since it was constructed in 1935 for the Reserve Bank of India. After independence in 1948, when the country severed ites to the pound sterling and established its own currency, it became the Union Bank of Burma. When all banks were nationalized during the Socialist era, this building housed the head office of the People’s Bank. Today it is home to a private bank.
Imperial Bank of India building
This opulent building was constructed in 1914 to house the Bank of Bengal, which later become the Imperial Bank of India. Along with all foreign banks, it was nationalized on 23rd February 1963 and became People’s Bank No 8. It is still a government bank today.
Also at the bottom of MahaBandoola Park (Merchant Road) where major shipping agents and import companies, with the former US Embassy (1930) and Indian Embassy occupying two such premises as well. Continue east again on Merchant Road, then turn right on Pansodan Rd. Between Merchant Road and Strand Road you almost only find colonial-era buildings, on (RHS)
Rander House is unusual for it simple American Classical style, reminiscent of downtown Chicago. It was built in 1932 by Surti Indian traders who came from Rander, a port town in Gujurat, India.
Lloyds Bank Building
Loyds Bank Building, this small building acquired by Lloyds bank after buying the old trading firm of Cox & Co. Having been of “Operation shylock”, a mission to reclaim evacuated banking properties after World War II, Lloyds was one of the first foreign banks to leave Myanmar after independence. The Bank quit the country following a disagreement with thenewly independent government over regulations on hiring a set quota of Burmese Staff. The building currently house the government’s Myanmar Economic Bank 1.
Chartered Bank building
Chartered Bank building Designed to house the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (today know as Standard Chartered Bank), the minimalist art deco lines of this building stands in stark contrast to the fussy Italianate architecture of other colonial-era structures. Completed in 1941, on the eve of World War II, Chartered Bank had to abandon this building when the Japanese marched into Yangon a year later. The architect, G. Douglas Smart, who worked for the Hong Kong based firm, Palmer & Turner (responsible for many buildings on the Shanghai bund and still operation as the P&T Group), returned after the war to assess damage – aside from its interior being thoroughly looted the building was surprisingly undamaged. Along with all foreign banks, the Chartered Bank was nationalized in February 1963 and became People’s Bank No 2, today known as Myanmar Economic Bank 2.
On the other Side of the street you find:
Former Sofaer’s Buildings (Lokanat Art Gallery)
Commissioned by Isaac A Sofaer, a Baghdadi Jewish trader, Sofaers’s Buildings is a testament to the cosmopolitan nature of Yangon society in the early 20th century. Compleded around 1906, the building was one of the city’s finest commercial complexes. Sofaer and his brother, purveyors of fine food and drink from around the world, welcomed international tenants. In the ground-floor corner between Pansodan Street and Merchant Street a specialist shop sold Egyptian smokes. The Reuters new agency had an office here, relaying global new by telegram. Other tenants included the German photographer P.Klier, still famous for his iconic shots of old Myanmar, and the now forgotten Mr. M.D’Cruz, a Filipino hairdresser who first came to Myanmar as part of a travelling circus. Today in poor repair, the building is divided between a wide variety of tenants: Photocopy shops tucked beneath the stairwells. The Internal Revenue Department, a lawyer’s practice, the Lokanat Art Gallery on the first floor (worth a vist), a corridor teashop, and beneath the small dome on the roof, a tailor.
The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (Inland Waters Department)
The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company is one of those legendary colonial enterprises whose name still conjures up the romance of far-flung travel. The elegant headquarters of this Scottish firm was built in 1933 and designed by architect A. G. Bray. The company operated the largest fleet of inland steamers in the world, with 600 wessels on Myanmar’s waterways. In World War II, most of these boats were scuttled to prevent the Japanese army from using them. The building is now home to the government’s Inland Waters Department. Though Myanmar’s main river, after which the company was named has changed its name to Ayeyarwaddy, you can still see the words “Irrawaddy Chambers” above some of the archways.
Grindlays Bank Building Built around 1930, this building housed Grindlays Bank, which was once one of the biggest banks operating in India (long since subsumed by other banking establishments). This building still had a fantastic art deco portico above the entrance – most other porticos on Pansodan were removed when the road was widned in the late 1980’s. Notice also the fantastic lion gargoyles along the roof. In 1970, the National Museum was relocated here and the Lion Throne of King Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar, was housed in the old banking hall after it was returned by the British along with other goods looted from the palace during the conquest of Mandalay. (The throne can now be seen in the museum’s current location at 66-74 Pyay Road).
Currency Department Building (Yangon West District Court)
During World War II, Yangon was hard hit both by Japanese bombs and the British “scorched earth” policy of destroying anything useful to the incoming Japanese forces. Indeed, it’s incredible that so many colonial-era buildings survived. This building, with unrepaired bomb damage still visible at the back stands as a testament to the ferocious WWII battles fought over Yangon. It was built around 1900 to house the Currency Department and the office of the Accountant-General of Burma, which oversaw the collection of all state revenue under the colonial government.
The Custom House
The Custom House was designed by John Begg, consulting Architect to the Government of India (also Telegraph building) and constructed during the 1912-1916. The steelwork was commissioned from the Dorman Long company, assembled at their headquarters in Middlesborough, England, then shipped out to Yangon.
Police Commissioner’s Building
Police Commissioner’s building on the corner of Sule Pagoda Road. The architect of this building, Thomas Oliphant Faster worked with Edwin Lutyens on his designs for New Delhi. The echo of the monumentalism Lutyens strove for in New Delhi is evident here. An article from the time describes this as city’s finest, most modern building and drawings for it design were hung at the Royal Academy in London. Constructed between 1927 and 1931, no expense was spared for these New Law Courts, which also housed the Police Commissioner’s office. For the enormous steel framework, almost 3,000 tons of steel was shipped from England, as were each of the 22 Ionic capitols. When the Japanese occupied Myanmar during World War II, this building was the headquarters of the much-feared Kempetai, or Japanese secret police. After 1974, the building became the headquarters for the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP).
In the early decades of the 20th century, Yangon port was the third busiest in the British Empire and this building, constructed in 1928, reflects that prime position. Notice the lovely details: Wave stuccowork around the base and bas reliefs of ships on the upper stories. The architect, Thomas Oliphant Foster was the same who designed the Police Commissioners Building.
Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation
Though this building has been stripped of most architectural detail, it played a key role in Myanmar history. A misunderstanding between King Thibaw and the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (a timber firm that had, since 1964, permission from the palace to operate in land still under Burmese rule in what was then known as Upper Burma) led to the third Anglo Burmese war in 1885 and, ultimately, the complete colonization of Myanmar.
The legendary Strand Hotel
The legendary Strand Hotel has been operating in Yangon almost continuously since its construction in 1901. Founded by the Sarkies brothers (who built Raffles hotel in Singapore and the E&O in Malaysia), it was an instant success. Nationalized during the Socialist era, the Strand Hotel operated as a government hotel, albeit with dilapidated rooms and few luxuries other than beer from the People’s Brewery. In 1990, the hotel closed for three years and reopened as the establishment you see today with 32 exquisitely refurbished rooms. If client does not stay at The Strand, go inside for a drink/Coffee.
A Scottish shipping and insurance agency called J. & F. Graham Co. commissioned this building (c. 1900). And advertisement for the firm’s insurance services, printed in 1922, promised its customers a thorough package that covered “fire, marine, motor accidents, and burglary (including theft by servants)”. The architect, Thomas Swales, was a young British man with a private practice in Yangon and was responsible for numerous building standing today.
Central Post Office
This building was constructed in 1908 as the headquarters of one of colonial Burma’s major rice traders, Bulloch Brothers & Co., a Scottish firm headquartered in Glasgow. The British administration moved the central Post Office into this building in the 1930s. Long before he took over the country in 1962, General Ne Win worked in this post office and legend has it that he sneakily checked mail and telegrams, and kept the nationalist movement informed of government plans and police actions. Notice the Beaux Arts portico and also take a look inside – this is one of the very few government buildings visitors can enter freely.
Old Red Cross Building (1959)