Yangon – A First Glimpse
February 2016: It was Valentine’s Day when I landed in Yangon. There were no red roses or heart-shaped balloons to meet me at the terminal but, following instructions from the office, I made a brief queue to obtain my visa-on-arrival (It costs $50 for a 70-day stay), followed a long queue with a large group of tourists trying to clear immigration, claimed my luggage, then I was out into the humid brightness of Myanmar‘s capital. A smiling taxi driver, who held a white paper with my name on it, helped me load my bags to the cab, then whisked me through Sunday traffic to my hotel. After many years of having it in my bucket list, I was finally in Yangon. Happy hearts’ day to me.
It was a business trip, of course. And so, for the full two weeks I was in Myanmar, I had to content myself with having to take photos of this historical city from the passenger seat of a car or from the rooftop restaurant of my hotel where I took my morning and evening meals. The former approach gave me photos of the streets, street hawkers and massive traffic jams; the latter gave me a bird’s-eye view of the amazingly red Yangon sunrise and the tips of gilded stupas dotting the landscape of Myanmar’s capital. On my final day in the city, however, I made it a point to squeeze in a couple of hours before my flight to drive around the city and visit some of its most prominent landmarks. I knew it was not enough but it was a good start to the many more photo outings I knew I’m going to do about Myanmar in the coming months and years.
Yangon, also known as Rangoon (literally meaning”End of Strife”), became the capital of Union of Burma (former name of Myanmar) in January 1948 when the country regained independence from the British Empire. It remained the capital of Myanmar until the present military government officially relocated the capital to Naypyidaw in March 2006. Yangon, however, remains to be the country’s largest city and Myanmar’s most important commercial center. Today, Greater Yangon encompasses an area covering nearly 600 square kilometers with a population of over five million.
Public transportation within and around the city includes buses, taxicabs, and yes, the “sidecar” — a somewhat old-style bicycle fitted with a third wheel and a carriage car — for shorter destinations. The Yangon Central Railway Station is the heart of a 5,403-kilometre (3,357 mi) rail network that connects the capital to Upper Myanmar (Naypyidaw, Mandalay, Shwebo), upcountry (Myitkyina), Shan hills (Taunggyi, Lashio) and the Taninthayi coast (Mawlamyaing, Dawei). A commuter rail network connects Yangon to satellite towns and is heavily utilized by the local populace, selling about 150,000 tickets daily.
Yangon is located at the convergence of the Yangon and Bago Rivers about 30 km(19 mi) away from the Gulf of Martaban, an arm of the Andaman sea. Yangon’s four main passenger jetties, all located on or near downtown waterfront, mainly serve local ferries across the river to Dala and Thanlyin, and regional ferries to the Irrawaddy delta. While passenger ferries to the delta are still used, those to Upper Burma via the Irrawaddy river are now limited mostly to tourist river cruises.
Much of Myanmar lies between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator— the monsoon region of Asia, with its coastal regions receiving over 5,000 mm (196.9 in) of rain annually. During the course of the year, average temperatures show little variance, with average highs ranging from 29 to 36 °C (84 to 97 °F) and average lows ranging from 18 to 25 °C (64 to 77 °F). Yangon features a lengthy rainy season from May through October; and a typically humid dry season from November through April. In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit Yangon leaving a few human casualties but damaging almost three quarters of Yangon’s industrial infrastructure, with losses estimated at US$800 million.
Armed with a city map and excited to see the rest of the city; I headed out of my hotel in a rented taxicab before the sun was up on the last day of my first visit. I only had two hours before I needed to be at the airport so I had to make the city tour pretty quick. We first went to Yangon’s most popular landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda which was surprisingly already filled with people at 6:00 am (I will post a separate article on the Shwedagon later); visited the two lakes in the middle of Yangon: Inya and Kandawgyi; checked out the riverfront along Yangon River; then examined souvenir items at the Aung San Market.
I was terribly hungry by the time I finished the quick city tour and checked out of my hotel. But my camera’s memory was full and I can’t complain. Yangon is a city worth every visit.