Published in the July 2013 edition of Going Places, Malaysia Airlines’ inflight magazine
Until the military’s 50-year regime ended in 2011, Yangon was considered the backwater of Southeast Asia. Today, this is no longer the case – a change reflected not only by the surge in tourist arrivals, but also the number of new restaurants, cafes and galleries popping up around town.
One of the surprising benefits of Yangon’s economic stagnation is the number of colonial buildings that still exist: it has the highest number in the region. However while there is still a long way to go in terms of improving living standards for the majority of the city’s inhabitants, it would be inaccurate to describe Yangon as widely impoverished. In the northern township of Bahan – the city’s most prosperous – Mercedes glide along the wide streets of a neighbourhood called Golden Valley, with stately residences that rival any mansion in the world.
Golden Valley is home to Myanmar’s celebrities, business tycoons, military high-ups and wealthy expats. Since the colonial era began almost 200 years ago, the area has been the stomping ground of society’s elite. However like almost everywhere else in the country, the township is also steeped in history: it is dotted with Myanmar and Chinese Buddhist temples, the most notable being the Shwedagon Pagoda, an eye-popping, 2500-year-old structure laden with 60 tonnes of gold. It is the most sacred of all Buddhist sites and an absolute must-see, no matter how short your visit. At any time of day, the surrounding area is filled with devotees, but it is most magical at sunset, when monks in saffron robes and lay people light sticks of incense and small candles surrounding the bell-shaped stupa. Dozens chant as they kneel at the base of the temple, and tip water over small shrines.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is also important to Myanmar people for reasons other than religion. During Myanmar’s independence movement from the British that culminated in 1948, it was a meeting place for agitators keen to be released from the yoke of colonialism. In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed thousands of people following the student protests. Incidentally, Aung Suu Kyi spent 16 years under house arrest in her father’s home in Bahan township and she still lives there today – on University Avenue Road. The Shwedagon Pagoda was also a focal point for the protests led by monks during the Saffron Revolution of 2007.
To the north of the pagoda is a Chinese palace that is now used as the State Fine Arts School: Were it a museum, it could be one of the city’s premier attractions. The building hosts exhibitions by students and teachers at the school: prices here are a few hundred dollars cheaper than the paintings by the same artists that are exhibited in the Strand Hotel’s gallery downtown. The artists use a few of the upstairs rooms as studios – no place could be better in terms of providing artistic inspiration: the hall is adorned by frescoes painted by Ernest and Dod Proctor, whose paintings hang in London’s Tate Museum.
The palace was built by a shipping and rubber magnate, the son of a Chinese immigrant called Lim Chin Tsong, between 1915 and 1919. Despite the many rumours surrounding his his death, which includes a claim that he went bankrupt and committed suicide by jumping off the palace’s roof, or that he vanished after realising his British wife was spying on him (some have even claimed there is a secret tunnel that serves as an escape route from the palace to a nearby lake) his great-granddaughter Michelle Clancy contacted to me state they are all false.
She wrote, “the fact remains that he died in November 1923. His funeral was a lavish affair and attended by a number of dignitaries as reported in a number of newspapers of the day including The Straits Times in Singapore.” Michelle confirmed that Lim Chin Tsong was buried in Hokkien Cemetery on Tramway Road, which sadly no longer exist today. She is currently in the process of putting together a book about her family history.
Since then the temple has been occupied by the British and the Japanese (the former of whom turned it into a hotel, albeit briefly). Before Myanmar’s capital moved to Nay Pyi Taw in 2006, it was home to the Ministry of Culture. Although it is in desperate need of repair, the building remains one of the finest examples of Chinese and European fusion architecture.
Bahan township is also a culinary delight: whether it be sampling Indian or Myanmar fare at a street-side eatery or enjoying a five-star dining experience at one of Golden Valley’s many restaurants. For something in between, Ginki Kids is recommended. The double storey open-air restaurant is the corrupted name of beloved Japanese anime characters and it’s décor is tastefully playful, having been inspired by eighties icons such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain.
The cocktails menu is itself a few pages long, while the choice of local, Thai and Asian fusion dishes is almost implausible. Before Myanmar opened up to the world, this was the place to hang out – for both expats and locals. Although Yangon now has an array of venues to choose from, Gingki Kids remains a favourite haunt for young, hip and wealthy Yangonites.