Under British rule, Rangoon (Yangon) was a major port city as well as a major financial, political and administrative center. As Burma at that time was a major exporter of oil, cotton, rice and timber, many foreign businesses open their offices in Yangon. Most of them are British owned with some Indian businesses. These businesses built grand and elaborate offices in the center of Rangoon. British government also built quite a number of administrative office buildings in Rangoon. They were usually built in the best design and standard available at that time to show the never fading glory of the Empire where the sun never sets. Although the sun has already set over the once glorious Empire, and Rangoon already lost its former glory, remnants of its former glorious days remain in Rangoon. Many colonial era buildings that survive the Second World War remain in the faint shadow of their past glory and grandeur.
For me, the most impressive colonial era building is the High Court Building. Built in early 20th century, the building served the colonial government well in its oppression against oppressed. The building was built in early colonial style, and painted brick red. Although lack of proper maintenance has left this beautiful High Court Building in a less glorious form, with some parts decaying, it is still impressive enough to reveal its former glory.
Another building as equally impressive is the Office of the Ministries. Formerly the Office of the Secretariats, it is the heart and soul of the British administration in Burma. Grand and elegant, it really is a very beautiful and impressive structure, built to impress the people of Burma. I still remember when I was young I could see the roofs of this Office of the Secretariats from the class room of my school which was just at the corner. For a 10 year old school boy, it really was a very impressive structure. (It still is a very impressive building, and I cannot help but looking at it whenever I walk or drive past the building).
The best place to see the colonial structures in Yangon (Rangoon) is in downtown Rangoon, in and around the street of Pansoedan. The best way to see these beautiful buildings is to walk. It will take the whole day to see all (or most) of these colonial buildings in Yangon (Rangoon) from downtown. If you intend to observe each and every building in detail, it might take up to a week, so it might be useful for you to have a little guided tour of the colonial buildings in Yangon, formerly Rangoon. Here is my Rangoon colonial architecture sight seeing tour.
Starts your tour at Sule Pagoda, the center and landmark of downtown Yangon. No, the pagoda is not a colonial structure, it is older than that, but you should always have a starting point for the trip, as most of the colonial buildings are scattered around the Sule Pagoda. Morever, if you get lost, you can start your trip again at the Sule Pagoda, which is not difficult to find.
First, observe the Yangon City Hall near the Sule Pagoda. It is off limit to the visitors, but you can still see the mix of western and Myanmar architecture in this beautiful building. Built around 1930s by a Myanmar architecture, this building is one of the rare colonical buildings with a mix of Myanmar arts. Becareful if you want to take any photos, as the police and the soldiers guarding the building might ask you not to take photo. If this is the case, simply apologise politely. Most of the time, they would not ask you to delete your photos so you can always get away with a few photos of this beautiful building in your camera.
Next, walk towards East, along the Mahabandoola Road (formerly Dalhousie Road). At the corner of the Yangon City Hall is the Rowe & Co. building (1911). Before proceeding further to the east, turn into Mahabandoola Garden Street (Bur Street) southward to see the High Court building. This is the front of the building actually, but now already closed. There is a beautiful clock tower there. Now go back to Mahabandoola Road, and head east. On either side, there are a number of old and potentially ruined colonial structures lining the short stretch of the road. At the corner of Pansoedan Road, turn south. This stretch of Pansoedan Road (Phayre Street) is my favorite. Walk towards south until you reach Strand Road. Along the way, you will see the most impressive buildings of colonial era, the most beautiful and impressive buildings of old Rangoon, lining the street of Pansoedan. These include the Telegraph Office (at the corner of Pansoedan and Mahabandoola), Steel Brother’s Building, Grindlay’s Bank, Sofaer & Co. building (1906, at the corner of Pansoedan and Merchant Road), Port Commission Building (1920, at the end of the Road on the corner with Strand Road), Account General Office (opposite the Port Authority Office), Chartered Bank of India, and the Irrawaddy Floatila Company Office (now Inland Water Transport). You can also see the back of the Rangoon High Court building.
When you reach Strand Road, turn left to east. Walk along the road until you reach the Central Post Office. On this stretch of the road, on the left side, are many colonial buildings including the Bombay Burmah Company building (Now Myanmar Airway), the Strand Hotel, British Embassy and the Post Office buildings. At the corner of the Central Post Office, turn left to north, into Bo Aung Kyaw Street. Walk until you reach the corner of Anawrahta Road. Along this stretch are only residentail buildings, but many of these are from colonial era. At the corner of Anawrahta Road and the Bo Aung Kyaw Street is the grand, elegant and impressive Office of the Secretariat. This is where General Aung San was assicinated during one cabinet meeting. Walk around this building. After that, this side of the town is complete, although you can walk further to see some colonial era residential buildings in this part of the city.
Now head back to Sule Pagoda, preferrably taking another route. From Sule Pagoda, walk south. There are many beautiful colonial buildings among which were Central Bank building (formerly the Reserved Bank of India), Rangoon police headquarter building and the Government Commercial Bank building on the opposite of the Central Bank. At the back of the Central Bank building is the American Embassy building, also one of the colonial era buildings. Walk around this area to see other colonial era buildings. Don’t forget to walk a little bit into the Merchant Street to the West and East also, as there are some beautiful buildings there too. When you finish this part, head back to Sule again.
This time, we will go north. West of Sule is only residential buildings, althoug many of which are from colonial era and worth a visit, but I will leave it to you to venture by yourself. Now head north. Just near Sule, on the west side of the Sule Pagoda Road is the Fire Department, with its beautiful hundred year old watch tower. It was said that, when Rangoon was newly built, the whole city can be seen from this watch tower. Keep walking until you read the corner of Sule Pagoda Road (the road you have been walking along) and Bogyoke Aung San Road. Here are Trader’s Hotel and Sakura Tower, tallest structures in Yangon. No, they are not colonial buildings, and we are not interested in these buildings. What I am interested is the red brick building in front of Traders Hotel. This abondoned building is the former Railway Department building. One of the oldest and most beautiful buildings in Yangon, it is now left in ruin, a sad tale for the once glorious building. To the west of this is Bogyoke Aung San Market, but we will leave it for today. This will be another day. Walk to the west east again along the Bogyoke Aung San Road, under the old colonial era cinema halls. At the corner of Pansoedan Street, walk up the ladder onto the bridge, and walk north. Here is the beautiful and grand Yangon Central Railway Station, also a mix of western and Myanmar architecture. Now go back to your hotel and take a rest. You deserve a good rest now.
The next day, we will start our journey at Bogyoke Aung San Market. Do your shopping. Take your time. After you finish, walk along the Bogyoke Aung San Road to the west. At the corner is the Holy Trinity Cathedral (1886), perhaps the oldest colonial structure in Yangon. Walk further and you will see the Rangoon General Hospital (1911) building on the left. Walk further and on the right at the corner is the Medical College building. Here, we will end our guided tour of the colonial era buildings of Rangoon. If you walk south towards China Town, you will still see some old residential buildings, although this part of the town is gradually been replaced by newer buildings.
If you are planning a trip to Myanmar (Burma), the guide book from lonely planet is a very helpful guide. It has detailed descriptions of places in Myanmar, as well as tips and advice on travelling, staying and eating. The lonely planet guidebook ran out of stocks in Bangkok since early this year (2009) and still out of stock in bookstores in Bangkok the last time I checked (September 2009). However, you can still buy the Myanmar (Burma) (Country Guide) from Lonely Planet at Amazon online.
If you want to see the photos of some of these buildings with a brief description, a Flickr photo stream of (Derek Finch) DBHKer has a good collection of them. This photostream is worth visiting before you do the actual tour. The above photos are used with permission from Derek Finch – DBHKer.