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Yangon (Rangoon)

This former capital was known by its colonial era name Rangoon until 1989 when the ruling military regime changed it back to Yangon, meaning 'end of strife'. Even after the government relocated its capital to Nay Pyi Daw in 2006, Yangon still remains the largest and most important commercial and intellectual city, not to mention the most exciting, within Burma (Myanmar).

Yangon's history is rich, ancient and complex; the present site of the city was destroyed in a fire, and suffered extensive damage during the second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, when the British seized Rangoon and all of Lower Burma. In 1853, the British moved the capital from Moulmein to Rangoon, and rebuilt the city to its current plan. After the British had captured Upper Burma in the third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, Rangoon was finally declared as the colonial capital of British-ruled Burma (Myanmar). Colonial Rangoon, with its spacious parks, lakes and mix of contemporary and traditional architecture soon became known as ‘the garden city of the East’.

Surrounded on three sides by water, modern day Yangon has a unique charm, with sweeping tree lined boulevards, bustling food markets, tranquil lakes and pagodas glistening amongst the buildings throughout the city. And following the recent political and economic liberalisation, it is reaping the benefits; decaying colonial buildings and monuments are being spruced up, there's an eruption of new restaurants, bars and shops, and there are building sites – and traffic jams – everywhere. Downtown Yangon is a quaint and attractive part of town, and pavements are teeming with food and book vendors, colourful open-air markets, neighbouring temples, mosques and churches, showcasing the city's cosmopolitanism, and some of Southeast Asia's most impressive colonial architecture. It’s well worth a guided walking tour around this part of town to soak up the atmosphere and sample street food delicacies.

But most importantly, and what has always been important to Yangon, tying in very closely to its early history, is the magnificent 2,000-year-old Buddhist pagoda, Shwedagon, where eight of Buddha's hairs are said to be enshrined. At the heart of the city, a golden pinnacle around which everything else revolves, Shwedagon dominates the city's sky line and the revered pagoda draws people to it from within the city and around the world. In his 1930s novel ‘The Gentleman in the Parlour’, Somerset Maugham was so inspired by the beauty of the pagoda to write: "The Shwedagon rose superb, glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul”. This majestic stupa is outstanding no matter when it is seen, but the best time of day is at sunset, when the sun’s rays emblaze the golden pagoda, lighting up the night sky; it truly is a spectacular and special sight. 

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My favourite thing is to go where I've never been.
Diane Arbus

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