In March 1889, on his way from Calcutta to San Francisco, Rudyard Kipling spent his one and only evening in Rangoon at the Pegu Club, then the exclusive haunt of British high officials and army men. He was served mutton and regaled with tales of war (“See that man over there. He was cut over the head the other day at Zoungloung-Goo!”). From what he heard that evening, Kipling would write his poem “Mandalay”.
The Pegu Club has not existed for nearly half a century but its buildings are still there, derelict and now in danger of demolition. Built just seven years before Kipling’s visit, it has survived for 130 years but might not survive another month. For tourists visiting Burma, the chance to see the city’s unparalleled collection of colonial-era buildings might be fading fast.
The former club premises sit at a busy intersection along one of Rangoon’s main thoroughfares, opposite the very proper looking red brick and white shuttered Prome Court, one of the first apartment buildings in south-east Asia, and now part of the Burma ministry of foreign affairs. But it is hidden from the road by tall trees and dingy shops. Its wrought-iron gates, once closed to all but the colonial elite and their servants, are now unguarded, without even a caretaker to be seen.
The grounds are like a secret garden, the gabled roofs and the many interlinked coffee-coloured buildings are in varying states of disrepair, the great teak columns holding up the porticos bending with age. The windows are broken and courtyards are obscured with weeds. But climbing the rickety stairs and entering the dining hall, the hum of traffic fading into the background, it’s not difficult to imagine a roomful of mustachioed men in white and khaki, discussing the overthrow of King Thibaw and the annexation of Upper Burma over port and cigars.
Today Rangoon (now officially termed Yangon after its contemporary Burmese pronunciation) is the sprawling home to more than 5m people, but some older parts of the city are like vast film sets, with not just dozens of early 20th century buildings but entire streets undisturbed by modern construction. It’s a legacy of the country’s isolation and lack of development for so many years.
But this might not last. The economy is starting to grow, if unevenly, and profits, especially from the sale of jade to China, have enriched a new class of businessmen. With a practically non-existent banking system, a lot of new money has gone into property, leading to sky-high real estate prices. Homes in posh neighbourhoods sell for £2m to £3m each. And the temptation grows to raze old blocks and replace them with supermarkets and shopping malls.
The commercial heart of old Rangoon extended from Fytche Square south towards the river. Sir Albert Fytche was a chief commissioner of British Burma and a cousin of Lord Tennyson. Today, as with many placenames in Rangoon, the square’s name has been changed (and the old statue of Queen Victoria removed). It is now Maha Bandula Square, after General Thado Maha Bandula, the conqueror of Assam and the commander who led Burmese forces against the army of the East India Company in 1824. Some of the biggest colonial structures have been torn down, including Government House, the home of British governors, and Jubilee Hall, where, in 1946, John Gielgud played Hamlet to a war-weary crowd. A museum to the Burma Defense Forces stands on the site.
But most grand old buildings remain. Along Maha Bandula Square is the Queen Anne-style high court with its clock tower, as well as the ochre-coloured former premises of Rowe and Co, now empty but in the 1920s and 30s one of the great department stores of Asia, which boasted a quarterly 300-page illustrated catalogue and offered the latest UK fashions, toys and household appliances. The letters RC can still be seen beneath a high front window.
A few blocks away is perhaps one of the most beautiful building complexes in all Asia, the old Secretariat, with its dignified red-brick and yellow trimmed exterior, a line of tall and slender palm trees out front, elegant Venetian domes, and secluded inner quads. It was here that General Aung San, the 32-year-old Burmese nationalist leader and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated on the eve of independence in 1947, together with nearly his entire cabinet. A few policemen, helmeted and dressed in shades of grey, are the only occupants of what was once the nerve centre of Burma’s imperial bureaucracy.
There was a time when Rangoon was an important travel hub in Asia. As late as the 1960s, flying on BOAC from London to Singapore, Hong Kong or Sydney meant first stopping over in Rangoon. Pan Am, KLM and Air France all included Rangoon as part of their Far East network. But then came a long period of army rule and self-imposed isolation and even when this began to end in the 1990s, and visits of more than a week were allowed, the number of visitors remained small, the result of poor infrastructure, the hassle of uncertain visa applications, consumer boycotts in protest against the country’s human rights record and calls by opposition leaders such as Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to stay away. But decades of isolation now seem to be ebbing away. Ms Suu Kyi’s National League for the Democracy recently stated their support for “responsible tourism” and the new, quasi-civilian government, engaged in reforms, is keen to promote international tourism. A visa-on-arrival service might start soon.
Today’s tourists usually spend a day or two in Rangoon, touring the Shwedagon Pagoda complex (Kipling’s “winking wonder”, and Somerset Maugham’s “sudden hope in the dark night of the soul”), with its 325ft gold-plated spire, before heading up country, to the medieval ruins of Bagan, its hundreds of temples strewn across miles of scrubland along the Irrawaddy River, or to Mandalay, the last royal capital, with its moats and crenellated vermilion walls. Some even make it up into the hills, to the eastern edges of the Himalayas, or to the picture-perfect beaches at Ngapali, along the Bay of Bengal.
Some visitors might spend an afternoon strolling around downtown Rangoon but few will appreciate the rich history behind the old facades. The mustard-coloured Sofaer building, for example, four storeys high and covering most of a block along Merchant Street, today houses a row of electronics shops, selling mobile phones and computers. Out in front, overstuffed buses and white 1980s Nissan taxis career past pedestrians in their velvet flip-flops and sarong-like longyis, their faces revealing the wonderful ethnic diversity that still exists. The pavements are cracked and betel-nut stained, one street vendor selling ancient copies of National Geographic while another sells oranges for a few pennies each. A hundred years ago, though, this building was the hub of a business empire belonging to Issac Sofaer, a rich Baghdadi Jew who emigrated to Burma as a child, part of a considerable community of more than 2,000 Jews. A member of the Sofaer family served as mayor and a handsome synagogue, the Musmeah Yeshua, still stands several blocks away.
Just to the south along Pansodan Street (originally Phayre Street, after Sir Arthur Purves Phayre, another erstwhile chief commissioner and author of the first English-language history of Burma) are the impressive, if somewhat severe, art deco buildings that were home to the HSBC, Lloyds, Grindleys, the Indian Reserve Bank and the Chartered Bank (which later became part of Standard Chartered).
The streets here are much quieter, as there are few shops and little traffic, the pavements cleaner, the old buildings standing almost like tombstones in a long-forgotten cemetery of the Raj. Some of the few passers-by are barristers from the chambers nearby, all in black Burmese jackets based on the 18th century riding coats of the Manchu cavalry.
One of the buildings along Pansodan (now with a sign saying “Burma Economic Bank Branch 1”) was the office of Bibby Line, which operated a fortnightly passenger ship service between Rangoon and Liverpool, via Colombo and Marseille. Thomas Cook was a few doors away.
Pansodan intersects with Strand Road, along the Rangoon River. Before air travel, nearly all of Burma’s visitors arrived along this waterfront. Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru were repeat visitors. And the future King Edward VIII came ashore here in 1922 with his cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten, greeted by crowds and banners and a military band (the two then spending most of their time in town playing tennis). The Strand Hotel, where Noël Coward stayed before writing about “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”, has been lovingly restored.
Next door is the building that once belonged to the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. It was a row between Bombay Burmah and King Thibaw’s ministers that provided Lord Randoph Churchill (then secretary of state for India) with the pretext to declare war in 1885. It was one of dozens of Glasgow-based companies that dominated trade in Burma for more than a century, the Scots making up well over half of the European population of Rangoon in colonial times and leaving behind a widespread passion for golf.
It’s one of the best preserved colonial cityscapes in the world. Rangoon’s unique architectural heritage has survived decades of war, dictatorship, isolation and economic decline. Whether it survives a transition to democracy and renewed prosperity remains to be seen.
Thant Myint-U is the author of ‘Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’ (Faber and Faber)
Travel companies talk of pent-up demand ensuring Burma is one of the “hot” destination of 2012. These are some of the trips on offer:
The classic itinerary Tour operator TransIndus is based in Britain, but its managing director was raised in Burma. Its 11-day trip, travelling by private car, starts in Yangon, then visits the thousands of stupas and pagodas in Bagan, Mandalay and the floating markets of Inle Lake. From £1,695; www.transindus.co.uk
For families Explore Worldwide offer a two-week group tour aimed at adventurous families. It includes many of the highlights mentioned above, as well as some easy trekking to tribal villages in the Shan highlands. From £1,259; www.explore.co.uk
Hot-air ballooning Most visitors to Burma will see the pagodas of Bagan, but Eastern Safaris offers an altogether superior viewpoint. Its flights take off daily at sunrise and sunset from October to March. It also organises occasional six-day “balloon safaris”. From $310. www.easternsafaris.com
Remote Burma Cazenove+Loyd tailor-make itineraries and suggest a trip taking the temple complex of Mrauk U in Rakhaing State, then travelling to Bhamo and Putao in Burma’s far north, once one of the most remote outposts of the British empire. From £4,000; www.cazloyd.com