Today those changes are getting a lot of attention, and a visitor to the country, now known as Myanmar, would do well to pay attention also. It is highly advisable to do some homework before arriving in Yangon or Mandalay, the only international airports.
The former capital of Rangoon, now known as Yangon, is a prime example of Burma/Myanmar as it was and is today, and a good place to start any exploration of this mysterious and fascinating land. As of 2005 the capital was arbitrarily moved to a new location called Naypyidaw, but Rangoon/Yangon is still the real cultural and economic centre, the largest city in Myanmar and arguably the most exotic city in Southeast Asia.
One reason for its appeal is the remarkable mix of British, Chinese, Indian and Burmese cultures to be found in its bustling streets and quirky neighborhoods. Because of what has amounted to international isolation over the past half century, Yangon retains a colonial charm like no other, with some of the finest examples of period architecture that still exist are hidden amongst the leafy downtown streets near the waterfront.
There are no high-rise buildings; currently a condominium is anything over eight stories, which requires an elevator. Until recently, an apartment could be up to eight stories, with no elevator required, thus more affordable for the average resident. A new city code requires elevators in anything higher than six stories, so that’s probably the building wave of the near future.
Just walking the streets and mingling with locals, most of whom still conform to the traditional ways of life with a strong Buddhist influence, is an education and a delight. People are astonishingly friendly and as a rule they treat foreigners with great kindness. That’s not to say you can’t bargain in places like the 70-year-old Bogyoke Aung San street market, often still referred to by its British name, the Scott market. This is a terrific place to pick up souvenirs or just to wander and marvel.
A landmark that literally cannot be missed is the Shwedagon Paya, the holiest of all Myanmar’s vast multitude of Buddhist temples. Standing 100 metres tall, the upper levels are plated with solid gold and the crown is encrusted with thousands of diamonds and rubies. It is visible from almost any corner of the city, gleaming gold in the daylight and at sunset the diamonds scatter glittering sheets of light in white and red and green. Possibly the most definitive description is: you have to see it to believe it.
That description is true of many other sights and aspects of Yangon; it’s an incredible mixture of religious devotion, old cultures and sometimes clashing contrasts of poverty and gold plate. Under and over it all, however, is the basic warmth and gentleness of the population and the excitement of discovery. Yangon is also the main transportation hub, where most visitors make arrangements for further travel to other regions of this magical country of scenic beauty and often hair-raising history.