Recent reforms have catapulted Myanmar into the international spotlight, prompting a massive influx of foreign capital. Enjoying relative safety and boasting the best infrastructure in the nation (courtesy of the British Empire), Yangon is the obvious focal point for investment and development efforts. Located in Lower Myanmar at the confluence of the Yangon and Bago Rivers, the city’s fortuitous geography is largely to thank for its burgeoning trade and continued national importance.
Prior to the contemporary investment boom Yangon, like the rest of Myanmar, was run by an oppressive mystic-socialist junta. Before that, it served as the commercial and political hub of British Burma. Each era has left a distinct legacy on the city. This is manifested most clearly in Yangon’s architecture. On Merchant Road—one of Yangon’s busiest streets—you can find a grand colonial mansion sandwiched between a decaying brutalist edifice slab and the steel skeleton of an unfinished office tower.
Fortunately, most of the grand relics of the colonial era remain intact. Much of the business district by the Yangon River looks almost exactly as it did in 1920. Conservationists are currently trying to spearhead a heritage campaign that would save Yangon’s beautifully designed art-deco, Queen Anne, neoclassical, and Asian-influenced architecture. Unfortunately, conservation efforts are at odds with Myanmar’s post-reopening development. Burmese developers are hankering at the bit to modernize Yangon, often at the expense of historic architecture. Though many of the ancient religious sites are protected by heritage laws, conservationists are now urging the government to extend this protection to include Yangon’s characteristic colonial architecture. Despite these overtures, conservation and restoration have not always been a top priority of the regime in a country where many people still do not even have reliable running water or electricity. The recent uptick in foreign investment is expected to have a knock-on effect for conservation efforts, however, as outsiders are increasingly convinced of the historical and cultural significance of Yangon’s built environment.
Recently, the British Council has set up a variety of local programs throughout the country, targeting the arts, education, and society, in an effort to help the Burmese people adjust to being part of a the modern, globalized world. These efforts include the creation of the Rangoon Center, a new library providing previously inaccessible written and visual resources to the public alongside a sizable English-language collection.
It is important to keep in mind that Yangon has three seasons: the rainy or monsoon season that extends from June to October; a somewhat drier and cooler “winter” season from November through February; and a hot, dry season from March to May. Average high temperatures can reach 99 degrees Fahrenheit in April with lows falling to 64 degrees Fahrenheit in January, the coldest month.
As each day passes, Yangon buzzes ever louder with a frenzied, collective optimism. Locals and foreigners alike are betting their clothes that the Golden Land is on track to becoming worthy of its name for the first time in centuries. At this historic juncture for Myanmar, opportunities abound.