Quantcast
Latest Stories

Pride of Place

Burma’s splendid old buildings may go the ugly way of Manila

By

SHWEDAGON, the largest and most prominent pagoda in Yangon

In Yangon, Burma, we  found a bonus, a surprising two extra days without any official activities.

Saleem had come from India and I from the Philippines to join other heritage practitioners from Europe in the Asia-Europe Foundation Experts’ Meeting and Public Forum on “Investing in Heritage Cities.” This meeting was convened with the participation of the Myanmar Ministry of Culture and the Yangon Heritage Trust.

A day before the conference, the high point of our hosts’ tour of the city required that we remove our shoes as custom dictated before carefully climbing the wet and slippery marble stairs to reach the top of Yangon’s central hill crowned by the massive gold-leafed stupas of Shwedagon Pagoda. This is Yangon’s most important pilgrimage destination, the city’s iconic temple and a national monument.

Trust members proudly walked us through the old business center of Yangon one rainy evening, where stately colonial buildings stood in sad, abandoned decay. The tattered area, once the pride and joy of old Rangoon, is located on the banks of Hliang (Rangoon) River, where ships from all over the world once called. But that Sunday afternoon, it was deserted and silent.

A COMMUTER looks from the train window at the laid back activity in a station on Yangon’s Circle Line.

We walked under a drizzle at dusk along forlorn, broad avenues lined with skeletons of grand buildings, passed through a cobweb of lanes and narrow alleys between and behind the dying structures, and poked through dim lobbies, stairwells, dark hallways and verandahs, to experience remnants of once-splendid architecture whose details are elegantly embellished with stylish finishing materials and ceramic wall and floor tiles imported from England.

“The buildings in Yangon’s old business district are said to constitute the largest number of their kind left in any Southeast Asian city today,” said Yangon Heritage Trust founder and respected historian Thant Myint U.

Intense development pressure threatens to demolish most buildings today. Investors pour into Yangon, eager to snap up properties, and real-estate prices are soaring.

Working against time

Many of the downtown buildings are neither listed nor protected. The Trust is working against time to save, restore, and, most important, preserve the character of downtown Yangon from pricing the local residents and small businessmen out of their homes and shops.

BAHADUR Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, is buried in a simple tomb in Yangon.

“There should be a sustainable business plan within a regulatory environment, and there should be a mix of big establishments and small shops,” said Thant Myint U. “We are now beginning to consult the local people who live here to see what they would like to see happen.”

We were seeing one of the many layers of Yangon reality, the threatened-heritage layer. Saleem and I wanted to experience other layers, so for the next two days we sought out the Yangon not on the regular tourist circuits, looking for back-roads off the map, and the areas outside the city.

To guide us, we had a vague itinerary suggested by colleagues at the Trust and by expats. “Take the Circle Line,” a German expat told us. We did.

The Circle Line is a three-hour ride from Central Railway Station. An aged, great-grandfather engine that still has enough energy left pulls a series of wobbly paint-scarred coaches that look as if they have been in constant use since postwar days.

It was a hot day; humidity steamed inside the coaches. People hung out of open windows hoping to catch a breeze as the train sped by. Speed up it didn’t, but people somehow managed to catch a bit of a breeze.

With great effort, the train lumbered through Yangon’s central district, past decaying government buildings and overgrown landscaping. It passed crumbling walk-up dwelling blocks, modest residential areas, through groups of single-story makeshift houses, and huts clustered around open markets.

SKELETONS of once-majestic colonial buildings stand empty in the center of Yangon.

It looked like almost everyone was outdoors that day, washing, sweeping, bicycling, squatting and selling produce from baskets by the roadside, hanging out.

The train lumbered out into unexpected bright sunlight, entering the bucolic countryside of rice fields and vegetable gardens on the city outskirts, until, out of nowhere, a plane appeared to land right next to our open coach window. The tracks now ran parallel to the runway.

The population would become dense again as the train would reenter the city. We did not complete our Circle Line journey.

Mughal heritage

We got off at Bogyoke Market, the city’s main market where everything was found, from rubies to the rubber thongs on everyone’s feet.

We headed to the food section for lunch, took our places on a bench beside a long table, and ordered Burmese noodle soup, duck, plates of sautéed vegetables, and rice.

We divided our bill of $3 equally between us, and walked off to find the burial place of the last of the Indian Mughal emperors. We had no idea where it could be; we just knew it was in Yangon.

THE RED markers indicate that the heritage building is slated for demolition.

Retired from his post as director general for tourism of Jammu and Kashmir State in India, Saleem has devoted his energy to the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, and is very involved in the conservation of Mughal gardens, of which the Taj Mahal, although not in Kashmir, is probably the best-known example.

Over lunch Saleem told me about the Mughal dynasty that traced its origins to Genghis Khan and Tamerlane; of their vast territory, power and wealth; of their intellectual and artistic achievements; and how the British totally diminished and eventually eliminated the Mughals during the Raj.

I was intrigued, so off we went to search for the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862), the last Mughal emperor who reluctantly supported the Indian rebellion of 1857. He was captured, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to exile in Rangoon where he died in anonymity.

Muslim dynasty

TATTERED coaches on the Circle Line

To find the burial place, we started in a Muslim shop, asked the shopkeeper about the tomb, got vague instructions on where to go.

We squeezed ourselves into a minibus. When we got off, there was nothing. We asked again, got no answers about tombs or dead emperors.

Since the Mughals were a Muslim dynasty, we changed tactics, asking instead where we could find a mosque with a tomb.

Someone pointed us toward another section of town. More rides in cramped buses, followed by short hops in an open tuktuk, a long walk along a deserted street, until, close to giving up, we saw a mosque, so modest and unpretentious that it could have passed for a residence.

There we found the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, anonymous to the Burmese and known to only a few of the older residents.

We paid our respects, and, at a sidewalk tea stand, we celebrated our success with a cup of milk tea loaded with condensed milk.

I refused the extra heaping spoon of sugar the tea wallah wanted to put into my cup. I did not need the extra energy to look for a taxi to take us back to our hotel.

Feedback and comments are cordially invited at www.villalonarchitects.com.


Follow Us


Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter


Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Tags: Burma , Culture , Heritage , Lifestyle , Myanmar



Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
Advertisement
  1. Are your favorite malls open this Holy Week break?
  2. ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  3. This is not just a farm
  4. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?
  5. Clams and garlic, softshell crab risotto–not your usual seafood fare for Holy Week
  6. Are your favorite malls open this Holy Week?
  7. Sarah Geronimo and Matteo Giudicelli sing ‘All of Me’–and we all swoon
  8. 12 other things you can do at Pico de Loro Cove
  9. Moist, extra-tender blueberry muffins
  10. The truffled mac ‘n’ cheese, eggs benedict, chicken leg confit are excellent
  1. Dominique–Gretchen and Tonyboy Cojuangco’s daughter–now an endorser
  2. Why is the lifestyle set now afraid to wear jewelry–before Kim Henares?
  3. Marcos grandson to wed beautiful Rocha scion
  4. France makes work beyond 6 p.m. illegal
  5. Sarah Geronimo and Matteo Giudicelli sing ‘All of Me’–and we all swoon
  6. South Koreans crave Asia’s smelliest fish
  7. How Vitamin B can be a remedy for ‘manhid’ and neuropathy
  8. Ever heard of HydroBob?
  9. 90 percent of Filipino households don’t practice proper toilet hygiene, sanitation
  10. Boots Anson-Roa to wed in Eddie Baddeo
  1. Mary Jean Lastimosa is new Miss Universe Philippines
  2. Did Angara ruin Pia Wurtzbach’s chances at Bb. Pilipinas?
  3. Dominique–Gretchen and Tonyboy Cojuangco’s daughter–now an endorser
  4. Manila in shock over model Helena Belmonte’s death
  5. Vinegar test helpful vs cervical cancer
  6. From Jeannie to mom of suicide victim
  7. San Vicente beaches hidden but not for long
  8. Borgy and Georgina are back; others are off–again
  9. Sen. Angara: I thought Pia Wurtzbach gave a good answer
  10. Ex-Givenchy model fights for ‘Yolanda’ survivors

News

  • Nebraska toddler gets stuck inside claw machine
  • Philippine eagle rescued by Army turned over to DENR
  • Gunmen attack Iraq military base, kill 10 soldiers
  • South Korea president shouted down by distraught parents
  • Classmates celebrating 60th birthday among missing in ferry sinking
  • Sports

  • Power Pinays smash India in Asian Women’s Club volleyball opener
  • PH youth boxers off to stumbling start in AIBA World tilt
  • Durant has 42, Thunder beat Pistons 112-111
  • Walker leads Bobcats over Bulls in OT, 91-86
  • Man City slips further out of title contention
  • Lifestyle

  • Pro visual artists, lensmen to judge Pagcor’s photo contest
  • ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  • This is not just a farm
  • Clams and garlic, softshell crab risotto–not your usual seafood fare for Holy Week
  • Moist, extra-tender blueberry muffins
  • Entertainment

  • Jones, Godard, Cronenberg in competition at Cannes
  • Will Arnett files for divorce from Amy Poehler
  • American rapper cuts own penis, jumps off building
  • Jay Z to bring Made in America music fest to LA
  • Why Lucky has not bought an engagement ring for Angel
  • Business

  • ‘Chinese Twitter’ firm Weibo to go public in US
  • World stocks subdued, Nikkei flat on profit taking
  • Asia stocks fail to match Wall Street gains
  • Fired Yahoo exec gets $58M for 15 months of work
  • PH presses bid to keep rice import controls
  • Technology

  • Netizens seethe over Aquino’s ‘sacrifice’ message
  • Filipinos #PrayForSouthKorea
  • Taylor Swift tries video blogging, crashes into fan’s bridal shower
  • DOF: Tagaytay, QC best at handling funds
  • Smart phone apps and sites perfect for the Holy Week
  • Opinion

  • Editorial cartoon, April 17, 2014
  • A humbler Church
  • Deepest darkness
  • ‘Agnihotra’ for Earth’s health
  • It’s the Holy Week, time to think of others
  • Global Nation

  • DFA: 2 Filipinos survive Korean ferry disaster
  • PH asks airline passengers to check for MERS
  • Syria most dangerous country for journalists, PH 3rd—watchdog
  • Japan says visa-free entry still a plan
  • First Fil-Am elected to Sierra Madre, Calif. city council
    Marketplace