Yangon has plenty of dilapidated but more or less intact colonial-era architecture. Decades of international isolation saved the city from masses of overzealous real estate developers. As Burma is opening up, people have begun to wonder whether this heritage can be kept alive.
Rangoon (Yangon’s old colonial name) once was one of the jewels of the British empire. Although Burma itself was often described as a peripheral backwater, its capital was a cosmopolitan melting pot where significant populations of Indians and Chinese had long settled and done business. Steamliners to Calcutta connected Rangoon with the capital of the Raj.
Famous buildings from the colonial era include the Secretariat (place of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father’s assassination in 1947), the Strand Hotel, Custom House, Myanmar Port Authority, the Telegraph Office and City Hall (an interesting fusion of Burmese and Western architecture), to name but a few.
Of course time did not stand completely still in Myanmar and parts of the colonial-era architecture are long gone, often replaced by cheaply-built nondescript residential architecture. But the old street grid is intact and in some places, the building stock is almost entirely colonial.
With the reforms of President Thein Sein gaining traction, development is fast catching up; finally, one is tempted to say. A real estate boom seems to have already run its course. Downtown real estate prices appear to be inflated. New apartment and hotel complexes dot the streets from the airport into town. Reasonably priced hotel rooms and serviced apartments are hard to come by.
It is in this environment that grandson of former UN Secretary General U Thant, Thant Myint-U, has set up his Yangon Heritage Trust. Thant hopes to lobby the government into making preservation a policy that can save Yangon from the fate of other Asian cities that saw much of their colonial architecture get torn down. This great Wall Street Journal article is much about Thant and his important work in Yangon.