Saving Yangon's Crumbling History

21 October 2015
Read Time: 1.8 mins

"It's now or never," says my guide, May Lyar Soe, as she leads me into a beautiful red-brick building, pointing out where to avoid the vast holes in the marble floor.

Like many buildings in central Yangon, there are trees growing out of the windows. There are dogs wandering around the central atrium, and the rusting iron lift is buried under heaps of rubbish.

But this building and many others in the same district were once considered among the British Empire’s most important in Asia, as well as the most attractive.

 Echoes of empire fade in Yangon (Image: David Doyle)

Now though, as we pick our way up the stairs past an impromptu tea stall and a shrine, one cracked step shifts and groans under our feet. May grimaces. “Very sad,” she says.

May is one of a handful of guides taking tourists (and locals, for free) on a tour of Yangon’s colonial heritage.

Many of the buildings in the centre of the city were once magnificent, as befitting what was the world’s busiest port for a short period in the 1930s. The best marble from Italy, iron columns from Manchester, and designs appropriated from the most famous architectural styles across the globe.

But now the structures are crumbling, in ruins after decades of isolation.

 Iron work came all the way from Manchester (Image: David Doyle)

Step through Burma's golden gate. The Golden Gateway To Myanmar

Take a walk through history. Step Back In Time At Inle Lake, Myanmar

As Burma (also known as Myanmar) opened up to the world after the end of direct military rule in 2011 May and her colleagues at the Yangon Heritage Trust want to ensure the country’s architectural history is not lost. They want to show how beautiful and historic their former capital city is; and more importantly, they want to save it, before a tide of modernisation sweeps it away.

They are fantastic guides. There are a number of different tours through the day, but each makes the city feel like a living story.

 Once Yangon's commercial heart (Image: David Doyle)

As May points out the restored building which is soon to become Myanmar’s first stock exchange, she recounts its turbulent history as a bank, one that saw millions of dollars worth of rubies thrown into the river and, later, bundles of cash set alight, drifting like charred leaves to the ground, in order to keep the wealth from enemies in two different centuries.

It’s a fascinating tour, but the steps it treads are under threat. Land prices in Yangon are higher than San Francisco, and many of the buildings are in such a state of disrepair that it would be cheaper to start again.

It would be an understandable thing to do in such a poor and developing country. But the loss of Yangon’s heritage in the long-term would leave it in a different kind of poverty.

Visit your local Flight Centre store or call 131 600 for more advice and the latest deals on travelling to Yangon.

This article was written by Jennifer Rigby from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.