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Rangoon Rhapsody

To those jaded by commercial travel, Burma’s capital city is a stirring reminder that some cities have not lost their souls 

2/2/2015 3:18:45 PM
written By : Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

As the plane approached Rangoon airport its bucolic periphery of green farmland studded with trees and rustic wooden houses brought a wave of nostalgia washing over me, reminding me of upcountry airports in semi-rural Bengal and Assam.

But Rangoon as a city is as sophisticated in its urban sprawl as any Asian metropolis, although with more soul and serenity. Its decaying beauty and extraordinary collection of colonial buildings, some imposing, some delicate, some ravaged - reminds me of Calcutta - a less crowded and chaotic Calcutta, perhaps, but architecturally very similar. Not surprising considering the British had tried to re-create a “little Calcutta” in what then was one of the finest cities in South-east Asia, a little sister to the capital of their East Indian empire. Just down the road from our hotel is the Strand on the Rangoon River waterfront built to resemble Calcutta’s famous Strand on the Hooghly river.

In the city’s narrow apartment buildings built in the early 20th century there are further resonances to downtown Calcutta and the Chinese shophouses in Singapore and Penang. But we soon find that Rangoon differs vastly from every other major city our family has travelled to.

But it is the golden pagodas that Burma is so famous for that will remain etched in any traveller’s memory. They stand out like glowing reminders of a time when the land was greener and life more civilised. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the most imposing with its large maze-like grounds, dotted with intricately carved golden stupas and temples built in various elegant styles. The pagodas are at their surreal best at sunset when crowds of thousands stream in to gape and worship in hushed reverence.

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