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Faded Colonialism in Yangon

Colonial Rangoon by Rosalind Russell

The journalist Rosalind Russell published a fascinating book in 2014 called Burma's Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times, inspired by the extraordinary people she met whilst living in that extraordinary country. It is a charming and evocative read and we are delighted that she has let us reproduce an extract from it here.

In 2008 I went to live in Burma with my husband and two young daughters. It was just a few weeks after the devastating Cyclone Nargis and my husband was running the relief operation of an international aid agency. I was hoping to continue my work as a journalist – a challenge in a country under strict military rule where foreign reporters were banned. My new book, Burma’s Spring, documents the three years I spent there, and the lives of some of the people I encountered as an undercover reporter. Through an era of remarkable change, I followed the fortunes of a rich array of characters, from democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to a Buddhist monk, a girl band to a palm reader. The following extract describes exploring Rangoon’s colonial heart, soon after my arrival.

Rangoon was bustling, enchanting, but having just lost its status as capital, it was a metropolis in gentle decay. On its cracked pavements, tea shop owners had arranged low wooden stools around tin tables set with rolls of rough tissue paper in plastic holders, tooth picks and bowls of sweet jaggery. Women sat cross-legged, fanning themselves next to bubbling cauldrons of sweet corn. A cobbler with a pitch next to a thundering generator glued on a loose sole, and white-shirted officers directed traffic at intersections, the lights out of action after a monsoon storm…

The British left in 1948, bequeathing a messy political legacy but also an array of grand buildings that survive to this day – a remarkable, living colonial film set. From pavements spattered with the red spit of betel-nut chewers, I looked up at pale green Victorian-era tenements, flowers of mildew staining the peeling paintwork, with shuttered windows, filigree balconies and steep wooden stairs. Around the corner were sturdy red-brick buildings reminiscent of Manchester or Sheffield, and white, neoclassical edifices that once housed thriving colonial enterprises.

In air thick with diesel fumes from decrepit Japanese cars, it was a challenge to imagine Rangoon as it had been a century ago, when the city boomed on exports of rice and timber and its infrastructure and municipal services were considered to be on a par with London. Then, the immaculate shop floors of the Rowe & Co. department store, one of the largest and most stylish emporiums in pre-war Asia, were brightly lit and replete with European fashions, homewares and familiar comforts for homesick British colonialists. Consulting my map, I located the building a block east of City Hall. Its grand entrance was boarded up, its windows were smashed and its listing wrought-iron portico sheltered stalls selling tangerines and pirated DVDs, and a tailor with a foot-powered Singer sewing machine. A little further north, the turreted red-brick Secretariat – scene of the assassination of General Aung San, father of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi – was fenced off and used as a barracks for a large city centre presence of police. A few streets away, the imposing police headquarters, with its two-storey Corinthian columns, was home to more battalions of officers, its grand rooms used as dormitories or makeshift kitchens, while washing lines for navy police uniforms were strung up along its carefully proportioned balconies looking out to the Rangoon River.

A walk around almost any part of the city seemed to be rewarded with the discovery of a new treasure. Hidden behind a tangle of trees and creepers on a busy thoroughfare in the diplomatic quarter was the teak-walled Pegu Club, where British imperial officers had smoked cigars and played billiards, and whose eponymous cocktail – a mix of gin, lime juice, orange curaçao and bitters – is still served in plush hotels the world over. I had wanted to find it, imagining that my great-uncle Douglas had drunk at its bar before fleeing the Japanese invasion of the Second World War. I approached warily, under the watch of security guards employed by the Russian embassy next door. One of them came towards me, and I expected to be shooed off. But in fact he wanted to be my tour guide, and, accompanied by a pair of curious dogs, led me to the front of the building to open a creaking, unlocked door. A layer of dust and rat droppings covered the parquet floor, but the Pegu Club’s magnificent teak bar, sweeping staircases and original black Bakelite light switches were still in place – with a few repairs and a fresh coat of paint, it could one day be returned to its former glory.

Such a transformation had already occurred at the Governor’s Residence, a 1920s timber mansion in the city’s diplomatic quarter, which had been renovated and extended to create a luxury hotel with a swimming pool and breezy verandahs. On Rangoon’s waterfront stood the famous Strand Hotel, with liveried doormen, antique floor tiles and whirling ceiling fans. Built in 1901, the hotel was a required stop on a steamship tour of Asia in the early 20th century. After decades of decline, the Strand was enjoying a renaissance, its cool, wood-paneled rooms once again a magnet for travelers…

In 2005, reportedly on the advice of astrologers, the military government abruptly relocated the capital to Naypyidaw, a newly constructed city two hundred miles north in Burma’s central scrublands. Rangoon was left as a beautiful, mouldering testament to another era.

If you’d like to read more of Rosalind’s remarkable book, it is available online – Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times

And if you’d like to see the fading splendour of colonial Rangoon for yourself, 99% of our journeys to Myanmar visit Rangoon (now known as Yangon) so get in touch




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