See Yangon’s historic buildings before they disappear

Fans of colonial architecture should head to the charming city of Yangon before all is lost to rapid redevelopment.

Old-style European windows in Yangon
  • Angeline Tse
  • January 2019

A British colony from 1824 to 1948, Yangon opens in new window has the most impressive and dense concentration of colonial-era buildings in Asia. Architecturally, these buildings boast a mixture of European classical and neoclassical styles while bearing traces of Oriental features — red brick buildings conjure up post-industrial Britain, narrow apartment blocks are reminiscent of shophouses in Penang. That they are still standing is ironically thanks to the country’s lagging development, though things are slowly changing.

The Secretariat, Yangon
The Secretariat, a 120-year-old building, was once the administrative seat of British Burma.

Technically, all buildings over 100 years old are covered by cultural protection laws, but the Yangon City Development Committee only lists 189 buildings as protected. “Inadequate legal protection and insufficient development approval procedures are just some of the challenges we are working on,” says Daw Moe Moe, Director of the Yangon Heritage Trust opens in new window. It is imperative they win the battle, if Yangon’s charm and history are to be preserved for generations to come. It’s here today, but who knows what will happen tomorrow?

Best places to enjoy Yangon’s heritage buildings

Rowe & Co. department store, Yangon
Completed in 1910, Rowe & Co. department store was once referred to as the “Harrods of the East”. In its heyday, it sold British luxury goods to cater to residing Europeans who wanted to enjoy a taste of home.

Rowe & Co department store

Once a pre-war emporium peddling the latest imported fashions to wealthy locals, this building next to Yangon City Hall was purchased in 2012 and transformed into a bank. It is one of the city’s best-maintained heritage buildings to date.

Pansodan Road, Yangon
Some of the most famous examples of colonial architecture can be found on Pansodan Street, between Merchant Road and Strand Street.

Pansodan Road

This long road is chockablock with colonial buildings and the east side is home to a good number of second-hand bookshops that are restocked every morning; even George Orwell and Pablo Neruda used to browse here.

The Secretariat

Currently undergoing restoration, this iconic former government office opens in new window was where General Aung San (father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi) was notoriously assassinated in 1947. It will function as Yangon’s new cultural epicentre once the project is completed.

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