“In the Dalhousie Park the inhabitants of Rangoon have a possession of which they may be justly proud, and which it is to be hoped that succeeding generations will insist shall at all times be maintained in a worthy manner. There are few, if any, parks in India equal to Dalhousie Park, and visitors often declare with enthusiasm that there is nothing in the world to compare with it.”
– Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma, 1910
Kandawgyi, the Royal Lake, is not a natural formation. Though a pool of some form already existed, it was built to its current state by the British as a reservoir, using water pumped from Inya lake to the north. The park around it was named Dalhousie, for the Marquis who first conceived of establishing a public space around the lake in 1854. His suggestion was largely ignored until work began in 1885, led by the Secretary of Rangoon Municipality, J. Short. The area at that time was thick with jungle, and Short was given a largely free reign in designing the park. He also had a hand in Fytche Square (Maha Bandoola Garden), the electric trams, and funding for the now disappeared Jubilee Hall.
Most of the lakes around Yangon either started life as, or were at one point used as part of, the water supply for the city. Inya is also largely artificial, and Hlawga lake (in the nature reserve to the north of Yangon), was dammed and made into a reservoir in 1904. Supplying the ever-growing demand for water was a repeated issue for the administrators of Rangoon, and reservoirs reliably dried up or became too foul to use as drinking water. The latter was the case for Kandawgyi by 1890. When the water tanks south of the river became similarly unusable, clean water had to be carried to residents of Dala by boat.
Water remains an issue today, due to dramatic population growth and urbanisation. Officially, water from the four active reservoirs (one of which is still Hlawga) provides for about two thirds of Yangon’s population, with the final third relying on groundwater sources, usually tube wells dug into the ground. These figures may be unreliable however; leaky and inefficient equipment means that supply is unreliable and maybe as much as half of all piped water is lost. Additionally, there are innumerable unauthorized and unregistered tube wells around the city.
YCDC, the responsible government body, has grand plans for new water sources and plans to completely phase out use of groundwater in the city by 2040. This would be a real achievement given that governments have been trying to solve the issue of Yangon’s water supply for well over 150 years.
“On the Royal Lake a few boats afforded exercise and pastime. If your boat upset, you were fined for illegal bathing; and if you scrambled back into your boat, you were fined for embarking elsewhere than at the prescribed jetty.”
– Herbert Thirkell White, ‘A civil servant in Burma’, 1913
Kandawgyi today is still an incredibly pleasant part of the city. A long wooden walkway stretches the length of the Southern side of the lake. Always in various states of repair – and sometimes a little nerve-wracking as a result – it’s now being fully refurbished with a metal frame underneath new wooden planking. The walkway snakes past the Kandawgyi Palace Hotel, the site of the old Rangoon Rowing Club. The hotel was a beautiful building, with some timbers reportedly over 100 years old, but unfortunately caught fire recently and is now in quite a catastrophic state.
On the east side of the lake is the eye-catching Karaweik. A concrete reproduction of a royal barge, it contains some event space and a restaurant. Whilst it initially looks a little bizarre, it’s actually relatively faithful imitation.