Visitors arriving from the sea would soon experience the two underlying reasons for the existence of Yangon. As the ship approached the city along the Yangon river they would spot Shwedagon Pagoda, resplendent in gold and overlooking the city. Soon after they would reach the bustling docks, where each day ships unloaded goods, tourists and new workers. Shwedagon may have been the town’s original claim to significance, but ultimately it was its port and year-round access to the sea that allowed the town to grow into the city we see today.
Looking west along strand road we can first see the Accountant-General’s office. We talked about this building previously, so we’ll now look past it to the Custom House. The Custom House was central to the business of the port. All goods that were brought in or out of the country had to be registered, and the duty on them paid. Thanks to the fastidiousness of colonial record keeping we have a good idea of the comings and goings of the port, and its explosive growth. Around 1880 the port saw around £3m of trade; in 1911 this had become £27m.
Of course, there were constant attempts to avoid paying custom duties, and incoming ships had to be searched for hidden caches of gold, gems, drugs and so on. Officer Bill Tydd worked in the port before the second world war and his memoirs have various tales of catching smugglers, managing informants, of gold hidden in window panes and false floors inside buckets. He also tells a strange tale of a Russian boat full of smuggled rifles, whose taciturn Chief Engineer ate a whole chicken and two mountains of potatoes and beans in front of him.
Today’s building is actually the final in what seems to have been a series of custom houses to stand in (or very near) this spot. This one was finished in 1916, as part of a second wave of building that replaced many of the earlier brick structures in the city.
The very first custom house here predated British control of the city. According to one (suspiciously dramatic) account, when word arrived of the approaching British attack in 1824, several European merchants and American missionaries were taken to this original custom house to be executed. Sand was spread to soak up the blood, the prisoners were dragged forward in chains, the executioner raised his axe – just as a cannonball from the lead British ship smashed through the brick wall above them. They fled, postponing the execution for a more opportune time, but their prisoners were rescued soon after.
Today the Custom House fulfills the same purpose it did in Bill Tydd’s day, and is always busy with people looking to get the right set of signatures on the right bit of paperwork. The port area is also still Myanmar’s main port, and responsible for 90% of its imports and exports. The downside of this is that prime riverfront estate, which would ideally be used (at least partially) for public spaces, remains in industrial use.
There was recently a large investment in the port, so it looks like it’s not going away any time soon. This despite the fact that the nearby port at Thilwa is actually technically superior, allowing much larger ships to dock. Unfortunately the lack of infrastructure linking Thilwa with Yangon is holding back its development, so Yangon remains the main port for now and for the foreseeable future.
Besides container ships, the river is also plied by passenger boats, including the new water bus service intended for commuters. Alongside these newer boats are all sorts of older craft, including large passenger ferries and innumerable small long-tail boats. A common sight across South-East Asia, these canoe-like designs use second-hand motor engines mounted on the back of the boat, directly turning the propeller.
Ferry or longboat will take you to the south bank of Yangon river, to Dala. This was home to the shipyards of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, who we previously wrote about here. The firm mostly bought their ships from companies in Glasgow, Scotland. The ships would be built to completion, then broken down again for transport to Dala, where they would then be reassembled. At its peak the IFC had a fleet of more than 600 ships operating across Burma – almost all of which would have made their maiden voyage out of the Dala shipyards.
The shipyards are still in operation, now controlled by the state-owned Inland Water Transport. A visitor in 2013 noted that much of the original equipment survives, with the ships supported on giant wooden trestles, in the style of the 19th century. This is likely already changing; new ships, equipment and training will replace these final relics of the IFC.
The absence of a direct road connection to the city means Dala has lagged behind the mainland in terms of development, and is significantly more rural in character. A bridge is coming however, and has driven up land prices in Dala. That said, previous plans for a bridge in 2013 increased land prices in tenfold, only for the plans to be postponed indefinitely. For now though it’s a popular day trip from the city, book-ended by the ferry crossing.
Dala isn’t the only destination for a day trip. South-west of Yangon, where the Twante Canal splits from the wider river, is the much lesser visited island of Kanaungto. Interestingly, Kanagunto wasn’t always an island. The Twante Canal to its South is man-made, opened in 1883 to speed up access to the Irrawaddy from Yangon. It cut the river distance to Maubin, which is not far from a fork of the Irrawaddy, from 100 miles to 45.
Some maps of the city from after the creation of the canal still show Kanaungto as part of the mainland. I would guess that the canal originally joined up with the narrower Kanaungto Creek, which still exists to the north of the island. In the 1930s the canal was made wider and deeper to accommodate larger ships, so it’s likely that this new section below Kanaungto was added at the same time. Perhaps it was not practical to widen the existing creek here. I’ve created a little animation below to illustrate the change.
Today Kanaungto feels as different to Dala as the latter does to Yangon. I highly recommend you take a longboat to Seikgyi village and cycle the length of the island. Take a bicycle with you, or if you’re in the market for one, buy from the bicycle shop there (I did). It’s just a short cycle from the docks on the east of the island to the very south-west tip of Yangon region, but it feels a million miles away from the bustle of downtown.
Thanks to Sarah Rooney and the book 30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon for putting me on to William Tydd’s book. And thanks also the bike shop on Kanaungto for providing me with my dearly beloved bicycle.