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Yangon Time Machine Posts

Wingaba Lake



“In the middle of the village is a sacred tank or lake, three sides of which are surrounded by forest trees and creepers; on the fourth is the bazaar, which lined the road, with which it is level, though the rear of the buildings, supported on piles, overhung the water of the lake.”
– Robert Talbot Kelly, ‘Burma, painted and described’, 1905

The years have not been especially kind to the small lake of Wingaba. Its original, roughly horseshoe shape, is still just visible from above. Now mostly dry and grown over with green, a small patch of permanent water remains in the bottom right corner. Information on the lake is scant, but one possible explanation is that the lake would likely have been a water source for the village, but as the city grew and centralised water sources came online there would have been less pressure to maintain it. Given the amount of change, this was a pretty challenging shot to try to line up – so please forgive any discrepancy!


Shwedagon, South Entrance



“The platform upon which the pagoda stands is approached by four great flights of stairs at the cardinal points. Of these, the southern stairs are the most frequented, facing as they do the immemorial road which leads up from the banks of the river, straight through the heart of the town to the pagoda.”
– The Silken East, V. C. Scott O’Conner, 1904

Each entrance of the Shwedagon has slightly different characteristics and histories. The west was closed off during British control of the pagoda, as the area was used to store munitions and arms. The east, my favourite, passes through a busy street of vendors, monasteries and temples, before ascending through two levels of covered steps. The north has the longest approach on the platform itself, and will be covered in another post. And then the south; considered the primary entrance, and certainly the most photographed over the years

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Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque



The oldest original mosque in the city, the Surti Sunni Jamah Mosque was built in 1852 by the Sunni community from Western India. It’s apparently on the site of the first ever mosque in the city, built around 1826 but destroyed in the second Anglo-Burmese war. Surti Sunni Jamah sits on what was then Mogul Street, now Shwebonthar, at the heart of the traditionally Indian section of downtown.


“Extract digit”

Disclaimer: ‘Jap’ in a lot of the world, including where I’m from, is a pretty racist term now. It’s included here because of its historical nature.

“For Christmas the Japs gave us a holiday and extra rations, and the cooks excelled themselves and gave us a really good feed. In the morning we had a carol service, conducted by Lieutenant Brian Horncastle, and then a sports meeting. In the evening there was a concert with alternate turns by British and Americans. The Americans had assured us for some months that their General Stilwell, or “Uncle Joe” as they called him, had announced his intention of spending Christmas in Rangoon, so that when one of them appeared in the middle of the concert dressed as “Uncle Joe” with a “Sorry I’m late, you fellows”, he received an uproarious welcome.”
– Philip Stibbe, from an account of his final Christmas in Japanese captivity in 1944, ‘Return via Rangoon’

On the 1st of May, one day after Hitler committed suicide, Operation Dracula was launched. It was a joint operation of British, Indian and American forces, intended to finally retake Rangoon from the Japanese. The majority of Japanese troops had already left Yangon, and the operation was a success.

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Cantonment Gardens



“On this lake float many charming pleasure boats, some rowed by gay laughing groups, and others skim along with their glittering sails set, looking like large white birds”
– Among Pagodas And Fair Ladies, Gwendolen Trench Gascoigne, 1896

The cantonment refers to a British military zone around the Shwedagon Pagoda. As the only high ground in the vicinity of Yangon, Shwedagon has often found itself used as a strategic location in conflicts involving the city, and it was the core of the British cantonment.

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Phayre Street, Middle



“Sun hats are very necessary”
– Thomas Cook Ltd Travel Guide to Burma, 1912

This set is a favourite of mine, because the three buildings in the foreground are all original, but with varying degrees of alteration. And then looming over all of them is the infamous Shwe Bank building.


Sule Pagoda



“I might certainly describe the charm of the Sule Pagoda, the creeks choked with teak logs, the crowded shipping, the dingy markets, the yellow-red brick of the Secretariat and the Chief Court, but to what end? Photographs are more accurate”
– Richard Curle, ‘Into the East: notes on Burma and Malaya’, 1923

When Alanpyaya won Yangon from the Mon in 1755, he had taken a small but strategic fort town, on an island that stretched from what is now 30th St to Thein Pyu Road. It was surrounded by swampy marsh, and was inundated with water with each tide. To the north-west, Sule pagoda sat on a small, rocky outcrop attached to the mainland, reached from the town by a footbridge.

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The Excelsior Theatre



“Please accept our apologies for the poor quality of the film”
– opening slide of Myanmar’s first ever film

The Excelsior is the last scion of a time when Myanmar’s film industry was a leading light in South East Asia. Despite some initial British censorship, the industry thrived, and by the 70s there were hundreds of cinemas up and down the country showing a healthy mix of imported and Burmese-made films.

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‘Footwearing Prohibited’

British troops at Shwedagon in 1945

“Touching on Burmese English usage, let us deal now with the ‘footwearing prohibited’ notice in all the pagodas and have done with it. Its literal interpretation is too old and stale a joke now to be even mildly funny. The expression is not, anyhow, more absurd than many expressions which have invaded our English tongue from America and the armed forces[*]. “You see,” a Burman said to me, wearily, “if we change it to a ‘footwear prohibited’, as the people who want to improve us are always urging us to, the people will think it’s a new rule which means that they mustn’t even carry their footwear. The people understand what it means – that the wearing of footwear is prohibited. If the highly educated among our own people have no objection to the expression, why should we mind what outsiders think? If it makes us look ridiculous perhaps it is not more ridiculous than the sight of Western people paddling round our pagodas in their socks, frightened to go barefoot.”
– Ethel Mannin, Land of the Crested Lion, 1955

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The Royal Lake



“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