A Journey Through Myanmar’s Architectural Heritage

A Guest Post by Jennifer Lang

In February during the Chinese New Year holiday, my family spent a week visiting Myanmar including Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay.  A cruise on the Ayeyarwady River (the lifeline and spine of the country) provided a perfect opportunity to experience this beautiful country.

Blooming tress

Trees like this one were in bloom all over the country – with huge red flowers – gorgeous  (Jennifer Lang)

In advance of and during the trip, I read three historical fiction novels about Myanmar that I highly recommend: George Orwell’s Burmese Days originally published in 1934 in the USA after Orwell spent five years living in Burma serving with the Indian Imperial Police; F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady, originally published in the 1930s in England about the true story of a love affair that precipitated the annexation of Mandalay and Northern Burma by the British; and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason published in 2003.  All three novels helped to set the stage for understanding more of what I would see and experience during the trip.

ruralvernacular-JLang

Typical vernacular residential architecture in a rural farming village of Alacapa (Jennifer Lang)

Life on and next to the Ayeyarwady River is busy – there are many boats (some loaded with teak logs, others with construction materials) and men women and children bathing and playing in the water, washing clothes, fishing, tending to crops growing in the fertile fields next to the river shore and there are simple small huts along the banks and shores of the river adjacent to the agricultural fields.  As you pass along the shores in a boat, everyone waves and smiles!

Typical vernacular residential buildings in rural Myanmar are simple wood frame structures, often raised up off the ground on stilts, featuring woven bamboo walls and rush/thatched/corrugated metals roofs.  The woven bamboo walls are often covered in a black-colored coating (possibly creosote) for protection.

The Htilomini Temple in Bagan

Htilomini Temple, Bagan built circa 1211 (Jennifer Lang)

Bagan is a vast archaeological zone and historic region of the ancient and former capital of the first Burmese Kingdom.  Some 13,000 temples, pagodas, monasteries and other religious structures were originally built here in a 26 square mile area in the 11th to 13th centuries. Palaces, many monasteries and private dwellings were built from wood, and all temples and stupas were made of fired brick – and only these non-wood structures remain. Today there are about 2,000 extant monuments that cover the landscape. The temples were inspired by the rock-hewn caves of Buddhist India and were sometimes large multi-storied places of worship one could enter and can feature decorated frescoes and barrel vaults and pointed arches.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda constructed circa 1987 (Jennifer Lang)

The pagodas or stupas are Buddhist temples that have a variety of forms including bell-shaped pyramid brick structures set on square or octagonal bases with knob-like domes with square caps. They are constructed of brick, covered in stucco and adorned with fine carvings, or gold.

Mandalay was honestly a bit of a disappointment – today it seems like a typical dusty Asian city with many “modern” buildings; only the palace walls and moat and a number of religious monuments remain today to document the story behind the city’s history as the former Myanmar capital. The magic, mystery and intrigue found elsewhere in the country appears to be missing here and indeed there is ongoing trading and contact with nearby China (the overland trade route to China begins here and evidently has recently been active since the 1980s) that may partially account for Mandalay’s present appearance. We did visit some interesting religious sites. It was interesting to note that Mandalay, unlike Yangon, does not have any evidence of colonialism.

Kuthodaw Paya

Kuthodaw Paya (Jennifer Field Lang)

Mandalay’s Kuthodaw Pagada was built in 1857 by King Mindon as a copy of the Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan.  This pagoda houses the “biggest book in the world” – 729 white marble mini stupas inscribed with the Tripitaka texts surround the main pagoda in grid neat lines.

The Mahamuni Paya is a site of pilgrimage where families groups bring their costumed children for “coming of age” celebrations. The interior of the Pahamuni Paya in Mandalay has a 2,000 year old 13-foot high seated Buddha image with applied gold leaf (a six-inch layer of pure gold) – only men are allowed to enter the Buddha area and apply the gold leaf to the statue!  This monument was originally built in 1784, destroyed by fire in 1884, and then rebuilt.

The former Yangon Currency Department

The former Yangon Currency Department, built circa 1900 and today functioning as the Yangon Court (Jennifer Lang)

Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial and diplomatic capital is a large, busy city that displays a combination of significant substantial western buildings left from the days of colonial rule by the British (1852-1937) when it was engaged in significant trading activities in the port, along with Buddhist temples and other traditional Burmese structures.  Yangon is a fascinating city today because it has one of the most intact collections of 19th and 20th century colonial buildings in Asia, composed of administrative government and state buildings as well as buildings from significant commercial enterprises.

The former Sofaer’s Building – built by a Baghdadi Jewish trader in 1906. This is where you could buy fine liqueurs and commodities such as Egyptian cigarettes, Munich beer, and English candles (Jennifer Lang).

The former Sofaer’s Building, built by a Baghdadi Jewish trader in 1906. This is where you could buy fine liqueurs and commodities such as Egyptian cigarettes, Munich beer, and English candles. (Jennifer Lang)

In 2005 when the government moved the capital of Myanmar from Yangon to a nearby suburb – Naypyitaw – most of these state-owned buildings were abandoned and remain empty today with no care or maintenance.  Yangon, like the rest of Myanmar, has yet to be introduced to the many western chain stores that one sees all over the world today, such as McDonald’s, 7-Eleven and Starbucks – and this is a welcome reprieve!

With the backdrop of many substantial yet partially derelict buildings, the sidewalks of Yangon are filled with locals working, patronizing and socializing at the markets and eating spots the cover the sidewalks and spill out into the roads.  The colorful fresh fruit, vegetables and street food looked fresh and delicious!

The Sule Pagoda in central Yangon is the city center, with an 1850s grid plan of wide tree-lined boulevards around the pagoda created by Scottish engineer Alexander Fraser.  The earlier buildings constructed just after the British arrived in 1852 are more Victorian or eclectic in style.

Yangon City Hall

Yangon City Hall (Jennifer Lang)

Later in the early 1900s, professionally trained architects from England and Scotland (such as James Ransome and John Berg) were hired to design key government buildings and to inspect plans prepared for all buildings. Yangon City Hall, constructed in 1925-1945 by McClumph, Brey and Bermese U Tin architects in the British Myanmar style with three-tired pyatthat roofing and traditional Myanmar iconography of peacocks and serpents.

Jennifer Field Lang is an architectural historian and building conservationist who has worked and studied in the field for over 25 years, primarily in North America. She has been living in Asia for the past three years.

In the fall of 2012 Jennifer assisted in the planning and teaching of a Common Core Curriculum class to undergraduates at HKU entitled World Heritage and Us. Jennifer obtained a BA degree from New York University, an MS in historic preservation from Columbia University, and an MS in conservation from Hong Kong University. Currently Jennifer is beginning her studies as a PhD candidate at HKU focusing on the Taikoo Sugar Refinery and its role as an example of a company town in Hong Kong.

local woman at U Bein teak bridge

A young local woman I met at the U Bein teak bridge near Mandalay- the thanakha on her face serves as both a lotion and sunscreen (Jennifer Lang)

About Adventures in Preservation

Huge fans of the world's architectural heritage, making it a point to seek out historic buildings wherever we travel. Bloggers include co-founder of Adventures in Preservation, a non-profit organizing historic preservation-based volunteer vacations, and AiP interns.
This entry was posted in Cultural Travel, Heritage Travel, Historic Buildings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Journey Through Myanmar’s Architectural Heritage

  1. Learn about preservation efforts in Yangoon from this report from Al Jazeera http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/101east/2013/05/20135229324313702.html

  2. Here’s an interesting article by David Brook on Yangoon that might be of interest:
    History of the Present: Yangon. Emerging from a half century of dictatorship, can Myanmar’s principal city be a model of sustainable, democratic development?
    https://placesjournal.org/article/history-of-the-present-yangon-myanmar/

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