The city that visitors see today with its grand colonial architecture, sprawling parks and still lakes, is very much the city the British designed, based on a grid plan. Amid the traditional Burmese wooden structures, the British built majestic administration buildings such as Rangoon University and Rangoon General Hospital, and as the city prospered from trade, developed affluent residential neighbourhoods with grand villas in leafy areas north of Royal Lake and Inya Lake. After Burma's 1948 independence, streets were renamed from British to Burmese names, but apart from growing in size, everything remains largely the same to this day, except Rangoon is no longer the capital. The military developed a new administrative capital at Naypyidaw, 200 miles (or 322 kilometres) north of Rangoon. Rangoon is still Burma’s biggest city, its key commercial centre, and the main point of entry for travellers.
Most visitors make a beeline for the city’s main sight and Myanmar’s most significant spiritual site, the Burmese people’s beloved Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) or Golden Pagoda. This massive, gleaming golden stupa and temple, situated on the sacred Singuttara hilltop, which has been the location of a pagoda since the 6th Century AD, can be seen from all over the city centre and is constantly abuzz with people. Buddhist monks make pilgrimages here, worshippers come to make merit, locals linger to socialize with friends, and children run about and play. It’s wonderful to visit at any time of the day, the atmosphere of the place as much a magnet as its beauty. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself returning again and again. Photographers should visit in both the early morning and late afternoon, staying until after dark when it’s brilliantly illuminated with multicoloured lights. Take a tripod.
Also worth seeing is the reclining Chaukhtatgyi Buddha with a crown of diamonds and precious stones. Like Shwedagon Paya, the shrine makes for fascinating people watching, with fortune-tellers predicting futures and reading palms. The National Museum has a priceless collection of treasures, some of which belonged to the last monarch of Myanmar, King Thibaw Min, including his 26 feet-high Sihasana or Lion Throne, furniture made from ivory, beds embellished with glittering gems, and carpets of gold and silver. In stark contrast, the gritty streets of Rangoon, especially around the waterfront, with its faded colonial buildings and colourful markets, are easily as enriching to explore.