Experience American History Abroad: Incheon, South Korea

As readers of this site know, I love to see Western history and architecture when I travel abroad. In Asia, the strong influence of the British and French Empires cannot be denied. Beautiful buildings in places like Burma, Malaysia, and Vietnam are prominent in many places. Lesser, yet visible vestiges of the Portuguese, Dutch, and Spanish Empires also remain in various places across the region. However interesting, they lack the personal connection that accompanies American History around the globe for me.
Many Americans know of the breadth of American history in the Philippines. Famous quotes about the Philippines from Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt and their long status as an American commonwealth following the Spanish-American War make the Philippines a particuarly interesting place. it is fascinating to walk around Manila and hear American accents on the radio and on the streets, to see streets named after American icons like Taft, and then to watch the weekend’s NFL games at the local bar. American cultural influence still holds power in Manila.
DSC07397
General MacArthur is revered here after he returned to the islands to liberate them from the Hhorrendous Japanese occupation. While the Philippines may be the most well known example this, General MacArthur is revered in a more unlikely and unkown place to the casual observer: Incheon, South Korea. There, a park boasts a large statue of the Genral and a park dedicated to freedom and a battle which eventually liberated the South Koreans from the Communist North.
Sadly the Kroean War is the United State’s “Forgotten War”, and Incheon is never truly recognized in textbooks for its importance in turning the tide of this war in 1950.
With American forces surrounded and relegated to the Busan Perimiter in Southeast Korea in September 1950, the tide of the war was in favor of the Communist North Koreans. On September 15, 1950, General MacArthur launched a daring amphibious assault on Incheon (in the northwestern-most corner of present-day South Korea) to turn the tide of the war and eventually retake Seoul.
The massive American-led contingency outumbered and crushed their North Korean opposition in mere days in the begenning of a long and arduous camapign to retake Seoul. Today in Incheon, these events are not forgotten.
The landing is commemorated at Jayu Park (Freedom Park) very near the beaches at Pohang where MacArthur’s forces first landed. A large statue of MacArthur wearing his signature hat overlooks a plaza lined with flowers while plaques adorn the area near the statue. These statues capture iconic MacArthur moments and also tell the general’s story in both English and Korean.
IMG_6244
IMG_6266 IMG_6267 IMG_6274
IMG_6268 IMG_6270 IMG_6272
When I arrived, many Koreans were eager to have their photo taken with General MacArthur and many more wanted to talk to my friend and I once they found out we were Americans. They thanked us for our country’s sacrifice in broken English and said that without us they would not have been there today. People of all ages shared this sentiment  at the base of General MacArthur’s statue. It was an inspiring interaction, to say the least.
From the reception I received there, I got the feeling that many Americans do not take the chance to get out of Seoul for a few hours and visit this beautiful part of American history on foreign soil.
Easily accessible from Seoul on South Korea’s comprehensive metro system, you can get to Jayu Park (and Incheon) in about an hour and spend a few hours there before returning to Seoul. I think it is important for American tourists to see this piece of history, even if it is a brief stop. Many of our soldiers died there and it is a good way to pay our respects.
Next time you are in Seoul, be sure to take a day trip to Incheon to see Jayu Park and the statue of General MacArthur. You will not regret it.
Advertisements

At Incheon Int’l Airport, Take a Stopover Tour!

Many travelers dread the thought of a layover or stopover on their impending trip. Nothing is worse than five or six hours in a place where you have visa-free entrance but don’t want to risk missing your connecting flight. If you have a long layover in Incheon, South Korea, fear not. Incheon International Airport offers fantastic– AND FREE– stopover tour options which I highly recommend for a layover as short as even three hours.

En route to China in April, my friend and I decided to take the two hour tour option and we had a great time. here is what you can expect on one of these tours.

As soon as we got off of our plane and neared the security checkpoint, a woman speaking perfect English asked us if we were planning on staying in Korea or if we had a transit. Once she heard the word “transit”, she pitched the Incheon Airport’s transit tour to us and we happily took the bait. Our tour would be leaving the airport at 1:00PM and returning around 3:00, so we had time to grab some lunch and meet the rest of the group at the front of the terminal.

As soon as we passed through security, it was obvious as to why Incheon Airport is constantly ranked as the best or one of the best airports in the world. Dazzling light displays, beautiful open terminal buildings, and FREE showers are just a few of the things you will see past security.

A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport's interactive light displays.
A girl plays in front of one of Incheon International Airport’s interactive light displays.

We met our tour guide near one of the airport exits and headed off on our tour with a small group of Americans, Canadians, and Germans. If you have bags, fear not. The tour will store your bags in a secure location while you are in the city, free of charge.

After passing over the bridge connecting Incheon Airport to the rest of the city, we made our way to Heungryunsa Temple, located atop a hill in Incheon. We first noticed the great views of the city skyline and bridge from near where our bus stopped.

IMG_3300 IMG_3303

The cherry blossoms near the temple entrance were also in full bloom.

IMG_3315

We walked up over 107 steps at this temple which featured some gold-clad Buddhas, nice elephants, and some small gardens. It was nice to get a feel for some of the local Korean Buddhist culture while only being here for such a short time.

IMG_3318 IMG_3329 IMG_3344

Next stop on the tour was the Memorial Hall for the Incheon Landing Operation. This place was a fantastic location to learn about the Korean War and the immensity of the Battle of Incheon, a daring tactical maneuver and amphibious landing spearheaded by General Douglas MacArthur. The surprise landing and attack was the beginning of the offensive which eventually pressed MacArthur’s troops far into North Korea.

The park features some great period artillery pieces, statues, monuments, and a nice display of flags from the countries which participated in the Korean War.

IMG_3377

IMG_3363IMG_3373IMG_3385

After our brief stop here, we were back to the airport where we thought our tour would finish, but there was one last surprise in store for us.

After passing through immigration, we went towards our gate and passed by one of the Korean cultural exhibitions where staff help explain Korean culture and assist you in creating a piece of Korean artwork (again, for free) to take back with you as a way to remember Korea.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The two young women working at the store spoke flawless English and we had some great conversations! For about an hour, we talked about travel, Korea, and shared interesting stories about life in Japan and being an expat in Asia. They helped make our experience in Incheon a memorable and unforgettable one. As a matter of fact, they will be my two of my tour guides in Seoul next month with my friends from the United States.

To make a long story short, make sure you go on one of Incheon International Airport’s free stopover tours next time you are in South Korea. Also make sure to stop by one of the cultural workshops before you depart. You never know who you will meet. Who knows? Maybe it will inspire you to go to Korea for longer than a few hours!

Tokyo’s Koishikawa Gardens – Blossoms in Full Bloom

Even though Tokyo is the world’s largest city, it is famous for immense green spaces and lush parks and gardens. Shinjuku Park, Ueno Park, and Yoyogi Park may be some of the most famous for viewing cherry blossoms, but my favorite spot in the city to see the cherry blossoms in Tokyo is a mere stone’s throw away from Tokyo Dome.

Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens (小石川後楽園) may be relatively small in size, but it packs a major punch both in two key aspects of the cherry blossoms: different types of landscapes for shooting and floral diversity. Inside these gardens not just cherry blossoms await. A wide array of other flowering bushes and plants line the pathways and trails to create a scene unlike any other green space in Tokyo.

After passing through the gates (there is a nominal entrance fee, so come prepared), one is quickly greeted by a weeping cherry in full bloom and a park sign. Unlike other parks and gardens in Tokyo last weekend, Koishikawa Gardens already had many trees in full bloom.

DSC02077

Tokyo Dome is in the background of this shot so you can see how close these two places really are.

Famous for its ponds, I started off walking around one of the park’s smaller ponds and took some photos of trees quickly reaching full bloom.

DSC02099

DSC02088

Juxtaposed against Tokyo’s modern skyline, traditional Japanese garden design and old footbridges create a nice contrast between perceived images of old and new Japan.

DSC02105

As you can see below, people were not the only ones out taking in the cherry blossoms: a pair of turtles were also checking out the scenery.

DSC02111

A few more paces and a few more ponds later, I encountered a different species of tree which boasted pink blossoms. Rock gardens and formations in the middle of this lake provided a nice change of scenery.

DSC02112

DSC02116

Once I was finished walking around this pond, I turned to the right and walked directly under a path which was blanked in stunning white blossoms, all in full bloom. Their rich smell provided a nice accent to the incessant sound of camera shutters clicking and children playing with their siblings.

DSC02129 DSC02162

On the other side of this walkway, more images of a stereotypical Japan waited.

On my left side was a perfectly straight walkway through another large pond.

DSC02141

On the right side was a traditional orange footbridge behind a stone walkway which crossed through the same body of water. I feel as if both of these images are symbolic of Japan.

DSC02138

After walking a bit further to the right and climbing some steep, rocky, stairs, Koishikawa Gardens’ most beautiful image became visible. Scrunched between a teeming footpath, a stagnant pond, and leaves in the foreground, a vibrantly blooming tree filled a magnificent scene. This was the image everyone at the park hoped to capture. In the midday sunlight, everything seemed perfect.

best shot

Deeper into the garden, more kinds of trees were in full bloom, this time in pink.

DSC02185

The final park of my stroll through Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is what makes this garden my favorite place in all of Tokyo for blossom viewing: it is an ecologically diverse environment! While the cherry blossoms may be the most famous flowering plant in all of Japan, some marvelous other plants were in full bloom near the park’s exit.

Red and white bushes lined one walkway in the park.

DSC02118

Another pathway even had a yellow flowering bush! Even though these flowers were not quite ready to bloom their color added even more to a beautiful scene inside the park.

DSC02121

The final plant waiting at the garden’s exit was one of the most interesting plants of the day. Even though it boasted no flowers, this bush had some marvelous red leaves which were changing color for the season as well.

DSC02165

While there are many more famous and more well known spots inside of Tokyo to see cherry blossoms and other flowering plants, Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens is my favorite. The diverse scenery and the diverse ecology make it a must-visit location whether you are checking out the flowers next year or the plants at any time of year. I will be sure to come back here during the fall to see how the park looks during the peak fall colors period.

Kimono in Tokyo: A Photographic Account

This weekend I trekked to Tokyo to see the gorgeous cherry blossoms open throughout the city. The opening of the blossoms and the changing of the seasons are very symbolic in Japan.

During this time of year, there are many special ceremonies and cultural events. One of them is called ohanami (お花見), where friends, family, or groups of people will lie out a tarp and enjoy food and drinks under the blossoming cherry trees. While most people will wear normal clothes, some Japanese wear traditional clothing for this traditional event.

It was interesting to see traditional Japanese clothing and traditional Japanese events happen in one of the world’s most modern cities this weekend. Here is a photographic essay documenting what I saw this weekend at various parks and shrines across the city.

Saturday started off at the famous Asakusa Shrine where hoards of Japanese and tourists alike assembled to take in one of Japan’s most famous sites. While incense burned, two women walked through the crowd on their way to pray at the shrine. Their brightly colored kimono stood out from the rest of the crowd.

Asakusa

From here, I continued onward to another famous park in Tokyo, Kuritsu Sumida Park, directly across the river from Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest building. Along the river, children played, families took a stroll in the warm morning and afternoon breeze, and many people enjoyed hanami. Amongst the mayhem there were many kimono and many beautiful cherry blossoms. Almost as soon as I arrived, this image of a woman and her daughter caught my eye. Their kimono were beautiful!

Kimono Best

As I continued down the walkway, more Kimono were visible. Friends and family alike were dressed up for this special occasion.

DSC02054 DSC02055 DSC02060

Some younger girls in kimono were even interviewed for a television program.

Interview

From here, I went to a few more parks and gardens, namely Shinjuku Gardens and Koishikawa Botanical Gardens, but there were no kimono, just countless beautiful flowers. After these stops I stopped at Kita no Maru Park and encountered a few more women wearing kimono.

DSC02080 DSC02203

The day was waining but spirits were high. One more stop remained on my itinerary.  The last stop of the day proved to have the day’s best imagery.

One of Japan’s most famous and most controversial sites is Yusukuni Shrine, which is the shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead. The shrine in the heart of the Chiyoda Ward offers some of Tokyo’s best cherry blossom viewing opportunities. After a long walk through a massive festival with live bands and street food, I arrived at the shrine to see some of the flowers. On the right, something special caught my eye.

Japanese men and women were dressed in traditional clothing performing a special dance inside the shrine grounds. I stood there and watched it for over 20 minutes. Here is what I saw.

Shrine Dance 1 Shrine Dance 2

Shrine Dance 3

Three women were dressed in beautiful kimono and performed synchronized dances while a traditional Japanese band strummed shamisen and beat taiko drums. It was an interesting sight to behold and I will be uploading a video at a later point.

Shrine 2

As the performance closed and daylight wained, I had one more chance encounter with a kimono. Through the sunset and the cherry trees, this woman’s kimono stuck out from the rest of the crowd.

Sunset

Inside Shinjuku’s Secret, Silent, Alleys

Shinjuku is the place where many Japanese dreams are born: bustling city streets, crowded train stations, and exciting nightclubs make this a destination neighborhood for Tokyo tourists with a wide array of interests. The crowded intersections and busy streets offer a portal into the world of what many Westerners think Tokyo is when they arrive in Japan for the first time. While the glitz and glam of glittering storefronts and bright lights has an allure all its own, inside this lively neighborhood is one of my favorite places in all of Tokyo, called Omoideyokochou (思いで横丁).

Venturing down “memory lane” or “memory alley” (as the Japanese translates directly to English), these quiet alleys reveal a different, more traditional look into Japan, mere paces from JR Shinjuku Station. The average tourist walks right by these alleys and misses out on a chance to experience a different Japan. This is a place where neon lights are replaced by glowing lanterns and where loudspeakers are replaced by shopkeepers enticing passersby to sit down for a beer and some yakitori at their shop.

When I lived in Tokyo four years ago, even I never heard of this place. I was turned onto it two years ago when I read an article (in Japanese) about the hidden spots and destinations inside Tokyo. It boasted of the “retro feel” of the “Showa-era streets”. Once I read about Omoideyokocho, I knew I had to check it out.

That was two years ago and now I always make this place my first stop when I get off the airplane or the Shinkansen in Tokyo. It always sets the tone for my weekend in the city. Join me for a journey into Shinjuku’s secret alleys.

After exiting JR Shinjuku Station (Yamanote Line) and walking down the main road for a bit, be sure to look for the bright green signs and the yellow script which say 思いで横丁. They are very easy to miss in the confusion that is Shinjuku, but you should be looking to your left.

If you are taking another train, be sure to cross under the Yamanote tracks. After that, you will make a hard left turn and the west entrance (西口) will be in front of you. In the springtime, look for the cherry blossoms hanging underneath the sign. In the fall, there will be autumnal leaves draped from the same area.

Omoide

As soon as you start your journey down these alleys, you will realize how different it is compared to the rest of Shinjuku. First and foremost, it is relatively quiet. Aside from the occasional conversation, rumblings of a passing train, or shopkeepers calling would-be passengers, the other sounds of Tokyo are nonexistent.

One of my favorite parts of Omoideyokocho is the lack of neon lights. They are replaced with glowing, traditional Japanese lanterns which spell out what each shop offers: yakitori, kushikatsu, izakaya-style fare, etc. On the typical evening, these streets will be filled with Japanese salarymen and Tokyo residents heading to their favorite watering hall after a hard day’s work. This photo perfectly captures the atmosphere in Omoideyokocho on a typical evening.

Walkway

Incandescent bulbs and lanterns illuminate the narrow alleys where you will definitely bump shoulders with Japanese of all stripes as you look for your preferred dining location. Men standing and waiting for their favorite hot bowl of ramen, the smell of grilling meat, Japanese oden, and the city streets will trigger your appetite, so be ready. Somehow full stomachs become empty as you pass down these streets.

I recommend walking through the alleys a few times to get a glimpse at all the restaurants and bars here so you know where you want to start your evening. Most likely, you will hit a few different izakaya on this street before moving on to the lively Shinjuku streets. It seems like each place offers the same food, but they are different! Trust me!

Once you choose your favorite izakaya, it is time to sit down and start chatting up the locals as you wait for your order. Don’t be intimidated if you cannot speak Japanese or read the menu.

Menu

Many of the Japanese people in these shops will help you order or offer their suggestions for what you should get. I speak Japanese so it isn’t a problem for me, but do not be afraid. Lots of times, Japanese patrons will try to speak with you and ask you what you think about Japan. Just step into the shop with a smile. Going to a place like this gives you a great opportunity to meet locals and maybe learn a Japanese phrase or two as you start your journey here.

On Friday night, I spoke with a man who studied for a semester at Penn State (Pennsylvania, USA) and another man who had been to the Grand Canyon two different times. You never know who you are going to meet. After the chatting and self-introductions finish, it is time to eat.

While you may be use to wide and spacious restaurants in your home country, do not expect that type of an environment on this street. Expect small places (often only room for ten to fifteen people) and expect to be seated shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons, often bumping shoulders and exchanging pleasantries. The narrow counters offer an interesting atmosphere where the store owners make your food right in front of you.

Izakaya

Be sure to order a few different items on the menu so you have a continuous stream of food coming your way. Couple that with an Asahi beer and you are set for at least thirty minutes of excitement and fun inside of Shinjuku’s secret and silent alleys.

Once you are finished, you can go out into the madness that is the nearby Kabuki-cho, or you can head off to another secluded part of Tokyo like Golden Gai, where hundreds of bars await both locals and tourists alike.

DSC01991

While most people come to Tokyo to experience the world’s largest city and some of the world’s finest gardens and parks, it would behoove you to stop by Omoideyokocho and enjoy a glimpse into a quieter, more traditional Tokyo.

New Friends and Free Pizza in Vientiane, Laos

For many backpackers and travelers in Laos, Vientiane is nothing more than an afterthought or a thorn in their side. For them, the capital city is a one night stay in one of the numerous hostels before making their way to either party in Vang Vieng or see the Buddhist marvels that await in Luang Prabang. Not for me.

I came to the city to see the remnants of French Indochina architecture and to explore the cafe and dining scene which is unlike anywhere else in Asia. The European influence was still strong in the city which gave it a very special vibe. Patrons, locals and tourists alike, were relaxed and moved around lethargically throughout their daily procedures. It was a welcomed respite for me.

After two days of wandering the city and meeting some interesting folks on the streets, I descended on Via Via Restaurant right next to the Mekong River for dinner on my last full evening in Vientiane.

As with all restaurants in Laos, Via Via had the standard yellow and green sign out front with a photo of a large bottle of Lao Beer. That is where its similarities with other restaurants I visited in the capital city stopped. On my first night in the city, I was struck by the unique atmosphere at this pizza restaurant.

DSC00355

Traditional Italian music bellowed out from the speakers while waitresses frantically took orders and delivered drinks to patrons.  The unique mix of European expats, tourists, and locals resonated, as I heard orders taken in Laotian, French, and English on my first pass by the restaurant. I was intrigued and knew I would make my last meal in Vientiane a memorable one at this fine establishment.

After seeing the sun set over the Mekong the following day and checking out the night market, I made my way back to Via Via and was fortunate enough to grab a seat right outside of the restaurant itself but also not quite on the sidewalk. With a seat like this I could monitor what was happening both inside and outside the restaurant.

DSC00352

Usually I do not drink soda when I am either at home or on the road, but I had a very special chance to order a Laotian Pepsi, served up in a glass bottle without any English labeling. For someone accustomed to international travel throughout Asia, I  was surprised by a native language Peopsi bottle. I had to take a photo. More than likely, I will not have the chance to sample this kind of Pepsi again.

DSC00349

As the night wore on, patrons were quick to grab a Beer Lao and then head off into the Vientiane haze, either back to their hotel or to another cafe or dining establishment. I decided to order a Beer Lao and a pizza and wait it out for an hour or so at Via Via. Even though Beer Lao is a state-sponsored beer, it tasted very good. Such a pleasant surprise on this balmy December evening.

DSC00353

With my Beer Lao in hand, I ordered their version of a supreme pizza and started to write in my travel journal when a British couple sat down next to me. They were old but certainly not elderly. Jim had wiry grey hair and wore a nice blue polo to compliment his thick black framed glasses. His wife was wearing a white shirt and carried a nice handbag. I can still see the two of them as I write this article.

They were quiet at first, but as soon as my mouth-watering pizza arrived, they started talking. It was for good reason, too. They wanted to know what kind of pizza I had ordered because it looked so good. Take a look for yourself:

DSC00351

It was hard to believe, but the best pizza I had had since I moved to Asia was in, of all places, Vientiane. The sharpness of the pepperoni was complimented by the tingle of fresh peppers and the smoothness of Beer Lao.

Then we got to talking. Jim and his wife wanted to know about my travels through Southeast Asia at 24 because they had done similar travels when they were young, only through Europe. He told me stories of going from West Germany into East Germany, riding various trains throughout Europe, and even going to some countries in Indochina and Southeast Asia in the late 1970s. Usually long stories can become boring stories, but Jim had a unique way with imagery and describing the people he met along the way. His verbosity was truly something to behold.

We shared tales of the trains in Burma, dirty and crowded Bangkok streets, and of our time in Singapore. It was so cool to meet a travel couple which had been so many places but continued to go wherever they saw fit.

Jim revealed to me that he and his wife had been out of the United Kingdom for the last three months in Southeast Asia and had no plans of returning home in the near future. As they had both been foreign service officers in their youth, they were bitten by the travel bug and had no desire to stop going places and trying new foods along the way.

Our conversation seemed like it took up only a few minutes, but in reality we spoke to each other for over ninety minutes. As they finished up their pizza, I still had a few pieces left to go. He and his wife both said they enjoyed our conversation very much and said that they had already paid for my pizza.

“We were hoping to meet a young man on our travels tonight,” he said. “Never stop traveling. You never know when you will not have the chance to do it again in your life.”

Those words of wisdom, coupled with a saying my friend Tom told me way back in 2010 still stick to me this day.

“Young people have all the time in the world to travel, but no money. Old people have all the money in the world to travel, but no time. You are living abroad. Get out there and explore.”

It was a pleasure to meet yet another interesting couple out and about in Southeast Asia. While the friendships may be fleeting, it is always nice to meet generous and talkative people out there on the road.

Sometimes traveling alone has its benefits. I know that I would never have met half of the interesting people I have encountered on my travels if I was traveling in a group or with another person. Embrace solo travel meet new people on the road. You will have stories to last a lifetime.

As theAs the night

A Glimpse at the World’s Finest Colonial Architecture

As soon as I stepped off of the plane in this far-flung former capital city, a Coca Cola ad which said “Welcome to Myanmar” was waiting for me.

This ad awaits beyond customs at Rangoon's international airport.
This ad awaits beyond customs at Rangoon’s international airport.

Next, a blast of humidity hit my face. Finally, new and  unfamiliar smells attacked my nose. At that moment, I knew I was about to embark on a memorable and unpredictable journey in one of the world’s final travel frontiers: Burma.

Of all the tourists I met during my time in Rangoon (and in Burma, as a whole), I never met anyone who went there for the same reason I came to Burma. I came to see the final vestiges of the crumbling British colonial architecture and get insight into hat may have inspired George Orwell’s writings.

Sure, many people came to see architecture and buildings in Burma, but no one I met came to get lost in the city and see the fabulous early-20th Century colonial architecture. For them, Rangoon was an afterthought. They wanted to get out of dodge and head to more famous, Buddhist-inspired, places like Bago, Bagan, and Mandalay as quickly as possible. But, really, who could blame them? To the untrained and uninterested mind, Rangoon’s cracking streets, gritty buildings, littered sidewalks, congested roads, and filthy markets make the city just like any other place in Southeast Asia.

How sadly mistaken those folks were. How could you pass up walking through a time capsule like this and imaging what it was like in the pre-WWII days? With trees growing through century-old masonry, grime caked on facades, and tobacco vendors criss crossing every which way, each street has its own character.

DSC08489

DSC08502

They missed experiencing and getting lost in the city with the world’s finest colonial architecture: Rangoon, Burma.

During my time living in Japan, I have been searching for travel destinations in Asia and Oceania where my American friends have never been, specifically those with a zest of colonial history and also rich native culture. Once I read my first article about the street life in Rangoon and saw photos of the British colonial buildings, I KNEW it would be my next destination in the region. The more and more I read, it became apparent that the British buildings were falling into disrepair with time and were either being demolished or allowed to crumble to meet an untimely demise. This winter, I trekked to Burma to ensure I could see these buildings before they met their ultimate fate.  Either by neglect or by attrition because of the rapid growth in Rangoon, they could be gone very soon.

Here is my photographic essay on Rangoon. To date, I have not found such an extensive photo collection as this one dealing with colonial architecture. Please enjoy and provide comments and feedback. Due to upload restrictions, I cannot share even half of the photos I took.

I arrived at my hostel on 30th Street, in the heart of the city, past midnight and quickly went to sleep after seeing a glowing Sule Pagoda in the distant night. I awoke with dawn, anticipating scenes of a bygone era. The early morning sunlight did not disappoint. After making a quick right turn out of my hostel, I was bombarded with a unique scene: some restored colonial villas stood alongside other crumbling buildings while cranes raced to erect new, modern buildings.

DSC08306

Catty-corner from me, even more colonial relics beckoned. A former residency and trading building loomed large on the main road leading to the pagoda. Worn with years of grime and coated with new, turquoise and yellow paint, I wondered if the Burmese had started to preserve some of these treasures before it was too late.

Colonial 1 DSC08296

After this short stroll, I returned to my hostel and met up with my guide, James, to embark on a food tour of the city (more on that coming up in a later post). On this tour, we encountered even more fantastic colonial relics. Ranging from former public schools, markets, and residencies, to streets filled with former hotels and bars, the British influence and architecture cast a large shadow as we walked through Rangoon’s maze of streets.

Eating Facade

DSC09342

DSC08350 DSC08371 DSC08391

Aren’t some of these images breathtaking? The ornate craftsmanship which creates the colonial version of the cornerstone juxtaposed against chipped paint is a sight to see. Other buildings with  beautiful window panes and a moss-covered hospital are harbingers for what the past was in this teeming, lively city.

Once my tour finished and I parted ways with my guide, I discovered some of the most remarkable buildings Rangoon had to offer: former government offices. These were the kinds of buildings which you could see in a movie and not believe they truly exist. Bracketed by rusted fences and barbed wire and surrounded by palm trees, these British-built behemoths boast broken clocks, shattered windows and ornate craftsmanship. While the facades may be dirty, the omnipresent sound of hammers and nail guns indicate the beginning of restoration work.  My biggest hope is that I can return here in twenty years and see how the buildings were beautifully preserved for future generations to enjoy.

First up on the list of these buildings was the Minister’s Office, a.k.a. The Secretariat. The photos will describe what is very difficult to do with words.

Building Clock 2 Clock 3 Clock 4

Down the Street

DSC08417 DSC08430

InteriorDSC08433

In the same vicinity, I encountered some other colonial buildings: an old Anglican Church transformed into a Salvation Army location.

Salvation Army

DSC08422

A government printing office, and DSC08427

some other buildings that had to be involved with heavy industry in their heyday.

Shortly thereafter, I returned to City Hall to rendezvous with some people to take part in Free Yangon Walks, which is a fantastic walking tour of downtown. This tour group takes you to many significant historical buildings. I recommend them for anyone who is in Rangoon (Yangon) and wants to learn more about this history-rich city. Here is a link to their website: http://www.freeyangonwalks.com

I thought I had seen the best of the city’s colonial architecture, but I had not seen anything yet. Standing in front of City Hall, I quickly realized that the High Court building would become my favorite piece of colonial architecture in the whole world. This 1911-built  structure has towering red and yellow-brick construction. The famous British royal lions wait in various locations across the roof line, as well. The imposing clock tower and facade show that this was the seat of British power in colonial Burma.

Court 5 Court 8 Court 4

As one walks away from the High Court building, there are many layers of barbed wire.  This provides a unique scene which is representative of Burma pulling itself out from under decades of military rule.

Court 2 Court 7

As the tour continued, we encountered other spectacular colonial structures: The Sofarer’s Building, which was home of the finest cafe in the East, Vienna Cafe, at the height of British rule.

DSC09335

The former headquarters for the Irrawaddy Trading Company has an elegant interior which reminds me of some ritzy hotels in Manhattan. Its staircase would not be out of place at somewhere like the Waldorf-Astoria.

Irrawaddy

The Government Telegraph Office:DSC08557 DSC08566

We continued on our tour towards Pansodan Road and encountered even more colonial buildings.

The Accountant General’s Office and Currency Department was first. Inside, prisoners are sentenced, fined, and then hauled off to jail was my favorite building on this section of the tour.

Sentencing

Dome Desk Sunset

We stopped to see the General Post Office, which boasted a beautiful colonial interior.

DSC09354 DSC09360

As the sun started to set, we walked past the Strand Hotel towards the Custom House and other various buildings. DSC08614 DSC08616 DSC08622

The tour concluded back at City Hall, where the former Rowe & Co Building has been turned into a bank which overlooks the Burmese independence plaza.

Plaza DSC08554

Two days later I returned to Rangoon following a day trip to Bago and continued to explore the city and see what other colonial buildings I could find. I was not disappointed. Walking through the streets, I encountered several more dilapidated colonial structures and others which were under construction for massive renovation and restoration. Of course, there were also some beautiful churches to be seen.

CHurch DSC09332 DSC09334 DSC09337 DSC09364 DSC09451 Stairs

DSC09236 DSC09240 DSC08493 DSC08496

As nightfall came and I had a drink at 50th St. Bar, which is a renovated colonial townhouse.

50 St. Bar
50 St. Bar

As night fell and so did my eyelids, I stopped to see City Hall one more time. The exterior was lit up in green and red to commemorate Christmas Eve.

Rangoon Traffic

As you have seen by these photos, Rangoon is the most beautiful city “Somewhere East of Suez” in terms of the rich colonial architecture and history it possesses. Over half a century of neglect has left many of these colonial and historical structures in or very near disrepair, but there is hope. New influxes of cash from the Japanese and Indian government could help revitalize Rangoon and save some of these buildings before they are lost forever.

It is very interesting to venture into a city this large while lacking McDonald’s, KFC, and even Seven Eleven. If there is one place you should go in Asia as soon as possible, Rangoon is the place. Get there before these buildings are claimed by time, skyscrapers, or neglect. You will not regret it.

The smells, sounds, and energy of this city point toward a bright future. Hopefully the past is not forgotten or destroyed in this time of development and growth. Go to Burma and experience the best colonial architecture in the world before it is claimed by Father Time.