Yangon is a city of contradictions. It’s the largest city in Myanmar, though it’s no longer the capital. That was changed to the planned city of Naypyidaw in 2006. It’s an important commercial center in Southeast Asia, but there are no skyscrapers. Downtown Yangon is still full of colonial-era buildings, while new construction maxes out at 10 stories. It’s also home to more than seven million people, yet it still lacks basic infrastructure. The government isn’t putting money into modernization. Despite these inconsistencies, Yangon is still fascinating.
The Garden City of the East sits where the Bago and Yangon Rivers converge before emptying into the Gulf of Martaban. The city was established as Dagon by the Mon people in the 11th century. King Alaungpaya, the founder of the Konbaung dynasty, renamed it Yangon in 1755. Then the British arrived. They captured the city during the First Anglo-Burmese War (it was returned to the Burmese people after the war), seized all of Lower Burma during the Second Anglo-Burmese War, and then named it the capital of Burma after the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Independence didn’t come until 1948. The country didn’t change its colonial name for another 40 years.
It’s been 30 years since then. The world expected Myanmar—or at least Yangon—to look different after that length of time. That hasn’t been the case, though. Downtown Yangon, centered around the golden Sule Pagoda, is still home to decaying shophouses. Temples still dominate the skyline. While most commerce still occurs in the streets.
But, if you look hard enough, you’ll see that change is slowly coming to Yangon. Boutique hotels are quietly starting to open in Downtown Yangon. They’re moving into landmark buildings, renovating the interiors, adding eco-friendly systems, and incorporating local materials. The results are luxurious nods to the city’s colonial past.
The Yangon Excelsior is one of those hotels. It opened two years ago in a five-story building that was once the headquarters of the British Steel Brothers & Co. The Art Deco building still has high ceilings and a marble stairwell. A huge glass door now leads into the lobby, where an overhead art installation looks like papers are flying out of a vintage typewriter. An elegant library, outfitted with dark wood, sits off the lobby. Smoked-oak parquet floors, bespoke furniture, and well-placed antiques decorate the rest of the hotel. While vintage-chic rooms feature jewel-toned accents, old telephones, and new espresso machines.
It takes more than in-room caffeine to win you over, though. You need local food, a relaxing spa, and a great location, too. The Yangon Excelsior thought of everything. Two restaurants offer all-day dining with very different vibes. The Newsroom is a casual café that serves homemade pastries, afternoon tea, and Burmese tapas. The Steel Brothers Wine & Grill uses seasonal produce to elevate local flavors. It’s worth it to stay in for both. At the Excelsior Spa, you can request a traditional rhythmic massage with Thanaka essential oil. It’s all down the street from the Maha Bandula Park, the Yangon Night Market, and the Yangon River. From there, you can watch Yangon change before your very eyes.