Mayangone and Insein Townships

Further away from Yangon’s centre, this part of the city rewards the intrepid explorer with some beautiful architectural manifestations of post-independence nation-building in the Kaba Aye Complex.

Thanlyin Township

Today Yangon sees a proliferation of gated communities in its suburbs, prompting an exodus of the wealthy from the centre. Thanlyin’s Star City was one of the first of these, prompting the authors’ trip out here, 45 minutes to the east of the city centre.

Yangon Correctional Facility

Formerly:   Insein Prison
Address:     Main entrance on Hlaing River Road
Year built:   1887 (with later additions)
Architect:    Unknown

Despite the government’s claims to have released the country’s remaining political prisoners (which is disputed—in fact, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar believes they are jailing new ones), this building retains the haunting aura of its darkest days. Many pro-democracy activists were incarcerated here after the 1988 uprising, often in inhumane and squalid conditions. Insein Prison became known throughout the world as the ultimate symbol of the junta’s repression.

The origins of the correctional facility go back to the late 19th century. By that time, Insein was still only a small town, about 15 kilometres north of downtown Rangoon. The new prison here was intended to relieve the Rangoon Central Gaol (“gaol” being the more commonly used British spelling for “jail” during the period), which was reaching full capacity. By 1908, both Insein and Rangoon jails were by far the biggest in British Burma, with more than 2,000 inmates each. The Inspector-General of Prisons in Burma at the time reported proudly that growing inmate populations were proof of effective law enforcement. But by the 1920s, Burma had developed a reputation for being the most violent part of British India. With a population of 13 million, the government sent about 20,000 men to prison each year (women were also imprisoned, but their numbers usually stayed below 5 per cent of the total number of convicted men), which was four times the average of British India as a whole. This, needless to say, led to overcrowded prisons and further building works were needed to extend their capacity. By 2009, Insein Prison had space for about 5,000 to 6,000 inmates; however, an estimated 10,000 prisoners were being held here.

A long tree-lined road leads from the entrance gate to the hidden buildings

The architecture of Insein Prison closely follows the so-called Pentonville model, based on the late 18th-century theories of Jeremy Bentham, who proposed penitentiary designs hiding the jailer from the prisoners’ sight, encouraging “the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence”. Located in north London and built in 1842, the prison revolutionised correctional facilities in 19th-century Britain, with reverberations across the Empire. Confronted with a growing inmate population and a move away from the idea of “punishment” towards the “reform” of prisoners (whether that was systematically achieved in practice is another question), the main features of these new-generation prisons were: a structure of building wings revolving around a central observation tower; walls between prison cells hindering communication between inmates; and workshops allowing prisoners to learn a trade while in confinement.

The Rangoon Central Gaol was demolished some time after the war (its former site is where the New General Hospital is located now, just north of Bogyoke Road) and Insein Prison became the main correctional facility for the capital region. Its notoriety grew with the government’s growing reputation for brutality. During Ne Win’s reign (1962–1988), undesirable political opponents were regularly put away here—including architect U Kyaw Lin, who built the Thakin Kodaw Hmaing Mausoleum among many other projects. Later, with the student protests, these numbers swelled dramatically. The horrors experienced by the inmates are difficult to fathom. Punishments included solitary confinement for extended periods, torture and denial of medical care. Sanitary conditions were unbearable. Several former political prisoners have discussed their experiences in writing. One former political prisoner, Dr Ma Thida, named her memoirs Sanchaung, Insein, Harvard to illustrate her trajectory from a Yangon youth to the prestigious halls of an Ivy League university—and the traumatic years in between, from 1993 to 1999, when she became a cause celebre of human rights groups. Other former political prisoners work full-time to expose injustices in the regime’s penal system. Based in the border town of Mae Sot, Thailand, the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) (AAPP) lobbies to support political prisoners and honours the memories of those who died behind bars. Their offices contain a replica of an Insein jail cell and a miniature model of the correctional facility.

Insein Prison is, of course, inaccessible to outsiders. The main gate leads to several checkpoints visitors must pass before reaching the compound. But you may get a chance to study the prison’s layout from your aeroplane seat. If leaving Yangon by plane in a westerly direction, those sitting on the right may well catch a glimpse of the prison beneath them, even at night. Its radial design stands out.

In early 2015, the AAPP estimated that there were still about 160 political prisoners in Myanmar, most of them within the walls of Insein Prison.

Kyaikkasan Race Course

Formerly:   Rangoon Turf Club
Address:     South Race Course Road
Year built:   1926
Architect:    Unknown

This racecourse was once home to the Rangoon Turf Club, a famous racing stable and social institution of the colonial days. It was founded in 1887, using a racecourse in Maidan, and moved to these facilities in 1926. Unlike virtually every other club established during the colonial administration, the Turf Club was open to non-whites—provided, of course, they were of a certain social status: Lim Chin Tsong, a larger-than-life ethnic Chinese tycoon who recurs throughout this book (you cannot miss his very own Lim Chin Tsong Palace) was at one point the club’s chairman.

Stairs lead up into the main stands and down into the catacombs

Racing was a very popular source of entertainment in the colonial days. As a British publication reviewing the colonies’ myriad delights wrote in 1910:

“There is now no lack of racing in Rangoon. The policy of the present executive has been to popularise the sport as much as possible, and extra meetings are held practically every fortnight throughout the year, with the result that (…) racing has never been so popular at the present time.”

But the racecourse gradually fell into disuse after the war, although the socialist regime that came to power after the 1962 coup used it for various official rallies, on Union Day (12 February), Peasant Day (2 March) and May Day. In those days, some of the buildings were used as conference halls for government representatives.

The catacombs are home to several families

When the remains of former UN Secretary-General U Thant arrived in Yangon in 1974, the coffin was placed here for “public” viewings—in reality, these were highly restricted by the military junta. When students protested against the lack of an official ceremony for U Thant, who was one of post-independence Myanmar’s most cherished figures, they overran security at the Kyaikkasan Race Course and took the coffin to Yangon University. More about this incident, and its tragic aftermath, can be read in the section about the U Thant Mausoleum.

An elevator led from the ticket counters to the stands above

You won’t hear any galloping sounds or cheering crowds nowadays. Its most recent successor, the Yangon Riding Club, moved to new facilities in Dagon township in 1996. The vast grounds of the racecourse host student dormitories and sports facilities. The bowels of the stadium are now inhabited, possibly by the families of groundskeepers.

The grounds are not open to the public and it can be difficult to charm your way inside, but the space’s open-air expanse and overgrown colonial relics feel faintly magical. It would be a worthy candidate for a redevelopment project to return the place to large-scale public use.

The interior has been largely stripped, however the gratings of the ticket counters have remained

Universities’ Central Library

Address:     Yangon University Estate
Year built:   1976
Architect:    U Kin Maung Lwin

This modern building, adjacent to the older university library, was designed in 1973 and was due for completion in early 1975. However, the U Thant funeral crisis rocked Rangoon University in 1974 and led to a delay in construction. Students looted the building site, equipping themselves with bricks and other building materials to build a tomb for the remains of U Thant on the grounds of the former Students’ Union building, which was destroyed by the Ne Win Government in 1962.

The modern building invites with a generous approach

The library building brilliantly showcases “architecture of scarcity”, or the ingenuity of local architects making do with very limited means. Note the windows with their many grilles—large glass was very hard to come by. Simple iron angle bars support the teak stairs. The marble is sourced from inside Myanmar; this local variety is not as shiny as its Mediterranean equivalents. The floral pattern on the outside of the building was supposed to be permeable, allowing for more natural light; but again those plans were shelved as the production proved too cumbersome. The shafts underneath the roof were designed to hold the air conditioning units that, alas, were never procured and fitted. An inner courtyard was repurposed as a light shaft, allegedly because the university authorities wanted to avoid providing a cuddling spot for amorous students. All the while, the building’s airy layout was accomplished successfully. The building’s folded roof is particularly notable and should be renovated in the coming years. The inverted pyramid layout is best appreciated from the first floor. The library design also took great care to preserve many of the local gangaw trees that stood on the site. In the end, only nine were felled, leaving more than 40 standing and offering plenty of shade today. The wide staircase was designed to provide informal seating for the students during their breaks.

The intricate floral pattern was meant to be more permeable

The folded roof structure is readable from the inside

Although only designed to hold 280,000 books, the library today possesses 600,000 in the building’s air-conditioned basement. The ground floor is split between a reading room and an administrative office. The first floor contains further post-graduate reading rooms as well as some of the library’s prized antique possessions, including palm leaf books, some more than 500 years old.

Archivists keep track of the library’s collections in the basement

The library’s architect U Kin Maung Lwin (or Ronnie, as he is widely known) is a grandson of U Tin, Myanmar’s most famous architect. Together with his friend Dr Kyaw Lat (today YCDC’s chief consultant on urban planning issues), Ronnie studied architecture in Dresden, Germany, setting off first to London by a Bibby Line steamship in 1960. While Dr Kyaw Lat returned permanently to Myanmar in the 1970s, Ronnie settled in West Germany, working for universities and major construction company Holzmann until his retirement. Today he splits his time between his two homes in Yangon and Wetzlar, north of Frankfurt. His grandfather had several children and grandchildren, who include many architects working across the globe in the US, the UK and, in Ronnie’s case, Germany.

Karaweik Palace

Address:     152 Bo Myat Tun Road
Year built:   1972-1974
Architect:    U Ngwe Hlaing

Returning from the 1970 World Exposition in Osaka (Japan), General Ne Win was so taken with the Burmese pavilion displayed there that he decreed a vast replica be built in Yangon, on Kandawgyi Lake. The Burmese pavilion in Osaka itself was inspired by the Pyi Gyi Mon Royal Barge used by Burmese kings for ceremonial processions in Mandalay, seat of the royal court in the second half of the 19th century. Kandawgyi Lake was created by the British colonial administration to provide clean water to the city. It sources its water from nearby Inya Lake through underground pipes.

The hall is built into Kandawgyi lake to give it a floating appearance

Karaweik Palace was built between 1972 and 1974, off the eastern shore of the lake. Its dimensions are impressive (82 × 39 metres). Its gold coating glistens at night, illuminated by massive spotlights. It is bulkier and less delicate than the two versions that inspired it, in Mandalay and Osaka. The name Karaweik is derived from the mythical birds adorning the front of the boat. The seven-tiered pyatthat roof is a classic display of traditional Burmese architecture, echoing the royal palace in Mandalay. A pavilion in front of the palace contains a restaurant hosting dinner shows featuring traditional dances. The venue can also be hired for special celebrations and events.

Bridge leading to the entrance of the “floating” hall

Karaweik Palace is visible from almost anywhere around the lake, the shore of which is split into two sections accessible to visitors. The larger one contains a few small temples reached by foot along wooden boardwalks. The smaller one features Karaweik Palace, a children’s playground and areas for music festivals. Just like most venues catering to foreign tourists and Yangon’s high society, the Palace was run by the Ministry of Trade before it was leased to a local entrepreneur in the late nineties. Although tourists these days have rather mixed views of the dinner buffets, the Karaweik’s kitchen used to be famous for the quality (and exorbitant prices) of its breads and ice creams. During the violent scenes in August 1988, the Palace’s staff invited monks from nearby monasteries to spend their nights here in safety.

Transit Shed No. 1 & Port Autonomy

Address:     Between Lanthit Jetty and Kaing Dan No. 1 Jetty
Year built:   2014
Architect:    Dominic Leong

Shortly before this book went into print, and only over a year after its opening, the authorities denied the trendy art gallery and retail space Transit Shed No. 1 (TS1) a lease renewal. We nonetheless decided to keep the project in our pages. The space was an interesting example of adaptive reuse architecture and showed the potential of Yangon’s riverside development. The space also gave an interesting insight into the role of art in today’s Myanmar. And who knows, maybe the gallery can reopen here or elsewhere someday?

The exterior retains the style of a warehouse

From the outside, TS1 was an unassuming converted old warehouse. Two doors to the right (on a corner plot) stood Port Autonomy, the complex’s bar and restaurant. Although beautifully renovated inside, both buildings’ corrugated iron exteriors were left largely untouched, and fit seamlessly into the industrial texture of the surroundings. Dominic Leong of Leong and Leong, a New York City-based studio, designed the two spaces. Inside the walls of TS1, he built a modern gallery defined by a diagonal wall, creating two symmetrical spaces. Structural changes included new walls and a light well, flooding the space with natural light during the day. The buildings would not look out of place in New York’s Brooklyn, East London or Berlin. Predictably, they attracted a hip and international crowd to this part of the city since their opening in early 2014.

The man behind the gallery and the bar, Ivan Pun, intended this project to be “a demonstration of the possibilities for downtown Yangon’s rejuvenation”. It would be a place for both art and high-end retail. The latter featured upmarket designer wares, crafts from local creators Myanmar Made and homeware from Hong Kong-based Lala Curio.

A moveable wall can be used to further divide the space

Myanmar’s political opening makes these interesting times for an art gallery, says Nathalie Johnston, who was TS1’s curator: “The artists have always been brave in their ability to express themselves despite challenges, and now more than ever they can use their words and their materials to show they’ve not only survived, they’re thriving.” With a group of affluent art buyers in the region, Myanmar art is now getting noticed and purchased across borders. Besides acting as a bridge between international buyers and the local art scene, Johnston thinks events aimed at local audiences had been an important part of TS1’s activities. Among them were “Attention, Please!”, a night of 10 female performance artists and “I’m Proud”, an LGBT exhibition featuring street art and works from local and international artists, as well as an experimental music concert.

Perhaps TS1 could slowly have become an important venue to showcase art that conveys social and political critiques. Johnston said at the time that local artists were allowed to address contentious issues in the space, but often set the limits themselves. “There are still certain things artists won’t touch without the cloak of reverence—like religion and nudity.”

A neon sign marks the bar along the busy waterfront

And yet, TS1’s conflation of art gallery and retail space was questionable. Its ties to the Burmese super-rich (in this case, Serge Pun’s business empire) could have limited the space’s critical scope—at a time when art should instead test and explore such issues.

These reflections aside, TS1 (and the Port Autonomy bar) were valuable additions to Yangon’s cityscape, not least for their interesting adaptive reuse architecture. The changing exhibitions taking place here also made this a cultural hub for residents and frequent visitors to the city. The vacant space’s fate is as yet unknown.

A street vendor waits for customers in front of the entrance

If the TS1 project can claim an abiding legacy, it is to have illustrated the potential for opening Yangon’s riverside to the public. The nearby jetties make this a busy stretch of waterfront, with commuters using the ferry service to Dala, on the opposite side of the Yangon River. Small cargo boats are unloaded here, their wares filling the nearby storehouses. Tea vendors and other hawkers line the street which is dominated by pedestrian traffic. This is a working port. When asked by filmmakers, locals commented favourably on the presence of an art gallery in the neighbourhood, but also said that they wouldn’t have time to go in and browse during the day. Johnston says: “When we had concerts or openings in the evenings, they’ve shown support by joining us and taking a look around.”


This website showcases Yangon’s architecture by township. It starts in the east of the downtown area and works its way first west, then north. The buildings are organised geographically, much as you would encounter them along that route.

Centrepoint Towers

Address:     65 Sule Pagoda Road
Year built:   1995-2014
Architect:    Unknown

At the time of writing, this much-maligned construction project is lurching to its conclusion. Many bemoan its architectural banality and overbearing presence in the city centre. Others breathe a sigh of relief that this 20-year, on-and-off construction is coming to an end.

The complex consists of two towers of about 90 metres each. Standing on Sule Pagoda Road’s southern edge, they overlook Mahabandoola Park and afford spectacular views (many of this book’s aerial photos were taken there). The southern tower’s façade is covered with large white tiles, which are reflected in the northern tower’s blue solar glazing. Both towers evoke a rather tired architectural language of the 1990s, unsurprising given the project’s drawn-out genesis.

Centrepoint Towers and Independence Monument seen from the North end of Mahabandoola Gardens

With a helicopter deck on one rooftop, will private companies offer their rich customers private air taxi services in the not-so-distant future? This might not be far-fetched, given Yangon’s increasingly sclerotic traffic conditions.

The deal to build this mixed-use project occurred as early as 1993 and construction began two years later. One of the towers was intended to be a luxury hotel operated by the Sofitel Group. The other was earmarked for office and retail space. The Thailand-based investor mothballed the project in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in 1998. It stood idle in a semi-finished state for several years until construction resumed in 2005. By 2009, the investors had to inject another 12.5 million US dollars into the project, taking the overall investment beyond 100 million. This makes it one of Yangon’s priciest real estate projects to date. (To put this into perspective, Yoma’s “Landmark” project surrounding the former Myanmar Railways Company will cost an estimated of 500 million US dollars, embodying growing investor confidence in Myanmar.)

The unlike buildings tower over Mahabandoola Park

After a considerable period searching for the right partner, the Hilton Group was chosen as the hotel operator in 2013. With 300 rooms, it will add considerable capacity to the city’s five-star segment. While the likes of the Canadian Embassy and the Associated Press have already moved into the office tower, the hotel is taking longer than expected. The opening date has been postponed more than once already. The Centrepoint saga isn’t over just yet …