YANGON, Myanmar – There's nowhere in Asia like it any more: a cityscape studded with hundreds of grand and humble buildings from the colonial era amid multiethnic communities that have remained intact, vibrant and colorful for a century and more.
Yangon, Myanmar's largest city and the country's former capital, has been bypassed by the rapid modernization that has bulldozed the past in virtually every other Asian metropolis. Once known as Rangoon, Yangon is being described as "a city that captured time."
Now, as Myanmar opens its long-closed doors to the outside world, including a rapidly growing number of tourists, a major effort has been launched to preserve both Yangon's architecture and enchanting atmosphere from rampant development and decay.
"We have a gift in Yangon but we need to act urgently or it will be lost forever," Zin Nwe Myint, an expert on urban issues, told a recent conference of foreign and local conservationists. It was organized by the newly founded Yangon Heritage Trust.
Just what a gift it is became evident as soon as participants stepped out of the conference site, The Strand, a legendary hotel built in 1901 along the riverside promenade and near jetties where tourists disembarked to enter a land once known as Burma.
From there, in less than an hour's stroll, visitors are treated to a smorgasbord of structures and styles from the British colonial era: Victorian, Queen Anne, Neoclassical, Art Deco and an amalgam of British and Burmese. Many of the buildings are clustered along streets laid out in a chessboard pattern centered on the Sule Pagoda, with its soaring, golden spire.
Sarah Rooney, author of the just published "30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon," says her favorites include the Pegu Club and the Lokanat Gallery Building.
The club, built of teak, is rather derelict, and thus more evocative and atmospheric, she says, than many heritage buildings in Asia that have been subjected to extreme makeovers. Once the colony's most exclusive and snobbish enclave, it hosted the likes of Rudyard Kipling, who is said to have written his rollicking poem "The Road to Mandalay" after drinks with soldiers returning from that city in 1889.
The Lokanat building, Rooney says, is "the symbol of Yangon's cosmopolitanism." Erected in 1906 by a Baghdadi Jewish trader, it was once the city's most prestigious business address, housing a Filipino hairdresser and Greek leather merchant along with purveyors of Egyptian cigarettes, German beer and British candy.
Thant Myint-U, a Western-educated historian who heads the trust, noted that within a square mile of The Strand stood Roman Catholic, Protestant and Armenian churches, Shiite and Sunni mosques, a Jain temple, Hindu shrine and a newly refurbished synagogue, once the center of one of the biggest Jewish communities in Asia.
Attracted by the country's immense natural resources, especially teak, oil and rice, fortune seekers and poor laborers poured in from around the world, turning Yangon into an international city. At times in the 1920s, it welcomed more immigrants than New York.
Then came World War II and in 1962 a military coup, which ushered in a half-century of isolation, authoritarian rule and economic stagnation, which may well have been key in freezing Yangon and its residents in time.
"In Yangon, we still have a lot of living heritage as well as atmosphere and social networks that have been built up around and grown within these old buildings over many decades," said Hlaing Maw Oo, an official with the Ministry of Construction, urging that this heritage must be nurtured along with Yangon's extensive green spaces, lakes and gracious suburban villas.
Other recommendations include setting height limits on new construction, conservation training, an awareness campaign and a listing, with solid legal research, of all buildings that cannot be demolished. The municipality currently provides a measure of protection for 188 sites.
Also being debated is how best these sites can be utilized for the benefit of both Yangon residents and tourists. There is general consensus that some will have to be turned into profit-making hotels and commercial enterprises while others should house art galleries, museums and schools that would probably need subsidies.
"We are at the watershed of this city's history," Yangon Mayor Myint Swe told the conference. "We want to see Yangon as a 21st century city but also want to preserve the best of our heritage. I have no illusions about the challenges we face, but we will learn from the mistakes of other Asia cities."
Many buildings that used to house government departments have been left vacant since 2005, when the regime moved the capital to Naypyitaw and put them up for sale. Fear is that some will deteriorate beyond repair or be bought and demolished by developers.
Many privately-owned buildings, still unprotected, have already been torn down and invariably replaced by ugly, multistory structures that are breaking up the once uniform skyline.
Some state-owned or fully utilized landmarks appear secure, including the British Embassy, Yangon General Hospital, St. Paul's School and City Hall, a mingling of European design and ornamentation inspired by Burmese temples.
So is the most spectacular one of them all, the former Secretariat Building, seat of British colonial power. It was in this vast Victorian edifice that Aung San, revered father of Myanmar's independence and of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, was assassinated in 1947.
Bids by a foreign investor to convert the building into a hotel sparked a public uproar, a hopeful sign that Yangon's citizens are prepared to stand up for their heritage.
If You Go...
YANGON, MYANMAR: Several international airlines fly directly to Yangon, although Bangkok remains the best gateway. November-February is the cool, sunny season, an ideal time to visit. Monsoon rains fall June-October.
WALKING TOUR: Exotissimo travel agency offers a three-hour "Architecture Walking Tour of Yangon," $23, http://www.exotissimo.com/travel/myanmar/daytrips/architecture-walking-tour-of-yangon/ .
COLONIAL-ERA HOTELS: The Strand, http://www.ghmhotels.com , doubles from $300. Governor's Residence, http://www.governorsresidence.com/ , elegant 1920s teak mansion on lush grounds, doubles from $220.