A handful of sights dotted on the flat, riverine countryside around Yangon offer a number of pleasant escapes from the city. The most popular is the trip across the river to Thanlyin and Kyauktan, where an ancient hilltop stupa and island temple can be visited in an easy half-day excursion. To the north, the journey to Bago or Kyaiktiyo may be broken at the Taukkyan War Cemetery, the final resting place of thou sands of Commonwealth soldiers who died in Burma during World War II, or at the nearby Hlawga National Park, a rare pocket of undeveloped, forested land on the fringes of the city.
Archeological remains dating from the Andhran period of the 2nd century BC have been unearthed at Thanlyin (formerly known as Syriam), across the river from Yangon, but it wasn’t until the appearance in the 16th century of Portuguese adven- turer Filipe de Brito e Nicote that the port flourished as a city in its own right. He had traveled east from Lisbon as a cabin boy, taking advantage of the wave of Portuguese expansion from Goa to the Moluccas (Spice Islands) before arriving in Arakan when it was at the height of its powers. De Brito established a fort at Syriam, ostensibly on behalf of the Arakanese king, but in fact to carve out a king dom of his own. From here he made pillaging raids inland and controlled shipping in the area, amassing a fortune in the process. However, his force of 3,000 mercenaries, drawn from Europe, Asia, and Africa, was no match for the great flotilla of 4,000 vessels dispatched in 1613 by King Anaukpetlun to destroy Syriam and its impudent Portuguese overlord. After a bloody, protracted siege, the port was captured and its ruler impaled.
The tumbledown ruins of a solitary Catholic church, half a mile (0.8 km) southeast of the river in an overgrown, weedchoked plot off Kyaikalot Pagoda Road, are all that remain of this brief period of European rule on the coast of Burma.
Thanlyin’s renaissance came about in the 1980s after the construction of an iron bridge connecting it to Yangon. Since then, its modern con tainer port at Thilawa has become the busiest in the country, handling the bulk of Myanmar’s maritime trade. However, apart from the ruined church, this bustling town of broad, leafy streets and lowrise concrete houses has little to detain travelers.
Crowning a low hill called Hlaing Pote Kone on the southern edge of Thanlyin is Kyaik Khauk Pagoda, an 800yearold Mon stupa which resembles Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. The shrine is believed to contain hairs of the Buddha, originally enshrined here in the 3rd century BC by King Sulathrima of Thaton. Now beautifully gilded, the stupa has been rebuilt five times after being destroyed by earth- quakes. Its terrace, ringed by smaller zedis, offers a spectac- ular view over the surrounding fields, stretching to the east bank of the Yangon River.
On the banks of Hwaw Wun Creek, a tributary of the Yangon River, Kyauktan is best known for its uniquely situated temple, the “floating” Ye Le Pagoda, which rests on a tiny islet mid- stream. Beautifully decorated in tradi tional style, with gold paint and multitiered roofs, the shrine is a popular half-day excursion from Yangon, a couple of hours away by road. A special launch is on hand to ferry visitors across to the temple (Myanmar nationals can take the cheaper local boats). The complex also has a small pond teeming with catfish, which worshippers feed with little bags of puffed rice that are on sale nearby.
Taukkyan War Cemetery
This immaculately maintained cemetery on the northern outskirts of Yangon holds the graves of 6,374 servicemen who lost their lives during World War II, along with memorials to the 27,000 others whose remains were never reclaimed, the majority of them from the Indian sub con tinent and Africa. Set amid lawned gardens, the rows of polished stones are a moving tribute to the fallen, most of whom perished in unimagi nably harsh condi tions fighting the Japanese in the early 1940s. Lying just off the highway, it makes a worth while stop on the journey to Bago, Mawlamyine, or Kyaiktiyo.
Hlawga National Park
Encompassing just over 1,500 acres (6 sq km) of wetland, semi-evergreen, and mixed deciduous forest on the north- ern fringes of Yangon, Hlawga National Park was created in 1982 to preserve the green belt around the Kokanabe and Hlawga lakes, the city’s princi pal water supply. The national park offers a plea sant escape from the nearby city, although wildlife is thin on the ground – the only animals that can reliably be seen are monkeys, various species of common deer, including sambar and barking deer, and occasionally the odd pangolin. The park is also home to a variety of rep- tiles, from monitor lizards and pythons to kraits and cobras. A network of hiking trails provides access to the forest, and short elephant rides are offered, as well as boat trips on the lake. A play area for children, with a large model dinosaur, will appeal to visitors with young families. The national park tends to be particularly busy on week- ends, when Yangon residents drive out on National Highway 1 (the main road to Bago and Kyaiktiyo) for family picnics.