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Although it was superseded by Naypyitaw as the official capital in 2005, Yangon, overlooking the confluence of the Hlaing and Bago rivers, remains Myanmar’s largest and most populous city, as well as its diplomatic, economic, and cultural hub. The city has retained a great deal of its colonial charm, but with its chic five-star hotels, restaurants, car showrooms, and air-conditioned shopping malls, Yangon is also where Myanmar’s reentry into the mainstream of modern Asian life is most clearly discernible.

Until the British invasion of 1852, the city was a ramshackle port of only 20,000 people, distinguished less by its flagging maritime trade than by the presence of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s principal religious monument. However, both trade and the population expanded  rapidly in the wake of the British annex- ation, bolstered by waves of immigration  from India. The new rulers called the town Rangoon, an anglicized version of the Burmese Yangon (literally “End of Strife”),  the name chosen by Alaungpaya follow- ing his devastating conquest of Lower  Burma between 1755 and 1757. By the early 1900s, it had become one of Asia’s richest and most cosmopolitan capitals.

A grid plan of grand municipal buildings and multistory tenements was laid out on land close to the riverfront, where the colonial­era British authors Rudyard  Kipling and Somerset Maugham sojourned en route to more far­flung postings in the empire. The Japanese bombings of World War II, and seven decades of neglect since, have taken their toll on the architecture, but the flaking, mildewed façades create a charismatic backdrop for the busy street life of the modern city, where commuters breakfast on bowls of steaming mohinga (noodle  soup) at sidewalk stalls, and new hatch- backs vie for space with old­style trishaws.

Close to the waterfront, the Botataung and Sule pagodas are worth visiting,  perhaps combined with trips to the tradi- tional markets. North of down town, the  soaring golden Shwedagon Pagoda is  deservedly the city’s main visi tor attrac- tion; farther north, the broad, park­lined  avenues and lakes of the suburbs provide welcome respite from the heat and traffic.

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