According to local legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was built during the time of the Buddha and the area around the pagoda, modern Yangon has been settled since then. Whatever the truth of the legend, it is certain that a Mon village named Dagon has existed at the site since the 6th century AD. It was renamed Yangon (the ‘end of strife’) by the Shwebo based King Alaungpaya when he captured it from rebel Mon leaders in 1755 after which its importance as a port city began to grow. However, the city gained in importance only after the British occupied it during the Second Burmese War in 1852, after which it became the capital of British Burma and the trading and commercial centre of Burma. The British called the city Rangoon, which was an Anglicised form of “Yangon”. The city grew rapidly during the colonial period, which left a legacy of solid 19th-century colonial architecture. Burma attained independence in 1948, but its true ‘modern’ period begins with the 1962 military coup and the institution of an isolationist Socialist regime in 1964, resulting in the steady decay of the city and its infrastructure.
In 1988, Yangon was the site of peaceful pro-democracy protests, in which thousands, including monks and students were gunned down. In 1989, the city was renamed to its original Burmese name, Yangon, by the military junta. In 2006, the capital was moved to but today Yangon remains the business, cultural and intellectual capital of modern Burma. In 2007, Yangon again became the centre for demonstrations against the military government.
Since the 17th century, Yangon has been a cosmopolitan city with a polyglot mixture of peoples. Portuguese businessmen, Dutch fortune hunters, Englishmen of all sorts, Chinese seeking refuge from the upheavals in the Yunnan, and many, many Indians who arrived in several waves during colonial times. Most of these people are now gone and Yangon is now a predominantly Bamar city with a large Indian minority and a growing Chinese minority. Still, there are traces of the old Yangon still visible, whether it is in the crowded Indian dominated parts of Anawratha Street, or in the occasional Anglo-Burmese or Anglo-Indian who walks up and says hello. In some ways, the biggest change in modern Yangon is the loss of the Indians, who arrived with the British as soldiers and labourers (though Indian traders have always been a part of the Burmese landscape) and then left in two large waves of migration (during the Japanese occupation and again, in 1963, when they were forced to leave by Ne Win’s government). Ethnic groups such as the Shan and Karen are also present. Kabya, or persons of mixed heritage, are common in Yangon.
The climate is monsoonal, with three distinct seasons: a rainy season from June to October, a cooler and drier “winter” from November to February, and a hot dry season from March to May. The winter season from November to January is markedly less humid and cooler than the remaining months, and hence sees the greatest number of visitors. Nevertheless, major festivals occur throughout the year, notably Thingyan (the water festival, equivalent to the Thai festival of Songkran), in April. (Festivals are keyed to the lunar cycle, specifically to the full-moon days of each lunar month, and therefore fall on different days each year of the Western, solar-based, calendar. However, first day of Thingyan festival occurred in 12 April because it is based on stellar cycle and number of festival days are different by years according to traditional astrological calculation).